Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: December 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.

Thursday, December 30, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:33:00 PM:

Answers to tsunami questions

NOTE: I've combined all my various writings about tsunamis from December 2004 and January 2005, including this entry, into a single tsunami article, which might make a good introductory reference.

Following my earlier posts about the Indian Ocean tsunami, a couple of people have asked questions about it. Here are my responses. Keep in mind that I am not a tsunami expert, just someone with a marine biology degree who did some research on them 15 years ago, and who has maintained an interest in this fascinating but awful phenomenon.

Tsunami "drawdown": why did the water retreat first?

The first was from Petula Brown, who was actually vacationing in Phuket when the tsunami hit and witnessed it first-hand. She wrote:

I am still confused about the water retreating as where we were the water disappeared for five or nearly ten minutes allowing people to wander out to investigate more. Why would the water remain out for so long. The first wave was more like a fast rising tide but the waves to follow were crashing monsters destroying everything in its way. Fortunately the sleeping rooms of our resort were 105 steps up from the beach so people were injured but no one from our resort died.

Dr. Stephen Nelson's very technical page from Tulane University provides an explanation of why the water retreated before the tsunami waves arrived:

If the trough of the tsunami wave reaches the coast first, this causes a phenomenon called drawdown, where it appears that sea level has dropped considerably.  Drawdown is followed immediately by the crest of the wave which can catch people observing the drawdown off guard. When the crest of the wave hits, sea level rises (called run-up). [...]

Because the wavelengths and velocities of tsunami are so large, the period of such waves is also large, and larger than normal ocean waves.  Thus it may take several hours for successive crests to reach the shore.  (For a tsunami with a wavelength of 200 km traveling at 750 km/hr, the wave period is about 16 minutes).  Thus people are not safe after the passage of the first large wave, but must wait several hours for all waves to pass. The first wave may not be the largest in the series of waves. For example, in several different recent tsunami the first, third, and fifth waves were the largest."

Essentially, the low water level is just as much a part of the tsunami as the big wave, because tsunamis are waves with very long wavelengths, and waves have both crests (the peak of the tsunami wave) and troughs (the bottom of the same wave).

If the trough reaches shore first, the water level will lower dramatically, far below the normal lowest tide, before the crest comes rushing in. Some areas will encounter the peak first, some the trough, which is why low water levels are not always present before tsunami waves arrive. Following the crest that caused the initial destruction, the following trough is what dragged people and debris back out to sea, followed by the subsequent waves.

How big does an earthquake have to be to create a tsunami?

It's not so much how big, as what kind and where. Obviously, a huge earthquake far inland can't create a tsunami in the ocean, but Walt Davis had an interesting question:

I read your article on tsunami wave and found the information useful. I read a U.S. Goverment paper that stated that only a 7.5 quake or larger can produce a tsunami. Do you know if this is corrrect?

As far as I understand it, that's not true, because it doesn't have to be an earthquake that causes a tsunami, and it has more to do with the type and location of the earthquake as well as the topography of the sea bottom and shoreline than earthquake magnitude.

A tsunami can arise (at least locally) from something like a landslide in a lake or fjord. The key is that a significant amount of water has to be displaced suddenly—if it is confined to a narrow channel, "significant" may not be all that much, compared to big tsunamis like that in the Indian Ocean. Some examples from my part of the world:

  • A landslide with no significant associated earthquake generated waves that ran up 150 metres (450+ feet!) in (uninhabited) Lituya Bay, Alaska, in 1936.
  • A similar event, also in Alaska, as recently as 1994 created waves 7.6 m (25 feet) high, and there are lots more on this page, plenty of which are below 7.5 magnitude.
  • At the extreme end, an 8.2 magnitude quake in 1958 in southeastern Alaska didn't create a Pacific-wide tsunami, but created local tsunamis that ran up more than 500 metres (1500 feet) above sea level (the largest ever recorded)—again at Lituya Bay.

You could, however, argue that many of these events are simply monstrous waves, and not really tsunamis—if your definition of a tsunami is that it must be not only big, but energetic enough to cross significant stretches of ocean. It may be that a large, ocean-wide tsunami created by a seafloor quake alone does require a magnitude of 7.5+ to generate enough energy, but there are also many other circumstances (volcanic eruptions, meteor impacts) that could do so otherwise.

In addition, a big quake that moves laterally (sideways, not up or down) can be way above 7.5 magnitude, but not cause a tsunami—which is why the 1906 San Francisco quake and later smaller ones in southern California, which occur on the lateral-moving San Andreas fault, haven't created tsunamis.

