Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: February 2003," 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.

Friday, February 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:12:00 AM:

Aural injury

My left ear isn't as good as my right, the result of drumming several nights a week in the early and mid-1990s -- stupidly, without earplugs. If you've ever had your head only a few feet away from a snare drum hit with full force, you'll know why. (Hitting it yourself doesn't diminish the volume.) I've been lucky that my hearing loss is pretty minor, with the only significant consequence being that my wife can't use her (good-hearing) family's tradition of occasionally talking to one another from different rooms in the house.

With the drum cracks, cymbal hits, and nearby guitar and bass amplifiers, my musical career a decade ago was sort of like working in a rifle range. Since returning to that line of work in late 2000, I've played less often (but for more money!), and always wear earplugs now, even though we play more quietly anyway. My advice to you is the same as Wired News quotes in a recent article on noise pollution: wear your damn earplugs.

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Thursday, February 27, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:58:00 AM:

Another way to look at song, record, and album

Let's make this simpler:

Song: "Happy Birthday" was written by the Hill sisters in the late 19th century, originally with different words. It is now owned, of course, by AOL Time Warner, and their copyright on the composition won't expire until 2030 or so. It is a song. Many people sing it every day.

Record: Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday," sung for U.S. President John F. Kennedy, would be considered a record of that song, probably the most famous one so far.

Album: A CD compilation made up entirely of different versions of "Happy Birthday" would be an album. (Hey, they did it several times for "Louie, Louie.")

If "Happy Birthday," Marilyn's version, and our theoretical compilation CD were all new this year, they could be respectively considered for song, record, and album of the year at the 2004 Grammys. They probably wouldn't win, though.

It would be more sensible to name the awards as composition of the year, recorded performance of the year, and, er, album of the year, I guess.

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# 7:46:00 AM:

Well, I don't know why

Thao asks "Norah Jones won Grammys for Record of the Year and Album of the Year. What's the difference between a 'record' and an 'album?'"

I think the confusion comes from there not being records anymore, just CDs. The terms were invented when there were singles and LPs, with singles being "records" and LPs being "albums."

In the Grammy context, a record is a recording of a single song (usually), so in Jones's case, the award was for "Don't Know Why" as you hear it on the radio, with her singing in that particular arrangement with that particular set of musicians. Album, in the parlance of old LP discs, is for a specific collection of those sorts of recordings (a CD these days), such as her Come Away With Me.

Song of the year, on the other hand, is for the composition ("Don't Know Why" again, in this instance), but goes to the songwriter(s) (here, Jesse Harris), because it refers, in essence, to the notes and words. The Grammys are so often a tidal wave of awards for a single album that the awards seem confusing, because there's such a bandwagon.

There could be multiple recordings of a song -- all those versions of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" are of one song, even if you like the Beatles one and aren't so fond of all the elevator-music variations -- but only the single song could be nominated for song of the year. Only one version exists for each of the record and album of the year nominees, though, because those refer to a specific recording (or set of recordings) by a specific set of performers, produced and mixed and mastered by a certain set of technical people.

I would argue that Jones deserved the record (and maybe album) honours more than Harris deserved the song award. "Don't Know Why" is a good song, though as a musician and student of songwriting I could point out some flaws. What makes it great is Jones's performance, the way she sings it, and the way the musicians play together. The song would not have won the award without those things, whereas another track from her album might still have won record of the year.

But don't ask me about some of the other categories, such as how to distinguish cleanly between pop performance by a duo or group with vocal, pop collaboration with vocal, and rock performance by a duo or group with vocal, or traditional R&B album and contemporary R&B album. Never mind the six gospel categories.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:53:00 PM:

Multitasking

Right now I have wireless modems, Web design, event planning, temp agencies, maritime shipping software, rock bands, conference agendas, and digital video on my mind. And that's just for my writing and editing clients. Never mind that I'm drumming in one performance (or maybe two) on Saturday and I need to make sure all the costumes are clean, it was photo day at my older daughter's preschool today, my youngest wants to wear swimsuits all the time (in February), we need to fill up the car before the extra 3.5 cent tax comes in on Saturday, my parents are in Mexico next week so I don't have my usual day without the kids on Tuesday to work, and we ran out of most groceries today. Oh, and some of those writing clients are late on paying invoices. And the e-mail and spam keep piling up. And my wife has a lot of papers to mark over the weekend.

