Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: August 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.

Saturday, August 30, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:33:00 PM:

Recycling

I've updated my list of longer site articles with a few more pieces I'd originally written for other publications. Each provides the full text and also points to the original site, when available.

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# 6:31:00 PM:

E-mail should work

You've probably been affected by one of the spate of recent e-mail worms out there on the Internet, even if just by receiving false bounces to e-mail apparently sent by you, but actually sent by a worm program masquerading as your e-mail address. The worms and viruses propagate largely because of the near-monoculture of Microsoft Outlook and Exchange in corporate e-mail. Many people seem to think That's Just the Way It Is.

John Gruber (thanks to Bill from Navarik for the link) eviscerates that idea in two excellent articles—some of the best analysis of the subject I've read. He finishes them like this:

Complexity is not an excuse for low expectations. We've strapped men into giant rockets loaded with jet fuel, propelled them into space, and landed them on the moon. That was complicated. And our expectation was that we'd get them back.

Why we don't expect our email to work is beyond me.

My e-mail does work, but I'm flooded with crap from people whose e-mail doesn't work. As Gruber says, we need to raise our expectations:

Imagine if the plumbing in corporate America worked with the same degree of reliability as their computer infrastructure. This would mean that individual sinks, urinals, and toilets would go out of order on a regular basis. Water from drinking fountains would turn brown, but, hey, that's just how it is. Every few weeks, teenage pranksters from Hong Kong would overflow every toilet in the building, knocking them out of commission.

In response to these problems, large companies would have large in-house plumbing staffs, led by a CPO (chief plumbing officer) reporting directly to the CEO.

[...]

Forget the plumbing analogy if you want. Let's talk telephones. Would anyone tolerate a corporate phone system that exhibited similar vulnerabilities? Say, by placing tens of thousands of automated calls, non-stop, at all hours of the day, to your company's customers and suppliers? No, of course not. Such a phone system would be thrown out tomorrow—even if it were conveniently tied to your company's shared calendaring system.

Yet most of us blunder along. It's pathetic, actually.

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# 5:39:00 PM:

Perfect pepperoni

Me-n-Ed's Pizza Parlor here in my home town of Burnaby, B.C. served me the first pizza I ever ate. In the intervening thirty years or so, I've tried pizza all over this city, across Canada, and even in New York and Italy. Me-n-Ed's still beats them.

If you get a chance, try the Me-n-Ed's pepperoni (on sale Mondays), with mushrooms and green pepper if you like. I'm not sure who makes the sausage for them, but it's excellent, and when baked in the custom Me-n-Ed's oven, the thin quarter-size slices crisp up and curl slightly at the edges. The crust is thin, yet light and crispy. The combination is nearly magical.

The website is simple, but highly informative too. And I'm eating some of that pepperoni pizza right now. Mmmm.

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Friday, August 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:33:00 PM:

Word(s) get(s) in the way

David Pogue of the New York Times suggests some simplifications for Microsoft Office—good ones that Microsoft is, unfortunately, unlikely to heed.

I write for a living, and I've noted here before that, even so, I generally avoid Microsoft Word unless someone sends me a file already in that format. It's not out of anti-Microsoft sentiment (though I have that): I paid for a full version of Office v.X for the Mac so I can share material with others. But I don't write using Word because its many bugs and unhelpful features mean that it gets in the way.

For most of the work I do, Word 5.1a with the addition of later versions' live spell-checking (with the squiggly red underlines) would do the trick nicely. Even better is something like the new Nisus Writer Express for Mac OS X, which saves in Microsoft's open-specification Rich Text Format (RTF) and otherwise does its best to let you write without impediment. If you need more complicated formatting or layout, consider Adobe InDesign or maybe FrameMaker instead.

The point remains that Word, targeted at such a wide swath of users that is dominated by day-to-day business publishing, can be a significant impediment to people who actually need to write a lot of words in a day. Which is sad.

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Thursday, August 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:15:00 PM:

Office on the beach

Kitsilano Beach is probably Vancouver's most famous. It's just south of downtown, on the opposite shore of English Bay, and on hot summer days hosts thousands of suntanners, swimmers, volleyball players, windsurfers, and wet dogs.

It was not, however, where I expected to be invited to see a high-tech publicity stunt. The e-mail called it "office on the beach," featuring wireless Internet and telephone services based on Internet Protocol (IP), also called Voice Over IP (VoIP).

I wasn't sure what to expect yesterday afternoon. A full-size office desk with green banker's lamp, desktop PC, phone, and suit-and-tie worker typing away from an executive chair on the sand? A small cubicle farm with Dilbert comics on the walls? Not quite.

[Read more...]

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# 11:58:00 AM:

Big browser battle

In case you didn't know, there are at least nine different web browser programs available for the Mac. Here's a good overview of their merits and problems.