Risky geology off the Pacific Northwest coast?

Finally, Walt also asked:

Another questain is about a underwater fault line that runs off the Northwest coast. Do you happen to know the name of it.

There are five separate tectonic plates in this region: in order of size, the Pacific Plate, the North America Plate, the Juan de Fuca Plate, the Explorer Plate, and the South Gorda Plate.

The two major north-south lateral faults are the San Andreas, running through California and reaching the sea at San Francisco Bay, and the Queen Charlotte, running just west of the Queen Charlotte Islands. There are ocean spreading ridges between some of the plates, and the Cascadia Subduction Zone forms a trench just offshore from Vancouver Island and the Washington, Oregon, and northern California coasts.

I guess the best name for what you're looking for is the Cascadia Trench or Cascadia Subduction Zone—that's the region most prone to a strong vertical earthquake, and to potentially generating a tsunami.

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# 1:43:00 PM:

Before and after tsunami photos: Banda Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia

NOTE: I've combined all my various writings about tsunamis from December 2004 and January 2005, including this entry, into a single tsunami article, which might make a good introductory reference.

This 1.0 MB PDF file from Digital Globe, a satellite photo service, includes copies and analysis of overhead photos of the city of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, from before and after the Boxing Day tsunami. After looking at them and imagining similar damage where you live, you can understand why tens of thousands are dead in that city alone.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:04:00 AM:

Tsunami relief donations via PayPal

NOTE: I've combined all my various writings about tsunamis from December 2004 and January 2005, including this entry, into a single tsunami article, which might make a good introductory reference.

UPDATE: PayPal is now accepting direct donations for UNICEF at donations.paypal.com, while over on Kevin's site, more than 300 people have raised over $8000 USD, and the first $1000 has already been donated.

I've searched around for a way to donate some of the extra money in my PayPal account to tsunami disaster relief in Asia, but none of the major aid agencies, nor PayPal itself, has a way to do that. (Hint hint! Amazon's doing it! Get with it, guys.)

Fortunately, a writer named Kevin McDonald has set up a page on his personal website to let you do that. I don't know him, and can't vouch directly for the donations, but his site looks good, and will route the money through AmeriCares, which is a reputable relief charity.

If you have spare balance in PayPal, it's a convenient and essentially painless way to donate. I sent $20 USD—like me, I'm sure you can forgo some of those Boxing Week eBay purchases, right?

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# 10:28:00 AM:

Gourmet New Year's with rock-n-roll chaser

A version of my band is playing an excellent New Year's Eve party this Friday, at one of Vancouver's fine restaurants: Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House at Thurlow and Robson streets in downtown Vancouver.

While the price seems steep—$115 plus taxes and tip, per person—it's actually a great deal, since you get a five-course gourmet meal (which, based on our show there last year, is truly excellent), as well as champagne and, of course, rockin' live music.

If you're looking for something to do New Year's Eve, and fine food and music sound good to you, contact the Joe Fortes booking staff and see if there's still room. If not, maybe we'll see you next year?

NOTE: To clear up any confusion: the info page says "Adam Woodall Band," but while Adam is indeed in the band, the rest of us are the usual crew from The Neurotics and HourGlass. The regular Adam Woodall Band has the night off.

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# 1:30:00 AM:

Listen to the man

Jared Diamond: "It's an argument so ingrained both in our subconscious and in public discourse that it has assumed the status of objective reality. We think we are different. In fact, of course, all of those powerful societies of the past thought that they too were unique, right up to the moment of their collapse."

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# 1:00:00 AM:

Fix your parents' computer less often

Bill bought his mom a new flat-panel iMac for Christmas. It's a fine gift from a son, but it wasn't entirely altruistic. She had a Windows computer before, and he had to fix it all the time. The Mac will require less work from him, so when he visits his mom he can talk to her instead of wrestling with her computer's operating system.

Before we introduced my in-laws to the Mac in 2000, they'd never really used computers before. They're still running the same old iMac, with the same basic Mac OS 9 installation, as they were four and a half years ago when it was brand new. I've performed some upgrades, installed some software, and fixed a few things, but nothing major. They hooked up their own cable modem too, and it continues to work fine. But I fear to think what their system would be like if it ran Windows. They probably would have given up on their original machine once it reached Cruft Force 6, and bought one (or two) replacements by now.

If you're still stuck fixing your parents' (or cousins', or friends') Windows computers, here's some good advice on what to do. Or you could take Bill's route and get them (or at least have them get) a Mac. (If you're brave, you could install Linux for them instead, but if you're the sort who's inclined to do that, you're probably way ahead of me on this train of thought.)

