Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: May 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, May 30, 2003 - newest items first
# 6:54:00 PM:

Bigger

According to my site statistics, penmachine.com comprises 366 Web pages, and contains 273,301 words. By word count, that's the length of about four typical novels.

The oldest material written for the site is from the spring of 1997, about six years ago. (There are older things, but they're converted from the pre-Web days.) That puts me at about 125 words per day, on average—half a normal printed page. However, the overwhelming majority of the words on this site have appeared since late 2000, when I started this journal, so I've really been averaging about 300 words a day, every day, for two and a half years—entirely aside from anything I've actually written to make a living.

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Thursday, May 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:27:00 PM:

?!

Andy Lamey's recent column about the increased use of exclamation points in writing yielded (predictably) some discussion on the editors' list I belong to. Much was of the "Kids today, I tell ya!" variety (but without the exclamation points—most editors, you see, are not fond of them in formal or semi-formal writing).

One list member noted that Lamey quoted writer Paul Robinson, who wrote in 1980 that the exclamation point is "too childish." The editor concurred, saying that:

...modern North American society is fast becoming more childish—so in that respect, [the exclamation point] really is "the mark of our times"—the new juvenility.

I agree with her, but while I think she meant that as a bad thing, I don't. I'd suggest that we're not all becoming more juvenile, but that we're just seeing more writing from younger people. I haven't even noticed a particular increase in the use of exclamation marks (or, as many hard-core techie people so juvenilely call them, bangs) in places where they previously would not have appeared, i.e. in edited print.

Where I have noticed more exclamation points is in the informal correspondence (much of it from younger people) that, for much of the last century, has been relegated to the telephone. We're now turning again to the written word, not in handwritten letters as in decades and centuries long past, but in electronic form:

  • e-mail
  • mobile phone SMS "texting"
  • instant messages
  • Web sites

...and so on. The article mentions only three media as examples of bang-happiness: Web sites, e-mail, and movie ads. New, informal media forms written by people who might never have seen publication before, and whose work is generally unedited, and then some advertising. Extraneous exclamation marks in film advertising are as old as films, and have long been common in advertising generally. The author also specifically mentions that the New York Times would look silly to use them in headlines.

Many teenagers who would have been lying on their bedroom floors with their legs propped against the wall yakking on the phone are now carrying on multiple instant-messaging conversations or pounding out SMS phone messages with their thumbs. With bangs, of course.

Nothing really new here on the exclamation front, in other words. We're just seeing more of what used to be spoken on the phone ("Get out! Did she really dump him?!") and written in private letters. With weblogs and other easily-reproduced electronic text, people who have any publicity-hound hammy tendencies (like me) suddenly have an easy venue for their exclamation-laden prose to get to the world.

Unlike many doomsaying pundits, I don't believe writing standards to be in decline generally. I think more people are writing, and we're reading more of their words. The proportion of crappy writing is probably the same as it has always been—maybe lower—but we see lots more stuff that hasn't been passed through any editorial filters than we used to, so it seems worse to our critical editors' eyes on average.

Personally, I prefer the trend to a few more (single) exclamation marks and a few fewer (ugh) semicolons. So few people understand how a semicolon is supposed to work, and even those who do routinely appear stuffy, because most of the time they could use separate sentences or an em-dash instead. At least everyone is clear on what an exclamation mark is for, even if they overuse it.

But do I draw the line at more than a single exclamation or question mark in a row? You bet I do!

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Wednesday, May 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:56:00 PM:

Air shortage

Yesterday, for the first time this season, I rode my bicycle downtown and back for work. On the way down, I noticed that my rear tire needed air, but at every gas station en route, the air pumps were out of order. Does no one put air in their own tires anymore?

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Monday, May 26, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:09:00 AM:

Avoiding clients from Hell

Freelance editors, especially when starting out, often take whatever work we can get. There are a lot of people who need editing help out there, but a lot of them have strange ideas about how the relationship with an editor should work. In editing, "the customer is always right" doesn't cut it—because the real customer is the ultimate reader of the material, not the writer. But a surprising number of writers don't acknowledge that.

