Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: September 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.

Monday, September 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 6:38:00 PM:

Shifting tides

David Strom thinks that:

Maybe it is time to acknowledge that the new brain trust of the computing universe has shifted from the San Andreas fault line of California to the other side of the Pacific Rim, and that Taiwan may be where real innovation is happening. After all, most of the world's motherboards, components, and notebooks are made in Taiwan. But Taiwan isn't just about building expansive new fabrication plants due to the low wages and cheap materials and real estate costs. It is about having a capitalistic economic engine that is driven by the onrushing demand for cheap Chinese computers, as mainland citizens ramp up their demands. All of this means that the next round of interesting software will be written in Mandarin, not English.

It only makes sense. China gains the equivalent of Canada's entire population every three or four years. Even if only a tiny proportion can afford computers, that's a massive market.

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Sunday, September 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:31:00 PM:

Not talking back

I'm ignoring my own advice here, but hey, it's my weblog. I'll talk about how special my kids are all I want!

Anyway, when our oldest daughter was tired and cranky today around dinnertime, we asked her to go to her room to calm down. She went, but stewed about it, and took out her magnetic writing board. (It's sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch, but you use a magnetic-tipped pen to write on it.)

She's five. She knows letters, but like most kids her age, she can't read words, and can only write her name, the names of a few of her relatives, and the word NO. Until today. She stewed and sat in her room with the writing board. She drew a picture of her sad face. Then she wrote this:

NOPOTEMIEINMIROM

My wife asked her what it said. "Don't put me in my room," our girl replied.

NO PUT ME IN MY ROOM

Cool! And kind of freaky, to be honest.

We gave her a big hug, and she felt better.

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Thursday, September 25, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:05:00 PM:

Digital piano shootout

So, when talking about digital pianos that meet my family's needs, we seem to be dealing with Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Kurzweil...and the rest. Those four (in roughly that order) are the apparent front-runners in the market. Unsurprisingly, they are major manufacturers of synthesizers and other electronic keyboards too. Yamaha is also the world's biggest maker of traditional acoustic pianos. Does it give that company an edge?

[Read the entire shootout as part of my longer article on choosing a digital piano.]

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Tuesday, September 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:09:00 PM:

How to get Derek interested in pianos: make them digital

My oldest daughter is five and a half, and is asking her mom and me (okay, bugging us nearly daily) for piano lessons. (Weird, eh?) So perhaps some of my knowledgeable readers can give me some advice about getting a digital piano. First, some background.

While I've been a working musician myself for over a decade, I play rock drums and a bit of guitar, so I know nothing about the piano. I have drum kits, guitars, a bass guitar, and an old organ in the house, and my daughter has had a chance to try them all out. She seems to like keyboards the best.

We neither have the money nor want to dedicate the space to a real acoustic piano, especially since our daughter might decide she doesn't like it much after all. But recent years have brought an alternative: the digital piano.

[Read more as part of my longer article on choosing a digital piano.]

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Sunday, September 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:16:00 PM:

Where the money goes

Since May 2003, we have redecorated and repainted our entire basement except for my office. That includes the bathroom, hallway, entrance foyer, laundry room, and (most recently, with my brother-in-law's assistance) rec room. Other than a new washer-dryer set from Sears, everything we've bought for the work has come either from Home Depot or Ikea.

It is no mystery to me why those stores remain profitable.

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Friday, September 19, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:17:00 AM:

Talkative

Every parent should resist the urge to see our kids as extraordinary—each child has talents and develops some skills earlier than others, but most of them average out. A child who can read early might not have good balance, or one who learns how to use the bathroom by himself at 18 months might still want a soother three years later.

My oldest daughter is nearly six, and is in the middle of the pack in most respects. She has, however, always been very verbal. While most kids make up words as they learn to speak, the ones she creates are often remarkably useful.

For instance, let's talk about butter. What do you call the blob of butter restaurants often put on pancakes? It's not a pat, because that's traditionally smaller and square. My daughter calls it a blump, and so asks for "toast with a blump of jam," to tell me that she doesn't want the jam spread on the bread (she likes to do it herself).

This morning, she looked at the butter dish and asked me what it was called. I told her, and she replied, "Well, I call it a plattress." Both blump and plattress could have been in dictionaries in some alternate universe.

