Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: May 2004," 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, May 31, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:00:00 AM:

Bottom of the line, and about damn time

I've used Apple computers for a long time. This photo shows me standing in front of a bunch of Apple boxes in 1985, three years after my family first bought an Apple II Plus. I bought my first Macintosh, a Centris 660AV, in 1993, after having used them at school, work, and home (borrowing my roommate's machine) for some years beforehand.

I tend to run those computers long, like people who drive a Honda Civic till the odometer reads 300,000 km. Right now, the newest Macs in my house are a Power Mac G3 built in 1997, and a PowerBook 1400 built in 1996. Neither will run the latest version of the Mac OS. Both are officially obsolete.

So, more than six years after our last one, my wife and I just bought a brand new Apple computer. She's a teacher, so we managed to get an educational price at Apple's Canadian online store, and the Mac should arrive at our house sometime this week. Every other time I've bought an Apple computer, from that II Plus to the 660AV to the G3, and even the PowerBook, it was near, but not quite top of the line for its time. I figured that when the time came for a new Mac sometime this year, I'd go for a G5, or at least a high-end iMac.

But money was an object, and when I looked at the value equation, in the end it was more worth our while to get a bottom-of-the-line Mac, and then max out its capabilities, than to get a higher-end computer and be able to afford to add less to it.

So, in the end, we bought an eMac, perhaps the best Mac deal in history. With a 1.25 GHz G4 processor, a fairly fast system bus, and ATI Radeon 9200 graphics, it is more powerful in almost every respect than the Power Mac G4 that topped Apple's lineup less than a year ago, but the educational pricing starts at $1000 Cdn, and that includes the display and speakers.

In 1993 and 1998, I spent $3000 Cdn—in those years' dollars—on higher-end but bare-bones Macs. For this eMac, I bumped up the memory to a full gigabyte, then included a 160 GB internal hard disk, a DVD-writing SuperDrive, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, a stand, two different external video adapters (for a second monitor or TV/video), a USB MIDI interface for our digital piano, and an external 160 GB FireWire hard disk to back up the entire system. In other words, other than AirPort wireless networking, I maxed it out. All for under $2200 Cdn before taxes, less than the price of a bare-bones G5 tower with less memory, a smaller hard drive, and no display. Less than a decent flat-panel iMac with a small hard drive, slower processor, and no DVD-burning capability costs, in fact.

Yeah, I paid for the expedited shipping.

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Sunday, May 30, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:10:00 PM:

Is RSS the e-mail of this decade?

I hope Miraz Jordan is right:

I sense history repeating itself here. 10 years ago my readers hadn?t heard of email, yet now they use it daily. This year my readers haven?t heard of RSS. I hope that within the year though you?ll all be wondering how you managed without it.

Then I can get rid of those silly little what? links every time I mention my RSS feed.

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Saturday, May 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:06:00 AM:

Writing for the machine

If you search Google for PowerBook 1400, wireless PowerBook, or even Wi-Fi 802.11b, an article I posted here last year comes up within the first few results—sometimes even above Apple's pages on a similar topic. How did that happen?

This isn't one of Google's imperfections. If you have an older PowerBook and you want to put it on a wireless network, or even if you just want to learn about Wi-Fi networking, my page is probably pretty useful to you. What the results do show is that writing for Google works. But we're not really writing for Google; we're writing for other people on the Web.

I wrote the article because I had trouble finding accurate and complete information online about getting an old PowerBook onto a wireless network, even though I knew it could be done. It took a lot of trial and error over several weeks to get it working, so I wrote up what I did to save other people the work.

But that was no good unless people could find the page. So, knowing a bit about search engines in general, and Google in particular, I did a few things:

  1. I put it on its own page, rather than in with a bunch of my other journal entries, so the page itself would be entirely about the one subject, and not a bunch of different things, like the page you're reading now.

  2. I gave it a long and almost excessively detailed title, which you see in your browser title bar and maybe in your bookmark field if you bookmark the page. In the HTML code, it looks like this:
    
    <title>
    
    AirPort | Wi-Fi | 802.11b wireless networking for the
    
    PowerBook 5300/1400/2400/3400/old G3/190/520/540/500 series -
    
    Derek K. Miller
    
    </title>
    
    
  3. The first heading on the page is also a monster, and quite similar: "Wirelessly Networking a PowerBook 1400 or Other Old Apple Laptop: Step By Step, Covering AirPort, Wi-Fi, 802.11b, and WLAN with the PowerBook 5300, 1400, 2400, 3400, 500 Series (520 and 540), 190, and G3 with Mac OS 7.5 through 9.2." So I packed pretty much any term I could think people might be searching for into the title and level 1 heading, because I knew Google and other search sites put a lot of stock in them.

  4. I made sure Google, Yahoo!, and the Open Directory knew about the page, and I also pinged Weblogs.com about it, since it is effectively an extension of my weblog page. (If I were doing it today, I'd use Ping-o-Matic instead.)

