Journal: News & Comment

This is " December 2003," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003 - newest items first
# 8:10:00 AM:

Bad predictions

Remember a couple of days ago when I said the snow would all melt shortly?

Er, never mind.

(Check out the Vancouver traffic cams for street condition updates.)


Tuesday, December 30, 2003 - newest items first
# 5:02:00 PM:

New Year's with the band

Tomorrow night, New Year's Eve, I'll be playing with my bandmates Adam, Sebastien, and Dave at Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House in downtown Vancouver. If you'd like to come down and hear us do our silly Fab-Rock thing, and have the substantial cash to pony up ($140+ Cdn per person, including taxes and gratuity), you can have a nice meal in a swanky restaurant and dance through past midnight.

We'll make it your money's worth, baby!

Sorry, slipped into character there.


# 1:30:00 PM:

All in one about digital pianos

I've consolidated my previous postings about choosing and buying a digital piano into a single article, which describes my process from start to finish.


# 9:33:00 AM:

The new guitar

Gibson, one of the pioneers in modern guitars, is taking a big risk in creating new instruments with an Ethernet jack instead of a patch cord connector. Trying to establish a new standard is never easy, but one thing that seems to help is making your new standard freely available to all. Gibson might even get that:

The real risk is [the] plan to give away Magic technology, betting that consumer electronics and music companies will build it into their products, from electronic instruments to HDTVs and smart fridges. The more Magic becomes accepted [...] the more Magic guitars Gibson can sell.

We'll see.


Monday, December 29, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:01:00 AM:

Logitech Z-3 review: groovy-looking, inexpensive PC speakers

[Logitech Z-3 speaker system] Logitech's Z-3 speakers are a quality set of basic stereo-plus-subwoofer speakers for use with a computer, game unit, or small near-field (close-up) audio setup. They are quite pretty, with faux-wood cabinets and brushed metal accents, and despite their small size are quite heavy. While the set is not exceptionally loud for its rated power, the subwoofer provides substantial bass (perhaps too much at higher settings), and the stereo mid- and high-range satellite speakers offer smooth sound, an attractive and functional design, and solid metal bases for stability. The wired remote, with its simple power button, large analog volume knob, and funky blue LED power light, is an especially nice design.

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


Sunday, December 28, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:03:00 PM:

Canadian city

It was a couple of days late for Christmas, but it finally snowed here in Vancouver. We're pretty wimpy about it in this city, since, while it does snow once or twice a year, it never sticks around very long. This time will be no exception—as usual, the temperature hovers around freezing, and in a few days it will likely all be melted.

The sun shone while I was shoveling our walk this morning, and it was nearly as beautiful as the last big snowfall in early 2002.


Friday, December 26, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:26:00 AM:

Secrets of excess

My side of the family goes a bit crazy at Christmas. We don't spend as much money as some do—there aren't usually many big-ticket items under the tree. But when my wife, daughters, parents, aunt and uncle, cousins, and some friends get together on Christmas Eve, in the European tradition, the pile of presents is mountainous.

In part that's because we have a lot of people there, but we also give a lot of gifts—and often re-gifts—wrapped one by one even if that's unnecessary. (I speculated that one reason we rarely give each other jigsaw puzzles is that we'd be genetically compelled to wrap each piece individually.)

The line-of-the-night award goes (as usual) to my five-year-old daughter, who, about half-way through the gift-opening process—which took more than two hours—said:

"Wow! Santa must have more money than Oprah!"


Wednesday, December 24, 2003 - newest items first
# 12:14:00 PM:

Happy happy

A couple of Christmases ago, I nicked the following image from Apple's iCards site. I still like it, so here (again) is your Merry Christmas image for 2003:

[Winter cabin from Apple]

Be safe. Have fun. Hug.


# 9:20:00 AM:

Still shopping?

If you're still buying people gifts, a quality set of inexpensive headphones is always a fine idea, and Dan Frakes has published his updated annual list of the best models available.

And don't worry, these colours will go away after Christmas. (If you don't know what I mean, hit the Reload/Refresh button in your browser.)


Tuesday, December 23, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:20:00 PM:

In lieu of more of my ranting...

Too many good quotes and links to summarize, from Scott Rosenberg.


# 8:34:00 PM:

Can ugly be usable?