She is also strangely adamant that the letter C should only make a "sss" sound, not a "k" sound, and has her own little symbol—a C in a circle with an X across it—to indicate that. She'll probably have a long campaign ahead in her life if she wants to enforce her rule, though.

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Thursday, September 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:09:00 PM:

Powerful free desktop publishing software

RagTime Solo is a remarkable product: a desktop publishing application some might consider in the league of Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress (although with hardly any profile compared to them), but totally free for non-commercial use.

This isn't a demo, but a full, working page layout application with built-in spreadsheets, word processing, drawing, charts, typography control, Word and Excel import, and more—free. (The Solo version does lack spell checking, hyphenation, and a full set of colour profiles.) My recent quick glance through it puts it well above such creaky but still-sold programs as PageMaker and Ventura Publisher. At the very least, it's a good place to start learning about computer page layout.

So if you're a student, are part of a non-profit organization (such as a club, church, association, or charity), are learning desktop publishing, want to lay out a family newsletter, or otherwise don't intend to try to make any money using it, go download a copy right now for your Mac or Windows machine. (Yes, Mac OS X and Windows XP are supported.)

If you want to use it commercially, certainly consider paying the $700 USD the full RagTime costs, but weigh it against the more popular alternatives. (Keep in mind the educational price of $95 USD too.)

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# 9:28:00 AM:

Tooting my own horn

I still think of myself as pretty new to the writing and editing business, probably because I only started making a real living at it a couple of years ago. Still, I've been doing this kind of work in some way or another for nearly 20 years, since I was 14 and edited a computer club newsletter.

Twelve years ago, in 1991, I called up the people at Western Living magazine here in Vancouver asking if I could volunteer as an editorial intern, helping them with proofreading, fact-checking, and general gofer duties. I spent one day each week that summer (unpaid) at the office. Once, associate editor Jim Sutherland, who had often talked to me about the publishing business over lunch, hired me to do some research for an article he was writing.

Last night, Jim (who has worked at a number of other periodicals but recently returned to Western Living as its editor) kindly came to talk to the Editors' Association of Canada B.C. branch September meeting, which I helped put together, and revealed that the article he wrote with my research won a Western Magazine Award in 1992. Apparently, I had also been Western Living's first intern—but they've had them ever since, so it was sort of my idea.

Mass-market magazines are a cutthroat business, and other than a few articles here and there, I've been out of that field since a bad experience (not with Jim) in the mid-1990s. But maybe I should consider getting back into it once I'm easing off the daddy track in two or three years, when both my girls are in school.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003 - newest items first
# 2:13:00 PM:

Whoa, dude

Those are some wacky optical illusions. (Thanks to Alan Baker for the link.)

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# 10:04:00 AM:

Paying the big bucks

People like me who use Macintosh computers tend both to spend more to buy our machines and to keep them longer than those who use Windows or Linux computers. My main Mac, on which I'm typing this, is a first-generation Power Mac G3, built in late 1997 and bought in May 1998, close to five and a half years ago. (My PowerBook is even older, but I only acquired it this year.)

Like any car, however, any computer eventually gets old enough that it's not worth putting any more money into. Mine have reached that stage, and I should start saving for a new one sometime in 2004. My rule of thumb with Macs (and other Apple computers before that) has always been to spend $3000-$4000 (Canadian), because that will get the best bang for the buck and, in the end, lead to the lowest long-term cost, since I can keep a $3000 Mac running productively for five years or more.

Now I have a dilemma, though: should it be a new $3000+ PowerBook, or a new $3000+ Power Mac G5? If I calculate purely on probable useful longevity, the more expandable and more powerful Power Mac is the way to go. But I find I use even my current ancient PowerBook (in the kitchen, in the living room, on the road) more than my desktop G3 (in the basement office only). So a PowerBook might be a more efficient use of my money.

And yeah, I could buy a decent Windows PC (say a fairly tricked-out Dell for $1700) and a Windows laptop (a low-end ThinkPad goes for as little as $850 direct from IBM) for less than either of my preferred options. Even Apple will sell me an older-design Power Mac G4 brand new for $1800, and an iBook for $1450.

But what fun would that be?