By the way, as I've mentioned before, my dad has way more computer-geek street cred than I probably ever will. He sure doesn't need my help fixing his computers. Whew.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:06:00 AM:

Yorkville XM100C - a fine small bass combo amplifier

[Derek's bass gear, January 2005]For a few months now I've been looking at getting a new bass amplifier, since I'm interested in teaching myself more about playing bass guitar, in addition to the regular guitar and drums I already play.

I had hoped to sell my big honking Ampeg amp first; so far there has been interest, but no sale. So today a friend and I bundled up the kids in the station wagon, headed down to Long & McQuade, and picked up the Yorkville XM100C, which was my top candidate of the small combo amps I had considered.

What sold me on the Yorkville was its solid sound, obviously hardy construction, good company reputation, simple operation, decent set of features, and excellent warranty—two years of repairs "even if you break it," plus another eight of more standard warranty coverage. Plus it's made in Canada—right on, eh? In addition, Yorkville posts complete instruction manuals and even service documentation online, including full parts lists, circuit-board diagrams, and factory blueprint schematics.

The website includes a range of other free documents, from the company's history to lists of knobs and potentiometers used in their products (!), service bulletins, and a full product line parts catalogue. This isn't a company that tries to make money by keeping secrets about its products. Plus the XM100C amp was cheaper than the competition. Wow.

My particular amp is a former rental unit, but has been cleaned and inspected well enough that it looks and sounds new. With Boxing Week prices in effect, it was a 30% discount from the regular price, so I was able to add a Boss Limiter/Enhancer pedal (giving the XM100C two features it lacks compared to much more expensive amplifiers) and still come out ahead of where I had expected.

It's late now, but a quick test with my Precision Bass and headphones yields the warm, buttery bass sound I was seeking. I'm pleased.

Now, does anybody want that old amp?

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Monday, December 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:01:00 AM:

Indian Ocean tsunami explained visually

NOTE: I've combined all my various writings about tsunamis from December 2004 and January 2005, including this entry, into a single tsunami article, which might make a good introductory reference.

This excellent animation (much larger 3.6 MB QuickTime version and 760 KB extended-time GIF version also available) from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows why Sri Lanka, in particular, was hit so hard by yesterday's tsunami: the quake was not a focused point on the ocean sloor, but a north-south line near Indonesia, and the most intense wave moved directly west, unobstructed, across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka and southeastern India. That also explains why the wave could reach Africa and still kill people thousands of kilometres and several hours away.

UPDATE: The Wikipedia, which is collectively written and edited by anyone with a web connection who wants to contribute, has turned into a stupendously thorough news and information resource about this disaster. In addition to the links below, it includes a series of other graphics that help explain the event, and the main news article has been edited more than 500 times, with each change refining and deepening the coverage with material from all over traditional and non-traditional media worldwide. It is the best starting point for finding out about the catastrophe by far. Darren Barefoot also has some good links to first-person accounts.

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Sunday, December 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:43:00 PM:

Tsunami info

NOTE: I've combined all my various writings about tsunamis from December 2004 and January 2005, including this entry, into a single tsunami article, which might make a good introductory reference.

About 15 years ago, during an oceanography course that was part of my marine biology degree, I wrote a paper on tsunamis—huge surface waves created in the ocean, usually by earthquakes or other seismic events. Tsunamis are often far more dangerous than the earthquakes that generate them, and today's widespread Indian Ocean disaster shows why.

A magnitude 8.9 or 9.0 earthquake is massive on its own: this morning's event was the fourth largest ever recorded. Tsunamis aside, it killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people on the northwest coast of Sumatra as structures collapsed. Nothing has shaken the earth's crust as hard since 1964, when a 9.2 quake took place in Prince William Sound in Alaska. Four years earlier than that, the largest quake known, of magnitude 9.5, hit Chile.

But tsunamis resulting from such earthquakes are, in many respects, the worse danger, because while even a huge earthquake is a local event, if it generates a tsunami, the effects can spread more than half way around the world. The 1960 Chile quake caused lethal tsunamis along the coast of South America, in Hawaii, and as far away as Japan; the 1964 Prince William Sound event generated waves that killed people (though not nearly as many) and did extensive damage down the west coast of North America, from Alaska to Port Alberni to the Oregon Coast and California. For most of today's victims, there was little or no warning of the waves, either because there was no time or because there is no coordinating tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean,.

