Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: June 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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:17:00 PM:

Get down, get maple-syrupy

If you want to come by the outdoor plaza of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Georgia Street tomorrow, you can see my wacky sixties retro band The Neurotics from 9 am till noon, for free.

If not, then have a rockin' Canada Day anyway.

And in the meantime, check out Nick B.'s excellent electronica recommendations in his comments to my post from a few days ago.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:39:00 AM:

Plus ça change...

In my riding of Burnaby-Douglas, voters elected New Democratic Party candidate Bill Siksay by a comfortable but not overwhelming margin yesterday.

The NDP and its leftist predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, have held this riding for most of the past 50 years (including having party founder and leader Tommy Douglas as Member of Parliament). MP Svend Robinson, who stepped down under controversy only a few weeks ago, had served here for 25 years. Siksay didn't even have signs ready when the election was called, yet he won anyway, despite being opposed by a hand-picked star candidate, Bill Cunningham, who is President of B.C.'s division of the federal Liberal Party.

Like Robinson, for whom he has worked as an office assistant for nearly 20 years, Siksay is openly gay—yet I was pleased that no one, Siksay included, made any sort of issue whatsoever out of it during the campaign. In that and many other things, Siksay has benefited from Robinson's long legacy here in Burnaby, and in Canada's Parliament. As he has said himself, Robinson is a tough act to follow, but Siksay is well placed to do a good job. The NDP has nearly twice as many seats as it did before the election, and with a Liberal minority government in place, things could be interesting in Ottawa for the next few years. Or months.

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Monday, June 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:37:00 AM:

Don't miss out

If you're a Canadian citizen 18 or over, go vote today. In B.C., polls are open 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. This is our second election in slighly less than four years, but things are a lot more up in the air this time.

If you didn't receive or lost your voter identification card, you can still vote if you bring ID with your picture, signature, and address.

More info at elections.ca (where you can also find out that, no, you're not allowed to eat your ballot).

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Sunday, June 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:07:00 PM:

My burning eyes

Here are J-Walk's top three nominations for world's ugliest website.

The last one is physically painful. Note that the title is "Thw Wild Rose Home Page," with the w in there.

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# 10:15:00 AM:

Back to the future

This month, both Canadian Geographic and National Geographic magazines prominently used the Bell Gothic Black font for headlines in some of of their stories.

Bell Gothic was originally designed early in the last century for the Bell telephone company, to be legible when printed very small on thin phone book paper. (Most telephone directories in North America, including ours in Vancouver, still use it.) But in its large size and heavy black weight, it makes for great headlines too, because it manages to straddle the line between formal and casual, authoritative and whimsical. It feels comfortable in almost any context.

At Navarik, the company I work for, we use Bell Gothic Black for headlines in our proposals, technical papers, and other printed materials. It makes a nice contrast with the serif fonts we use for body text, and manages to convey both the technical expertise and relative newness of the company.

I admire type designers, especially when they can convey such abstract qualities in the shapes and relationships of letters.

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Saturday, June 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 3:25:00 PM:

The Essential Chill Collection

Moving into a new genre of music listening as an adult is difficult. As teenagers we do it effortlessly, absorbing the who's who of a style or subculture with little effort—or, more accurately, with a lot of effort that seems necessary and vital at the time, not a sideline. (For many teens, listening to and knowing about music is, effectively, their job.)

Certainly the Internet helps, since in previous decades background research about important jazz or classical or funk or R&B or folk or early music would have required endless discussions and listening sessions with knowledgeable friends, trips to the library, and money spent at specialty record stores.

But music is ultimately about sound, and you have to hear it. In trying to find out about electronica, which I enjoy when I encounter it out in the world, I've been flummoxed by the subgenres (trip-hop, drum-n-bass, techno, house, ambient, chill, breakbeat, jungle, neo-electro, trance, IDM, glitch, downtempo, nu jazz, etc.) and the nature of the style, which avoids identifiable vocalists or even melodies for a groove or feeling. That makes it hard to pick up on from scratch.

