Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: April 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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:58:00 AM:

Getting around Apple's copy-prevention schemes

So Apple has this new Music Store thing where you can buy individual tracks for 99 cents (U.S. dollars, and in the U.S. only right now), or albums for $10 USD, through the iTunes music player application—significantly, there's stuff from all the major music labels there, which is a first for a fully-legal pay service. Still a lot missing, but since there's no subscription, you only pay for what they have that you want.

The music files are encoded as MPEG-4 AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) files with some copy-prevention (a.k.a. "digital rights management" or DRM) built in—you can share the files on up to three authorized Macs (and Windows machines later this year, they say, i.e. if the service isn't a failure), stream them out over a subnet or the Internet, etc. You can't cross-encode them to MP3, AIFF, WAV, or unprotected AAC within iTunes or with Apple's QuickTime audio/video software, and so far no other music software will play the files.

However, you can sync them with as many iPods (which will play them with a firmware update) as you like, and burn them to standard audio CDs straight from iTunes. Of course, since CDs know nothing about copy protection, that means you can re-rip the tracks into MP3s or other audio formats. Files converted from CD always lose a bit of quality (though not as much as to cassette tapes), and here the loss is exacerbated from the original files, which are already compressed a bit. So there will be a quality loss, but not a huge one.

Apple knows that, and presumably the record companies know that. It may be the reason that the purchasable AACs are 128 kbps (kilobit per second) files—good quality, sonically much like 192 kbps MP3s, but when re-ripped probably just gunged up enough to be noticeable. They're betting that it will be just enough of a hassle and quality loss that people will pay for the tracks anyway rather than just going to Gnutella.

We'll see. I'd bet the price drops as the selection improves over the coming months too—50 cents per track eventually, I'm guessing. It might just work.

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# 9:04:00 AM:

PowerPoint kills?

I've ranted about the problems with Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software before, but it hadn't occurred to me that those flaws might have contributed to the Columbia shuttle disaster. How many lower-profile deaths and injuries happen because software communicates information poorly? (Link via BoingBoing.)

Actually, let me rephrase that: How many lower-profile deaths and injuries happen because people use software to communicate information poorly?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:37:00 PM:

Resources for Web editors

For those who were in the SFU class this evening, my page of links for my January talk to the Editors' Association of Canada might be useful—it includes many of the sites I discussed this evening as well.

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# 12:23:00 PM:

Speaking about Web editing at SFU tonight

This evening at 6:30 I'm giving a presentation on editing to a class at Simon Fraser University's downtown Vancouver campus, somewhere on the second floor. Since we're talking about Web editing, I'm hoping my request for an Internet connection bears fruit.

As I've mentioned before, I rather enjoy giving these talks, so anyone who'd like me to consume some of their time with my ideas on writing, editing, the Internet, Web sites, or other things I know stuff about (or can fake convincingly) is welcome to get in touch.

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# 8:40:00 AM:

Seeking Bayesian filtering for Mac OS 9

Does anyone know of a program that implements Bayesian spam filtering for Mac OS 9 and Microsoft Entourage? Windows and Mac OS X seem to have a range of options, such as SpamBully and SpamSieve, but the only decent spam-killer application I've found so far for OS 9 is Spamfire, which works well, but has the disadvantages of having to run as a separate application and not being "trainable" the way Bayesian filters are.

My PowerBook will never run OS X, so if you know of something that runs on the older OS, please pass it along.

UPDATE: On a related note, spam is now 25 years old, although actually calling it spam is not.

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Monday, April 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:38:00 AM:

I have no advice for you

I'm not sure what's more dismaying: that people actually search for the "enlargement" methods that spammers constantly advertise (thus encouraging the e-mail flood), or that this site generates the top two results at one search engine.

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Sunday, April 27, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:24:00 PM:

Familiarity

A little over a week ago my wife and I saw Bend It Like Beckham. It was an oddly familiar movie.