Think of yourself sitting in a bathtub. If you suddenly lift or drop your body, a large wave sloshes along the tub, and might spill over the rim, even if the tub is far from full. A tsunami is essentially the same thing, with an earthquake or other event moving the ocean floor up or down and displacing titanic quanitities of water. In a bathtub, you might move a couple of dozen litres of water with such a slosh, but sea floor movements have in the past displaced more than 100 cubic kilometres of water—billions of bathtubs.

The physics of water waves means that (in general) the longer the wavelength, the faster the wave travels in the open sea. While the length of typical beach waves might be a few dozen or a few hundred metres, a tsunami might be 100 km long. Away from shore, ocean waves don't actually move water very far either, which is why ships, logs, seabirds, and anything else floating can bob up and down in even a large sea swell and not travel anywhere if there isn't a wind or current. Tsunamis are the same: since it doesn't push water ahead of it as it crosses the ocean, the energy of a tsunami wave can travel at frightening speeds—up to 800 km/h, which is as fast as a jet plane.

In the middle of the ocean, a tsunami might also be very shallow, perhaps a metre or less in height—you'd never notice it among all the other, taller swells unless you had a sea-level gauge to tell you it was passing by. But as it approaches shore and the ocean floor squeezes it (like typical surf waves), a tsunami gets shorter and taller. With its stupendous energy, a tsunami can get very tall indeed, depending on the shape of the bottom. Today's earthquake generated tsunamis 10 m (30 feet) high in some places; some tsunami waves from the 1964 Alaska quake reached 24 m (80 feet).

The stereotype of a tsunami is of a wall of water crashing down, like the giant waves surfers ride off the north coast of Oahu. Some are like that—but they also come ashore and don't retreat right away, driving roiling rivers of swirling water far inland. Other times, they act more like rising tides that just keep rising, or like rivers overspilling their banks. Often, as the wave approaches, the waterline will retreat much farther from shore than usual, and some people who die are exploring the rarely-exposed sea floor there when the big wave comes in. Tsunamis can also oscillate, so that one wave will come in, destroy things, then retreat. As residents return to begin cleaning up, another wave might arrive, perhaps bigger and more violent than the first, and maybe even hours later.

Most disheartening, tsunamis are beyond human control, and sometimes even prediction, more than nearly anything. They are not a consequence of the weather, or climate change, or any kind of human activity—or of any living thing. They're not even affected by the sun or moon. Earthquakes and tsunamis are simply the result of this humungous planet cracking and popping as it goes about its business, as it has for billions of years, and will for billions more.

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Thursday, December 23, 2004 - newest items first
# 2:57:00 PM:

Merry Christmas, everyone

Have fun this weekend. (And if you're reading this from my RSS feed, click through to the website for the holiday theme.)

Christmas light train

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:49:00 PM:

Globby glooby shapes

Back in 1994, when it released the first Power Macintosh computers, Apple included a program called Graphing Calculator. I had no idea it had such a weird and fascinating history (thanks to Dori—hope your legs get better!—for the link), or that there was a free Mac OS X version available from the original developer. Download version 1.4 and try some of the examples.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:09:00 AM:

Hardline web design

Autistic Cuckoo in Sweden has published a good (and continuing) series of articles about standards-based web design. The site takes a pretty hard line, but the articles are all informative and thought-provoking:

  1. Can invalid web code ever be called standards-compliant?
  2. XHTML vs. HTML: why pretend?
  3. Negotiating document types
  4. The web standards battle is far from over
  5. One approach to web design
  6. Relative and absolute positioning with CSS
  7. Floating elements with CSS
  8. Structural elements: the forgotten ones

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# 1:45:00 AM:

King of the world

This evening, David Letterman featured a musician named Kaki King. I'd never heard of her before. Letterman introduced her, and there she was, a hip-looking young woman, quite tiny, dwarfed by her Ovation guitar. I thought the obvious: sensitive singer-songwriter, quite possibly some prefab star who was going to karaoke her way through a Jewel-meets-Edie Brickell mope-fest.

Holy cow, was I wrong. First, she didn't sing. Second, she used the guitar oddly, with her left hand drooped over the fretboard, opposite to the usual style. Third, she was astounding—aggressive, percussive, playing a strangely urban and almost electronic composition on an acoustic guitar. So I hit Google, and there she was on the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine. Of course. Young? Pretty? Firebrand talented at solo acoustic guitar, something usually reserved for 40-year-old balding guys?

And most of the time, I hate the sound of Ovation guitars too. Bowl me over.