Records stores (there's an anachronism—CD stores, perhaps?) have a wide selection of electronica and dance albums, but where would I start, not knowing much beyond Moby, Massive Attack, the Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada, and Fatboy Slim? Well, it turns out there are huge electronica samplers, such as the Essential Chill Collection, which has seven CDs and only cost me $32 Cdn. Perhaps after some listening I'll have a better idea where I should winnow my interest.

Of course, I'd be happy to get your suggestions.

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# 12:14:00 AM:

Editing and diagramming

A year ago I wrote what, in retrospect, is a pretty good piece about the hazards of working freelance or on contract—something I don't do a lot of right now. I was talking about editing, but my argument applies in many circumstances.

And, apropos of nothing, here is "A visual vocabulary for describing information architecture and interaction design," i.e. "some useful ways of making charts and diagrams for websites, programs, and other things people use," via Dave Shea.

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Friday, June 25, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:57:00 PM:

The end of blindness

Bob Cringely:

A [phone company[ voice circuit is 64 kilobits-per-second and a T1 (now DS1) trunk line is 24 voice circuits. [...]

After decades of legal monopoly and long lunch hours, the telephone companies suddenly have plenty of competition—enough so that most of the profit has been driven out of the phone business. So their answer is to scrap the network they spent $100 billion building and start over. Not a good idea [because a phone company] network actually has six times the total capacity of a comparable packet network. [...]

Look at the optic nerve that connects the retina of your eye to the visual cortex of your brain. The optic nerve is composed of approximately one million stringy cells called ganglia that fire in parallel over a distance of two to three centimeters with the actual visual signal travelling at about 4,400 feet-per-second. Taking into account recovery time between signals, the optic nerve has a total bandwidth of approximately 100 kbps.

That's all the bandwidth we have available to appreciate HDTV and IMAX [so] sending DVD-quality video down a 64 kbps line shouldn't be impossible at all.

Sometimes I can't tell whether Cringely is a genius or full of crap, but he's probably right that scrapping a $100 billion investment isn't a wise move.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:20:00 PM:

Get the old Mac Apple menu back in Mac OS X 10.3, without third-party software

Ah, the Apple menu—one of the few things Mac OS X users miss about the old Mac OS (well, other than a properly spatial Finder, but let's not go there). I'm here to tell you that, with the latest version of Mac OS X, version 10.3 "Panther," you can have it back. Sort of, almost as good as new...

[Read more...]

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:54:00 PM:

Contemplating software old and new

I've written before about how both Microsoft Word and Mac OS X have lost some of their former elegance, becoming inevitably more complex as features creep in over the years. (It helps to know that both Microsoft and Apple now have employees who are younger than some of the programming code in Word and the Mac OS.)

Many of us like to pine for the days of Word 5.1 and Mac System 7, but there are good reasons why those days are gone. Note, however, that if you have Word 5.1 (or find a copy from eBay), you can still use it, so there's nothing stopping you if you're also an upgrade refusenik. Word 5 runs on the newest Macs (in Classic mode), so while it might be nice for Microsoft to make a native Mac OS X version, they're not in the business of being nice—they're in the business of making money.

In that vein, I recently tried the Microsoft Office 2004 Test Drive on my eMac. After sorting out some font problems, I worked with it for a few days, as well as reading reviews of Word 2004 and Entourage 2004, the programs I use most often in the suite. While Entourage has some nice new features I'm likely to use, Word doesn't really, and it's not enough for me to spend the several hundred dollars for the upgrade right now. I'm likely to wait until a few bug-release patches come out, or maybe longer. In the meantime, I'll keep using Office v.X—and maybe hunt around for my old Word 5.1a disks.

By the way, Office 2004 installs a whole bunch of fonts. If you want a better handle on the fonts you have, here's an article on pruning your fonts in Mac OS X, and a few more tips too. If you really want to go whole hog, check out Apple's typography site.

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Monday, June 21, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:18:00 PM:

Get that Gmail

Here's a way to put your old e-mail into Google's Gmail—if you have Gmail, that is.