Some of those writers (or publishers, or students, or whoever) have such set ideas about what they want that they become clients from Hell, second-gessing every decision or imposing weird conditions on an editor's work. Not coincidentally, those people are also usually unwilling to pay a fair rate. They aren't worth keeping around.

Ultimately, if a client requires you, the editor, to maintain his or her bizarro style, grammar, and punctuation, and you find it intolerable because you know it will be disruptive for readers, then it might be time to get out. What else, in the end, are you there for? People hire you to be an editor (at least they say so), and if they won't let you edit, you have the right not to let them make you do something else, such as acting as a foil for spaced-out ideas about written text.

Here's another way to look at it: a client who refuses to let you edit his or her writing using fairly standardized rules—which include rather a lot of leeway anyway—isn't really asking you to edit written English at all, but some hybrid pseudo-language based on English, one (for instance) with way too many commas, an indecipherable choice of font, and German-style capitalization of every noun. That is not your area of expertise, and it's not a large enough market to justify your making it one.

One of the best lessons I've learned in becoming a professional editor is how and when to say no. Especially, "this is what I charge, and I do not accept less." If you really need money, there are less stressful ways of getting it—I've busked in downtown Vancouver for change, and I find that far more pleasant (and more lucrative, per real hour of work) than some of my worse editing clients. (I don't like rolling coins much, but that's just menial, not actively unpleasant.)

In general, people who fight on rates will fight about everything else too, or be otherwise difficult. When I started standing firm on what I charge, and on what I do, I was surprised at how quickly the annoying clients went away.

The same people who think nothing of asking an editor to accept half of what we normally charge would never expect to walk into a new car dealership and offer half the sticker price of an automobile.

Well, maybe they would, but they wouldn't leave with a car.

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Sunday, May 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:21:00 AM:

Who needs eBay?

Last November I converted our old diaper bag to a briefcase. It was an excellent bag—actually an Eddie Bauer document bag we bought in 1997 or so—if a bit small for what I needed to carry.

Last week a woman from Akron, Ohio e-mailed me. She had been searching for that precise Eddie Bauer bag. She has one, and a friend of hers wanted one, but Eddie Bauer no longer makes them. So the woman offered to trade me for a Targus notebook bag/briefcase.

Now, thanks to the postal system, she has her bag (and soon, so will her friend), and I have an excellent case for my PowerBook and papers.

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Friday, May 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:21:00 PM:

STOP IT WILL YOU?!

I want to talk about an annoying trend. Anyone who's been around the online community for awhile knows that WRITING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS TAKEN AS SHOUTING! That's been true ever since personal computers started being able to use lower-case letters more than 20 years ago.

The recent annoying trend is when organizations take apparently generic words and capitalize them as trademarks. Have you noticed that in their own literature, golf's PGA Tour, registered real estate agents (what many of us would call "realtors," lower case), and Weight Watchers' "points" system turn into PGA TOUR, REALTOR®, and POINTS®? No? Well, I have, and as an old-time modem geek and current editor, I have to tell you that IT GRATES ON ME.

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Thursday, May 22, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:32:00 PM:

Just a young 'un

My dad turned 64 today. This gentleman in India, Habib Miyan, started collecting a pension in 1938 at age 60, making him, according to the pension record, 125 years old. He retired the year before my father was born, and has outlived three of his own children.

In the year Mr. Miyan was apparently born, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, and the first telephone directory was published. The year was 1878.

Of course, in that year, Harriet the tortoise was already almost 50.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:40:00 PM:

What on earth are moral rights?

I thought I knew some stuff about copyright, and tonight's presentation to the monthly Editors' Association of Canada meeting confirmed that: I know some stuff. But not much.

For instance, I'd never heard of moral rights, which are separate from copyright, but related to it. After I got home, I found a good summary of copyrights and moral rights in Canada, as well as some detail about how moral rights differ in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. (They're a much smaller deal in the U.S., which may be why they're not discussed much and why I hadn't heard of them.)

