Journal: News & Comment

This is " July 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.

Thursday, July 31, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:45:00 PM:

Why legal spam would still be a problem

David Pogue of the New York Times identifies this week why proposals by direct marketing associations to permit unsolicited commercial e-mail messages (what most of us call spam)—but only when they don't have forged return addresses and actually allow you to opt out of mailings—still won't work (free registration required). He writes:

[Bob Wientzen, chief executive of the U.S. Direct Marketing Association] had actually budged my thinking. Maybe his system would work. I could live, I thought, with one—only one—unsolicited message from a company, if it had a legitimate return address and a foolproof opt-out link.

But the next day, I read an article in an MIT journal that pointed out that there are 24 million small businesses in the United States. If only 1 percent of them send you only one e-mail message each year, you'll be deleting, and opting out of, 662 little apple bites a day.

Unlike unsolicited telephone calls and postal mail—which many people also find annoying—e-mail is ridiculously cheap to send, and the more you send the cheaper it gets, until the unit cost of e-mailing millions of people is close to zero. But the costs of dealing with incoming spam don't scale so neatly. So, if they can, many marketers will send unsolicited e-mails to as many addresses as possible, regardless of the response rate, while the people at the other end of the firehose—ISPs, e-mail providers, receiving companies, and individual e-mail users—pay the costs in wasted time, effort, and computer resources.

The same is not true of more traditional marketing messages. That's why spam is growing at such an alarming rate, and why, even when it is not misleading, offensive, or fraudulent, it's so annoying.

I also have to wonder: since e-mail doesn't care about national boundaries, how many small businesses are there worldwide?


Wednesday, July 30, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:29:00 AM:

Recommendations for flat-panel monitors

I don't actually own a flat-panel LCD display for my computer, but I've been looking at what's available because people occasionally ask me about them, after I wrote an article on the subject (based on my journal posting) late last year.

Things are now at the point where I would recommend a flat-panel display over a traditional picture tube for almost anyone who doesn't regularly require different screen resolutions or isn't doing super–colour-critical work.

Things always get cheaper, of course. These days I'd recommend spending $600-750 (Canadian) for a 17" flat-panel display with 1280x1024 or 1280x960 pixel resolution, rather than a 15" at 1024x768 (and $350-500).

A 20" or bigger LCD screen with 1600x1200 resolution would of course be lovely, but that's getting into the $1000+ range. If you're spending that kind of money, you have probably done more research than I have. (As I said, I still use old-style picture tubes myself right now.)

There are some very detailed reviews of LCD flat panel displays at Tom's Hardware, particularly here and here.

Hitachi, Iiyama, Samsung, Sony, NEC-Mitsubishi, Proview, ViewSonic, Planar, Sharp, and Apple (only for Macs) all make top-quality displays, but most also have a range of models with varying quality and features. Try to examine the exact display you will be buying, so that you can look for dead pixels, a problem unique to LCDs.

Chances are your current computer will plug into an "analog" or "analog/digital" LCD, but "digital-only" displays might require a new video card, so that's worth keeping in mind.

If you have a limited budget, 15" models can be had in the $350-500 range (Canadian), maybe less if you're lucky. But don't shop rock-bottom; your eyes will suffer accordingly. If you don't mind the heat, power consumption, and loss of desk space, it would be better to spend less money on a traditional 17" CRT (picture tube) if that's all you can afford.

As for simple recommendations for particular current models, the Samsung SyncMaster 171N seems to be a good 17" model right now, according to PC Magazine, as does the Sharp LL-T17A3. Their recommendations for 15" panels (with the Planar PL150M and Sharp LL-T15G3 coming out on top) are here.

That gives you four good choices to examine.


Tuesday, July 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:13:00 PM:


How long does it take to rip a CD collection to MP3s? Back in October I thought it might take a couple of weeks to digitize mine. I just finished—nine months later.


Monday, July 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:09:00 PM:

Anatomy of an attempted PayPal scam

Yesterday I received my nastiest-ever piece of spam e-mail. No, it wasn't pornographic, or offering to enlarge anything—I've been on the lookout for PayPal scams, since I've seen reports of them, and this was my first. A doozy.

My spam filter nabbed it (good catch!), so I only noticed it when I was skimming for legitimate e-mail that mistakenly got tagged. It is an HTML form sent in e-mail, disguised to look like it's legitimately from PayPal... [read more...]


Sunday, July 27, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:24:00 AM:


Christopher Lydon has been interviewing prominent people in the weblogging world. All have been men, so far. Some obvious suggestions for women: Meg Hourihan and Mena Trott.