I'm a little distracted.

Then again, it's like this most of the time, so I'm used to it.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:33:00 PM:

Quick site updates

For the first time in a few weeks (since I still do it manually), I've updated my journal topics index, as well as completing my list of favourite drummers and tweaking my Editors' Association page.

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# 10:08:00 AM:

It's true! But that's okay!

Evan Williams, who founded Blogger, the online service that maintains these journal entries, just sold the company to Google, and he now works for them. Good for him and his co-workers.

But he seems ambivalent about that, writing that when someone says that Blogger has sold out, it makes him sigh, as if it weren't true. But it is.

Blogger sold out. That's okay. It's good, in fact. The stereotype is that being a sellout is bad, but it isn't always. Even in music, where the term is resolutely pejorative, I'm proud to say that my band is the ultimate sellout. It's why we make money. We give people what they want, and they have fun. We have fun too. Artistic integrity and creative vision are not part of the plan -- they aren't considered in our calculation of success, and shouldn't be. We're not that kind of band.

If Blogger and Google create a service that gives people what they want, and if the companies make money at it, and everyone's happy, great. Selling out will have been for the best. If they screw up and Blogger folds and all of us go on to use Radio UserLand or Movable Type or Textpattern or something else, well, it'll be a bit of a pain, and too bad for Blogger and Google. But the sellout wasn't the problem.

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Monday, February 24, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:03:00 PM:

A well-posted style guide

Bill found the classy Carnegie-Mellon Style Guide online. I particularly like the proofreader's marks chart. There are other similar charts too:

I still like The Economist's style guide, which Bill also cited.

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# 1:30:00 PM:

Don't make it a joke

At last night's Grammy awards, singer Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks said, when asked about plans for their next album, "We think we'll get with Dr. Dre and see what comes out."

That is a great, great idea.

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Sunday, February 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:48:00 PM:

Now that's weird

So a few weeks ago, way, way behind the bandwagon, I discovered the Norah Jones album. Now I've just found out that her father is Ravi Shankar. Yeah, that one. Surprises all the time.

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# 8:14:00 PM:

The greatest voice

As my computer randomly cycles through the 5600+ tracks in my MP3 collection, Joe Williams seems to be the greatest voice in there. I don't have many of his recordings, because I'm not much of a jazz guy, but I should get more.

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Saturday, February 22, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:46:00 PM:

Let's not get smug

Randy found an article in which the Seattle Times is a bit too hard on its home city. Still, it's a fun read for anyone who lives in Vancouver (like me) or Portland, since it talks about how great our cities are in comparison.

I don't know much about Portland's planning history, but perhaps the best move Vancouver ever made was to reject the creation of downtown freeways in the early '70s. The Georgia Viaduct and the waterfront tower that now headquarters the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers are the only vestiges of what would have been a city-ruining knot of soulless concrete. I'd like to thank everyone who managed to shut down the plan thirty years ago.

City planners made some smart decisions in the wake of Expo '86 too. Now that the plebiscite for the 2010 Olympics has passed, if those games come here, I hope similar smart decisions get made.

P.S. I love visiting Seattle. The problem is that the low Canadian dollar makes it very expensive, and post-9/11 security makes it tedious to cross the border sometimes. I haven't been there since early 2001.

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# 11:19:00 AM:

Loose definitions

Dori at Backup Brain points to an article about introverted people, like her. I liked it, but it seems that I'm neither extroverted nor introverted by the definitions in that piece. I'm on the extroverted side overall -- I do blather on.

On the other hand, I also need considerable time to myself. Maybe that's because I'm an only child, and spent lots of my childhood in contented silence, sitting in the living room reading while my parents (introverted dad and extroverted mom) did the same. I think I understand introversion, and the need not to speak or hang out in groups. Categorizing people is never as easy as it appears.