  5. I posted about the article in a few relevant places, and mentioned it to the people who run some relevant sites. Since my article was pretty good, they noticed it and linked to it, making Google take further notice. Note that I wasn't just randomly spamming news and information sites—I only posted in places where my page might be genuinely interesting.

There's nothing nefarious in any of this. What it comes down to is, (a) I wrote the best article I could, and (b) I let people on the Web know about it, and in letting people know I tweaked the article a bit so it included most of the words they might be looking for. If the article sucked, it wouldn't get linked to, and it wouldn't show up high in Google rankings for any search in particular, no matter what other effort I put into it.

So I wasn't writing for a machine. The key is that people make the decisions to link, so ultimately, for a page to come back high in a list of search results, people need to like it. That was Google's great insight in 1998—and now, when those who make web pages make links, we're doing Google's work for it.

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Friday, May 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:25:00 PM:

Fabulous

Just bloody fabulous.

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# 3:43:00 PM:

Is this what you were looking for?

Doug Bowman writes about something I've noticed here before, and points to a funny example from Matt Haughey on the subject: essentially, Google sometimes screws up, giving a high ranking to page that's really not about, or shouldn't be taken as authoritative on, a subject. And people seem not to notice that when they visit.

Many people probably make the same mistake I do, and assume that everyone interacts with search engines as they do. But people don't. Some people browse through several pages of Google results for their first search, then give up. Others, like me, see if what they want is on the first page or two, and then recast their query if not. Still others, also like me some of the time, try a different search site (yes, there are others).

In the end, though, you have to look at a page you go to from a search and try to figure out if it's what you wanted. But if you go here or here and try to get in touch with this guy, you're just not thinking clearly.

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Thursday, May 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:04:00 PM:

Out of my league

Years ago I wrote an article for Vancouver magazine identifying the nicest public washrooms downtown. Many of them still meet the standard.

However, none of them is anything like America's nicest bathroom. (Link via Buzzworthy.)

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Wednesday, May 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:24:00 AM:

Simple boldface saves a long article

If you don't subscribe to Salon, get a day pass and check out today's article on top 10 U.S. mistakes in Iraq by former American general and Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni. (You could also try this other transcript instead.)

Aside from the content, note how Salon uses one simple mechanism to make the article more readable on the Web: boldface. Even without reformatting the rest of the words (as I have done in my first phase of a web editing experiment), Zinni's piece becomes exponentially more readable on the Web, because you can skim it. Even without reading any details, you can see the 10 points with a few clicks:

  1. "misjudging the success of containment"
  2. "the strategy was flawed"
  3. "We had to create a false rationale"
  4. "We failed, in No. 4, to internationalize the effort"
  5. "we underestimated the task"
  6. "propping up and trusting the exiles"
  7. "the lack of planning" (they forgot to boldface this one)
  8. "the insufficiency of military forces on the ground"
  9. "ad hoc organization"
  10. "a series of bad decisions on the ground"

The small typo of not boldfacing #7 forced me to read more thoroughly. Fortunately, Zinni actually wrote "the seventh problem," so it was easy to find. But it reinforces how easy the others are to track down, and how even something as simple as a typographical change can improve online comprehension.

UPDATE: Here's another copy of the transcript, with similar highlighting (including the seventh item), and which doesn't require you to register to see it. Thanks to Jak King for the link.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:50:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-05-25):

Today's theme is "on ugliness":

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# 9:52:00 AM:

What's really going on with this Mac OS X problem?

As usual, TidBITS provides the best explanation of the Mac OS X security problem so far. If my little article doesn't explain things well enough, Matt Neuburg's piece probably does.

It seems to me—and has been pointed out by a number of others—that the fundamental problem with Apple's conjoining of various file-handler schemes in Mac OS X is that it treats untrusted content (from websites) the same as relatively trusted content (local files).

Now, it's true that you can't always trust things on your local hard drive or local network, especially if you don't know how they got there, but I think most people would agree that an arbitrary web URL is less trustworthy than a file you put on your Desktop.

What has impressed me is the rapid, continuous, and widely distributed effort in the Mac community to find ways to deal with the problem. Many people have done a lot of work in a short time to address it, and webloggers in particular have shared all their information freely, to help minimize any potential damage.

There has been some disagreement about the best solutions, but only a few days after the vulnerability became known, we also had several different and similarly effective ways to protect ourselves. That's good.

I hope Apple can quickly create additional patches to prevent any aspects of this vulnerability from being exploited. I think Mac OS X users are more likely to keep their systems up-to-date, using Software Update, than Windows users with Windows Update, so I hope the problem can be nipped in the bud before any serious exploits appear.