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Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:34:00 AM:

Let's all pile on, pile on, pile on

Some months ago I wrote an article bashing PowerPoint presentations, following up a piece written a few years ago by Doc Searls. Then I wrote some more, and noted a few other more qualified people who felt the same.

Here are two more screeds worth reading. David Byrne used the program well, though.

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# 9:35:00 AM:

Jitters: what low blood sugar feels like

I developed type 1 diabetes in March 1991, when I was 21 years old (which is pretty late—most people with type 1 get it as children or teenagers). My pancreas makes no insulin at all, so I've had to inject it and monitor my blood sugar by taking tiny blood samples from my fingers several times a day ever since.

While I have my blood sugars under pretty good control, I do occasionally have a low-blood-glucose incident (also known as hypoglycemia, or in severe cases, insulin shock), when I haven't eaten enough food to compensate for the insulin I've taken, or have taken too much insulin for the amount of exercise I've done.

People who know about that sometimes wonder what it feels like. Every insulin-dependent diabetic gets hypoglycemia from time to time, but we all feel it differently. Some people don't notice at all until they're in a stumbling stupor, but my body has (fortunately) always alerted me as soon as I approach the 4.0 mmol/L threshold of low blood sugar.

The best way to describe the sensation is to think of the jittery feeling you get when you almost drop a glass but catch it in time, or think you've lost your wallet and keys but remember they're in another pocket, or narrowly miss a car crash. Your body pumps out adrenaline, and you feel all wired and shaky. (It therefore also feels a bit like having drunk way too much coffee.) Yet when I have hypoglycemia, that feeling doesn't abate, but keeps going until I consume some sugar to boost my blood glucose levels back to normal. It's a disturbing, annoying, and frightening feeling, which is one reason insulin isn't a drug anyone is likely to abuse.

I also have more direct physical symptoms. Blotchy, pulsating light patterns appear in my field of vision, like very pale versions of what you see when someone takes a flash photo. My nostrils flare involuntarity. My hands shake, and I sweat. I also feel ravenously hungry, which makes sense, since for normal people low blood sugar is a sign of not having eaten enough. I'm also lucky that, in the rare occasions hypoglycemia hits me at night, I wake up and can go deal with it.

Those who haven't wrestled directly with the physiology of diabetes frequently find it puzzling that I generally can't eat refined sugars, but when I have hypoglycemia, I must consume them to stave it off. What it comes down to is that, while most people's bodies regulate their blood sugars automatically—responding to food intake, exercise, and other factors—I have to do that manually. My general goal is to keep my blood glucose from getting too high (i.e. much above 8–10 mmol/L), so I must take insulin and regulate my intake of sugars and other carbohydrates.

Every once in a while I don't get it precisely right, and my blood glucose goes too low, so I have to dump some quick carbs (sugar, such as a can of Coke or even a couple of packets of table sugar) into my system to keep from passing out. In my 12 years as a diabetic, I have only blacked out once, and that was right after I was diagnosed, when I still didn't have a handle on how my body reacted to all this stuff. But it happened in the middle of a sidewalk near Granville Street and Broadway in Vancouver, a very public place, and I woke up being wheeled from an ambulance into Vancouver Hospital's Emergency ward, with elbows sore where they hit the pavement when I fell over. I've worked hard to avoid that happening again ever since.

So I carry a can of Coke wherever I go: when I go out for a walk, when I ride my bike, when I take my kids to school, in a gym bag by the side of the pool when I swim. When I feel the jitters, I drink it and maybe eat a bit of bread or yogurt, and I soon feel better.

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Sunday, September 14, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:30:00 PM:

Whew!

My wife teaches grade 8 math (as well as grades 9–12), so I was a bit worried that I might do poorly in the online 8th grade math quiz (via Hey Jo!), and then have some explaining to do.

Happily, even without a calculator, I managed 9 out of 10, and my error was in working too fast: I calculated volume instead of surface area for one question. Still, it wasn't simple.

I seemed to hit the limits of my mathematical abilities after differential calculus in 1986, my first year of university. In that course, I received a decent 78%. Integral calculus, in the first term of 1987, flummoxed me and I squeaked by with 52%. That may have been generosity from the instructor, because I came out of the final exam nearly certain I had failed. And, so far, I haven't had to evaluate an integral since.