Lawyer J-P Bogden, who have the presentation tonight, recommended the Web site of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office as a good resource, and it is.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:46:00 PM:

Why you can't find it

Do you wonder why, when you search for something with Google or another search engine, you don't always get the results you expect? Why an article you remember reading in the New York Times or the Vancouver Sun or some other source doesn't show up, but a bunch of webloggers commenting on the same article does?

It's not the fault of Google or the webloggers. Many newspapers and other traditional media don't put their stuff on the Web. You may think they do, in that they have the stuff accessible from their Web sites, but too often you have to register to get it, or have to pay for access, or can only see it for a little while before it disappears into paid "reprints."

Guess what? Google can't see things that aren't freely accessible on the Web. That's why you can't find them when you search. Think of Google as a really, really big and popular Web user who reads only text, can't see most images or animations, and never enters a user ID, accepts a cookie, or pays to view content.

If you want people to find you, act accordingly, and put the stuff you want them to find online without access restrictions. Simple.

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# 2:47:00 PM:

Your year's supply of bits

From Philip Greenspun:

While our politicians fret about old-style feudalism in the Muslim world they ignore neo-feudalism springing up in their midst.

[...]

The public is allegedly the owner of the electromagnetic spectrum. Why can't we combine these facts to conclude that every U.S. citizen ought to be entitled to transmit and receive a certain number of bits per year?

This sounds like something the Canadian government would do, but so far there's been no talk of it here either. Right now I'm in a downtown office piggybacking off a wireless connection in some other office or apartment (I don't even know where it is, other than nearby). It would be cool, and would make me quite productive, if I could do that anywhere, and legitimately.

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# 8:23:00 AM:

Spamfire does a pretty good job

It turns out that there is no Bayesian filtering e-mail application for Mac OS 9 and earlier, so I ended up purchasing Spamfire Pro, from Matterform Media.

It does a decent job, getting most spam e-mail out of my way before I have to look at it. There is the occasional false positive (mail labeled as spam that isn't), but that is less common as I add correspondents to the address book. A few spams also slip through, but I can delete those by hand—the problem is reduced to the minor annoyance it was a couple of years ago, rather than the overwhelming flood it had become. The time I save will pay for the $30 US pretty quickly.

The program is far from perfect, but I don't need perfection, just something that shunts aside the spam before I drown in it. Spamfire does that just fine.

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Friday, May 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:36:00 PM:

Geeks waxing nostalgic

Yesterday I linked to two companies that make industrial-strength PC keyboard like the old ones from IBM. One of them even sells refurbished originals, with the IBM logo and everything.

Well, after I reported that to some of my geeky friends, they just went off about those amazing old input devices:

Aw, dude, I've got them stockpiled. You shoulda let me know you wanted one...

At any moment in time I usually have at least 4 or 5 of them. I never let my personal stash go below 3 (which is what I figure a good number is for if I never found another one in my life and wanted these to last the rest of same lifetime).

...and...

Yup I have three of them now, one for work one for home and one backup.

...and...

I remember my first IBM 101, ahhh yes. Using it right now as a matter of fact.

I have 4 in my possession, at least 3 of which I use regularly.

Took one to work, got some funny looks pitching up to my first day of work with a keyboard under my arm. But I've never had much use for that stupid windoze button and it only ever gets int he way when you're gamming.

...and, the best one...

Oh YEAH baby! There are very few bits of computer gear that really make me happy. I like computers just fine when they work, but good stuff costs money, and there is no piece of geek crap that excites me in the abstract. When I can actually afford it, and when it actually works the way it's supposed to, then sometimes I get excited about some new thing that I got, and the excitement usually lasts for a bit less time than when I get a new knife for my kitchen. Most of the time, there is nothing other than numbers to show me the improvement between one computer thing and another—I get no jollies out of knowing that one piece of hardware I don't have theoretically works some order of magnitude better than another.