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Monday, May 24, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:27:00 PM:

Memories, like the corners of my mouth

When I was a kid, after we went swimming at the local indoor pool, my parents and I would drop into a local store and buy a particular candy bar. (This was before I had diabetes, obviously.)

I remember the bar distinctly. It was similar in size and shape to an Oh! Henry or Mr. Big bar—large and lumpy—but it was coated in something white instead of brown. White chocolate? Perhaps. Inside there was caramel and some sort of crunchy wafer.

The bar disappeared sometime in the '70s, I think. I can't remember what it was called, so of course I've had no luck finding it at the various specialty shops that might be able to track it down.

It's pure nostalgia anyway. Having diabetes now, I wouldn't be able to eat it more than on very rare occasions. And it might not even be that good—or it would still be around, wouldn't it?

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# 9:51:00 AM:

The 4:00 p.m. snoozies

According to a survey I filled out at Knackerfactor (via J-Walk):

You will start to feel noticeably tired at 15:00 and you will feel most tired at 16:00.

That's bang on for me. If I'm at home with the kids on a typical day, I could easily fall asleep at 4:00 in the afternoon. An hour later, even I have not napped (which I usually don't), I'm wide awake again.

Siesta is a good idea, rarely applied in North America.

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# 9:26:00 AM:

Worse quality, poorly organized

I'm not a classical music aficionado, but the few classical albums I do own fit poorly into Apple's iTunes music organization scheme. Fazal Majid also has another good point, one that so far has kept me leery of purchasing music online:

Instead of a high-quality [...] audio stream [...] you are paying for low-quality AAC files. [...] You also receive the dubious benefits of Digital Rights Management (i.e. they infringe on your fair use rights to protect the record industry cartel's and get their acquiescence). No booklet, no durable storage medium, no possibility of resale.

File size means that uncompressed audio is currently a difficult sell. Uncompressed, unrestricted audio is unlikely anytime in the near future. Too bad. I would certainly pay for that.

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Saturday, May 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:52:00 AM:

Apple's Mac OS X security alert in plain English

Or, can a hacker erase my Mac's hard disk from a web page?

NOTE: I have edited this post several times since its original appearance to try to keep it up to date. You can certainly go into a lot more details elsewhere. Many gory details are available, John Gruber has made further excellent analyses (on May 23 and 24), and I've updated the steps below accordingly.

There are also fairly long, but excellent and plainly written, explanations of the problem and what to do at TidBITS. I'm hoping Apple issues additional patches that make all the extra steps unnecessary. Now, back to the story.

At a meeting I attended this week, the speaker warned users of Apple's Mac OS X version 10.3 ("Panther") operating system that there was "an AppleScript on their computers that could erase their hard disks." He wasn't completely wrong, but what he said was misleading, and (well, perhaps) needlessly alarming.

It is true that this week revealed the first serious potential security vulnerability in Mac OS X (previous false alarms notwithstanding). Many of the online news items and advice on the matter have been good, but they're also often confusing, and I hope I can post something clear and accurate here for those without the technical background needed for some of the material written elsewhere.

The basics: what is a "URI handler?"

Most of the time, when you visit a web page, the address that appears at the top of your browser window begins with http: (standing for Hypertext Transport Protocol)—the "language" your computer uses to communicate over the Internet with the computers that send the web page you're viewing.

The whole web address (such as http://www.penmachine.com/) is known as a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or URI (Uniform Resource Indicator)—never mind the arguments about the distinction between the two. Web browsers use the http: or https: prefix to figure out what language to use for communications—https:, for instance, is the same as http:, but mathematically encrypted for extra security. There are other options, including ftp: for File Transfer Protcol, file: for opening a file on your local hard disk, and so on.

Mac OS X can assign different programs to handle different URI prefixes—those programs are the operating system's assigned URI handlers. Usually, your default web browser (Safari, for instance) handles http: and https:, but with a bit of work you could theoretically have Safari handle http: and Internet Explorer https:, so if you clicked on a secure URI in an e-mail message, Internet Explorer would launch instead of Safari. Few people bother, though, and most of us leave the settings as Apple sets them.

So what's the problem?

Mac OS X has a whole bunch of URI handlers set up, most of which you never see in your web browser. People recently discovered that some of them weren't entirely safe. That is, the way they are configured by default on a Mac system means that someone could theoretically set up a website that did something nefarious, such as sending a program to your computer and then running it. That program could (again, in theory) do something really nasty, such as trying to erase all the files in your Home folder, including all your documents.

The key thing is that no one has actually done anything like that, even though it is possible. The protocol prefixes concerned are not the common ones, but rather these more obscure variants:

  • help: (assigned to the Help Viewer application)
  • disk: and disks: (for automatic mounting of downloaded disk image files)
  • telnet: (for remote Unix-style command-line access)
  • afp: (for automatic mounting of AppleShare servers)
  • ftp: (but only when assigned to the Mac OS X Finder)

According to the latest updates, if I were a determined bad guy, I could even make your Mac accept a brand new protocol (I could call it penmachine:) and do something ugly.