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Monday, December 20, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:59:00 PM:

Penguin suit

I own a tuxedo, which is unusual these days. Back in 1995, when my wife and I were married, I decided that, since renting a tux is so expensive (three rentals or so and you may as well have bought), I'd purchase a classic design and be done with it.

In the intervening years, I've had few occasions to wear it, so when the invitation for my daughters' piano recital last Sunday said "formal," I went for it. It turned out that only one of the five-year-old students and I went that far, but it was nice to be gussied up. And it led to a funny story.

The piano teacher's husband is also a pianist, and has worked as a musician (like me) for some years. He used to have a regular gig that required a tuxedo, and afterwards he and one of his bandmates would go to a local bar (where they knew the owners) for a drink. They frequently parked out back, and one evening he was standing in the alley with a cigar when up pulled a Porsche. The driver and his girlfriend exited, passed the after-work pianist the keys, and said, "Take care of the car for me."

The pianist took the keys, spun the Porsche around town for awhile, came back, and when the owner came back got a nice $10 tip.

The upshot: the only people who own tuxedoes anymore are head waiters, valets, and musicians. Make sure you don't confuse them.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:52:00 PM:

Booklist

Newley Purnell, who lives in Taiwan and of whom I'd never heard before, invited me to participate in the 2004 (i.e. second annual) Bloggers Favourite Books list, and so I did. My list is short, and includes nothing from 2004, but some of the other bloggers' do, so you win in the end.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:25:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-12-18):

  • Doug Bowman of Stopdesign (I love, love, love, love his thematically-coloured, artistically blurred page headers) has an excellent article on designing web pages for small screens.

  • Internet Explorer for Macintosh is the latest browser that leading-edge web designers are abandoning. Thanks to standards-based design, you'll still be able to browse with IE5, and the designers' pages still work, but they're no longer debugging for IE5. For anyone still using Mac OS 9, as a couple of my Macs still do, it's a sign of the eventual end of the road.

  • John Udell of InfoWorld notes that the power of weblogs is more about the networks they work in than about individual websites like this one.

  • The first article I ever posted to this website, back in early 1997, was about improving your business writing. Looks like a lot of people could use it: the New York Times's article today is "What Corporate America Can't Build: A Sentence."

  • International productions of Sesame Street have "helped create a universal children's culture."

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Friday, December 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:39:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-12-17):

NOTE: I'll be putting notes from my panel appearance at, and other stuff about, the Northern Voice blogging conference onto a page you can find at penmachine.com/voice. Right now that URL links to an older post of mine, but I will update it after the conference itself.

  • The Northern Voice conference on February 19, 2005 (at which I'm a panelist) has an events page where anyone can add and edit information about things happening around, but outside, the conference itself (ski trips, walkabouts, dinners, etc.).

  • What responsibility do software developers have for their users' data, especially when they charge for software labeled "beta," and the user in question is using the product in an unusual way? (UPDATE: Dori's position is clear on this matter, and Mary, the original poster, follows up along with her readers.)

  • Evaluating content management systems (CMSs). Are any open-source or commercial CMSs yet ready for real-world use by non-technical people?

  • Also from the same site, the gingerbread CPU. Follow the links for some even crazier stuff.

  • "The majority [of weblogs] are written for [...] nanoaudiences of known associates. The 'typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life.' (She also tends to type everything in lowercase, using capitals FOR EMPHASIS ONLY.)"

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Thursday, December 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:43:00 AM:

Techie bits

Over at my employer's website at navarik.com, we've started posting more frequent updates on our Windward company weblog. Some recent interesting stuff (largely technology-focused for now, though we hope to post shipping news more often) includes:

  • Simple built-in settings to improve the display of text on your laptop and desktop LCD monitors, if you use Mac OS X (where they're turned on by default) or Windows XP (where, sadly, they're not). They really work.

  • Academic studies from Stanford show ten ways that websites can improve their credibility with their visitors.

  • Treating computer users as if they were lab mice is not as insulting as it sounds.

  • If there are going to be software patents, here's how they should work.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:31:00 AM:

Reaching Amazon.com Customer Service by phone

You won't find it easily through the website:

Let it spread across the land like a prairie fire. Let it peal from a thousand bells. Let it fall like gentle snowflakes. Let it be known, this day, that the customer service number for Amazon is:

1-800-201-7575

You're welcome.

Yes, the number works from Canada.

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# 1:23:00 AM:

Ribbon in the sky

That's one hell of a bridge they've got there.