Friday, July 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:46:00 PM:

Many fewer

The coursework for my degree in marine biology taught me that we know very little about the sea, especially the life in it. Giant squid and fish populations are two things we understand poorly.

Now we can add the number of whales. It turns out that whalers may have killed 15 times as many whales since the 1700s as we believed, and thus that many now-small populations of whales represent much more drastic decimations than we thought.

Sometimes it does seem that humans are a virulent virus in the ecosystem.


# 11:18:00 AM:

Careful what you wish for

Bill found Jetable, a neat service that generates a disposable e-mail address, which points to your real e-mail address for a short time (up to 24 hours), then expires.

That's useful for all those sites that want you to have a real e-mail address in order to sign up for a service, but which you might be worried about if they sell your address to other companies or spammers. However, there are two situations to watch out for:

  1. Sites where you're subscribing to an e-mail list. Obviously, you want a real address for that to go to.

  2. Sites that send a new password to the entered e-mail address if you forget your old one. If you're prone to forgetting your passwords, make sure you won't need this feature, or don't mind signing up all over again with a new ID.

Otherwise, Jetable looks pretty spiffy.

UPDATE: Fazal Majid noted another service that can avoid the second problem:

In a similar vein, try If you have some uniform convention like "the email address I will use for will always be", it's not hard to remember for lost passwords.

I've also added Fazal to my link list (on the right side of the page)—his low-intensity weblog is just that, and useful too.


Thursday, July 24, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:51:00 AM:

No one, everyone, anyone

Doc Searls has a wonderful long article at Linux Journal that pinpoints where we are in the evolution of the Internet. An excerpt:

The Net's problem, from [the telecommunications and cable companies'] perspective, is it was born without a business model. Its standards and protocols imagine no coercive regime to require payment—no metering, no service levels, no charges for levels of bandwidth. Worse, it was designed as an end-to-end system, where all the power to create, distribute and consume are located at the ends of the system and not in the middle. [...] The Net's end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible.

The article, like most, has a U.S. focus, but its ideas reach internationally, and they're worth reading and thinking about. Doc's basic point: the Internet is an environment, a place for markets of all kinds (monetary and not) to form, and not, in itself, property that should be owned or sold. Turning it into property will kill it.


Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:55:00 PM:

Fighting the bad

Let's say you were a B.C. resident interested in buying some outdoor clothing. Go visit the sites for Westbeach and Mountain Equipment Co-op. Which firm would you buy from? The one whose new website is "under construction" and won't be online until August 15, or the one with a vast and useful site that's always available?

Why on earth would anyone take a site offline while they built a new one, and replace it with a Flash-based page where you can't click on anything? There's not even an e-mail address!


Speaking of B.C.-based businesses, ActiveState has a useful field guide to spammers' e-mail tricks.


And while we're discussing tricks, here is some high-voltage advice on how to disable RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, tiny tracking chips that are beginning to be placed in retail packaging, clothing, and other items.


Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:39:00 PM:


I should change my passwords periodically, and today I decided to do that. Now I realize how many of the damn things I have: computer passwords, screensaver passwords, instant messaging passwords, website passwords, server passwords, e-mail passwords, online banking passwords, and on and on.

I'd better make sure someone can figure them out if anything happens to me.


Monday, July 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:52:00 PM:

All in the execution

Steve Wozniak is an undisputed genius of electronic engineering, but he hasn't built anything with a high public profile since the Apple II—which he engineered pretty much entirely by himself. Now his company is building private digital ID tags.

The idea has been around a long time: a way to track your belongings, pets, and even kids (or spouse?) wirelessly as they roam around the neighbourhood. But making it happen usefully takes a lot of creative detail work. If anyone is up to that, it would seem to be Woz. We'll see.


Sunday, July 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:48:00 PM:

Change on the counter

Bill points to a posting from Jason Kottke, about making a business more efficient by trusting your customers:

...when you get down to it, you can't market needs to be earned. People trust you when you trust them.

Radical ideas, man.


Friday, July 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:57:00 PM:

I bet you did not know...

...that there is a specific device, a tool, which physicians use to remove small foreign objects that are stuck in a person's nose. However, doctors have also been known to use Krazy Glue on the end of a stick if necessary.


Thursday, July 17, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:12:00 AM:

Complaining in the wrong direction

Complaints about websites that don't work with web browsers other than Internet Explorer on Windows are worthwhile making—being able to use complex websites with other browsers, such as Safari on the Mac, is of key importance to the viability of anything other than IE and Windows. But many of us are complaining in the wrong direction: to Apple and other browser makers, not to website developers, who are often largely to blame.