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# 9:30:00 AM:

Brain freeze

It's been hot in Vancouver this week—32 degrees Celsius on our back porch most afternoons. One thing I regret as a diabetic is that I can't have a Slurpee—and it's unlikely a diet version will come anytime soon. The main reason slush drinks stay semi-liquid is their high sugar content. Trying to make one with sugar-free pop syrup just leads to a big flavoured chunk of undrinkable ice. (I've tried.)

UPDATE: The diet Slurpee has existed for some months now—as Google would have told me if I'd just looked. But I've never seen one in Canada. Perhaps I can find one next time I travel to the States. Thanks, Fazal.

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Saturday, June 19, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:39:00 AM:

Saying no

The other day the outgoing and incoming executives of the Editors' Association of Canada, B.C. Branch had our transition meeting. (I'm one of the outgoings.) As we chatted, the topic of saying no came up—most of us are freelance editors, and in each of our careers there come potential clients whom we must turn down. That's a good thing when we're just too busy to take more work, and at the very least an ambivalent thing when we need the work, but the client just feels wrong for whatever reason.

Web usability company 37signals recently turned down a big contract because of contract terms they and the client couldn't come to an agreement about. I admire them for that, and expect they'll get more work out of sticking to their principles than if they had given in.

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Friday, June 18, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:06:00 PM:

I'm happy to pay if I can do what I want with what I buy

This piece is quite long, but you should read it. Excerpts:

Here are the two most important things to know about computers and the Internet:

  1. A computer is a machine for rearranging bits
  2. The Internet is a machine for moving bits from one place to another very cheaply and quickly

Any new medium that takes hold on the Internet and with computers will embrace these two facts, not regret them.

and...

What [business analyst firm] Mako is saying is that just because you bought the CD doesn't mean that you should expect to have the ability to listen to it on your MP3 player, and just because it plays on your MP3 player is no reason to expect it to run as a ringtone. I wonder how they feel about alarm clocks that will play a CD to wake you up in the morning? Is that strangling the nascent "alarm tone" market?

The essential argument is that, in the long run, denying the nature of the Internet, and preventing people and companies from working with things in new ways, does no one—not even those who are pushing those ideas—any good.

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Thursday, June 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:48:00 PM:

Verified By Visa did not actually want my non-existent U.S. Social Security Number

Here, a lesson in hunting down a poor piece of web error handling, in the form of a lightly edited exchange between a cranky customer (played by me) and my credit union's polite but script-driven customer service representatives (played by two kind VanCity employees whose names I won't reveal):

From: Derek K. Miller

Hi. I'm trying to set up a Verified by Visa account for my VanCity Visa because of some online shopping sites I like.

One big problem: it won't let me. I go through the whole process, then it tells me that "The Social Security Number supplied does not match our records on this card. Please verify the Social Security Number you typed. If this problem persists please contact us for help. (20080)"

The difficulty is that YOUR FORM DOESN'T ASK FOR A SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER. (Or Social Insurance Number, as it should be in Canada.) I can't correct information that the form doesn't even let me enter!

In other words, I'm stuck. I can't get an account, and I can't shop where I want to shop. Not only is Verified by Visa keeping my card secure, it's keeping my money secure too, because I can't spend it.

Any suggestions?

Oh, and did anyone actually try to use this service before deploying it?

Incidentally, I'm using a Mac with the Safari browser, if that makes a difference.

From: Visa Centre

Thank you for your e-mail. Please go to this website address to register.

If you require further assistance, you may contact the Visa Centre directly at (604) 877-4999 or toll-free at 1-800-611-8472.

We thank you for allowing us to assist you.

From: Derek K. Miller

The site you have given me is no help, since it was exactly where I had the problem I described below. I've since tried other web browsers, and have the same issue. I find phone calls inconvenient for this sort of issue, so perhaps you can forward this e-mail to someone who deals more directly with Verified By Visa and who may be able to fix things.

Here is the situation as I understand it (an educated guess):

1. Verified By Visa requires a Social Security Number from its U.S. applicants.

2. VanCity, being Canadian, does not request a SSN, since Canadians don't have them. On the VanCity partner form, there is no space for a SSN or a Canadian SIN.

3. I'm guessing that Verified By Visa nevertheless includes programming code stating that the SSN is required for everyone, and when it doesn't appear, it rejects the application, as it did mine.