The basic plot—British girl from a traditional Sikh family rebels against her parents and her engaged sister by chasing her dream to play professional soccer (sorry, football)—is nothing remarkable: sort of My Sister's Big Fat Sikh Wedding. However, the film is so well written and made, funny, and genuine that it transcends its fish-out-of-water Cinderella concept.

The familiarity is odd because I'm a Canadian boy from a not-especially-traditional German-Finnish family. But the Vancouver area has one of the biggest Sikh populations outside India. The movie's setting in a Heathrow-area London suburb could just as easily have been in Richmond or South Vancouver, with the same jumbo jets passing overhead. For me, the Indian dress, food, wedding customs, and mores seemed close to home. The weird foreign bits were the British slang and bizarre English food (Beans on toast? Bleah!).

It says something that our family, despite our European roots (my wife's ancestors lived in Scotland and Poland), takes as our comfort food butter chicken and naan (as well as sushi), while roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are rare meals, and exotic too.

Go see the movie. It's terrific fun.

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Friday, April 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:10:00 AM:

Sometimes mistakes tell the truth

Take a quick read through this story about Apple Computer's upcoming music download service. Notice this:

The service has already won the praise of some record executives who see it as a potentially powerful weapon against online privacy.

My emphasis, by the way. A typo, but a telling one, perhaps.

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Thursday, April 24, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:37:00 PM:

Google works fast

Only a couple of weeks after I posted my article on wireless networking with old PowerBooks, a Google search for "PowerBook 802.11b" gives it as the #1 result. It's a bit further down the list for "PowerBook AirPort," but not by much. Scary.

So far, one person has been kind enough to tip me $5 (U.S. dollars!) for the piece via PayPal, which is nice, since I still haven't put all the information in that I want to.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:14:00 PM:

Pause to think

Thanks, Bill, for pointing to this article. If you're young (or not) and Canadian (or not), read it.

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# 1:00:00 PM:

The unexpected answer

What has been the deadliest war since World War II? Vietnam? Korea? The Balkans? Iran-Iraq? No, it's one that's still going on, in the Congo. More than three million people have died in it since 1999—about 300,000 from violence, the rest from war-induced starvation and disease. (Via the Memory Hole.)

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# 11:36:00 AM:

Swapping PowerBook hard drives

Here's a good guide to changing the hard drive in Apple PowerBook laptops. I didn't know about it when I changed mine, but things went smoothly anyway.

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# 9:51:00 AM:

Bullets and numbers

If you want to make a document with lists in it, Microsoft Word does not seem to be the tool to use, since it tries to be so helpful. That hasn't changed in nearly eight years.

Do most people not make documents with lists in them, or does everyone just put up with Word's flaws?

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Sunday, April 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:49:00 PM:

Yet another gadget, two years away

If this device becomes available in 2005 as promised, I'm buying one.

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# 4:31:00 PM:

Looking in from the inside

Until I read this article (via Backup Brain), it wouldn't have occurred to me that while fundamentalist Christians and Muslims understand each other when they say "You are an infidel and you will burn in hell," to Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and people of many other religions (including Jews, to a degree), such a statement has no meaning at all.

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# 1:17:00 PM:

The sharks make the man

According to the auction of his estate, the late John Enstwistle, bass player for The Who, enjoyed guitars, brass instruments, pewter sculpture, clothes, drawing, and mounted fish trophies. Of particular interest: a red and black check fur jacket (with platform shoes included) and an unusual electric lamp with sharks.

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Friday, April 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:38:00 PM:

Wireless networking article updated

Andrew Kershaw, the developer of ClassicStumbler, pointed out to me that my instructions for getting an older PowerBook online wirelessly also work with the 1995-vintage PowerBook 5300. I have changed the article accordingly.

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# 3:41:00 PM:

Be prepared

You know that new "Fair" Pharmacare program the B.C. Government insists everyone register for, with a deadline of May 1, otherwise they'll assume you're in the $300,000+ tax bracket and give you a $10,000 Pharmacare deductible?

The one for which all the dire warnings have appeared in the paper just before the Easter long weekend? Describing how your private insurance won't cover any shortfall if you fail to register and get dinged for a too-high deductible? The ones provoking several hundred thousand people, rather predictably, to try to register online right now?