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Saturday, September 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:34:00 PM:

Flipping the bird

I've expanded my thoughts about Johnny Cash's famous photo from what I wrote yesterday. Why is it the greatest photo in rock?

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Friday, September 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:39:00 AM:

Tungsten birthday

CORRECTED: I had posted here earlier today that the instruction manual I wrote this spring for Colligo Meeting Suite for WLAN, a set of software applications for the Palm Tungsten C wireless handheld, was now available online. I was wrong—there is a downloadable manual for an earlier version of only one of the programs in the suite. That's a manual I didn't write. Sorry about that!

Also, my mom turns 65 today, and is now eligible for an increased pension, free university tuition, and all those cheap meals and bus fares. She can still party down way better than I can, however.

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# 7:47:00 AM:

Degrees

[Johnny Cash and his famous finger] In my mind, John Ritter and Johnny Cash never had much of a connection, until they both died yesterday. Ritter would have been only 55 next week, he died suddenly and unexpectedly of an undetected heart condition, and no one knew him to sing. Cash was 71, had been ill for a long time, his wife died not long ago, and he was about as far from slapstick as you can imagine.

But it turns out that Ritter was the son of Tex Ritter, a country-and-western music legend. The younger Ritter's TV popularity swung wildly, but he had been a solid working actor on stage, television, and film for nearly 30 years. While I grew up watching him on Three's Company, my kids recognize him as the voice of Clifford the Big Red Dog. He had four kids (the youngest of whom turned five yesterday, quite sadly).

Cash was, of course, maybe the country music legend, as well as a rock-n-roll pioneer. He was the subject of perhaps the greatest rock photo (by photographer Jim Marshall) ever taken. He had his first top five hit in 1956. In 1969, he accounted for 5% of record sales in the U.S.A., outselling the Beatles. He's a member of both the rock and country music halls of fame. This year, one of his videos won an MTV Video Music Award. Married twice, he had seven children, some of them pretty famous too.

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Thursday, September 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:31:00 AM:

Going on

[Girl walking away up a suburban street] Two years ago, my wife woke me up and said "You have to see what's on TV."

Later that day, I walked my oldest daughter in a stroller to her second day of preschool. The sky was blue and clear and had no planes.

Today, that daughter is walking on her own feet to kindergarten. She walks with me (and her younger sister) up the same street I walked to kindergarten at the same school 29 years ago, past many of the same houses. I'm not sure, but I think her class is even in the same room mine was.

The planes, as they were in 1974, and in 2002, are back in the sky.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:00:00 AM:

On Warren Zevon...

...who just died.

"No matter how hard you work you will always be left with the impression he holds a face card under the table."

- Craig Northey

"Enjoy every sandwich."

- Warren himself

Bonus rock: the cowbell project.

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Monday, September 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:05:00 PM:

Shooting up

Here's an excellent outsider's perspective on my city's biggest problem.

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Sunday, September 07, 2003 - newest items first
# 5:01:00 PM:

Good food in Vancouver

I'd never heard of VanEats until they linked to my post about Me-n-Ed's Pizza, where we went again today. But it looks like a good source of independent information about food in Vancouver, and has been going for more than three years now.

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# 4:09:00 PM:

You can't get the music from the 7-Up commercial

If you're in Canada (and perhaps elsewhere), you probably saw this summer's 7-Up commercial featuring a bunch of sweaty, hot people being cooled off by a blast from the breath of a sweaty, hot female DJ who's drinking the product being advertised. The song played in the background includes the line "I wanna see you fly."

You might want to know where to get that song. It seems that you can't, because it was written and recorded just for the commercial, and is only 30 seconds long. It's called "Radio."

So if you do want a copy, you'll have to record it off the TV.

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Saturday, September 06, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:16:00 PM:

Thanks, Mr. Smith

I've been a Salon subscriber for some time. While the amount I read of the site's content waxes and wanes with my spare time (of which, with two kids under six in the house, there is currently little), I always try to make room for Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot column.