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# 10:54:00 AM:

Twenty-five years since the invention of the BBS

The computerized bulletin board system (BBS) was invented 25 years ago, in February 1978. I first logged on to a BBS more than five years later, in 1983, when they were everywhere, mostly running on Apple II and Commodore 64 microcomputers. I was 14.

It's now been about 10 years since I dialed in to a BBS. The Internet took over for those of us who communicate by computer. Still, BBSs introduced me to a number of my closest friends -- since they were local, dial-up affairs, BBS users were more likely to meet in person than many of today's Internet acquaintances, who can be anywhere in the world. The BBS scene was brief and unusual, and I'm glad I was part of it.

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Friday, February 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:52:00 PM:

The struggle

There is a point in each young child's life, often around age three, where he or she gives up having a nap during the day. Before that point, he or she might nap, but will then stay up insanely late, filled with the unequalled energy of a toddler, until 10:00 or 10:30 or 11:00 at night. Preventing that nap becomes a quest, perhaps an obsession, for the parents.

For two days, we were successful. Today we were not. Success is fleeting.

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Thursday, February 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 4:46:00 PM:

Techie good and bad

Good

Google buys Blogger - Google, in general, seems to get it, so I'm more optimistic about Blogger (which needed the money, bandwidth, server muscle, and expertise) than about Virtual PC (see below).

Inventors of the Global Positioning System and kidney dialysis get big awards - Although GPS became widespread much more recently, it saves lives just as surely as kidney dialysis and other artifical organ techniques. Both technologies are now so ingrained that few of us think about who might have invented them.

Dave Barry answers questions on Slashdot - Funny. [UPDATE: Actually, I just read the whole thing, and it wasn't that funny. Not compared to his column or weblog. Sorry.]

Bad

Microsoft buys Virtual PC - Although Microsoft has an interest in selling Windows licenses to Mac users -- and only a small proportion of Virtual PC users are likely to run Linux, I'd guess -- I just have a bad feeling about this one. Connectix has always been a lean and mean company. Microsoft hasn't been lean in a long time.

Twelve-digit phone numbers - Even with speed-dial and phone-number synchronization, a lot of us still like to keep important phone numbers in our brains. Twelve digits is probably over the limit of what most people can reasonably remember reliably. The result, if it goes ahead? Wrong Number City. Maybe we should move to something other than an arbitrary string of numbers, like, oh, I dunno, e-mail addresses?

Knowing about the virulent "Slammer" Internet data worm, but not telling everyone in advance - Bad Symantec. Bad.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:44:00 AM:

Today's mind-expanding essay...

...is Paul Graham's "Why Nerds Are Unpopular," which is about high school, and has become very popular among those of us nerds who now write weblogs. It's worth reading for anyone, though. His essential point:

...no one demands more of [American] schools than that they keep kids off the streets till they're old enough for college. So that's what they do. At my school, it was easy not to learn anything, but hard to get out of the building without getting caught.

It's somewhat less true of the Canadian schools I experienced, especially the boys' private school I attended from grade 9 on, and the affluent school at which my wife teaches math. I realized after I read Graham's essay, however, that one of the big reasons I wanted to go to the private school was that, in my grade 8 public school, I was one of the persecuted nerds -- though more mildly persecuted than some. It's hard to imagine any popular kid in public school wanting to go to a single-sex private school, but I did, so my parents used my college fund to send me there.

Going there was a relief, for while I was still a nerd, there was general pressure, even peer pressure, to do well in school. It's not that all the teachers were better than at my old school, or even that there was more money for books and facilities (there was, but not as much more as you might think). It's that the school was really there to help kids learn, and so the gap between cool and uncool wasn't nearly as important. The most popular boys were still athletes (and went out with the popular, athletic girls from the girls' schools), but the most admired boys were also smart (as were their girlfriends). They had things in common with us nerds, and by graduating year the social strata were almost gone.