The regular http: and https: protocols are just fine, and you don't need to worry about them. However, it is not just the Safari web browser or Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther") that are affected. As far as I can tell, older versions of Mac OS X and other browsers are at least partially vulnerable too. Mac OS 9 and earlier use a different architecture, and are safe from this problem.

Okay, what do I do?

The solutions are pretty simple, but require downloading a separate program or two for full protection from the vulnerability. There are four major steps (I originally wrote three, but one more turned up, and then I changed the last one later on), in order of easiness. You can do the first one, or two, or three, but for the best defense, do all four:

  1. Use Software Update to download and install the latest May 24 Apple Security Update (for 10.3 Panther or 10.2 Jaguar), which prevents Help Viewer from doing anything unauthorized with the help: protocol:
    1. Click the Apple Menu on the left side of your menu bar.
    2. Choose System Preferences from the menu.
    3. When System Preferences opens, click the Software Update icon.
    4. Choose Update Now. You'll need to restart once you've followed the instructions.

  2. Prevent Safari from executing downloaded files automatically (if you use it):
    1. Open Safari.
    2. From the Safari menu, just to the right of the Apple menu, choose Preferences.
    3. In the Preferences window, find the Open 'safe' files after download checkbox.
    4. Clear (uncheck) the Open 'safe' files after download checkbox, then close the Preferences window.

  3. Follow the instructions on John Gruber's web page, where he tells you how to download and use a handy program called RCDefaultApp to disable the disk:, disks:, telnet:, and afp: URI handlers. See below for what to do about the ftp: handler.

  4. Reassign the ftp: protocol to an actual FTP program (such as Transmit, my favourite), or even to your web browser, rather than to the Finder.

That should cover it. Again, so far no one has exploited this vulnerability, and if you follow the steps above, no one should able to on your machine anyway.

John Gruber writes that my original fourth recommendation is unnecessary: "I cannot recommend the use of [the] Paranoid Android [monitoring application]. As far as I have determined [...] every vulnerability handled by Paranoid Android can also be solved by changing or disabling Mac OS X's default URI handlers."

Thanks to Alex Caro for the info on step 4.

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Friday, May 21, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:21:00 PM:

Go with the flow

Vancouver's Commercial Drive is on the city's East Side (gross oversimplification for this town: West Side = rich; East Side = poor), a mix of old-time Italian families, newer immigrants of many nationalities, and a fair passel of dreadlocked lefty anarchist stereotypes. It runs on its own sort of schedule, unlike the rest of the city, and this post from recent Vancouver arrival Nicole Howard sums it up as well as anything:

So Urban Café doesn't exist, or maybe it burned down, or maybe none of this is real. Maybe the cafes keep switching places or names the second we turn our backs on them. We pass the cafe gutted by fire, but it's called Irene's. Garth and I decide we're in an alternate reality and try not to laugh too insanely in the street.

My advice to Nicole is, when on the Drive, just go with the flow. And get a cappuccino.

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Thursday, May 20, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:20:00 AM:

Moving house

[Closeup of house raised for moving]We live on the north slope of the Metrotown hill in Burnaby, the closest suburb of Vancouver. There have been houses and streets here for a hundred years, and the old inter-urban train from Vancouver to New Westminster used to run along the crest of the hill, a few minutes' walk south of here. (Now the SkyTrain follows a similar route.)

Diagonally across the street from us is an old farm-style house that has been here most of that time. My mother remembers walking past it in the 1940s when she took the train to visit someone who lived in this neighbourhood, which was then mostly farmland and brush. In the last decade and a half that house—which we've long called the "Amityville House" because of its design, and which had been falling into a bit of disrepair—has been extensively renovated. It is a beautiful structure.

The house was recently sold. A few days ago diggers and trucks started appearing and working in the yard. We feared the lovely old house would be torn down. But no. They're moving it. Not to another lot, but to a different location on the same one, which is very large and could easily hold two or three modern homes. The whole building has been hoisted onto a giant girdered platform, and workmen are slowly rotating and moving it closer to the street corner with big diesel trucks.

I'm guessing that once it's been settled, the lot will be subdivided and a new house put where the old one used to be.

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# 1:33:00 AM:

Editing vs. designing

I'm in the early stages of creating some examples of editing text for the Web, but Andrei at Design by Fire has put together a fabulous, somewhat sarcastic multi-step design makeover for usability pundit Jakob Nielsen's latest column.

Nice work. It shows how design makes web content better.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:33:00 PM:

Can it take ten years to fix a bug?

Rick Schaut of Microsoft's Mac Word team describes the long and tortuous process of squashing a bug in Microsoft Word. It took almost ten years to do.