Dave Shea points to Alex (no relation to me) Miller's website. Alex writes (scroll down to December 16 under "Design and Usability"—there don't seem to be any individual post links) that web usability expert Jakob Nielsen's site... ugly. The colors don't match, there is unreasonably large text and he needs to make that yellow bar at the top not have any left or top margins.

Of course, in theory, this site should be extremely usable. But here is my thought: design and usability are the same.

He's right. Others agree, as would, perhaps, Nielsen's colleague Donald Norman, based on the premise of his latest book. There has even been a contest to redesign Nielsen's site.

By the way, aside from being right, Alex Miller is 12 years old.


# 12:43:00 PM:

Long-lost webgeeks

Dave Orchard (no, not the politician/activist) has a weblog now. More than 15 years ago, he and I were in the same group of geeky BBS dwellers called the Excursionists. He ended up taking an Electrical Engineering degree and becoming a technical authority on Java and web standards. I didn't. But I work in software most of the time anyway.


Monday, December 22, 2003 - newest items first
# 7:28:00 AM:

Today it's bagels

Sometimes the planets align. Today it is not planets, but bagels.


Sunday, December 21, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:35:00 AM:

All sorts of advice about presentations

Okay, enough complaining about PowerPoint and presentations. Let's talk about how to do it properly.

Jonty Pearce in the U.K. has put together a great site about presentations and public speaking, called Presentation Helper. It covers everything from how to give wedding speeches, to what to wear when giving a presentation, to examples of great speeches from the past. Go check it out.


Saturday, December 20, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:30:00 AM:

The best and worst weeks in rock?

Eric Boehlert of Salon scoured the Billboard charts and found the best and worst weeks in rock history. Compare:

20 Dec 1969:

  1. "Abbey Road," the Beatles
  2. "Led Zeppelin II," Led Zeppelin
  3. "Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas," Tom Jones
  4. "Green River," Creedence Clearwater Revival
  5. "Let It Bleed," the Rolling Stones
  6. "Santana," Santana
  7. "Puzzle People," the Temptations
  8. "Blood Sweat & Tears," Blood Sweat & Tears
  9. "Crosby, Stills & Nash," Crosby, Stills & Nash
  10. "Easy Rider" soundtrack

2 Sep 1989:

  1. "Repeat Offender," Richard Marx
  2. "Hangin' Tough," New Kids on the Block
  3. "Batman" soundtrack
  4. "Forever Your Girl," Paula Abdul
  5. "Girl You Know It's True," Milli Vanilli
  6. "Full Moon Fever," Tom Petty
  7. "Skid Row" Skid Row
  8. "The Raw and the Cooked," Fine Young Cannibals
  9. "Cuts Both Ways" Gloria Estefan
  10. "End of the Innocence," Don Henley

Yes, you can make arguments against Tom Jones and Blood Sweat & Tears, and for Tom Petty, Fine Young Cannibals, and Don Henley. Still, it's a pretty effective contrast.


# 9:48:00 AM:

Useful advice

I'm no longer someone who really wants to (or, with two young children, can) go see a movie its opening night, or even during the first or second week. Sometimes it's good to wait: whenever I get around to seeing the new Lord of the Rings film, I now know when to take a bathroom break (via Backup Brain—thank you!).


Friday, December 19, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:23:00 AM:

Mmm. Strange foreign candy.

In some respects, Canada lives in a bizarre netherworld between the U.S. and Britain (and now, Hong Kong, China, India, etc.). We have candies that are unavailable in the States, from Cadbury, Mars, Nestle, and other British firms. Still, our stuff is different from that in Britain itself, so if you want the original thing, you need to get imported British candy from specialty shops. Fortunately, there are quite a number of those, especially in Victoria.

P.S. Since I have diabetes, I don't really eat any of that stuff. But my wife does sometimes, and she often buys yummy U.K. products for her Scotland-born father.

P.P.S. Did I say yummy U.K. products? Please be clear: I'm talking only candies here, not cuisine.


# 7:53:00 AM:

Copyright can be tricky

Dave Shea wondered how copyright applies to web page designs, and some of his many readers gave excellent replies (even if some of them are contradictory). He highlights Raena's, which is particularly good, and which explains copyright rather well in general too.