The problem is one of poor programming on the websites, and is not generally something Apple (or any other browser maker) can do much about. For instance, the real estate agent above writes:

Spoofing, i.e. causing your browser to pretend to be MSIE 6.0 for Windows accomplishes nothing at all. You may very well be able to log in, set up searches, but in an increasing number of cases, no data will be returned.

There is no legitimate technical reason why this should be the case. The beauty of the Web is that it's based on open standards that anyone can support. If we as customers allow websites providing us with services to "get by" with narrow browser support that only works on certain platforms, that spells the long-term death of the Web as a useful medium, and makes life difficult for users and developers.

There's been a good discussion recently on the topic from developers Tim Bray and Dave Winer:

A key excerpt:

[...] all application interfaces used to be "richer environments," and the users abandoned them by the millions, in favor of the browser, the moment they got a chance [...] It was so wonderful when the browser interfaces came on; the vendors had to discard all those stupid sliders and cascaded menus and eight-way toggles, and only leave the stuff that mattered.

The simplicity and compatibility of the Web is why it's been a success. Apple is doing a good job (though of course there is room for improvement) in making Safari an excellent Internet-friendly browser, handling HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, and other standards, and it is perfectly possible to write good web-based applications using those standards.

However, programmers for some sites in real estate, online banking, and many other industries continue to assume that IE Windows is all anyone uses, and they program and test only on that combination. That's dangerous for them, though: what are they going to do when increasing numbers of their users demand access using wireless PDAs or cell phones, or any of the increasing variety of other web-enabled devices that aren't desktop or laptop PCs running Windows? Never mind Macs!

We cannot expect Apple (or open-source programmers) to make Safari (or Mozilla) behave like Windows IE for websites that code only for that browser. That's like asking Apple and open-source developers to make the Mac OS and Linux just like Windows, so all Windows programs will run on them. A nice idea in the abstract, perhaps, but pointless and impossible in real life. And Windows IE is a moving target anyway, with the way it works changing with each revision, and sometimes each service pack.

Here's another way to look at it: if Microsoft itself can't make IE for Mac support some websites that have been programmed to work only with IE for Windows, how can we expect anyone else to do so?

What all savvy Web users—whether on Mac, Windows, Linux, Palm, Symbian, or some other platform—need to do is prod developers of both browsers and websites to support Internet standards, since in the end it will be easier for developers and users to make things work that way.

If browsers and sites both support standards properly, most applications will Just Work. And if one doesn't, the solution is to make either the browser or the application support the standards better, not to play whack-a-mole with each other trying to match features.

It's no longer good enough for a website team to eschew standards and develop for Windows IE, and only then try to shoehorn the code into working with Netscape, or Mozilla, or OmniWeb, or Safari, or iCab, or your cell phone. Nor should browser developers try to follow every bob and weave (and bug!) in the current feature set of Windows IE. They'll all be chasing their tails forever. I know: I worked on websites at the height of the browser wars in the late '90s, and it was neither fun nor pretty to try to get a site to work in just two browsers, never mind five or seven or twenty.

For example, if your bank as an online service that only works on Internet Explorer under Windows, tell them that the site isn't standards-compliant and you'd like to be able to use it with another browser. If they refuse, you can tell them it's not that hard to switch banks—because if you're a Mac user, your bank is, in effect, telling you to go spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a new computer just to manage your own money.

I'm not saying Apple has no work to do on Safari, for instance—its standards support and feature set are far from perfect. But we need to complain about the right things to the right people.


Wednesday, July 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:02:00 PM:

Destroying credit cards made easy

When you get a replacement credit card or cancel one, how do you destroy the old one reasonably securely? Here are two tips:

  • I cut the card into strips, which both separate the card number into chunks and excise it from the expiration date. Then I distribute the bits to various garbage cans around the house, which each get emptied at different times, making it unlikely that the fragments would end up in the same curb can, or even get collected on the same garbage day.

  • My wife has a much simpler method, learned from her dad: she melts the bits of the old card in the fireplace.


Tuesday, July 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:51:00 PM:

Two questions for discussion

  1. If you simply listen to the White Stripes' latest album, Elephant (or their previous three)—as I've been enjoying doing for the past couple of days—it's clear that they're a classic-rock band. A very good one. "Ball and Biscuit," for instance, channels Led Zeppelin heavy blues circa 1970. Any number of their other tunes show influences from the Kinks ("Fell in Love With a Girl") and sixties garage bands through Black Sabbath ("Black Math"). Jack White's many guitar solos are steeped in Jimmy Page and David Gilmour, just like any number of classic-rock-inspired acts from the Black Crowes to Big Sugar. So, my question: why exactly is it that the White Stripes are considered an "alternative" band?