4. Since VanCity does not include any space for an SSN or SIN, there is no way for me to "correct" the number, since there is nowhere to enter it.

So, in short, VanCity members do not seem to be able to apply successfully for the Verified By Visa program. Does anyone at VanCity know whether any VanCity member has successfully applied for Verified By Visa online? As far as I can tell, there is no way for that to happen, so I'm suggesting that the form, or the Verified By Visa code, get fixed.

In the meantime, I'll use another credit card for the online transactions I'm trying to do—and VanCity and Visa will lose out on the transaction fees you would otherwise have received.

Thanks!

From: Visa Centre

Thank you for your email. Kindly be advised that the registration process does not require a Social Security Number or Social Insurance Number. However, The registration process for Verified by Visa does require a 3-digit code from the back of your VISA card. The website refers to this 3-digit code as the "Signature Panel Code". The code is located in the signature strip on the back of your VISA card.

If you require further assistance, you may contact the Visa Centre directly at (604) 877-4999 or toll-free at 1-800-611-8472.

We thank you for allowing us to assist you.

From: Derek K. Miller

I have entered the Signature Panel Code, correctly, each of the six or more times I have tried to register through this process. That is not the problem. Kindly be advised that the error message reported by the securesite.net web page is:

"The Social Security Number supplied does not match our records on this card. Please verify the Social Security Number you typed. If this problem persists please contact us for help. (20080)"

It is not asking for the Signature Panel Code, but a (U.S.) Social Security Number. Re-entering the Signature Panel Code results in the same error. It seems that there is a problem with the Verified By Visa online application process, not with the data I am entering, which I have re-checked and re-entered on multiple occasions.

I'm a website software developer. I've tried a number of methods to identify the source of this problem as well as I can. As far as I can tell, and as I have reported to you twice, the web page seems to require information which it does not allow me to enter. It looks like a design problem in the securesite.net software, which is not something I, as your customer, can fix. VanCity, Visa, or securesite.net has to fix it.

Rather than using your standard script to get me to try further standard procedures, could you please forward this e-mail to someone who can do something about the problem code on your website, or at least communicate with me so I can describe the problem more technically?

And I must ask again, has any VanCity member successfully registered for Verified By Visa online? If so, I want to know how they did it, because as far as I can tell it is currently impossible.

Thank you.

From: Visa Centre

Thank you for your email. In order to assist us in isolating the problem, would it be possible for you to email us a print-screen of the error message on the website? As our website does not require a Social Insurance Number or Social Security Number for registration, it would be very helpful if we were able to see a print-screen or a screen shot of the problem.

We can assure you that many VanCity Visa members have registered successfully using our registration.

Before responding to your email this morning, I did test the system by completing the registration process myself using my own VanCity Visa card information, and did not experience any difficulty.

Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience you are experiencing. We anticipate that we will be able to resolve the problem once we are able to seen a screen shot of the error.

From: Derek K. Miller

Thanks for your prompt reply, and sorry for being snippy earlier. I have identified the problem, and attached screenshots showing it in action to the end of this message. [Not in this web version - D.]

THE PROBLEM: The form asks for a month and year of birth, but does not specify that it must be that of the primary account holder, not of the person whose name appears on the card, if they're different. When an incorrect birthdate is given, the error message is wrong, and asks for a Social Security Number instead.

DETAILS: In my case, I have a card with my name on it, but my wife is the primary account holder. When I entered her birthdate information, the process worked fine, without the error.

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS: It would be worth noting the primary account holder birthdate requirement on the form, since most people (as I did) would probably assume that the person whose name is on the card is the one whose birthdate you want—and in many cases, they will be the same, but not always.

And the error message DOES say Social Security Number, which doesn't help! :) If the error message were accurate ("Please enter the primary account holder's month and year of birth."), I probably would have gotten through this process the first time. Even better would be if the process accepted the actual cardholder's birthdate.

Perhaps you can get this information sent to the VbV team so they can fix the error. Thanks for your efforts with this.