Now, one of those articles says that, "Amidst all this hyperbole, it's easy to overlook one of the fundamental truths of modern engineering: it is extremely hard to build an ugly bridge."

That may be true of big, suspension and cable-stayed bridges, but here in Vancouver we have several examples of bridges that are not particularly attractive.

We do have some pretty ones too. But the new French bridge is indisputably lovely (at least from a distance).

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:16:00 AM:

Promoting your blog and building traffic

NOTE: I'll be putting notes from my panel appearance at, and other stuff about, the Northern Voice blogging conference onto a page you can find at penmachine.com/voice. Right now that URL links to an older post of mine, but I will update it after the conference itself.

Okay, it's official. I don't know if this makes me a quote-unquote "expert," but at the Northern Voice weblog conference on February 19, 2005, I'm part of the official schedule on a panel about building site traffic.

My co-panelists include moderator Darren Barefoot (also from Vancouver), Suw Charman from Dorset in the U.K., and Jeremy Wright from Manitoba. Here's the obligatory "Moose is Loose" graphic:

[The Moose is Loose - Northern Voice Blog Conference 2005]

Here are some of my writings-ramblings-rantings about site promotion and stuff, in no particular order:

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# 1:02:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-12-14):

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Monday, December 13, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:15:00 PM:

Search frenzy

Maybe I'm missing something, but why is the whole desktop search battle happening? Why are MSN Desktop Search and Google Desktop Search separate programs you have to download and install? What do they do that Mac OS's Find window and Sherlock, and Microsoft's own Find Files and Folders utility, don't do?

And if all this is so cool, why hasn't it been built into operating systems instead? Have the built-in tools really been so broken all these years, and if so, why were they allowed to stay that way?

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# 11:46:00 AM:

Low end speed machine

Earlier this year we bought an eMac as our new main household computer. I chose it because it offers spectacularly good value.

MacInTouch agrees in a performance shootout today:

...all the Apple hype about the G5 falls a little short when you see the low-cost eMac, with its slower G4 processor, pushing the iMac G5 in performance. The eMac is actually faster in several real-world situations, and that raises some serious technical questions that long to be answered.

In the meantime, you'll be getting a high-performance bargain with either the eMac G4 or iBook G4, and you still can't go wrong with the iMac G5.

I have yet to find a circumstance where I'm waiting for the eMac because it's slowing me down. Looks like we made a good decision.

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Sunday, December 12, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:10:00 PM:

Curse of the sleigh bells

I like Christmas. The lights, decorations, and hustle-bustle help cheer up a pretty dreary time of year in my part of the world, where it gets dark early and frequently rains for days or weeks at a time. Even a fair bit of Christmas music is pretty good. But a lot of genuinely crappy music gets played this time of year too.

I'd like to single out something in particular: not a specific song, but a sound—the sound of sleigh bells. Over the past week, as the shopping season has ramped up, I've heard rafts of sappy, syrupy, over-produced ballads, sung by everyone from George Michael to anonymous elevator-music singing groups. That sort of material is usually pretty hard for me to tolerate, but the perfunctory shing-shing-shing of sleigh bells ladled on top ("No really! It's a Christmas song! Not just another Smooth Lite Ballad like we play in the summer!") makes it far worse.

Sure, a pleasant or swinging version of "Jingle Bells" or "Sleigh Ride" with that sound in the background is okay, though even then I prefer recordings without them. Too frequently, however, cynical artists or producers in search of airplay generate a generic slop-pop single, add some words about snow, and press a sampler keyboard to track a sleigh bell sound, creating a travesty of a Christmas tune that's really more depressing than anything else.

My proposal: ban the sound of sleigh bells on recordings altogether. Let them be the sound of Salvation Army volunteers asking for donations and (oh my) of actual sleighs for a change.

I don't hold out much hope, though. There's no one to impose or enforce such a ban, and plenty of people seem to like, or at least put up with, the ol' shing-shing-shing. Too bad.

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Friday, December 10, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:11:00 AM:

Top three funniest geek humour links of the week

  1. Films that may be more interesting with a letter or two missing. (Then again, cruel nicknames for overweight vampires was better.)
  1. IBM tries to purchase Apple, but they reach an impasse.
  1. Strong Bad gets a new computer and tries to think what animal he would be. (Why the new computer? Why not the DVD?)

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Thursday, December 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:51:00 AM:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Supremes!