Now, if we were talking fountain pens or guitars or cables or amps or effects pedals...

So in light of all my little shortcomings as a geek, it means a lot when I say that this is one piece of gear that does it for me. These keyboards feed the big dog, man. They feel great, I type faster on them than anything else I have ever used, and they take a serious beating. And no bullshit MS marketing buttons to get in the way. I used the same IBM 101 for I dunno, a couple of years at [an old employer]. When I left, I bought the company an expensive current model IBM keyboard for about 85 bux in exchange for keeping the old one. [...]

I used the IBM for three more years or so, until I dumped a latte into it. I still have it in a box, because, even though I tried twice, I am still SURE I can clean it enough to convince it to stop making "q" and "w" and "e" at the same time.

I also bought a refurb IBM to replace my old one—actually, I bought three for $14.95 each. I gave one to [the first guy who replied], another rabid fan of the mighty 101, and the guy who got me onto one in the first place, and one sits in a box in Vancouver, somewhere, I think. Even though these things DO NOT seem to wear out, and I don't really need one right now, and I don't really have any money, I am still sorely tempted to get another, just in case.

But I just got offered a really good deal on a Boss FT-2, see, and even though I'm not doing too much playing right now...

You know, I'd recommend that everyone get one of these keyboards, and get free of crap little membrane boards and those completely annoying bullshit Winders marketing keys, but the increased demand might make it harder for me to get them later. So I think everyone should go out right now and get a real nice Lite-on or Logitech wireless board or something, with lots of lights and them buttons that automatically connect you to the AOL and the MSN...

And real high bus speed—make sure it's got a real high bus speed. You'll need that.

Don't get between a nerd and his keyboard, man.

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Thursday, May 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:37:00 PM:

Getting a second date

If you are a straight man and, unlike me, have not yet found a wonderful woman to spend the rest of your life with, and if you are actually interested in dating women more than once apiece, then you can certainly do worse than to read the Redhead's ten questions for a first date (never been there before, it was via Dave Winer).

Answer them honestly. If your answers are wrong for the Redhead, ask yourself whether the women for whom your answers would work are the kinds of women you would like to know and love. If not, ask yourself how you might change those answers you're able to.

Heck, you could at least shower more often and eat some vegetables.

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# 11:56:00 AM:

Leeway is the norm

As Doc Searls notes, David Weinberger makes the best argument against digital copy prevention and "rights management" I've yet found. The crux:

[...] the fact that sometimes we resort to rules shouldn't lead us to think that they are the norm. In fact, leeway is the default and rules are the exception.

Fairness means knowing when to make exceptions. After all, applying rules equally is easy. Any bureaucrat can do it. It's far harder to know when to bend or even ignore the rules. That requires being sensitive to individual needs, understanding the larger context, balancing competing values, and forgiving transgressions when appropriate.

[...] What we really need is to recognize that the world—online and off—is necessarily imperfect, and that it's important it stay that way.

The best explanatory writing uses analogies well. Dr. Weinberger uses excellent ones to make his point clear.

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# 11:36:00 AM:

Thank you thank you thank you...

...thank you, Scott Rosenberg, for finding out that some companies still make clackety keyboards like the old IBM PC had.

If the one on my PC starts to give out, I'll probably pay the premium for one of the classics as a replacement.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:11:00 PM:

The shivers

The Cold War may be over, but photos of nuclear tests (via Barclay) still give me the heebie-jeebies.

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Monday, May 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:26:00 PM:

Busy boy

You would think that writing technical manuals would be boring. Most of the time I think so too, except when I'm actually doing it, when the challenge of explaining complex things clearly gives me joy. I guess that's why I do it. And I have been doing it all week, which is why I've hardly written anything here.

Something else I did was play a show for a group of 75 or so periodontists with my band, The Neurotics. Both of our usual bass players were unavailable, so we recruited Doug Elliott (a.k.a. Don G. Swinger). Fifteen years ago, he was in the Dawn Patrol, the house band at The Roxy here in Vancouver that inspired me to get into playing music in the first place. Later that band turned into The Odds, one of my favourite groups. It was fun to play a gig with him. He even had his own wig.