Incidentally, if you find my web pages sufficiently snazzy that you want to snag the HTML and stylesheets that make them (though I doubt many would want to), you can do so non-commercially, without asking, as long as you give me credit.


Thursday, December 18, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:39:00 AM:


People have occasionally asked me to add comments, trackback (which actually is useful), more images, and other such paraphernalia to this weblog. I've resisted. Everyone is free to send an e-mail or link to this site if they want.

Jason Kottke explains why I feel that way—it's hard enough to write anything interesting without all the commentary and meta-ephemera getting in the way. It's the same reason that, when I changed the colour combination scheme on the site, I went to an even more basic one. Minimalism can be fun.


Wednesday, December 17, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:15:00 PM:

Stylesheet warning

I have changed the colour scheme of the stylesheet for this page. If it looks odd or you don't see dark text on a light background throughout the page, then your web browser has cached my old stylesheet and isn't displaying properly. Please click your browser's Reload or Refresh button (or even better, hold down Shift and click Reload or Refresh) to get things where they should be.


# 5:02:00 PM:

The encryption consequence

Clay Shirky is a smart guy, and he's figured out something new again:

[Governments have] been terrified of losing surveillance powers over digital communications generally, and one of their biggest fears has been broad public adoption of encryption. If the average user were to routinely encrypt their email, files, and instant messages, whole swaths of public communication currently available to law enforcement with a simple subpoena (at most) would become either unreadable, or readable only at huge expense.

[...] The music industry's attempts to force digital data to behave like physical objects has had two profound effects, neither of them about music. The first is the progressive development of decentralized network models [and the second] is the long-predicted and oft-delayed spread of encryption. [...] Because encryption is becoming something that must run in the background, there is now an incentive to make it's adoption as easy and transparent to the user as possible.

[...] People will differ on the value of this change, depending on their feelings about privacy and their trust of the Government, but the effects of the increased use of encryption, and the subsequent difficulties for law enforcement in decrypting messages and files, will last far longer than the current transition to digital music delivery, and may in fact be the most important legacy of the current legal crackdown.


# 3:47:00 PM:

Whoa! White!

Since mid-2000 this site has looked much the same. Now I've changed the colour scheme, since some people mentioned that a white-on-dark design was hard on their eyes. Maybe others will complain about this black-on-white variation. We'll see.

More importantly, but less visibly, these journal pages are now laid out using Cascading Style Sheets without tables, which in web-land is a cool thing to do these days. You might not like it if you're still using Netscape 4 though.


# 9:24:00 AM:

More tips on presentations

Scott Rosenberg, Tim Bray, and Jason Fried all make good points about presentations, in line with my own comments over the past year (even though none of them is likely to have read mine, of course).


Tuesday, December 16, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:29:00 PM:

Slim rectangles

Here are way too many buttons for your website (via Mark P.).


# 10:49:00 AM:

Licensing for sampling

There is great creativity in sampling music—the best such work totally transforms sounds originated by musicians playing real instruments (often on old records) into totally unrecognizable but still musically vital works. For an example of how it works, listen this upcoming Friday at 10:00 p.m. to Future Blues on CBC Radio Two, for an explanation by DJ RJD2 of how he does it, with examples. It's fascinating.

Creative Commons, whose license (bottom of the page) I use for my original content on this website, has just announced a sampling license, which can help make that kind of artistry easier to do legally.

I suspect that if I were beginning my musical career today, some turntables, a sampler, and maybe an iPod or two might be my instruments of choice. Then again, there is great pleasure in hitting things as hard as I can with wooden sticks. No batteries required.


Monday, December 15, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:15:00 AM:

And finally, some good Christmas music

The annual TidBITS holiday issue includes a list of genuinely good Christmas albums (scroll down a bit from the link). I didn't know about the 1966 Booker T & the MGs Christmas record—gotta get that one.


# 9:58:00 AM:

Make your diagrams like the London Tube map

If you want, you can make your flowcharts and diagrams look like the famous London Underground route map. PowerPoint-only templates for now, unfortunately.


# 7:20:00 AM:

I'm ready to get up and do my thang

A couple of months ago I revealed a photo of me at the height of nerdosity in 1985. Now, between sets at our performance at the Pan Pacific Hotel over the weekend, one of the guitarists in my band, Adam, commandeered my PowerBook and took to that picture with Photoshop. He turned this into this.