The same seems true of any academically-focused school, and of those, like many in the Vancouver area where I live, that have diversified culturally in recent decades. But it's far from gone -- look at what happened to Reena Virk. What I hope is that, if my daughters face any situation like the one Graham describes -- and whether they're near the top or the bottom -- then my wife and I can recognize it, and maybe do something.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:01:00 AM:

File formats should be open

Many of us trust key parts of our lives and businesses to computer programs. The problem comes when those programs store (even a little bit of) their information in closed formats, which can become impossible to work with if the program's maker goes out of business, gets sold, or otherwise makes the old information impossible to read. Here's a particularly nasty example, which I've been lucky enough to avoid by not having any employees, and thus no payroll.

It makes me want to archive all my Word documents to plain text, just to be safe.

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Monday, February 17, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:43:00 AM:

EAC conference site underway

My first draft of a design for the Editors' Association of Canada 2003 Conference site is up now.

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Saturday, February 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:34:00 PM:

What does it look like?

[Miss M at 5]

My two daughters' birthdays are close together: the youngest was born on January 26, and the oldest on Valentine's Day (two years earlier). Yesterday, on her birthday, the older one woke up, slid out of bed, and ran immediately to the bathroom. She looked in the mirror.

"I don't look five," she said, disappointed.

I had to disagree. Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure what she was expecting.

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# 2:33:00 PM:

Staying in the sun

The climate in Greater Vancouver varies quite a bit. In Deep Cove, tucked into the valleys and fjords at the foot of the North Shore mountains -- where my wife grew up -- it rains a lot, especially in winter. To the south, on the flat alluvial lands and rocky outcrops of Delta, Tsawwassen, White Rock, and Crescent Beach, it's much sunnier and drier, on average. The City of Vancouver itself, and its nearby suburbs, are somewhere in the middle in rainfall.

If you're coming to stay in the Vancouver area, especially in the spring or summer, and don't mind a bit of a drive, you might want to try a nice hotel or bed and breakfast in White Rock or Tsawwassen (they're closer to the U.S. border and the Victoria ferry too).

Not much nightlife out there, though.

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Friday, February 14, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:16:00 AM:

A sad day at the UN

I haven't written about Iraq here, largely because I'm so ambivalent about the situation -- and I'm in no position to say much of any import to anyone. My instinct is against war, yet I have not protested against U.S. actions because (as much as I think President Bush and his cronies are in the wrong about so many things) my head tells me that they may just possibly be right here. Today's events at the UN don't help matters.

The reports of the weapons inspectors were decidedly mixed, which, at this late date, is not good. Worse, the response of French foreign minister de Villepin was poisonous: lecturing, cynical, sarcastic, amnesiac, and profoundly self-absorbed.

France seems to be using the entire Iraq crisis for its own ends, much more so than the United States is so often accused of doing. It's all about France -- the U.S., NATO, the UN, Turkey (and Iraq) be damned. If France wanted to use reverse psychology to drive the U.S. into a war just by pissing them off, they couldn't have done a much better job.

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Thursday, February 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:05:00 PM:

Break it down

It's interesting how many of Technology Review's ten technologies that will change the world are about very, very small things.

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# 12:47:00 PM:

In the new mind

Kids are little people with their own view of the world. We all know that -- maybe we even remember it from our own childhoods. My oldest daughter, who will be five tomorrow, was annoyed at me today for insisting that she share something with her younger sister. She decided to move out of the house, and dutifully packed her bag, told me what was happening, and traipsed next door to her grandparents' house. (Hey, she was moving out, but why make it difficult?)

Here is what she considers the essentials of life for her suitcase:

  • Eight pairs of underwear.
  • Five swimsuits, all of which are too small because they belong to her sister.
  • Two Barbie dolls.
  • Some soap.

At least she's prepared.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:20:00 PM:

Flipping the music industry

Some people are so smart it's just painful.

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# 1:13:00 PM:

Why so much free stuff?

I put a lot of things on my Web site. You can even reuse them non-commercially if you give me credit. Why do I give so much away? Columnist Vin Crosbie explains:

Often, the best price strategy is not to charge for your most popular product or service [but] for the services or products that are most valuable to your customers...

Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Adobe (Acrobat Reader), and Google (Web search) do that with software and Web services. The free stuff here helps bring me customers, and they pay for work I do uniquely for them. It seems to work.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:02:00 AM:

Time warp

Behold one of a number of RealVideo clips (you'll need something from Real installed -- look for the free player). It shows a dapper man using a mouse to point and click at links in a computer program that looks like some sort of bizarre Web browser. Now, why does Bob Cringely think it's "totally weird"? Because the video is from 1968.

No wonder the famous Dr. E. was so dapper. Every grownup was, in those Mission Control days.

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# 12:00:00 AM:

An example for pro-war people everywhere

Here (via Scott Rosenberg) is how not to react to someone who is rationally disagreeing with you.

Especially on television.

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Monday, February 10, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:04:00 AM:

I love this city

[Burrard Inlet, 7 Feb 2003]
Burrard Inlet looking west from the Barnet Highway
Burnaby, B.C., Canada, 7 Feb 2003, about 5:00 p.m.

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# 8:58:00 AM:

Web site advice audio now available

While I was knocked flat out most of the weekend by a nasty flu, I still managed to digitize and upload the audio transcript of my talk last month about making better Web sites. If you're interested in hearing it, have an hour and a half to spare to listen, and don't mind downloading three MP3 files that total 13 MB in size, give it a listen.

On another note, my fever peaked at 38.7° C (101.6° F) on Saturday -- 1.7° C above normal. Many estimates of the effects of global climate change claim that worldwide temperatures will rise, on average, at least 1.5° C because of greenhouse gas emissions. It may be a crappy analogy, but if the effects on our climate and various ecosystems are anything like the effects on my body from that kind of temperature rise, we're in trouble.

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Friday, February 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:33:00 AM:

Who's in the backcountry?

With the ever-diversifying population of Canada, and British Columbia in particular, why are all the victims of recent killer avalanches -- in January and February -- white people?

I'm not being flippant, or a conspiracy theorist. Is it a cultural trend -- do those of non-white ancestry not find backcountry skiing as appealing, on average? Or was it just coincidence? No typical sample of a dozen or so people in B.C. would be exclusively white, so I just find it odd.

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Thursday, February 06, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:43:00 PM:

Being a writer, editor, Web guy, drummer, and dad

Rachelle Redford, a writer and editor with Write On!, wonders how I manage my day:

You're a stay-at-home Dad, musician and editor/writer. How do you juggle these often-conflicting roles? [...] Do you have any tips or insights through your experiences that you could pass along?

I don't actually spend as much time writing, editing, and drumming as it may seem. My wife and I are very lucky that she's home pretty early from work and my parents live nearby. Once a week -- like today -- my two girls (3 and 5) spend the day with their grandparents and I work or meet with clients. When I have large projects underway, my wife and I also set aside time in the evenings or weekends for me to work on them. Similarly, when she has a lot of marking or preparation, we set aside time for her.

I find I'm often at the computer after everyone has gone to sleep, and may be up until 1 a.m. or later. But I charge $50 an hour (plus GST), so a little work goes a long way.

Sleeping through the howler monkeys

Sometimes I can even work when the kids are home -- it's sort of like those people who work in the jungle and get used to sleeping away while howler monkeys siren away all night long outside, or those who live near train tracks or major roads. You learn to filter out distractions, and to get back to work quickly when distractions are unavoidable. If my girls are playing or eating or watching TV, I sit at the computer we have upstairs in the TV room and check e-mail, update my Web site or one of the others I work on, or do small projects. If I need to read stuff or do paper markup, I do that then, or in bed at night, or after dinner. I might bring along my Palm organizer (with mini-word processor) or papers when we go to the park or the McDonald's Play Place. I squeeze anything in when I can, and track my billable time in 15-minute increments.