Oh, and Tofu is quite a neat text-reader program, which formats any text or RTF file into multiple narrow columns across the screen, rather than one big column that scrolls down.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:16:00 PM:

Good vs. bad music

Point well made:

...most people we know who call themselves "audiophiles" (more accurate description: audio snobs) are people who are so fixated on sound quality and trying to define that quality that they forget to listen to the music... And the main reason why we're music lovers and not "audiophiles" is this: Peter Gabriel will kick booty on a mono radio AM station that's almost out of station range. Michael Bolton will still suck on a $50,000 state-of-the-art stereo system. When it comes to music, that's all you really need to know.

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Monday, August 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:44:00 PM:

Usability and how to test it

Eight years after he started writing his online Alertbox column on the subject, Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen has finally written a concise description of what Web usability is and how to test it.

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Saturday, August 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:34:00 PM:

Best (well, okay, my favourite) headphone albums

Time for my own list. Now that I've had a few days to reacquaint myself with music through headphones, I recall that there are two types of albums that really benefit from that type of listening: spacey and intimate. Here are my top picks:

[Moved to its own article page in February 2004.]

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Thursday, August 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:47:00 PM:

Triple J's musical lists

Australia's Triple J radio has some great online lists. I've linked to a couple before, but my new discoveries include greatest cover versions, days of the week songs, autoerotic tunes, greatest guitarists, Jesus songs, and some one-hit wonders of the '80s.

Like, totally.

Oh, and I discovered tonight that if you let two preschoolers make their own dinner when they ask, they're likely to whip up a plate of peanut butter and Cheez Wiz sandwiches. Yum.

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# 3:12:00 PM:

Super-basic posting, and making Lynx work on Mac OS X

I've just discovered that Blogger lets me post to this journal using the text-only Unix Lynx web browser. Pretty neat.

Here's what it looks like:

[Blogger lo-fi in Lynx]

You can download a Mac OS X version of Lynx from OSXGNU, but on my system to make it work I had to run the installer, then go into the Mac OS X Terminal and type:

set path = ($path /usr/local/bin)

which I found on an errata page at the O'Reilly site. After that, typing lynx in the Terminal command line just works.

I promise my next post will not be about computers. Really.

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# 10:58:00 AM:

HTML to PDF, with clickable links

Here's a cool Mac OS X tip on converting web pages to Acrobat PDF files with clickable links in them, using a command-line command in the Terminal.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:53:00 PM:

Fitting iTunes smart playlists onto a small MP3 player


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As of yesterday, my lovely wife and I have been married eight years. She knows me well enough to have bought me an MP3 player as a gift for the occasion. (No, we couldn't afford an iPod.)

The RCA Lyra 1021A has 64 MB of onboard memory and a slot for Secure Digital/Multimedia Card (SD/MMC) memory chips—the same kind used by my digital camera. Until I pick up another memory card, I have 80 MB in there with the spare 16 MB MMC chip I have kicking around. That's enough room for 13 to 18 stereo MP3s, or more than 30 in mono. Because it uses both internal memory and a separate card, the Lyra shows up as two disks on the desktop when plugged into my Mac: one slightly over 60 MB (there's some overhead in that 64 MB, I guess), and another just under 16 MB. I need to create separate groups of songs to fit on each, although the Lyra treats them as one long list of songs once it's unplugged.

Using smart playlists

Apple's iTunes makes it easy to build playlists to fit. I simply chose File > New Smart Playlist and created a list that's limited to the size of my player's storage, doesn't include "Spoken" in its genre (so I don't get spoken-word stuff accidentally), and is otherwise picked randomly from the 6400 MP3s in my collection. I make one playlist less than 60 MB, and another less than 15 MB.

It took a bit of guessing to figure out how to get iTunes to change those playlists—they persist with the same songs even if I restart my computer. But it's quite simple: select one, or more, or all the songs in the playlist and delete them (Command-Delete). iTunes replaces them with freshly-picked tracks to fit. Cool.

Moving tracks to the MP3 player

Once the Lyra is hooked up with its included USB cable, I just drag the playlists (or individual tracks, if I prefer) over to its two disks on my Mac desktop, just as if it they were small hard disks or floppies. I can squeeze a bit more room out of them if I delete the invisible metadata files the Mac puts on there. I can do that either by using the Mac OS X Finder's ability to find invisible files; by going to the command line in the Terminal, navigating to to Lyra's storage in the file system, and typing rm .* (which could be dangerous if I did it in the wrong place); or by deleting the files from a Windows machine by plugging in the Lyra there. Or I can just leave the files alone.