That's more like it.


Sunday, December 14, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:32:00 AM:


Playing the drums in three all-night performances over the course of a week, after not having played much at all for three months, leads to pained hands. I have mild blisters on my fingers, especially on my right hand, and for some odd reason even my fingertips are sore.

We have two more shows before the end of December (including New Year's Eve at Joe Fortes restaurant in downtown Vancouver). I may need to wear Band-Aids.


Saturday, December 13, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:10:00 AM:

Presenting... the weblog. Oh, and leadership.

Here's another way to use a web browser instead of PowerPoint for a presentation.

This other post on the Signal vs. Noise weblog is also fascinating. If you weave around the Bush/Iraq argument in the comments, there is some good analysis of whether, as a leader, manager, or other person in charge of something, you should be direct or indirect in your praise and criticism.


# 3:01:00 AM:

Sharing files

"Canada could become a model for countries seeking to find a balance between protecting copyright holders' rights and providing consumers with more liberal rights to copyrighted works."

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with my country's approach—nearly none of my CD-R discs have music on them, yet I pay a levy as if they all did, for instance—but I prefer it to that of the United States. Still, it does seem odd that in Canada it is apparently legal for individuals to download songs from strangers over the Internet without paying directly, but it's not legal to provide those songs for downloading.

There may not be a logical inconsistency in a ruling like that, but it does imply that, while it's okay to get music for free, you can only get it from outside the country. Weird.


Friday, December 12, 2003 - newest items first
# 3:21:00 PM:

Neue style

On the other hand, this is a nasty old bug in Internet Explorer.


Thursday, December 11, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:40:00 PM:

Olde style

What a lovely old book (via Dave Shea).


Wednesday, December 10, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:53:00 AM:

Plain jane

Even though I work with web pages and print layouts all the time, I'm not a fan of HTML-formatted e-mail. I've been reading my e-mail as plain text for more than 20 years, and until recently I thought that I'd just become a curmudgeon about it. "Ahh, sonny, back in my day, yeh didn't need all them fancy colours and fonts to send an e-mail—we had 7-bit ASCII and that was it."

It's not really that, though. Sure, plain text is the most widely compatible format, and even old-style ASCII will do if, like me, you write in English and don't need any accented or fancy characters. But I'm not opposed to Unicode at all, since it's plain text too, just enough of it to handle most of the written languages in the world instead of just English.

What appeals to me about plain text e-mail is two things:

  1. It makes writing all about the words, not about the formatting, typography, layout, or anything else.
  2. It gives the recipient, not the sender, control of how those words will appear.

If I like looking at my e-mail in 32-point Wide Latin font, I can do that. (As it happens, I prefer 9-point ProFont.) If my screen is 1600 pixels wide, I can read those long, long lines of text if I prefer, or I can scrunch it down to 64 characters in width instead. The key is that the words still come through. It's why I continue to send my e-mail as plain text, and to strip as much formatting off whatever mail I receive as I can, so that I can read it the way I want to.

So if you're e-mailing me, skip the colours and fancy headlines. I probably won't see them anyway—your words are what I want.


Monday, December 08, 2003 - newest items first
# 1:02:00 PM:

The audience

My band played our first show in more than three months on Saturday, and it was fabulous. The best shows happen not because of the band—we try hard to get people to have a good time at every show, since that's all we're there for—but because of the audience. This group, although small (60 people), was open, enthusiastic, willing to be silly, and just generally into it.

It was also the first time we'd played with this particular lineup. For the past three years or so, my old roommate Sebastien (guitar, keyboard, vocals) and I (drums, vocals) have been there for almost every show. We've periodically worked with Doug Elliott (bass, vocals—formerly of the Odds and now usually with Colin James) and Mark Olexson (guitar, keyboards, vocals—most recently with Matthew Good) separately, but they had never both been on the bill with us at the same time. Yet we gelled quickly, and even threw out some songs this act had never played before, which we worked out between sets in the back room.

In general, I've found that commission salespeople—car dealers in particular, for some reason—seem reluctant to really throw themselves into a party and dance. We once had to play for an hour and a half solid just to warm up a bunch of car salesmen enough that they wouldn't leave when we took a break. Medical personnel, on the other hand, and especially those dealing with life and death regularly, practially explode as soon as we play our first note. We'll be performing for two groups of medical staffers next weekend, and I look forward to it.