This was no trivial bug either. In certain circumstances, if you were editing a Word document for a while (maybe an hour, maybe a few hours), making saves as you went, you could run into a "Disk is full" error, and be unable to save again. (The canonical workaround among Word users, as I recall, is to Select All and then copy and paste the entire contents of the document into a blank one.)

Anyway, it's a fascinating turn through how the bug was finally tracked down and eliminated for the now-shipping Word 2004 for Mac. (It originally appeared along with multiple undos in Word 6, in 1995.)

By the way, the problem still exists in the shipping versions of Word 2001 and Word X for Mac. The solution now—if you're making many edits to a document with headers and footers that have auto-updating fields in them (such as page numbers)—is to work in Normal View instead of Page Layout View.

It does not bode well for my pet-peeve Word list-numbering bug.

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# 1:19:00 PM:

It could be worse

Following my little rant the other day about sex education, here is an extreme example (via Dave Winer) of what happens when people don't know enough about their own bodies:

A German couple who went to a fertility clinic after eight years of marriage have found out why they are still childless—they weren't having sex. [...]

A clinic spokesman said: "When we asked them how often they had had sex, they looked blank, and said: 'What do you mean?' [They] were brought up in a religious environment [and] were simply unaware, after eight years of marriage, of the physical requirements necessary to procreate."

And here I thought natural urges would always sort things out.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:01:00 AM:

Ryan's back

He's over there.

Today is also the 24th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington, U.S.A., which happened at 8:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 18, 1980. I heard the boom quite a while later, while I was camping with my Boy Scout troop at Furry Creek. I thought a train had crashed nearby. My father, in Vancouver, B.C., thought his water heater had blown up. We were both hundreds of kilometres from the blast.

Today, St. Helens is still a smoking crater. Furry Creek now hosts a golf course and luxury housing.

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Monday, May 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:29:00 AM:

Where did my .Mac e-mail go?

Apple finally explains how .Mac filters spam. Still no control over it for users, but at least we have some background now. (Thanks, MNJ.)

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# 12:34:00 AM:

Kids need to learn about sex

If you're a parent, I think you should talk to your kids about sex, realistically and honestly, as soon as they're old enough to understand (here's a great book to read together, as my four- and six-year-old daughters will tell you). Here's why:

Abstinence campaigns [...] do delay sexual activity, but [those kids who pledge abstinence are] around one-third less likely to use contraceptives, as they are not "prepared for an experience that they have promised to forgo". The result [...] is that abstinence programmes are "associated with an increase in the number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants". You read that right: abstinence training increases the rate of teenage pregnancy.

Promoting sexual abstinence until adulthood (or until marriage) has never been very realistic—even when people regularly got married in their teens. For many kids it results in ignorance, either because:

  1. Parents think children who say they won't be sexually active don't need any details about sex, or
  2. The "will this be on the exam?" syndrome means that kids who don't plan to be sexually active for a long time don't pay attention to what they need to know.

Sex educators argue that the more kids know about sex, the later they're likely to start having it, and the smarter they'll be about it when they do. I agree, but others don't—yet it seems even the most equivocal studies indicate that sex education doesn't make early or risky sex any more likely.

Knowledge is indeed power; ignorance is weakness. One nurse told Maclean's magazine:

"My goal is for all students, from junior high on up, to have access to [sex ed information]." Her motivation? "Have you ever listened to a conversation in a school washroom?"

Given that sex education doesn't increase kids' chances of doing something sexually stupid, and could very well help prevent it, I think giving kids power over their own bodies—and what they do with them—is a wise thing to do.

Thanks to Tom Coates for the links.

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Sunday, May 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:52:00 PM:

Tips about editing with Microsoft Word

Yesterday I ran a seminar about editing with Microsoft Word. Thank you to everyone who paid to come, and to the Editors' Association executives and staff who organized it.

I've set up a page about that workshop, and will be updating it occasionally—especially if I end up doing more workshops like it. The latest info includes some links to online resources about Word, and here they are again:

While we covered a lot of material yesterday, we also didn't get to some of what I wanted to talk about. These links help cover some of that stuff, as well as a lot I never intended to address.

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Saturday, May 15, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:07:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-04-15):

  • "...the [original Dvorak vs. QWERTY keyboard] experiments were conducted by one Lieutenant-Commander August Dvorak, the navy's top time-and-motion man, and owner of the Dvorak layout patent. [But] in 1956 a carefully designed study by the General Services Administration found that QWERTY typists were about as fast as Dvorak typists, or faster."

  • "[Karl] Lagerfeld has converted his collection of 60,000 compact discs to a unique iPod storage system, according to a recent report in Womens Wear Daily. Lagerfeld keeps most of the [40] iPods [he owns] scattered around his various homes, which, in turn, are scattered around the globe."

  • "I've taken the $535 that Movable Type would have cost me, and I've donated it to the WordPress developers."

  • "The fact that it was free up until now is largely irrelevant."