Smith is a little cynical, sometimes self-pitying, but always informative and passionate about flying, aircraft, and, in particular, the social and political sides of global aviation. For example, many people comment on how commercial flying is much, much safer than driving. Smith does so particularly well, by having us ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How many people have you met who have been in a commercial airliner crash, or have you known personally who have been injured or killed in such an incident?
  2. How many people have you met who have been in an automobile collision, or have you known personally who have been injured or killed in such an incident?

The chances of knowing even one person in the former category are pretty small—but probably not as small as not knowing, or being, anyone in the second.

Quoting a well-respected report, Smith notes that "for flying to become as risky as driving, disastrous airline incidents on the scale of those of September 11th would have [to occur] about once a month."

Here he is talking about the jungle in Borneo:

Fifty years ago one would have described the bizarre warbled yelping of the gibbon as "unearthly." Today we say "it sounds like a car alarm." [But] who says of the car alarm: "It sounds just like a gibbon"?

And here's some more good Salon writing from Joe Conason:

If your workplace is safe; if your children go to school rather than being forced into labor; if you are paid a living wage, including overtime; if you enjoy a 40-hour week and you are allowed to join a union to protect your rights—you can thank liberals. If your food is not poisoned and your water is drinkable—you can thank liberals. If your parents are eligible for Medicare and Social Security, so they can grow old in dignity without bankrupting your family—you can thank liberals. If our rivers are getting cleaner and our air isn't black with pollution; if our wilderness is protected and our countryside is still green—you can thank liberals. If people of all races can share the same public facilities; if everyone has the right to vote; if couples fall in love and marry regardless of race; if we have finally begun to transcend a segregated society—you can thank liberals. Progressive innovations like those and so many others were achieved by long, difficult struggles against entrenched power. What defined conservatism, and conservatives, was their opposition to every one of those advances.

Thanks to Dori and Tom for that last link, by the way.

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# 12:17:00 AM:

Unusable but elegant

Ever wondered why there hasn't been a really killer-great open-source computer application that your grandmother could run? Here are some good reasons why "free software usability tends to suck." (Link via Daring Fireball.)

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Friday, September 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:54:00 PM:

Air Affair

[Air Affair closeup - Observation Deck] In keeping with yesterday's retro-photo theme, today we'll go even further back, to 1977, the year of Star Wars and Tenerife.

If you were a kid (or an adult who liked planes) in Vancouver in the late '70s, you might remember Air Affair, a restaurant on Pender Street downtown. Even if you don't, you can learn about it now.

Thanks to my parents for dredging up these memories from the archives in their basement.

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Thursday, September 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:07:00 AM:

Takin' it back to 1985...

[Tie and badge] A weblog is a perfect opportunity to embarrass yourself, whether intentionally or not. So here goes.

I present to you the geekiest photo of Derek ever taken.

You are most welcome.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:47:00 AM:

Working with waveforms: a nice audio editor for Mac OS X

Since my new and otherwise quite good MP3 player (annoyingly) puts gaps between tracks as it plays, it doesn't work well for albums with songs that blend into one another. One way to get around the problem is to merge several MP3 files into one, something I've been doing a bit over the past few days using audio editing software.

I originally planned to use my old standby, Pro Tools Free from Digidesign, but that program only runs under Mac OS 9, which is a pain to boot up when I usually run Mac OS X all the time. Happily, I discovered that the open-source Audacity editor (available for Mac, Windows, and Linux) has made remarkable progress in its latest beta versions.

Audacity even does something that the full, pricey Pro Tools does not (as far as I know): it will open MP3 files directly, let you edit the waveforms, and then export to MP3 again (with a suitable export library) without making you generate your own uncompressed AIFF files in between. You can do the same with the Ogg Vorbis format—which I like on principle, but which neither my Lyra player nor iTunes can read natively.

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Monday, September 01, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:37:00 AM:

Pip pip!

I agree with Sebastien of Dashing Blades—who is also my friend and guitarist in my band—when he recommends the Bengal Lounge in Victoria's Empress Hotel as a good place to have dinner, or a drink.

Oddly, while the room seems like it's been there forever, with its British Raj decor, it's actually younger than I am: it first opened with its current theme in 1970, and has been repeatedly renovated since then. Still, even if it's faux Victorian subcontinental colonial chic, it's very relaxing Victorian subcontinental colonial chic.

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