I used to work two days a week in a part-time permanent job while my mom took my daughter (and, later, daughters), so I've been doing some sort of juggle like this since late 1998, and in this arrangement since early 2001. It's getting easier and easier as my kids get older. This fall my oldest will be in kindergarten and my youngest will be at playschool two hours a day twice a week, so I'll have a few whole hours to myself during the week! Wow.

Well-meshed schedules

My music schedule generally meshes well with my wife's. My band doesn't play often, but when we do, it's in town and the money is good -- I get about 40% of my income from it. We're also not a "creative" band in that we don't write songs and never rehearse. Some of the other guys in the group do that in their own, separate projects.

Generally, we play Fridays or Saturdays, maybe twice a month or more often during Christmas party season. My wife is home before I need to leave to set up around 4 or 4:30, and she stays home while I'm out and return at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. She lets me sleep in the next day till 9 or 10, and I let her sleep in other weekends.

By the seat of the pants

If the band or my editing work requires more of my time, my mom and dad, or my in-laws, can often take the kids on short notice, sometimes even overnight. Or my parents can take the kids for a couple of hours before my wife gets home, or if I need to go to a meeting on another day.

I'm also lucky in that I write and edit pretty quickly, and seem to be able to survive averaging about seven hours a night of sleep long term, often less in short bursts.

It's always a juggling act -- usually improvised by the seat of the pants -- but I still spend the vast majority of my waking hours (and the sleeping ones, for that matter) with my kids. The rest is just a sideline, merely one (or two) that makes me money. While my paid work is fun for me, little of it is very creative, so I can just crunch down and do it without needing the extra rumination time that truly creative endeavours do.

And then, as part of updating my Web site, I just take responses like this one and slap them right up on my weblog. Easy "content repurposing..."

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Wednesday, February 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 4:16:00 PM:

Fantasyland

My wife forwarded me some photos of ocean hut hotels in the Maldives, which are islands in the Indian Ocean that may be seriously threatened by the rising sea levels of global warming.

They are unbelievably beautiful. My question: what happens during a storm? Come to think of it, where do they get their water, and where does sewage go?

In other fantasyland news, Craig Northey reports that the jargon of self-help gurus seems to invade their followers' speech, making those people much less likeable (especially on a plane flight).

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# 11:13:00 AM:

Try something else

Editorial cartoonists, so often able to make stinging and essential points in politics and other fields, seem remarkably ill equipped to comment on events like the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia. Many of the cartoons printed around the world share the same hackneyed and maudlin themes, clichéd in their obviousness: flags, stars of David, and halos streaking across the sky, Uncle Sam shedding tears, shuttles caught by the hands of God or the gates of Heaven. Very few have any bite or subtlety to them -- nothing that makes you think about the event in new ways, which is what the artists should do.

I guess we can't expect those who regularly elevate cynicism and satire to remarkable levels to deal effectively with events about which it is hard to be cynical or satirical so soon. I would have hoped they could have at least tried for more original imagery, or addressed some other topic instead.

Oh, and my (completely honest) answers to this test say that there's an 86% chance that I'm a woman. News to me.

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# 1:28:00 AM:

A successful landing

How did I forget that I saw a space shuttle land once? I just recalled the searing dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, in the early to mid-1980s. I can't remember the year exactly. First thing in the morning, my parents and I had driven northeast from San Diego, where we were on holiday, through the mountains, and parked with a vast sea of other shuttle enthusiasts, far enough away from the sheds at the Edwards runway that they were obscured by the heat haze. We sat around for a long time.

Then it appeared, far overhead, a speck in the sky. I had an SLR camera mated to my dad's Celestron 90 cm reflecting telescope, which acted like a super-telephoto 1000 mm lens at an aperture of f11 (just fine on a blazing bright desert day). Through my camera I could see the stubby winged shape, and we heard two sonic booms. The orbiter made a complicated S-curve to come down to the runway and slow down more.

Even so, I remember that it came in frighteningly fast -- much, must faster than any commercial airplane, even though it had been under no engine power since orbit. Dangerous, I thought. I was focusing, advancing film, and firing the shutter as fast as I could. Eventually I saw the puff of dust as the shuttle touched down, then rolled to a stop.