Internal Server Error

The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.

Please contact the server administrator, root@hnet18.moh.hnet.bc.ca and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.

More information about this error may be available in the server error log.

I believe in elementary school we used the phrase, "Smooth move, Ex-Lax."

UPDATE 11:20 p.m.: Someone's up late on a Good Friday. The site works now.

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Thursday, April 17, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:40:00 PM:

That explains a lot

Philip Greenspun writes:

Basically there are two ways to set up a business. If you don't believe that you're a management genius you push profit-and-loss responsibility down to the lowest level possible. In the case of McDonald's and its franchisees, for example, P&L responsibility is at the individual restaurant level. If one restaurant is doing badly it doesn't have access to the bank accounts of the other restaurants and thus there is no way for the bad apples to drag down the barrel. Furthermore the top managers don't need to care too much about how an individual restaurant is spending its money. As long as the group with P&L is making a profit, who cares how they are doing it?

An alternative approach is central management by function. The Freedom Fries cooks at all McDonald's would report to regional managers and a VP of Freedom at headquarters. The soda pourers would report to middle managers under the VP of Soda. The drive-through cashiers at different restaurants would share a manager and so forth. If you have amazing business management skills in theory this method could produce higher performance and greater efficiency. However, without metrics and cost controls there is a substantial risk of bankruptcy because many fewer people have profit and loss on their minds.

There are far fewer management geniuses out there than they themselves think there are.

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# 12:55:00 AM:

Rock you like a hurricane

Here are some photos of the 2003 Sun Run and the 50,000 people my band played for. No pictures of the torrential rain that started just as we were packing up at the end, however.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:54:00 PM:

Enough already!

Can you tell from how many posts I've made that one of my daughters is sick today and I'm stuck in the house?

A short one: find out about all the countries in the world or search for media files. Both useful links via J-Walk.

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# 11:16:00 AM:

It's not about the artists

Dan Bricklin writes intelligently, as always, about why the recording and movie industries' attempts to kill off file sharing and digital copying have little or nothing to do with paying artists. I, for one, get paid as a drummer and as a writer (though little of my writing is very artistic, and some might judge my drumming the same way). Digital copying and file sharing have only helped me.

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# 10:52:00 AM:

Visitor shifts

In this month, for the first time, people visiting this site using Apple's new Safari browser now outnumber Netscape users:

Browser Hits Percent
MS Internet Explorer 29022 58.4%
Safari 7693 15.4%
Netscape 6680 13.4%
Unknown 4617 9.2%
Opera 951 1.9%
LibWWW 190 0.3%
OmniWeb 147 0.2%
Galeon 134 0.2%
iCab 132 0.2%
Konqueror 36 0%
W3C CSS Validator 14 0%
WebCollage (PDA/Phone browser) 12 0%
Lynx 8 0%
W3C HTML Validator 7 0%
NetShow Player (media player) 3 0%

Since I write about Mac stuff (on a Mac), it's no surprise that Mac OS X is also now the most common operating system for my visitors to be using, though all Windows users still outnumber Mac users:

OS Hits Percent
Mac OS X 10576 21.3%
Windows XP 8185 16.4%
Windows 2000 8170 16.4%
Mac OS 7918 15.9%
Windows 98 6106 12.2%
Unknown 3302 6.6%
Windows Me 2350 4.7%
Windows NT 2088 4.2%
Windows 95 494 0.9%
Linux 335 0.6%
HP Unix 38 0%
Sun Solaris 37 0%
Unknown Unix system 30 0%
FreeBSD 15 0%
Windows CE 1 0%
Irix 1 0%

Remember that "hits" are any Web request, including text, images, and so on. Every page on this site yields a whole bunch of hits. So far this month, I have had 3,780 visits (each visitor coming 1.83 times, on average) and 49,646 hits, or 13.13 hits per visit. On average, each visit lasts almost seven minutes, which is a pretty long time—but visit lengths vary widely. Thanks for hanging out, however long you stay.