  2. On a typical website that uses Flash animation, do you think that Skip Intro gets clicked more than all other links combined?


Sunday, July 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:08:00 PM:

Buddabudda buddabudda...

In my band, one of the silly stunts we do is to have me play one of the drum solos for "Wipe Out" on our guitarist's fretboard. Now we finally have a photo of the event, as well as what happens next.


Friday, July 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:41:00 PM:

A feature they forgot to add

It's sad that after two decades of development, Microsoft has been unable to provide a simple Word feature to remedy this error I received this morning:

[ERROR: Word cannot edit the Unknown]

Then again, I guess it is a pretty big philosophical problem to solve.


Wednesday, July 09, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:19:00 PM:

No need, good sir

In my keyboard posting a couple of days ago, I was going to mention that good keyboards (like Apple's) make changing key layouts easy by having all the keys be the same height. I didn't, for two reasons:

  1. Most people, like me, don't reorganize their keys into alternate layouts, such as the more-efficient Dvorak arrangement.

  2. I figured Ryan would do it.

Oh, and I had to move the Apple Pro Keyboard upstairs to the PC in the den, because the wonderful IBM 101 was so loud that my five-year-old complained whenever I used it while she was trying to watch TV.


Tuesday, July 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:46:00 PM:

Pleasure and guilt

How many of us parents, I wonder, go shopping at Ikea in large part because we can drop our kids off in the play zone and have an hour to ourselves?


# 8:09:00 AM:

My favourite keyboards

Like some others, and as someone who types for a living, I have a thing for good computer keyboards. I own a stack of them, with several available for each computer I have. Sometimes I even have more than one plugged into a single machine at a time.

Here are my nominees for the best keyboards, new and old, you can buy for your Mac or PC:

  1. Apple Pro Keyboard - Available in black or white, the Pro Keyboard replaced the small original 1998-era iMac keyboard—which many people hated (mostly because of the mouse it came with), but which I found quite adequate—in 2000. For the most part, the Pro Keyboard won everyone back, in part because of its lovely, heavy, butter-smooth transparent housing (which does, unfortunately, show trapped dust, crumbs, and hair rather nastily), but largely because it's so nice to type on.

    The keys are unusually wide and subtly curved, with a meaty feel despite their relatively short throw, which has a good snap to it, even if it's not noisy. The Pro can also lie very flat, which I find ergonomically better than the raised-back design of most traditional computer keyboards. I initially disliked the Pro Keyboard, at least compared to its predecessor the Extended II (see below), but now I prefer it to any other one I own. Luckily, Apple ships this keyboard with every computer it makes these days. Since it uses a USB (Universal Serial Bus) plug, you can connect it to a newer Windows or Linux PC too if you like.

  2. IBM 101 or equivalent - The original 1981 IBM PC came with a metal-cased, indestructible monster of a keyboard. IBM continued to make solid, heavy, loud clackety keyboards using the same "buckling-spring" design (though with heavy plastic housings instead) well into the 1990s, but they weren't easy to find.

    I have one in the den hooked up to our Windows machine. The keys are tall and quite tapered—rather different from the Apple Pro Keyboard—but they click so solidly that your typing blazes away effortlessly. They're especially good for "pound-the-keys" typists, or anyone who learned on a Selectric typewriter. Now that IBM no longer makes them (shame!), other companies carry the 101 torch. If you have a PC, can find one of these beauties, and don't have office- or housemates who hate the racket, get yourself one of these suckers. You won't be sorry.

    UPDATE May 2004: It is possible to hook up an IBM 101 (or other Windows keyboard ) to a Mac with a simple PS/2 to USB adapter (widely available at computer stores) and free uControl software to remap the keys. I may try this sometime.

  3. Apple Extended Keyboard II - Like the original IBM 101, a classic. Using it with a newer USB-based Mac requires an adapter for the ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) connector. The original Extended Keyboard is very similar and just as nice (some say better), but much harder to find. Extended IIs are plentiful and cheap used (as low as $15 in good shape), and like their aircraft-carrier nickname, "Nimitz," they're wide and hefty. The keys have a feel somewhere between the Pro and the 101, with a solid click but not the thwack of the IBM. I have several Extended IIs, but have only used one regularly, since they never seem to wear out.

  4. Fujitsu PC-AT Keyboard - If you want an IBM 101 but your spouse or coworkers won't tolerate the wacka-wacka din, hunt around for an older Fujitsu extended keyboard. They're quite nice, and fairly quiet too. I used one for years at my old employer's office, and moved it from computer to computer as I got upgraded. I wouldn't let the company foist any other mushy keyboard on me. Too bad I had to leave it behind when I got laid off.