As far as I know, none of my gay or lesbian friends is planning to get married soon, but it makes me a proud Canadian to know that now they'll be able to without impediment.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:02:00 PM:

I'm not over it

Nearly six years ago, CEO Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems famously said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." Today there is this report:

"I wonder if people have simply given up any notion of privacy," said Budapest-based security consultant Yanos Kovas. "In Hungary, many people who grew up under communist rule came to accept government interference in every aspect of their lives as inescapable. They were too tired to fight anymore, so they convinced themselves that communism was OK and even a benefit.

"I think some internet users are exhausted by security threats and privacy leaks and are beginning to decide to believe that spyware is necessary for the greater good. If your personal information isn't private anyway, if businesses and governments are trading it at will, then why not give a little more away and get some free software too?"

Depressing, that's what it is.

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# 10:59:00 AM:

Post-ethnicity

Yesterday's CBC national TV news feature on Vancouver included a major item on the ethnic and cultural blending in this part of the country. It was followed up by today's CBC radio feature "Marketing Diversity," on the national morning current-events program Sounds Like Canada:

Department stores across Canada are target marketing to diverse audiences this holiday season. Shelagh Rogers speaks to the marketing manager of Ikea in Canada and to two experts who say this trend reflects the increasingly diverse population of our country. Nandini Venkatesh is the marketing manager for Ikea Canada. She was in Burlington. Debi Andrus is an assistant professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. David Baxter is executive director of the Urban Futures Institute in Vancouver.

The panel on that show talked about this sort of "diversity selling" as both a reflection of reality and a leading-edge phenomenon. Around here, it's more like playing catch-up. (And it's certainly not just a Vancouver, or Canadian, phenomenon, though it is perhaps more obvious here.)

We live in Burnaby, just east of the City of Vancouver itself. As the region's population has grown, Burnaby has turned from farming outskirt to commuter suburb to urban adjunct. It's neither urbanely hip nor parochial, and demonstrates how blending cultures are changing—and especially, will change—what it means to be Vancouverite, or Canadian.

My daughter attends the same elementary school I did 30 years ago. Then, it was still mainly an enclave of white middle-class families, although with a significant proportion of families of Chinese and Indian descent. My white classmates were, like me, largely first- or second-generation Canadians, whose parents or grandparents had immigrated recently, certainly not more than a few decades earlier.

My non-white classmates were overwhelmingly either first-generation (parents as immigrants) or new Canadians themselves. We were all still heavily influenced, and circumscribed, by the traditions of our ancestors. I still recall, with embarrassment, how my friends taunted a newly-arrived student from Punjab with the name "Paki," and I'm glad I didn't join in.

Today's children, like all kids in history, can be just as cruel, but they wouldn't use a slur like that—because it would make no sense. Certainly, there remain some families at the school where both parents are of white European ancestry (like ours—although the Scottish-Polish on my wife's side and the German-Finnish on mine could hardly be called common cultures, especially during the last century), but a glance across the playground shows far more parents who look Indian or Chinese.

More importantly, the parents' backgrounds are often Indian and Chinese. Or European and Japanese, black-white, Indian-English, native-Filipino, Korean-Latino, Italian-Caribbean, Slav-Australian. Those parents are the grown-ups my classmates turned into. Look at their kids—my daughters' friends—and labels like "white" or "Oriental" or "black" or old standbys like "coloured" or "mulatto" are meaningless.

And that's just one generation. Go one or two further into the future, and you're talking about children with native-Slav-black-Korean on their mothers' sides and Caribbean-French-Japanese-Scottish on their fathers'. My blonde and brunette, blue- and green-eyed daughters will be far from the majority: they'll be just another part of the mix, and a bit more prone to sunburn than most.

How will their generation's offspring interact? Not on the basis of race or ancestry, but probably on values instead. As the CBC guests put it, "it doesn't matter if he's a 54-year-old white baby boomer—is he a vegan or not?" More academically, that Washington Post article said of "post-ethnic" Americans:

Post-ethnicity reflects not only a growing willingness—and ability—to cross cultures, but also the evolution of a nation in which personal identity is shaped more by cultural preferences than by skin color or ethnic heritage.

Of course, defining yourself by pop culture or diet rather than by skin colour or ancestral homeland has its own hazards. I doubt Canada will ever see a civil war based on people's preferences for brands of running shoes, but people are tribal, and it will be interesting to see how, and how strongly, we define our tribes now that, increasingly, the old dichotomies no longer apply.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:03:00 PM:

Smug and lovely

Tonight's edition of Canada's nation-wide CBC evening news show, "The National," was a love letter to my hometown of Vancouver. As CBC's website puts it:

(The last website is yet another on which Roland Tanglao posts weblog entries. Does the man sleep? If so, does he type at the time?)