From: Visa Centre

Thank you for your email. I am very pleased to hear that you were able to determine the problem. Thank you for forwarding the screen shots. I will forward all of the information to the appropriate parties for further review. Thank you very much for your suggestions on how we can improve our Verified by Visa website. Once again, please accept our apologies for the inconvenience this has caused.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:22:00 PM:

New Apple keyboards can still do power-button things without a power button

Lincoln Ramsay left a comment on an old post of mine about the Apple Pro Keyboard, linking to an Apple article that shows you can do nearly everything the old power button did (sleep, shut down, restart, etc.), using a new Apple keyboard that lacks a power button. Well, everything except turn your computer on, anyway.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:27:00 PM:

Entourage 2004 and fixed-width font display

UPDATE: For some mysterious reason, using Apple's own MPW (Macintosh Programmers' Workshop) font (quite similar to ProFont, and available from the company's developer FTP site) solves the ligature problem. The curly quotes and other plain-text abominations can be deactivated using Entourage's Tools > AutoCorrect > AutoFormat settings. Thanks to Dan Crevier for the suggestions.

I'm trying out the Microsoft Office 2004 Test Drive, a 30-day free downloadable (180 MB) trial version of Microsoft's latest for the Mac. I want to see if there's enough in there to justify upgrading from my current Office v.X setup.

For me, that means evaluating only Word and the Entourage e-mail/address book/calendar application. I spend most of my day in Entourage and write in Word, but hardly ever launch PowerPoint or Excel. So here's the problem:

Entourage 2004 text on left, with ligatures and quotes highlighted, compared to Entourage v.X on the right

See the ligature (the "fi" combined into one character)? The curly quotes and apostrophes? The increased line spacing? In a monospaced font like ProFont 9 point, which I prefer, they're ugly, distracting, and pointless. I can't figure out how to turn them off.

If it turns out there's no way to deactivate them, I won't be upgrading. That's a pretty subtle way for Microsoft to lose a sale, isn't it?

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# 5:05:00 PM:

Do-do-do-do-do

I could read music tolerably well back when I was a classical guitar student, 25 years ago, but when I quit that in 1982, I forgot everything. By the time I took up the drums in the late '80s, I couldn't read a note—and as a trained-by-ear drummer, it turned out I didn't need to.

But now that my six-year-old daughter is taking piano, at her own insistence, I'm learning it again. (And I have to say that Western musical notation makes a lot more sense on the piano than it does on the guitar.) Today my daughter wrote her first little tune, and we figured out together how to write down the notes so we don't forget it. I went looking for music notation paper templates online.

Once we've written it out cleanly, perhaps we'll try a bizarro arrangement in GarageBand and post the song here for you to listen to.

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Monday, June 14, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:41:00 AM:

Arc of a diver

Fifteen years ago I was finishing the third year of my B.Sc. degree in Marine Biology by taking a course on oceanic invertebrates at the Bamfield Marine Station on Vancouver Island.

The station has a large dock, at which the heritage steamship Lady Rose moors when bringing passengers and mail to Bamfield every other day. The dock surface is a good five or six metres above the water, depending on the tide, and one hot day in summer 1989 a bunch of us students decided to jump off it to go swimming.

Most of us did as you would expect, leaping off with arms and legs flailing, landing with a messy, loud, slightly painful splash, then spluttering in the water as we swam out of the way of those who followed us. But one student used to be a competitive diver. While I forget her name, I remember distinctly how she looked as she jumped. She took off, then scissored her stocky body, sheathed in a featureless black bathing suit, so that she touched her toes in the air before descending, arrow-straight and head-first, with a quiet ploop as the water swallowed her up. She surfaced a few seconds later, with hardly a bubble trail behind her.

I've never achieved anything that physically elegant with my body. Sure, I can play the drums, and while it is a physical skill, it's not much to watch. I admire those who can move both efficiently and beautifully like that.

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Friday, June 11, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:27:00 PM:

Spooky statues and waterfall spray

I fixed the photo link below. I'd forgotten the http:// prefix on the address, so it gave a "file not found" error. It should work now.