I don't even remember which shuttle it was. My parents must have the photos somewhere.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:02:00 AM:

Damn lies, statistics, and fatality rates

My post yesterday about the hazards of being an astronaut brought a thoughtful response from my former UBC colleague, the excellent photographer Alastair Bird:

Is there a minimum required sample size [for dangerous jobs] and are you speaking overall? It would appear that being an astronaut currently is the most dangerous job. In WW II, I think half of all the sailors on German U-Boats were lost and about a third of all Allied bomber crews (RAF and RCAF) were lost. Those were alarming statistics, but they were actively being shot at -- I think there were few accidental deaths. And I think that until recently (when large groups of climbers starting climbing it) I thought about 1 in 20 people who attempted the summit of Everest died.

The Everest numbers he mentioned (5%) roughly match the 4.3% high-mountain stats I quoted, but I had no idea the fatality rate was so high among some World War II military groups. Indeed, Alastair was underestimating it: U-boat crews had a 63% fatality rate, or 63,000 per 100,000, by the criteria I used yesterday. That's about 500 times more dangerous than logging, and close to ten times as dangerous as being an astronaut. But again, people were actively trying to kill them. It's pretty hard to compare that kind of work -- fighting military, gang and organized crime members, and so on -- to jobs in which someone's not supposed to die as a routine part of achieving your goals. More realistic than U-boat crews would be submarine crews as a whole, I suppose.

However, I suspect my astronaut (and mountaineer) fatality statistic comparisons may fail for a more critical reason: the mountaineering and astronaut numbers are historical averages, while the logging etc. numbers are one-year snapshots (I think). So they may not really be directly comparable.

One-year snapshots for the space program (and extreme-altitude mountain climbing) are difficult, though, because so few people are involved and the death rate varies so widely -- long periods of zero punctuated by spikes of horribly high fatality rates. And getting historical average rates for more common industries seems hard to do, since most of the statistics seem to be annual. However, because of the larger numbers of people in those industries, the historical averages and snapshot rates should be similar enough, especially for the orders-of-magnitude differences we're talking about.

Alastair continued:

I can't help but think (this is perception, not necessarily statistical reality) that for the guys who are hard-core [high-mountain] climbers, death somehow always seems to catch up with them. Anatoli Boukreev [...] who was a big part of [the 1996 Everest expedition where many died] was killed on Annapurna a few years later. I think several of the guys who managed to get off of Everest and not die have been killed in subsequent climbing accidents, and even our own Jim Haberl, from Whistler was killed in a pretty innocuous avalanche in Alaska a couple of years ago.

Perhaps the really heavy-duty, repeat climbers do have a higher death rate. But how many of them are there, and how do you distinguish them from the less hardcore climbers, or those who climb all the time at lower altitudes? We can always slice the numbers (or lump them together) until they become meaningless. Those who helped contain the Chernobyl reactor as it melted down in 1986 have a high death rate, for instance, but is that more meaningful than the numbers for nuclear plant technicians worldwide, which are probably pretty low? Is the worldwide average death rate from AIDS more or less useful for identifying trends and treatments than separate rates for industrialized North America and sub-Saharan Africa?

How about numbers for mountaineers in general, not just those who go to the extreme altitudes of the Himalayas? What if we lump astronauts in with everyone who's ever flown in a heavier-than-air craft above the ground? Then things look pretty safe. My statistics lie no more than anyone else's -- they just lie differently. At least with the numbers I roughed out, whether someone is an astronaut (or cosmonaut) and has been into space at all -- once or repeatedly -- is relatively clear.

There is another contrast: mountaineers often die because of spur-of-the-moment, individual decisions, sometimes entirely alone. They step in the wrong place and fall, or choose to make for a peak too late in the day, or misjudge weather conditions. Astronauts work in the cushion of years or decades of planning and training by thousands of the smartest people in the world, with budgets in the tens of billions of dollars. But they still die more often. That shows how dangerous their jobs are, and why private spaceflight is likely a long, long way off.