  5. Apple Standard Keyboard (a.k.a. Apple Keyboard or Apple Keyboard I) - Built like the Extended and Extended II keyboards, with the same lovely keycaps and mechanisms, but without all the extra keys, and so much better for smaller desk surfaces. I treasure the one I have, and use it as an external keyboard for my PowerBook.

  6. Apple IIgs Keyboard - Yes, it plugs into ADB Macs too, and it's beautiful in its minimalism. The keys are strange, with a ridged edge. They have a satisfying short-throw click. The housing forms almost no border around the keys at all, so the keyboard is tiny yet easy to type on. If only Apple had been brave enough to release the original "Cassie" prototype on which the IIgs keyboard was based.

The old Macintosh and Macintosh Plus keyboards were also wonderful, but they won't plug into anything built after 1987 or so, and thus they aren't viable today.

No, I don't think all Apple keyboards are great. The AppleDesign model was a mediocre, middle-of-the-road mushpad, as was the Apple Keyboard II, of which I've inherited a few. The original USB iMac keyboard I mentioned was a direct descendant of the Keyboard II, i.e. nothing special. I own an Apple Adjustable Keyboard, and it sucks. The keyboards IBM provides with its current PCs are fine, but that's all. Fujitsu still seems to be making their good models.

Most keyboards you can buy, regardless of their spiffy features, are merely tolerable to type on. If you type a lot and want a real typing tool, try one of the models above.


Monday, July 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:21:00 PM:

Head them off at the pass

Dave Winer, founder of UserLand Software and now a fellow at Harvard, has been in a big argument with the other developers of weblog tools, mostly about obscure technical stuff like syndication formats and programming interfaces. Many people find him hard to work with.

But he has a big fat good point about current blogging tool developers—they need to get together to prevent being devoured by Google or AOL, something that would inevitably be bad for webloggers all around, me included.


Sunday, July 06, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:55:00 AM:

Long reading

I've posted a preliminary index of long articles available on this site, dating back as far as 1993. The newest one is a set of etiquette gidelines for e-mail, which I wrote this morning.


Saturday, July 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:15:00 PM:

Free washer and dryer available in Vancouver

We've bought ourselves a new washer and dryer. They arrive next weekend (11 July 2003). Our old clothes washer works fine. The dryer is occasionally flaky, in that it requires some cajoling to get the heating element to turn on sometimes, but it also works reasonably well. Each is more than a decade old.

If you live in the Vancouver area, need one or both of these appliances, and have a way to haul 'em away, let me know. They're yours.

If we don't hear from anyone by Monday 14 July, the city gets to recycle them.


Friday, July 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:57:00 PM:

Trogdor the Burninator

That's it. I hereby revoke all advice I've ever given about building websites. This is all you need to know. (Flash required.)


Thursday, July 03, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:25:00 PM:

Going up

As I predicted, the rate of spam being trapped by my filter has gone up. In one month, it's increased from 4.33 spams per hour (my average on 1 June 2003) to 6.1 per hour (my average 3 July 2003). So I can now expect at least 53,000 spams in the next year.

Or, distressingly, likely more.


Wednesday, July 02, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:42:00 AM:

Being selfish

Okay, first, my article about digital firewalls and other Internet protection measures has finally appeared as the first feature in the Summer 2003 issue of D-Link's LINK magazine. I wrote it months ago, so it's a tad out of date, but it still might be a worthwhile read.

Second, I fully expect the 2010 Winter Olympics here in Vancouver to cost money in the end, probably a fair bit of it. Claims of balanced budgets for megaprojects rarely pan out. (One key thing about the bid process that bothered me was the claim for no net cost. Come on! How much better PR it would be to say, yeah, it's gonna cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and then be amazed and pleased if it does break even.)

There are logical reasons, therefore, to think that having the Games here is a bad idea. There are other logical reasons to claim that some things should cost money.

Yet I'm throwing logic out the window in either case. The Winter Olympics are pretty much the only sporting event I enjoy watching. I avoid hockey, baseball, football, soccer, and all the other big-league sports. I think the Summer Olympics, and even Olympic hockey and figure skating, are just okay.

But I love events where people hurtle down snowy slopes or around frozen tracks, racing, in essence, more against themselves and the clock than any other individual or team. Anyone who dedicates his or her youth to learning skeleton or biathlon—both profoundly difficult endeavours, despite their obscurity—isn't in it for the money, that's for sure.

I loved the Winter Olympics for a long time, but when my first daughter was born during the 1998 Nagano games, the same day that Canadian Catriona La May Doan won the women's speed skating gold, well, that clinched it.

I just hope we can afford tickets.


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