Last year, some old friends of mine from UBC traveled to South America and environs. They took lots of photos. Evie and Johan are getting married next month, after dating for well over 15 years now, I think. About time, you two.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 5:01:00 PM:

Big ol' white lump

Top 10 cool things about our new eMac:

  1. The flat CRT screen rocks
  2. Fast User Switching rocks
  3. Exposé rocks
  4. Compared to its seven-year-old, 266 MHz G3 predecessor, the 1.25 GHz G4 processor really rocks
  5. FireWire backup with Carbon Copy Cloner or Retrospect rocks
  6. iChat AV rocks
  7. Playing DVDs rocks
  8. Making our own DVDs rocks
  9. GarageBand rocks (quite genuinely)
  10. Airport Express/AirTunes will rock

Top 10 not-so-cool things about our new eMac:

  1. It weighs 50 pounds
  2. No carrying handles
  3. Non-mirrored external video requires an unsupported hack
  4. The location of the power button is dumb (yeah, I know, Sleep instead of Shut Down, but still...)
  5. Comes with the new Apple Keyboard, not the old (and better) Apple Pro Keyboard (I put my old one on there)
  6. Unlike some of those old iMacs, it generates quite a bit of heat, and so requires a fan (and you can't see through it either)
  7. If I ever want to put in a bigger hard drive, it will be a major hassle
  8. When using Fast User Switching, the sound from other logged-in users can leak through to the current user (such as my daughter's Jumpstart Preschool game running under Mac OS 9, which kept asking me "Do you wanna play or what?" while I was trying to write)
  9. Our old LaserWriter requires a USB-to-parallel adapter
  10. The new-ish Mac OS X Finder is still kinda lame

A piece of advice for eMac buyers: spring for the stand, as we did.

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# 6:54:00 AM:

Cash or brains?

Mark Cuban is famous for having lots of money and owning a sports team. I don't care about that, but he knows what he's talking about when discussing startup companies (via Tim Bray):

Investors don't care about your dreams and goals. They love that you have them. They love that they motivate you. Investors care about how they are going to get their money back and then some. [...] The minute you slide off course from the promises you made to get the money, your dreams fall in jeopardy. You will find yourself making promises to keep investors at bay. You will find yourself avoiding your investors. Then you will find yourself on the outside looking in. [...]

There are only two reasonable sources of capital for startup entrepreneurs, your own pocket and your customers pockets. [But] You shouldn't have to take money from anyone. Businesses don't have to start big. The best ones start small enough to suit the circumstances of their founders. [...]

So what's wrong with that? It's OK to start slow. It's ok to grow slow. As much as you want to think that all things would change if you only had more cash available, they probably won't.

The reality is that for most businesses, they don't need more cash, they need more brains.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:28:00 AM:

Aaah! I just want to change the channel!

Many people disagree with web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, but his latest article, on remote control anarchy, is right on the money.

Oh, and the eMac came yesterday, a day earlier than I expected. It's pretty cool.

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Monday, June 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:44:00 PM:

More AirStuff

Apple's new AirPort Express and AirTunes (available next month) are a pretty slick combination. Other companies have made it possible to play MP3s and other audio files from your computer to stereo systems in your house, but this is the easiest-looking setup yet.

The only disadvantage? You still have to run the music selection from your computer, instead of at your stereo.

Oh, and here's a good point:

In the hands of a typical user, a six-month-old Mac is almost certainly in similar working condition as when it left the store; a six-month-old Windows PC, on the other hand, is likely to be infested with multiple instances of crapware. And if it's not, it's likely because the poor sap who bought it just got done reinstalling from scratch.

All the computers at our house are behind a digital firewall, yet I still have to be extra-vigilant with the Windows boxes about various sorts of viruses, Trojan horses, and other (as Gruber puts it) "crapware."

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Sunday, June 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:57:00 PM:

Three score

When I was 20 years old, in 1989, I was finishing off a degree in Marine Biology, writing for a campus newspaper, and getting involved in student council at university. Sixty years ago, many young Canadian 20-year-old men were sloshing into the waves on the beaches of Normandy, or parachuting in behind enemy lines, to begin the massive offensive that eventually defeated Nazi Germany the next year.