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Friday, May 14, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:08:00 PM:

Tweak and argh

For the past few months I have been adjusting the design of my web pages here slightly from time to time—something made easier by their conversion to a more CSS-based layout recently. Visitors went from a light-text-on-dark-background design through a few variations of the opposite: black on white. In the past few weeks I've added some light purple to the mix.

Following some lessons at work from Dave Shea, I've been experimenting with doing even more layout and formatting with my Cascading Style Sheet, rather than traditional HTML parameters. The current version has two pale purple stripes down the side of the page, generated with some simple CSS borders.

The problem is, while every decent web browser—from Mozilla and Firefox to Safari and even Internet Explorer for Mac—centres the content on the page, the one browser nearly everyone in the real world uses, Internet Explorer for Windows, jams all the content up to the left side of the page. Which is fine—I mean, I could have meant to do that—but it is a bit frustrating to still be fighting against different browsers, seven years after I started building web pages.

By the way, I've also added TrackBack. It's what all the cool kids are into these days.

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Thursday, May 13, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:26:00 AM:

Wise words on PowerPoint

Okay, they're more like wise pictures about PowerPoint:

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# 12:10:00 AM:

Pity

I'm guessing that Blundstone doesn't make red, lilac, or fuchsia boots for grown-ups.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:45:00 PM:

Potential No open spot in MS Word editing seminar this Saturday

UPDATE: The spot has been filled. Sorry!

I'm running a three-hour workshop about Microsoft Word's editing features this Saturday afternoon, May 15 in downtown Vancouver. It's theoretically full, but one person may be unable to attend, so if you e-mail bc@editors.ca and are prepared to pony up a bit of money, you might still be able to come.

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# 11:44:00 AM:

Groovy book

Ryan, from whom I bought my PowerBook 1400 last year, managed to dig out his old collection of BookCovers and get them to me.

BookCovers are cardboard inserts that fit under a clear plastic cover on the top of the PowerBook lid, and are used to customize the look of the computer. The 1400 was the only Apple laptop that ever had the feature, but there once was a small market for arty designs, as well as faux woodgrain, leather, and metal panels—or even a custom solar panel to extend the computer's battery life.

I chose one of Apple's old 1996 designs, a bold and funky one created by Michael Bartalos, and very much in the style of his other work. There's certainly no missing my PowerBook now.

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# 10:18:00 AM:

Finding the song

The Ataris have a big hit with their cover of Don Henley's 1985 big hit "Boys of Summer."

The new version is ruthlessly faithful to the original. Sure, the guitars are cranked up and the drums are washy pop-punk instead of programmed '80s clack-thwock, but the arrangement follows Henley's precisely, right down to the echo on "Remember how I made you crazy (crazy) (crazy)..." So it's fun to hear, but no revelation to those of us who watched music videos 20 years ago.

One revelation is the song itself: the words, melody, and chord changes. Cover versions often make you hear a familiar song again, and realize whether it's actually any good. And "Boys of Summer" is a fantastic song.

I could almost forgive Henley for all the dreck the Eagles put out in the '70s.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - newest items first
# 3:07:00 PM:

A slight spike

I have discovered that if Jeffrey Zeldman, Dave Shea, and Andrei Herasimchuk all link to my site within 24 hours, then traffic goes up just a bit—by the end of Tuesday, May 11, 2004, I had more visitors in one day than during the entire month of July 2003.

High-profile inbound links also bring in a whole bunch of collateral links from other sites. Most strangely, quite a number of them have been from sites in Finnish. What makes that particularly weird is that Finnish was my first language, learned from my grandparents when I was two years old. Although I instantly recognized what it was on those websites, I've forgotten everything else about the language now. But we still have—and use—a sauna that my grandfather built in our basement.

Are there a lot of Finnish Blogger users? A lot of Finnish web designers interested in XHTML and CSS? A lot of Finns who read Zeldman, or Dave, or Andrei? Or is it just karmic Finnishness, homing in on the house I live in, where my Finnish grandparents lived before me?

Whatever. I'll wish everyone sisu and move on.

UPDATE: Dang, there's another one.

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Monday, May 10, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:34:00 PM:

View new Blogger page templates without logging in

People have been wondering whether they can see the new XHTML/CSS Blogger templates (and the few remaining old ones) without having to log in to Blogger. Well, apparently yes you can, and here they are:

Design Author
dots Bowman
dots_dark "
harbor "
minima "
minima_black "
minima_blue "
minima_ochre "
no897 "
no565 "
rounders "
rounders2 "
rounders3 "
rounders4 "
scribe Dominey
snapshot Shea
snapshot_sable "
snapshot_tequila "
moto_ms Zeldman
moto_mr "
moto_son "
thisaway Rubin
thisaway_blue "
thisaway_green "
thisaway_rose "
tictac Cederholm
tictac_blue "
100 Ev, Glish
101 "
110 Sutter
111 "
112 "
115 "

Hmm. No women recruited to create templates. Odd.