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Thursday, May 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:49:00 AM:

Why simpler is better

A few weeks ago Web usability heavyweight Jakob Nielsen made a great, concise argument for more simple text material and less flashy multimedia on Web sites. It's well worth a read.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:18:00 PM:

Dr. Ralph Hislop's CLHIA Claims Division presentation

If you attended today's Hotel Vancouver talk about dental technology by my father-in-law, Dr. Ralph Hislop, who does work for the Maritime Life insurance company, you can find his slides and list of links here.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:48:00 AM:

Stripey sibling spouses

We've got a whole lotta hype going on about the White Stripes lately. I thought it was interesting, read a few articles, the usual. With all the obsession about their white-and-red image, their mysterious sibling-or-spouse relationship, and their minimalist recording techniques, it seemed to me that they were more style than substance.

But that song "Seven Nation Army" kicks butt. Finally, a heavy-rock pop song that doesn't sound like warmed-over Green Day. If you like it too, you might try harking back to "Suffer Never," a track from the Finn Brothers' 1995 album, which has a similar feel, and was also recorded by only two people—Neil and Tim Finn, who really are siblings.

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Friday, May 02, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:09:00 AM:

Midrange digicam recommendations for May 2003

I've given a few overviews of good values in digital cameras since I started looking into the subject last year. Here's my latest, precipitated by a question from a friend of mine currently living in the U.S., who noted that his wife...

...needs to buy a digital camera for her department here at the Uni. Budget is $300 USD, tax in, so we are looking in the $260-$275 range.

Of course, it depends on how they want to use it. Generally, you can't go wrong with a Canon model (while I don't own one personally, I'd buy one now with their current lineup).

Look for a 3-megapixel model with a proper optical zoom (3x or greater), like my top current choice in that price range, the Canon PowerShot A70. If they're likely to need a good macro (closeup) mode, Nikon is known for theirs. The Coolpix 3100 is a decent bet.

If a wide optical zoom range (i.e. distance shooting) is a big deal, look for the older but still sold Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom. For simplicity, the Kodak EasyShare models like the DX4330 are good, but beware of having to pay extra for the dock. If you don't mind Memory Stick storage, Sony has a number of quality models like the Cyber-Shot P72.

If they need a small camera, the Pentax Optio 330GS is swell.

Again, I'd recommend the Canon A70 as the best all-around camera—it also has the bonus of using CompactFlash storage (the most flexible and cheapest) and regular AA-size batteries (but get NiMH rechargeables right away!). I would suggest the PowerShot S230 (or S400) Digital Elph models as nice micro-size cameras, but they're out of the price range.

No matter what the department buys, budget for a bigger memory card. None of the stock ones are big enough, and a 128 MB card is pretty cheap these days.

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Thursday, May 01, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:19:00 AM:

The IE Mac "Accessing URL:" bug that won't go away

Since its release several years ago, Internet Explorer 5 for Mac has had one really annoying bug. This one:

[Attempt to access 'Accessing URL...' has failed]

What's happening here is that the URL, the Web address http://www.scripting.com/ is being hijacked by IE and somehow turned into Accessing URL: http://www.scripting.com/, with the whole "Accessing URL:" bit added on as part of the address. I don't know why this happens, but of course it fails, because there is no such kind of Web address.

Reloading or re-clicking doesn't help. You can either try another way of entering the address (without the www, for instance), or quit and relaunch Internet Explorer. It happens at random times to all sorts of Web addresses, but several times a day to me when I have to use IE. I reported this bug to Microsoft, and on discussion boards and mailing lists, back in 2000, when IE was at version 5.0. Now it's at 5.1.4 (and holding) on Mac OS 9, and beyond 5.2 on OS X.

The bug has not been fixed. Any wonder I switched to Safari on OS X, or that Apple had to build themselves a new browser in the first place?

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