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# 10:23:00 AM:

Why were they there?

CNN's coverage of the war in Iraq has been pretty obviously sanitized, even if you haven't been monitoring Al Jazeera or other news organizations with different biases.

But the revelation that CNN kept monstrous secrets in order not to annoy Saddam Hussein and his government in the years before the war—so that the network was allowed to maintain a Baghdad bureau—is pretty disturbing. Not only has recent coverage been skewed, perhaps inevitably, toward the U.S. military, but previous coverage was skewed toward Hussein and the Baath party. So CNN's only common journalistic ground has been a sort of inoffensive (or offensive, looked at another way) journalistic muddy middle.

What exactly was the point of CNN's being in Iraq for all these years? Just bragging rights?

UPDATE: On the other hand...

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# 9:20:00 AM:

A voice from the past

This morning, Mr. Dougal Fraser, the man who taught me to write a couple of decades ago, phoned me. I had sent him a note (in snail mail) a few months ago after hearing that he had (as he put it) "been retired" from the school where he taught me. Today he's moving to Victoria, and while he waited for the moving van he decided to telephone.

He sounds exactly the same, which should have been no surprise, but was anyway. After all, he was already an established teacher when I first met him, and though it had been at least 15 years since we'd spoken, that isn't an incredibly long time in a teaching career. He has the same wit, the same voice, and even uses some of the same catchphrases. It was good to talk to him, and I hope he enjoys his retirement—whatever he chooses to do with it.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:32:00 AM:

The future now

This is where the home stereo is headed. The music industry probably doesn't have long to catch up.

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Monday, April 14, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:14:00 AM:

To the Dark Side

My wife and I drive a small Ford Focus station wagon, and we move lots of stuff in it, mostly musical instruments, groceries, and our two children (not all at the same time). I generally dislike minivans and SUVs. But even though I'm a bit older than the target demographic, the Honda Element, which I looked at during the recent B.C. Auto Show, appeals to me. It's a small, fairly efficient, very practical, weird looking vehicle that isn't quite a car, or a truck, or a van, or an SUV. Actually, it reminds me of an Austin Mini (old style, not the groovy new one) turned into a truck, but safer.

Our car isn't even two years old, though, so it will be some time before we're looking at anything new. However, we could have used the hose-off floors in the Element when our kids were younger.

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# 8:40:00 AM:

Happy ten

Chances are you're reading this site using a graphical Web browser, or something derived from one. (I'm writing with one right now.) Mosaic, the first such program, was developed ten years ago this month.

It started the Internet's move from academic curiosity into the mainstream, and today—for better and worse—still defines the core features of every common Web browser, as well as many other sorts of computer applications.

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Sunday, April 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:28:00 PM:

I'd like to say I had no idea...

...but whenever someone reminded me about Idi Amin, who was a vague sinister figure in world events in my cloudy childhood understanding of the news, I had an uncomfortable feeling that he was still alive somewhere. And he is. He's not even that old: 78.

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Saturday, April 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:08:00 PM:

Early morning rock

If you're in the Vancouver Sun Run tomorrow, Sunday April 13, look for me playing the drums on the big scaffold above the starting line at Burrard and Georgia streets in downtown Vancouver. It is our tenth (!) year playing the event.

On an unrelated note, here's why some people (like me) get so much spam.

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Friday, April 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 6:16:00 PM:

Wireless networking (Wi-Fi/AirPort/802.11b) with a PowerBook 1400, 2400, 3400, or old G3

Get e-mail in the back yard! Read news sites in the bathroom! Update your weblog from the porch or the kitchen! Back up files from the couch! Sounds fun, doesn't it? But what if you have an old, old laptop, like a PowerBook 1400 (circa 1996)?

It's still possible, and over the past few days I've written a long article (5600 words, plus screenshots, with more to come) describing how you can do it, as I did last month...

UPDATE: Accelerate Your Mac reveals that the even-older PowerBook 5300 can be corralled into working with 802.11b/AirPort networks. I've updated my article with the tip.

[Read more...]