By the way, if you care about validating your Blogger-generated web pages, you still can't if you use the free Blogspot hosting service. Their banner ads contain invalid code, and you can't yet make it go away.

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Sunday, May 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:29:00 PM:

Where am I?

Whoa. Blogger, the service I use to manage and publish these journal entries, has gone and totally changed how their site looks and works (in conjunction with Douglas Bowman and the Adaptive Path folks) since I last used it this afternoon. So far I like the new look okay, but it will take getting used to.

There are some spiffy new features:

  • New login and blog management pages, i.e. a new user interface.
  • A few statistics, like the total number of posts in a blog.
  • Comments (at last!) configurable per entry (yay!), like most other blogging tools have had for years.
  • Individual post archives, instead of just by week or month, also like other blogging tools have had for years.
  • "Conditional" tags let archive and index pages (for instance) look different, once more like other blogging tools have done for years.
  • Profile pages (if, unlike me, you don't already have one).
  • Spiffy XHTML/CSS templates, including one by my office-mate Dave (he was very good about non-disclosure, giving only vague hints about what was coming here).

A lot of this stuff is playing catch-up to the competition, and all those redirects are pretty annoying, but I'm nevertheless glad something finally happened—this is the first really serious redesign since I first started using Blogger in October of 2000. I have occasionally considered switching to another service, but inertia and my fondness for Blogger's general no-installation, web-application approach has kept me onboard. I'm glad I stayed.

Oh, and I now know that I'm coming up on 1300 journal entries since I started, averaging almost exactly one per day—which was my unstated goal back then.

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# 1:57:00 PM:

Building a standards-compliant site, part 3: content

Up to now, I've talked about:

But I'm a content guy, and getting the content right was the last stage we had to go through before putting our site live last week... [Read complete article »]

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Friday, May 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:49:00 PM:

Building a standards-compliant site, part 2: design

It's easy to declare yourself a web standards advocate and then get all evangelical about it—spending endless hours refining your personal weblog so that it validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict (or something really weird like XHTML 1.1) and meets all the semantic, accessibility, and cross-platform recommendations, then pooh-poohing any site, especially a commercial one, that doesn't—never mind whether your own site is worth reading at all.

But real-world web design has to be practical, and websites are for the people who visit them, not the people who build them or the people who sit on the sidelines and comment about the people who build them... [Read complete article »]

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# 2:45:00 PM:

Two new articles

I've posted two "new" essays in my articles section:

  • Women in the Web, originally by Dr. Katie King of the University of Maryland. It's the first phase in my experiment of editing a dense piece of academic print text for the Web, and I actually posted it at the end of April, but only mentioned it in passing. There will be subsequent edits that alter the text, not just the appearance, of the article.

  • What is a Website For?, an article I wrote for Razor Enterprise last fall, and which I just formatted for this site.

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Thursday, May 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:50:00 PM:

Building a standards-compliant site inside a small company, part 1: ideas

Yesterday I wrote about how I came to work for Navarik, a Vancouver company that makes web-based software for companies in maritime shipping, and how that led me to be more interested in standards-based web design. Today I'm going to start explaining how we went about putting together a new website for Navarik. The process shows how a small team can assemble a site that:

  • Follows web standards and uses open-source technologies.
  • Looks good and is pretty easy to navigate.
  • Tells the company's story effectively.
  • Works on a variety of browsers and client platforms.
  • Is easy to change, update, and maintain.

While we had the luxury of a long timeline and no fixed deadline to work on it, the site is still far from perfect... [Read complete article »]

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# 9:40:00 AM:

Nothin' else

I've wondered previously whether good music is timeless. My six-year-old daughter recently gave me another example.

We were driving in the car while her younger sister was at preschool, and I turned on the radio. While paging through the presets, I came across a local "soft rock" station, which was playing a song so hideous I couldn't help but listen, with my musician's ear analyzing why it was so bad. I don't know who the artist was, but I remember one of the lines as "I'll touch you like you've never been touched before." That says enough, I think.

The next song was the glorious Stax sound of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," from 1966. I listened through, and then some more soft-rock dreck came on.

We arrived at our destination and I turned off the radio. My daughter had been quiet, and she said, "That was a good song."

"I can turn it back on if you like," I said.

"No, the Man Loves a Woman one. That was good."

"Yeah, it was."

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Wednesday, May 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:12:00 PM:

My new job (is not so new)

Disclaimer: While I now work for Navarik Corp., this site is my own, and doesn't represent the company's position on anything.

This site has always had a pretty techie focus, but in the past year I've shifted to talking about standards-based web design quite a bit more than I used to. (Though, to be fair, the second weblog post I ever made here, in October 2000, was about a web design project at my old job.)