This past weekend's group were cargo shipping agents. I must infer that they're closer in spirit to cardiologists than car dealers.


Friday, December 05, 2003 - newest items first
# 11:32:00 AM:

Consolidate the angst

I've dumped on PowerPoint, other presentation software, and bad presentations in general so much over the past year that I decided to compile a list of my rants, which includes a lot of useful links to other people, some of whom even agree with me.


Thursday, December 04, 2003 - newest items first
# 4:00:00 PM:

Mmm. Tuna.

Look! Worldwide listings of sushi restaurants. Incomplete, but still, pretty cool.


# 12:47:00 PM:

Mr. R. to you, good sir

While we're talking about spam, and even though I hate it, I have to admit that sometimes the random combinations of words spammers use to try to get past filters is pretty amusing. My favourite so far is one of the few I received today, which supposedly came from the desk of "Plagiarism F. Rhinoceroses." Sounds like a character in a Harry Potter book.


Wednesday, December 03, 2003 - newest items first
# 10:06:00 AM:

Thanks, Telus!

People have been complaining a lot about Telus, our local former telephone monopoly (it used to be B.C. Tel), but whatever they are using for their new spam control option simply rocks. Telus's FAQ doesn't specify exactly which technology the company uses to filter spam (probably to help avoid spammers' trying to get around it), but since I switched from tagging spam to deleting it yesterday, I've gone from receiving 15 spam messages per hour (for all the e-mail accounts I monitor) down to a fraction of that.

For instance, in the two hours since I last filtered mail this morning, I would typically have received 25 to 30 spam messages. Today I got two, only one of which came through my Telus account—something like a 95% reduction. My former university colleague, photographer Alastair Bird, reports similar results:

Amazing. I had three junk mail messages this morning. I can't remember the last time I had three junk mails. I also can't believe that Telus has come up with a program that *appears* to work properly and effectively, and costs me nothing.

Telus is locked in fierce competition with Shaw, the cable company, for high-speed Internet customers. This is one of the salvos, and it certainly will keep me as a Telus Internet customer, as I have been for almost six years, as long as it keeps working this well.


Tuesday, December 02, 2003 - newest items first
# 9:26:00 AM:

Getting beneath the skin

Get in deep to the aura of the iPod, via the New York Times Magazine. My favourite bit:

I didn't expect much when I resorted to asking, in so many words, whether [Steve Jobs] thinks consciously about innovation.

''No,'' he said, peevishly. ''We consciously think about making great products. We don't think, 'Let's be innovative!''' He waved his hands for effect. '''Let's take a class! Here are the five rules of innovation, let's put them up all over the company!'''

Well, I said defensively, there are people who do just that.

''Of course they do.'' I felt his annoyance shift elsewhere. ''And it's like...somebody who's not cool trying to be cool. It's painful to watch."

Also, I'm beginning to think that professional writers like me who have to use Microsoft Word every day are less like experts than practitioners of aikido. We don't master Word so much as we know how to dodge its attacks, and turn the program's own negative energy back against itself to bend it to our will. Which is not the way a program should be.


# 12:45:00 AM:

Falling apart

Recently, there's been a lot of hoo-ha about whether gay people should be allowed to get married, especially in countries like mine where they actually can now. Finally, some sanity:

Do you want to know what's destroying the sanctity of marriage? Phone messages like the ones we'd get at my old divorce firm in Reno, Nev., left on Saturday mornings and picked up on Monday: "Beeep. Hi? My name is Misty and I think I maybe got married last night. Could someone call me back and tell me if I could get an annulment? I'm at Circus Circus? Room—honey what room is this—oh yeah. Room 407. Thank you. Beeep."


The decision to make a marriage "sacred" does not belong to the state—if the state were in charge of mandating sacredness in matrimony, we'd have to pave over both Nevada and Jessica Simpson. We make marriage sacred by choosing to treat it that way, one couple at a time.

That's more like it. I take my marriage seriously, and if some gay men or lesbians want to do the same with theirs, then I say let them. I'm pleased that governments and judges here in Canada seem to agree.


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