Many of those young men died on the spot, cut down by bullets or bombs or mines, drowned in the sea, or fallen from the sky. When I was 20, I was part man, part boy, and so were those soldiers. The ones who came back to Canada lived their lives and had families and jobs. By 35, they were, on average, well established in careers in the late-'50s boom years. In many ways, they were then very similar to me now.

But of course, I never saved the world.

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# 8:54:00 PM:

Searchalicious

More than you ever wanted to know about Google. (Via Buzzworthy.)

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# 3:52:00 PM:

Never mind

While I was whining and complaining about the supposed ten-day delay in delivering my new computer, Apple went and shipped the thing. So, less than 15 hours after I was told that it was being delayed ten days, it left the factory. According to FedEx, it's already left Memphis. (California » Tennessee » Vancouver? The twisted logic of modern transportation. I expect it will come via Ontario or something.)

I'm guessing I'll have it Tuesday, which was roughly what I originally expected. Maybe there's something to be said for the old days, when you didn't know where a package was until it arrived.

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Saturday, June 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:47:00 AM:

How to annoy customers

I was pleasantly surprised when I ordered our eMac a few days ago that the accessories shipped the next day, and the custom-built computer itself was to ship "on or before" yesterday.

It turns out that didn't happen. There's nothing shocking about that—while it's quite possible, with today's online ordering and just-in-time computer manufacturing (pioneered by Dell), to build a custom machine in three days, sometimes there's a backlog, or parts are unavailable, or whatever. I understand that.

But Apple could make the delay clear and minimize the inconvenience by communicating better about it. Yes, I can check the status of my order. But right up to 11:59 pm last night, it still read "on or before 06/04/2004." Then, as midnight passed, suddenly it was "on or before 06/14/2004." An instant ten-day delay.

I doubt it actually will take another ten days (otherwise it would have been silly to estimate four days to start with), but Apple's systems obviously have some software that automatically adds ten days to the estimated ship date when orders slip past the original estimate. But I received no e-mail, the web page doesn't indicate that anything has actually changed (no "DELAYED" flag, for instance), and there's no background about why the delay, or whether the ten days is realistic.

So, in the space of a few seconds, I went from someone thinking "Hmm, maybe my computer will actually ship today, how cool" to "Those bastards! They were lying all along!"

What could Apple do better?

  1. Perhaps put a longer initial estimate on the shipping date. If four days isn't realisitic for the vast, vast majority of orders, it would be better for people to be a bit disappointed initially, then pleased if things move out earlier.

  2. If there is a delay, make it clear on the order status page, and try to note it before the last minute of the day when the shipment was originally supposed to go out—like maybe a few hours before, when the people building machines go home for the day or the weekend.

  3. Send a follow-up e-mail apologizing for the delay, giving reasons (even if they're boilerplate, listing the usual reasons why delays happen, such as parts unavailability, unusual workloads, or whatever), and explaining whether the revised ship date is a true estimate, an automated ten-day bump, or just a worst-case scenario.

That's the kind of information I'd expect from my local computer dealer. There's no reason I should expect less from the manufacturer's online store, rather than what I'm getting, which is (as Girl-E writes) "a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a low-carb tortilla." It would make me feel better, at least, and more likely to buy something there again in the future.

Note that the things I'm suggesting here require no changes whatsoever in Apple's efficiency in actually building and shipping systems, just better communication about how it's going for my order in particular. As it is, I know not to believe the shipping estimates the Apple Store gives me at first, which isn't the best reputation for it to have.

UPDATE: Apple did, in the end, send the e-mail—but my spam filter caught it, so I didn't see it right away. It's actually pretty good, reading: "Due to an unexpected delay, we now anticipate shipping the following item(s) as follows: Z0AE, EMAC 1.25GHZ/SD CTO will now ship on or before 06/14/2004. We regret any inconvenience this delay may cause." Then there are instructions for changing or canceling the order, or phoning someone for more information.

So maybe I was a bit hasty. Still, it would be good to know what kind of "unexpected delay" we're talking about, and why the delay is nearly three times as long as the original shipping estimate.

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Friday, June 04, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:36:00 PM:

Must... wait... for... page... load...

As an experiment, I'm posting this from a seven-year-old computer running Netscape 4.7 over a dialup Internet connection.