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Monday, December 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:29:00 AM:

Speaking at Northern Voice conference, February 19, 2005

NOTE: I'll be putting notes from my panel appearance at, and other stuff about, the Northern Voice blogging conference onto a page you can find at penmachine.com/voice. Right now that URL links to an older post of mine, but I will update it after the conference itself.

It looks like I'll be part of a panel discussion on "Promoting Your Blog and Building Traffic" at the Northern Voice weblogging conference here in Vancouver, taking place at UBC Robson Square on Saturday, February 19, 2005. Conference organizers wrote to me that:

Speakers on panels are expected to give a short presentation (around 5–10 minutes) on the subject in question, and participate in the ensuing discussion. If you agree to take part, the moderator for your panel will email you and the other participants to nail down the details of the panel.

If you're interested in modern web communications, please consider coming to the conference—it's dirt cheap to attend.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:11:00 PM:

Reading the vibe

On two recent weekends, the same lineup of musicians in my band has played the same room (the Pacific Ballroom at the Hotel Vancouver), for crowds of similar size, at the same time of night. Yet the shows felt completely different.

We never use set lists—specific songs written in the order we would plan to play them—because over the years we've discovered that we have to read the room. Understanding the vibe of a particular crowd means having to pick tunes on the fly. Also, rather than asking organizers what they'd like us to play, we ask what kind of crowd it is: Young or old? What do they do for a living? Do they party down or tend to sit around and leave early? We can usually judge what people want to hear better than the organizers can, because, as professional entertainers, that's our job.

In fact, usually when we arrive onstage we're not sure what we're going to play until the lights go up. Often, the first thing we say off-microphone to one another is, "So, what are we going to start with?" Last night, we began with a pretty mellow bunch of tunes: "Moondance," "Fly Me to the Moon," and "Yesterday." But by then people were dancing, so we kicked into some more rock material quite quickly, and it took off from there.

On the other hand, two weeks earlier, the audience never really got that into it; even though they later said they loved our show, most of them enjoyed it by watching it, not by dancing so that they and we could feed off each other's energy.

Mark (a.k.a. "Bumpy Neurotic"), who played guitar and piano with us for both shows, thinks that being able to read a crowd comes from years of performing in pubs, bars, and small venues, all over hill and yon, where each of us had to read the crowd to survive as a musician. He has a good point. Paying your dues, in the rock band circuit, really means learning.

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Friday, December 03, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:46:00 AM:

Links of interest (2004-12-03):

  • The 2004 winners of the worst instruction manual contest. (I linked to the 2002 version, but forgot about it last year.)

  • When secrets make sense in software. (Summary: not very often.)

  • Ode to Word. A sample: "Even though you,/Oh mighty Word,/Are licensed to William Smith/I do not mean to type William Smith/Every time I type 'will'."

  • "If having the freedom to mess with your operating system matters to you, running Linux on your Apple hardware is going to be a better choice than running Mac OS X, no matter how Unix-like it is."

  • Yet another demonstration of why word-based censorship filtering never really works.

  • The semi-anonymous tales at Daily Adventures of Mixerman (now a book) demonstrate a small fraction of the ways in which the modern recording industry is horribly, horribly broken. Read through a few of the entries and do a rough calculation of how much money and time gets wasted trying to make a lousy rock album.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:32:00 AM:

eDanger? iDanger?

That nasty iTunes Music Store is now open for Canadian customers. Really really. And 99¢ Canadian per song, too, which is a deal over the U.S. prices.

Could be dangerous. $12 for Exile on Main Street here, a few dollars on Willie Bobo there, some Chemical Brothers, and pretty soon you've maxed out your credit card.

I'll have to resist. For now.

Oh, by the way, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, just in passing, on another topic entirely, Apple does offer iTunes gift certificates. Not that I'm mentioning it for any reason. Ahem.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:19:00 AM:

Urban = liberal?

This screed from Seattle's alternative newspaper The Stranger raises some interesting points, the most central of which is that U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry, and U.S. Democrats more generally, won by huge margins in their elections at the beginning of November—in cities, that is. In other words, in America, cities are overwhelmingly more liberal than rural areas.

Despite the stereotypes, Canada is even more urban than America: some 80% of our population lives in cities, significantly more than in the United States. Is that a major reason why Canada's politics are more left-leaning than America's?

In the world as a whole, close to half the population is urban, and the number is rising. Can we expect overall world opinion to become more liberal with time?

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