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# 3:26:00 PM:

How to feel genuinely grown up

I'm still not sure I think of myself as an adult, at age 33, but I have now been married for nearly eight years, and a father for more than five. Today I took another step to growing up, when I registered my oldest daughter for starting kindergarten in the fall.

What's weird is that she will attend the exact same school I did almost thirty years ago. On the wall in its front hall, the building still has a painted design created by David Chang, one of my grade six classmates in 1980. He patterned it after the logo of the Moscow Summer Olympics. Those games were boycotted by the United States and many other western nations because of the U.S.S.R.'s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, but we still liked the logo.

I wonder if anyone at the school today knows that bit of trivia?

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# 9:06:00 AM:

Make software dumber

Ryan, an architect, talks about architectural software, but he could be discussing programs of almost any kind:

I don't want my objects to be very smart. That substitutes the tedium of doing the same thing over and over again for the tedium of debugging the relationships between smart objects that are being manic and overly helpful.

Think of Microsoft Word's eight-year-old list-numbering bugs, which are the bane of technical writers everywhere. Or "auto-fill" features that try to drop a company name into a Web form when you're trying to enter a user name that begins with the same letter. Or the series of dialog boxes, with contradictory and confusing buttons, that you sometimes run into when trying to delete something: "Are you sure? Yes/Cancel" "Save backup copy? Yes/No" "Software may become non-functional. Is this what you want? Continue Anyway/Revert/Cancel."

Ryan's examples are helpful clarifications:

I noticed something that evades the software industry but is obvious in practice: not all labour-saving features are desirable. [...] To wit: changing the floor-to-floor height in a building halfway through building documentation should be a big problem.

[...] What I enjoy about design is being able to use common materials in uncommon ways. Maybe I want to use a garage door for a dining table. The software says that garage door objects must be in a wall. So this whole smart object concept simply gives up the heart of architecture.

So software often tries to do unusual things we don't want to do, or makes doing inadvisable things easy, and prevents us from doing interesting things that it doesn't understand.

Any wonder that using computers is so often frustrating?

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# 8:19:00 AM:

It's a bloody war

No, not the one in Iraq. The one to try to register the phrase "Shock and Awe" as a trademark.

Bleah.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:08:00 PM:

Why people hate Quark

I've never (no, not even once) used QuarkXPress, but most people who lay out pages for a living do. They also hate Quark, Inc., the company. Here are two good reasons why.

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# 12:04:00 PM:

A new car era

Cars today don't drive much differently than those made 30 or 40 years ago. But underneath there are significant differences. Our Ford Focus wagon displayed a rather uninformative orange "check engine" light a few days ago, so we made an appointment to have it looked at.

In the interim, the light went off, then on, then (of course) off again before we went in to the dealer today. But Mike, the helpful guy at the service counter, said that the car's internal computer system would remember what had triggered the light, saving it in a log that the dealer's computer could retrieve. Try that with your '65 Valiant.

Anyway, the problem turned out to be a failed sensor, not any actual mechanical system that makes the car work. This is the third failed sensor in this car in the year and a half we've owned it. The only mechanical problem has been a loose parking brake cable. Nothing has prevented the car from going or stopping when we want. So as driving machines go, the Focus has been very reliable. As a piece of sensory equipment, it's not doing so well.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:58:00 PM:

Career change

Continuing the '80s music theme: When he began as one of the founding veejays at Canada's music video station MuchMusic in 1984, I doubt John "J.D." Roberts considered that he might one day be traveling with U.S. Marines in Baghdad, witnessing (warning, disturbing photos) civilian casualties.

His CBS bio conspicuously omits any mention of MuchMusic, by the way.

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# 12:37:00 AM:

Rock on, dude

Being Daddy has published lists of musical artists he likes now but disliked in high school and liked in high school but dislikes now. We all must have such lists. Personally, I still like The Police, even if Sting has sucked for nearly 20 years since.

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Monday, April 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:07:00 PM:

Thank you, Print Future-ers

I have a consistently good time giving talks to people about Web sites, as I did tonight to the last Web writing class of the 2003 Douglas College Print Futures program.