Minor problems

The Lyra seems to order its songs by their filenames, not by the order of the iTunes playlist. It also plays the tracks in internal memory first, then those on the expansion SD card, no matter what their names. Since I tend to play songs in Shuffle mode, that doesn't matter much to me, but if I wanted to listen to a whole album I'd need to make sure the filenames were numbered and organized properly onto the cards, as necessary. Some renaming might be necessary if I have two short albums, both of which have a track 04, for instance, but I can do that in the Finder once the tracks are moved over.

In addition, while the Lyra reads the ID3 tags included in MP3 files to describe artist, title, and so on, it seems only to read version 1 tags. While an MP3 file can include more than one type of ID3 tag, many of my MP3 files use only version 2 tags.

So, the Lyra displays the ugly short Windows version of the name. For example, "WHOLEL~1.MPG" appears instead of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.mp3," which (by the way) is a track from the greatest-hits album with the best title of any I've ever heard, Jerry Lee Lewis's All Killer, No Filler (no, Sum 41 didn't invent that). I may therefore need to use ID3X or a similar utility to fix up my collection.

Those funny headphones

Finally, the headphones that come with the Lyra are weird. They clip on with little plastic hooks that go behind your ears. Although the design is interesting, they sound good, and the mirrored earpieces look cool, they're awkward. Traditional headband or behind-the-head 'phones are easy to put on and remove (my preschool-age daughters have no trouble with theirs). These are awkward and slow to get on and off, and the cords tend to tangle. If you want something small, a set of standard earbuds might be better. Here's a good set of recommendations from a real headphone expert, with followup discussion.

It's fun wearing headphones again.

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Monday, August 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 6:39:00 PM:

Spiffytilities

If-Then Software makes a pretty cool set of "donationware" utilities, games, and other programs for Mac OS X.

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Saturday, August 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:56:00 AM:

Flashback

The day I turned 25—June 30, 1994—I had been the drummer in a band called The Flu for about two years. That day, I was quoted in an online article that mentioned us as (as far as we knew, anyway) the first independent band to start our own e-mail list. Scroll past the bit about former VJ Adam Curry losing control of the mtv.com domain to his former employers at MTV, and there we are. (The mailing list is long dead, by the way. I'm still playing the drums with the same guitar player in The Neurotics.)

I'd never seen the article before today, more than nine years later.

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Friday, August 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:29:00 AM:

Minimalist profligacy

According to the Financial Times, the Ikea catalogue is the biggest free publication in the world. This year, the company will distribute 130 million copies around the globe.

The photos in the catalogue are almost all taken at the world's largest indoor photo studio at Ikea headquarters in Sweden. (It's why even in North America, the catalogue pictures have all those spiffy European TVs in them.) Pretty much every household in Sweden receives a copy, no matter how far they are from an Ikea store—the country's postal system has to hire extra staff to deal with the load.

Apparently, Ikea is also not a publicly-traded company, so it can spend money on vast catalogue distributions that public shareholders might not think contribute to the short-term bottom line.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:16:00 PM:

Printing from a Mac OS X (or Mac OS 9) computer to a printer hooked up to a Windows 98 machine

I wanted to print from my Mac, in the office downstairs, to our laser printer, which is hooked up to a Windows 98 computer in the den upstairs. Windows NT, XP, and 2000 include "print services for Unix" that provide a Unix-standard LPD daemon, to which Mac OS X and other Unix-derived systems can print. But Windows 98 doesn't.

Fortunately, a fine gentleman named Gernot Zander has written lpd.zip, a small, free LPD service called LPD-Win that works in Windows 95, 98, and Me. So here's what you do.

[Read more...]

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Monday, August 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 4:42:00 PM:

But for a few votes in Florida...

Al Gore:

To be compassionate is meaningless, if compassion is limited to the mere awareness of the suffering of others. The test of compassion is action.

[...]

Our dangerous and unsustainable consumption of oil from a highly unstable part of the world is similar in its consequences to all other addictions. As it becomes worse, the consequences get more severe and you have to pay the dealer more.

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# 12:58:00 PM:

Is that IMPORTANT, WARNING, CAUTION, or PLEASE NOTE?

Jakob Nielsen:

In the United States, for example, you can't buy a lawnmower without a label saying that you're not supposed to mow your feet. Most instruction manuals are littered with "important" warnings that caution against obvious stupidities, burying actual dangers amid a mass of irrelevancy. An out-of-control legal system has made a joke of the entire warnings concept; products are now less safe because nobody bothers to read warnings anymore.

This past weekend, my wife and I drove into an underground parking lot with so many warning signs (TWO WAY TRAFFIC, LOW CLEARANCE, NO STOPPING, AIR INTAKE - SHUT OFF ENGINE, etc.) packed into a tight space that we laughed out loud—and couldn't really pay attention to any of them.

My favourite warning is this one.