I remember a fellow on the CBC speaking about risk and disease [and] the interviewer asked him how anyone could actually live to their expected life expectancy with all this disease and death. His response was, "Wear your seat belt. Quit smoking. Get more sleep. Don't drink too much, but have a drink or two regularly. Quit your stressful job and take regular vacations." He said that doing this would take care of the vast majority of the expected mortality -- the rest was just up to chance and that everyone would have to accept the reality that awful things happen to regular people.

The vast majority of people do live into old age, and then die of heart disease, cancer, pneumonia, or other "natural causes." And driving remains pretty dangerous, as "regular people" things go. The fatality rate is around 22 per 100,000 drivers, while the rate for scuba diving (as an example that may seem dangerous) is about 2 in 100,000 (see June 29, 2002 on this scuba page).

Everyone knows someone who's been in a car crash (if not ourselves), and many of us know someone killed in one. But we still drive. If every car trip were as carefully planned and rigorously executed as each space shot, no one would ever die in a car crash. And in real life, some people have no collisions for years, then have two (even not their fault) within months of one another. That demonstrates how randomness appears, sometimes in clusters that seem related, but aren't. Like having two groups of seven people die last Saturday in completely unrelated events.

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Monday, February 03, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:51:00 AM:

Is being an astronaut the most dangerous job?

[Shuttle Columbia, 1981]

Last year, Forbes reported that people who work in logging, fishing, piloting small aircraft, steelworking, mining and drilling, roofing, construction, and truck driving have the most dangerous jobs in the United States, in that order. Loggers have the worst fatality rate, at 122.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. The most likely cause of death in any occupation (even policework) is a car or truck collision, with 23% of the total. Falls and homicide followed at significantly lower rates.

In contrast, high-altitude mountaineering, often cited as the world's most dangerous job, has a death rate of 4.3% (23 deaths among 535 mountaineers beween 1968 and 1987), or 4,300 per 100,000 -- about 35 times more fatal than logging.

Depending on which statistic you use (i.e. whether sub-orbital flights count), either 426 or 433 people have flown into space in the American and Russian space programs. If you add those who died before they reached space, such as the 1986 crew of the Challenger shuttle, as well as the latest Columbia astronauts (who made it to space, but weren't in the stats I found), you get up to 450 or so, depending on how you count. As of the Columbia catastrophe, 24 astronauts have died in the American program, and 10 or more (possibly quite a bit more) in the Russian/Soviet ones (some Soviet deaths may still be kept secret).

So, at the very lowest end of the range, with 34 deaths out of 450 spacefarers, we have a 7.5% death rate. In terms of the "dangerous jobs" statistics above, that's more than 7,500 deaths per 100,000. So being an astronaut or cosmonaut is well over 60 times as dangerous as logging, and has nearly twice the fatality rate as climbing the world's highest mountains.

I may misunderstand the statistics and be making some improper comparisons (if so, please tell me), but from my quick calculations, it appears that the answer is "yes."

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Sunday, February 02, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:49:00 AM:

Here's an easy one

Which one of these items is more Canadian?

[Shrimp Chips and Stuffed Moose with Scarf]

Why not find out?

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Saturday, February 01, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:55:00 PM:

Breakup

The largest photographic print I've ever owned sits in our downstairs rec room. It's poster-sized, laminated and mounted on thick poster board. It was very expensive when my dad bought it from the original photographer, who, like him, was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and had taken it in Florida in 1981.

It's a photo of the space shuttle Columbia on the launch pad, before the first-ever shuttle takeoff 22 years ago. The external fuel tank is painted white, something NASA stopped doing not long after. I haven't looked at the photo much recently, but when I did I recalled that, unlike most vehicles of that age (certainly any car my family owned then), Columbia was still in service. Until today.

[UPDATE February 22, 2003: I'd forgotten the photographer's name, but he's Jim Bernath, who's now in his seventies and has become known as "Space Man" in my city for his space hardware collection and speaking career about space exploration. There are surprisingly few articles about him on the Web, though he was recently featured on the cover of my city's community newspaper.]

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