One reason for that shift is my new job, which isn't so new. I've been working as a permanent part-time employee of Navarik Corp. here in Vancouver since November 2003, though I haven't talked about it much. Previously, Navarik had been a sometime-client of mine since it began in 2000, because the company's founders were all my former colleagues from the University of B.C.

The company's president is Bill Dobie, who back in our UBC days was president of the student society, for whom I worked and had served as elected student representative to the University's Board of Governors (for two years) and student council rep for the Science Undergraduate Society (for one year). Bill went on to work in the marine shipping industry, and then to found Navarik to make software for companies in that industry. He enlisted some other old UBC hacks, including Martin Ertl and Don Hitchen, to help him run the place.

While I meandered my way through young fatherhood, freelance technical writing and editing, and a continuing sideline as a musician, Navarik grew from a tiny Yaletown office and crawled out of the rubble of the post–dot-com bust to garner some significant clients, including, most recently, Shell Oil. Now it is a small firm emerging from its startup phase, with a couple of dozen desks on a floor of Vancouver's landmark Sun Tower (built in 1912, and once the tallest building in the British Empire, when there was such a thing).

Much of my time at Navarik goes to writing and editing proposals and other technical editing projects, but I've also concentrated on web work, both for Navarik and its customers. In that, I've had the pleasure of working with fellow Navarik employee and web design celebrity Dave Shea, curator of the CSS Zen Garden, as well as winner of Best of Show at SXSW Interactive 2004 and Best Canadian Weblog in this year's Bloggies.

We just launched a new version of the navarik.com website, and while it's not an earth-shattering piece of graphic design, it is nevertheless clean, useful, and (thanks to Dave) mostly standards-compliant. More about how that came about—and about why Navarik has more weblogs than you can shake a wireless mouse at—tomorrow.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:08:00 PM:

How many doctors did it take?

My two daughters, ages four and six, have discovered the joys of skipping rope. Even today, they can have tons of fun with a toy that costs $2.

I can't skip rope worth a damn, so this is one of the first things they're way better at than I am.

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Monday, May 03, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:41:00 PM:

Re-tinted

When I was a kid, I said red was my favourite colour. (For some reason, I also wanted to change my name to Alexander.) Now that I'm grown up, I like purple.

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Sunday, May 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:38:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-05-02):

  • "There is a better way to build a search engine. And a Silicon Valley start-up company with the unlikely name of Google.com is showing the way." (From 1998.)

  • "Taguba's report, however, amounts to an unsparing study of collective wrongdoing and the failure of [U.S.] Army leadership at the highest levels. The picture he draws of [the] Abu Ghraib [prison in Iraq] is one in which Army regulations and the Geneva conventions were routinely violated."

  • "Of course, 'complete' and 'concise' are to some degree in conflict; that's just the way life is. There are very few first drafts that can't be shortened, and usually improved in the process."

  • "Ye Olde Lorem Ipsum Generator, Fortified and extra Strong!"

  • "Run For Your Life! It's the 50 Worst Songs Ever!" (An admirable list, and I agree with #1 wholeheartedly. But where are Paul Young, Terry Jacks, and Dan Hill?)

  • "Having a bland and ugly base is a good thing, in fact. What you may have noticed is that this unformatted HTML looks an awful lot like the web of 1994 (if you were around back then). In fact, with a few notable exceptions, that's what it is."

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Saturday, May 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:14:00 PM:

**** Four stars!

One of Roger Ebert's strengths is that he knows just what he's doing: reviewing movies. He doesn't take himself too seriously, because he knows that his job isn't one of the world's genuinely important ones. So he takes the opportunity to explain his star rating system in a review:

Shaolin Soccer, a goofy Hong Kong action comedy, gets three stars. It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle. If you are even considering going to see a movie where the players zoom 50 feet into the air and rotate freely in violation of everything Newton held sacred, then you do not want to know if I thought it was as good as Lost in Translation.

Exactly. Sure, Leaving Las Vegas is a "better" movie in objective, intellectual terms than Rumble in the Bronx. Duh. But how a movie rates depends on what kind of movie it is. If you want to have fun, watching Nicolas Cage drink himself to death while Elisabeth Shue is raped by vacationing frat boys is probably not your best choice. Better to watch Jackie Chan disable a rampaging hovercraft with a giant blade stuck through the door of a commandeered sports car.

Similarly, if you want to understand something about the human condition, Star Wars won't tell you much. Except that you can walk out of a theatre feeling a lot better than when you went in. Four stars? Yup.

In another example of not taking yourself too seriously, Wired News notes that:

If you take a close look at the form Google filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the exact value of its planned offering is $2,718,281,828 dollars, which some would immediately recognize as the mathematical constant e.

Actually, it's e times a billion, rounded off to the nearest dollar, but close enough. Four stars to Google for putting an Easter egg in a stock offering.

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