How did I ever tolerate it this way?

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Thursday, June 03, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:31:00 AM:

It's not rocket science

See what I mean? (Via Roland.)

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# 11:09:00 AM:

We live in the future

Okay, we don't all have jetpacks and wear silver suits, but we are living in the future. Imagine telling someone even 20 years ago that I'd be able to sit down at a computer in my kitchen and, in real time, know this:

  1. A company sending a package to me called FedEx for pickup at 7:08 in the evening on Tuesday.
  2. The pickup took place in Rancho Cordova, California, the next afternoon at 1:26.
  3. The package left the FedEx Sacramento sorting facility at 8:33 pm.
  4. It arrived in Spokane, Washington, at 3:56 this morning.
  5. By 8:11 this morning, it was across the border and out the door in Richmond, B.C., not far from my house.
  6. At 9:08 it arrived at the local FedEx office, a few minutes down the hill from me.
  7. They put in on a truck to deliver to me at 10:13 am.
  8. As I was typing this entry, the box arrived at my doorstep at 10:55.

Our 1984 listener would be amazed. Never mind the wireless network and high-speed worldwide data connection I used to get the information.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:27:00 PM:

Just one little extra thing

Buying something online is fun because you can browse and pick and choose at your leisure, then have it delivered to your door. But it doesn't have the same immediacy as going to a store and picking something up. There are other peculiar frustrations too.

Take our new eMac, for instance. I ordered it in the wee hours of Monday morning, when nearly any store would have been closed. It's a custom-built configuration, with a bunch of accessories, so I knew it would take a few days to be ready. The nice thing is that we can check at any time on the status of the order, to find out if it's been shipped, and if so, where the package is.

And yes, last night at about 7:00 pm, the order shipped. Sort of. We'd chosen to ship the various things we ordered when each was ready, rather than only when everything was set to go—because I'd heard horror stories of someone's brand new top-of-the-line computer being delayed by the mysterious unavailability of a spare wall plug or something.

So now Apple is shipping us an external FireWire hard disk, a tilt-and-swivel stand, two video adapters, and a USB MIDI musical keyboard interface, all of which should arrive tomorrow. Everything we need for our new computer system—except the computer.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:27:00 AM:

Love without price

Somehow, when my wife and I got engaged a decade ago, she was kind enough to prevent me from suffering from engagement ring angst (Wall Street Journal article link via Buzzworthy). I was, at the time, a poor musician. We didn't have the traditional down-on-the-knee proposal. My wife found a ring she liked—a row of alternating white and blue sapphires, not a diamond—and we had one made for me to match (we both still wear ours—mine is on my right ring finger).

I certainly fall into the same camp as Jeff Opdyke, author of the article, when he writes, "What is it, though, guys like me wonder, that makes [some] women think that costlier is better in the context of marriage?" I like buying my wife jewelry, and she certainly enjoys wearing it, but spending $10,000 or $25,000 (US!) on a ring instead of, say, a genuinely fabulous vacation, or a chunk of down payment on a house, or some amazing handcrafted furniture, or even a car, seems to me close to insanity. Especially when the price of diamonds is set not by any intrinsic worth, but by a shady worldwide cartel that has been involved in nasty civil wars in Africa, among other things.

I'd certainly love to spend $25,000 on my wife, but there are likely many much better ways to do it if I can ever afford that.

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# 7:16:00 AM:

Get on the bus

Twenty years ago, Richard Campbell was one of a bunch of people I knew peripherally through the local Vancouver computer bulletin board system (BBS) community. A couple of years later we met in person, then became part of a large group of modem geeks—including Dave and Alistair—who hung out late at night, went camping at Long Beach on Vancouver Island, and did many silly things. Now he's a big database expert and, this month, (reluctantly) has a weblog:

I've always considered blogs a plague, just the vomit of the masses upon the Internet. Now its my turn to hurl.

I'm glad to be able to keep up with his activities without actually having to (gasp) contact him or anything. And that little "CDF" icon at the bottom of his page is quite retro, very 1998.

Thanks to Mark in the Cayman Islands for the pointer.

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