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Saturday, August 09, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:55:00 PM:

Cranes islands lights

victriptych.jpg

A trip from Vancouver to Victoria takes you from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal (top, with its view of the Roberts Bank coal and container port) to Georgia Straight (middle, with its view of the Gulf Islands), to downtown Victoria (bottom, with its view of the night-lit buildings of the British Columbia Legislature).

By the way, I can highly recommend the Hotel Grand Pacific on Victoria's Inner Harbour—for many reasons, including its free in-room high-speed Internet access. It belongs on my list of recommended hotels in the region.

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Friday, August 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:24:00 PM:

Two quick geeky links

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Thursday, August 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:07:00 PM:

How to improve iPhoto speed

Rob at Mac Net Journal follows up my earlier post by pointing out out some tips for managing large iPhoto databases from O'Reilly. I should really take some of that advice.

Of course, Apple should really just make iPhoto work better with large databases of photos. I've gathered 5400+ pictures in less than two years (including old archives), and while I take a lot of photos, that's what digital photography encourages, and I'm only using 3-megapixel images that average about 1 MB apiece. Once 6- or 10- or 14-megapixel cameras become commonplace, their pictures will suck up computer resources like there's no tomorrow. But there will be a tomorrow, and we need to work with those files.

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# 12:38:00 PM:

Free digital photography guide

Canadian online bookseller Chapters Indigo has a free tip guide for digital photography, retouching, and printing. To download the 888 KB PDF file instead of viewing it in your browser, right-click (or click and hold with a one-button mouse) on the download link from the info page.

The document excerpts material from several digital photography books published by the excellent Peachpit Press, and includes quite a few good tips. It's a substantial 32 pages long—pretty good for free.

I have no idea how long it will be available.

If you're looking, this new Minolta camera looks like it could be very good, and is excellently priced for a 3-megapixel "big zoom" digicam: $400 USD or around $575 Canadian.

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# 7:38:00 AM:

Is rebuilding the iPhoto database worth it?

[See above for some additional tips.]

Computers are pretty powerful. Even my five-year-old Power Mac is a number crunching machine, which is why it shocked me that rebuilding my photo database in Apple's iPhoto—just hit Shift-Option while it starts up—took eleven hours. (Luckily, I could do other things while it worked.) That's by far the longest it's ever taken any of my computers to do any single task.

I have about 5400 photos stored, taking up around 5 GB of disk space. The space savings at the end? About 5%. Speed improvements? Zilch.

And it screwed up the order of all my iPhoto film rolls. So I went back to my old photo database by editing the com.apple.iphoto.plist text file that lives in my Library/Preferences folder. Sorry to put you through all that effort for no result, little machine.

CORRECTION: It turns out that processing a SETI@home work unit takes my computers longer than eleven hours. So I should have said "...by far the longest it's ever taken any of my computers to do any single task that I was paying attention to."

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Tuesday, August 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:37:00 AM:

Movie-photo or photo-movie?

The question has become relevant: is it better to get a video camera that shoots digital stills, or a digital still camera that takes movies? The answer depends on what you need and can afford.

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# 10:54:00 AM:

Flying fast from the past

If you had a Mac years ago, you might remember Glider. Now the classic and Mac OS X versions of the simple but addictive game are all free. There's even a Windows version.

On the not-old-and-dead products front, Hydra looks pretty cool, especially when joined with Internet voice chat.

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Monday, August 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:04:00 AM:

Latest article published tonight

I've expanded on my earlier piece about PayPal scams in an article published in the TidBITS online magazine tonight. Check TidBITS #691 to read it.

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Friday, August 01, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:55:00 PM:

Rock in Hogtown

Wednesday's "Toronto Rocks"/"SARSstock" concert in Toronto wasn't anything muscially remarkable. Every act that performed has probably done any number of better shows. But it was quite a spectacle. My two highlights:

  • What happened to all of Randy Bachman's fat? He used to be huge, and now he looks like Kenny Rogers did 20 years ago. Sometime in the last few years, perhaps he transferred all his excess weight to his Guess Who bandmates Burton Cummings and Garry Peterson. He looks way better than Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo, who's almost a decade younger.

  • Say what you will about the Rolling Stones—AC/DC is probably the world's most elemental rock 'n' roll band. They have never dabbled in psychedelia, disco, or African music. They have never, as far as I know, used an acoustic guitar. I have never heard a single AC/DC song with a vocal harmony, for that matter. The one image I'll remember from the (sucky) television coverage of Wednesday's concert was AC/DC guitarist Angus Young in his trademark schoolboy uniform, silhouetted with his Gibson SG guitar against the sunset, a sea of nearly half a million people in front of him.

Oh, and while his Rush-mates have both aged, Geddy Lee looks exactly the same as he always has, right down to his hair. Weird.

Rock on, dudes.

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