[Anne Pepper, Derek Miller, Gladys We]
Just call us "twelve eyes":
From left to right, that's my co-presenter Anne Pepper,
me, and course instructor Gladys We. All three of us
have been at this stuff for a long time.

I ranted at some interminable length about what I think Web sites are for, how I built this site, why weblogs are good, how to fix Microsoft Word's horrible "Save As HTML" output, the smartness of Creative Commons, why to avoid splash screens on sites, and why cool sites are often useless (though uselessness can have its own perverse charm).

Anne talked about making a real living from Web writing for actual genuine companies like law offices, mutual fund firms, sports organizations, and Nintendo. She is very smart and knowledgeable, and you should go hire her if she's not too busy.

Gladys suggested I apply to take over her job at Douglas next year, since she's going on maternity leave and then back to her full-time position at Simon Fraser University, but with my own two preschoolers at home, I don't think I'll have the time.

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# 8:55:00 AM:

Panel discussion on weblogs and Web writing

Tonight I'll be joining Anne of Pepper Writing in a small panel for students in the Print Futures Program, in room 1808 at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C. I'll let Gladys We, the instructor and a former coworker of mine from Science World's opening season in 1989, explain:

The students have been thinking about weblogs and creating their own websites all semester. If you'd like to get an idea of who they are, this is their portfolio show website, which includes links to the websites that they created as their final projects, and to profiles of the students.

What I'd ask you to to think about and present on would be your own websites (how you use them to generate business or stay in touch with clients), tips and tricks for writing websites and blogs, and anything else that crosses your mind. (The session is loosely titled "your future in web writing", which could encompass pretty much anything web-related, or anything you've experienced with web work.)

As readers of this site know, it can be hard to get me to stop talking about that sort of thing, so I think I'll just wing it.

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Sunday, April 06, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:00:00 AM:

New tools from old

I used to write using Nisus Writer, from Nisus Software, but abandoned it when I moved to Mac OS X, and when Nisus version 6 introduced some bizarre new features that didn't seem to be moving in the right direction.

Still, I have a soft spot for its mighty text-editing tools, many of which come from a radically different perspective than those of industry-dominating Microsoft Word. The upcoming Nisus Writer X looks very promising. I'll likely upgrade when it's finally available.

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Saturday, April 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 6:45:00 AM:

When you work in computer repair...

...you see all sorts of things. I'm sure people who fix cars, plumbing, and other stuff see similar problems. Thanks to Barclay for the link.

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Friday, April 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:21:00 AM:

It would be such a nice program

I like how Apple's iPhoto software is designed, but on my old beige Power Macintosh G3 (circa 1998), iPhoto 2 is now so slow with a large number of photos (4300+) that it's nearly unusable. I hope Apple can fix the database speed problems, because they weren't nearly so pronounced in iPhoto 1, and I'd like to be able to use the software again.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:27:00 PM:

Oooh. Secret.

I am writing this entry in the neatest, most unusual way I have done so far. Unfortunately, I can't tell you anything about it because it's confidential. Maybe in a few months.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:02:00 PM:

Two satiric pieces

No matter which side of the war you're on, there's something here for you:

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# 12:25:00 PM:

I could learn to like this

I'm getting addicted to this wireless Internet thing. Right now I'm sitting in a restaurant in Vancouver's hip gentrified former industrial Yaletown neighbourhood, writing this entry through a wireless gateway someone in the building is (knowingly or unknowingly) running open to the public. (There is also a for-pay FatPort gateway in the vicinity, but I'll take the free one.)

The free network connection is a little flaky, with the signal fading in and out, but I can get through consistently enough to post this journal entry and download some files I need for a client I'm going to visit after lunch. There's even a power outlet by my feet for the restaurant's table lamp. There's a business model here -- I'd eat at this restaurant more often when I'm in the area if they made wireless Internet available more consistently for free.

As my heavy-metal grade 8 classmates would have said twenty years ago: "Sweeeeet."

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