Journal: News & Comment

This is "Penmachine.com: February 2005," 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, February 28, 2005 - newest items first
# 2:04:00 PM:

Polish and shine

One thing I've discovered—and which is hard to explain to people who aren't editors—is that editing a document can take a lot longer than writing it. At my work, for instance, very smart people who have been thinking long and hard, sometimes for months, about a project can sometimes create a multi-page draft of a proposal or report in a few hours.

When it comes time for me to edit and format it, I don't have to do the heavy lifting of creating the ideas or figuring out how they will work, but I do have to go through all the pesky little details of document, paragraph, and sentence structure; punctuation, fonts, margins, and cross-references; style and voice and mood. That can be slow, as can making a document written in a hurry—or sometimes in disparate bursts of creativity that can be months or weeks apart—into a cohesive whole.

And then it often has to go through several rounds of revisions, sometimes involving several people, with new inconsistencies and errors possible at each stage. Sometimes I do discover fundamental flaws in a concept, or areas that are missing and need to be addressed, which requires yet another cycle.

I'm not complaining. This is my job, and I love doing it. But I'm also trying to understand why my work—which often seems to me to be merely wrapping up loose ends or cleaning things up, in comparison to the hard work of coming up with new thoughts in the first place—occasionally takes such an inordinately long time.

Think of it like redecorating a bedroom. Once the important stuff is done, the broad strokes of bringing in new furniture and painting the walls and hanging the pictures, it can take quite a while before the furniture is in just the right place, all the dust is vacuumed up, the pictures are set straight, and the clothes are all put away so that it actually feels like a room you can sleep in comfortably.

Plus I know the people who assign me that work read this weblog, so they'll know—aside from the time I'm taking to write this journal entry—why those edits I started last week still aren't done.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005 - newest items first
# 3:11:00 PM:

Is somebody going to buy Flickr?

Vancouver's photo sharing site Flickr is one of the Web's Things of the Moment. Rumours swirl that some bigger company will buy it. Kris Krug asks what your take is on the idea.

UPDATE: So yeah, it was Yahoo! after all who went and bought Flickr. Smart call, Kris.

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# 12:27:00 PM:

Vancouver's doomed theme restaurants

In her reflections on coming to this city from Seattle, Julie Leung writes that Vancouver has "plenty of excellent restaurants. Ted and I would be happy to eat there every day."

Greater Vancouver is unusual in that we not only have thousands of restaurants, we have a lot of good ones, and many of them are quite cheap to eat at. Even the high-end establishments, such as recent Iron Chef winner Rob Feenie's Lumière, cost far less to eat at (and are also usually rather less pretentious) than similar restaurants in other cities. And you can get fabulous sushi almost anywhere. (My favourite is Sushi Garden, near my home in Burnaby.)

I think that's why the many big chain theme restaurants, such as Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Café, and the Rainforest Café, have all opened here and then failed a few months later. Those establishments have to pay the costs for all their memorabilia, displays, and bric-a-brac, and in my experience usually the way they do that is to overcharge for mediocre food, served at a breakneck pace to funnel as many patrons through as possible each day.

That might work at Disney World, but it doesn't work in Vancouver (and didn't even work 30 years ago), because we're used to not paying a lot and still getting excellent things to eat. Even our local chains—such as White Spot, Earls, the Cactus Club, and Milestone's—often sell meals that wouldn't be out of place at an upscale eatery, because we Vancouverites won't settle for anything less.

One more reason I like living here.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005 - newest items first
# 9:41:00 AM:

Back to the bar, every Thursday

[British Invasion]When I worked as a full-time professional drummer in the mid-1990s, we often played small pubs and bars around the province for not a lot of money. Things have changed: most of our shows now are weddings and corporate events, in town, at large hotels and other facilities, and they pay well.

The pub shows are much better too. In the last ten years, brew pubs such as the Central City Brewing Company in Surrey have spring up around B.C., upping the ante for the kind of place we could play. So, starting tomorrow (Thursday the 24th), we'll be playing every Invasion Thursday at Central City, which is right next to the Surrey Central SkyTrain station.

If you get there before we start at 10:00 p.m., admission is free. After that, its $5—shades of our shows in 1994. I also have a small number of people I can add to our guest list, so if you're interested, e-mail me.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - newest items first
# 11:18:00 PM:

The blog: tool, obsession, or religion?

This will be my final post for awhile that follows up on the Northern Voice weblog conference last Saturday. Blogging about people blogging about a blogging conference can get tiresome, after all. But I had some thoughts.

I noted during the panel I was part of that the very existence of a blogging conference reflects the immaturity of weblogs (something the organizers mentioned themselves on the radio and in print, as well as on the Web). There, I compared it to the telephone: nobody holds big public conferences about how to use the phone, or reflecting on the phone's social impact on humanity. Academics may talk about some of that stuff, but telephones are mostly just there. E-mail is getting that way too, and so will weblogs.

It also felt a bit silly to be up onstage being the pundit/expert on promoting your blog and building traffic when there were obviously dozens of people in the audience with better-promoted and higher-traffic blogs than this one. Yet it was appropriate too, because the other three panelists (the excellent Chris Pirillo, Jeremy Wright, and Suw Charman) all seem to make a living at blogging—and I don't and haven't tried.

Let's go back to that earlier analogy. There are plenty of people who make a living on the phone, but we no longer put it that way (if anyone ever did). They might be phone solicitors, 911 or phone sex operators, taxi dispatchers, salespeople, or pizza parlors proprietors. But we don't think of phoning as what they do. Similarly, Chris and Jeremy and Suw (and others like John and Jason) aren't really bloggers for a living: they are writers, or analysts, or maybe entertainers, and their blogs are their media.

Still, they're a distinct and tiny minority. Almost everyone at Northern Voice, and almost everyone who has a blog, makes little or nothing from it. It is not their job, or even much of a part of it. I used to get quite a bit of business through this website when I worked freelance (and still do some), but the site itself just covers its costs, and certainly doesn't compensate me very well for the time I put into it. I'm really a writer, editor, web guy, drummer, and dad. Being a blogger is related to some of those things, but it's genuinely secondary.

So is it a tool, or an obsession? Tim Bray, who gave the first keynote at Northern Voice, gave a good reason for blogging as "can't not write." That's certainly true for me. Many of us spend rather a lot of time on these things, for reasons that can be mysterious, even to ourselves.

Maybe, given how we proselytize about weblogs, blogging is religious, or at least spiritual. One of the people in Julie Leung's audience identified a number of ways it can be thought of so: in the fulfillment some of us get from it, in how we indoctrinate our friends and acquaintances and even children into it, in how those that don't blog are somehow unblessed.

Then again, you could probably say the same about NASCAR fans, so let's not get too heavy. Off to bed now.

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Monday, February 21, 2005 - newest items first
# 9:28:00 PM:

Notes and audio from blog promotion panel discussion

Promoting Your Blog photo by Kris KrugRob Cottingham has posted an excellent set of notes about the panel I was on at the Northern Voice conference. Another detailed batch comes from Jason Clarke.

Blogosphere Radio also has an audio transcript, if you don't mind streaming or downloading the 56 MB MP3 file (Windows Media format also available). Nancy White and the PR Wiki provide great resources for the sessions people might have missed, especially if, like me, you couldn't get there early enough for the keynote speeches.

If you look at the many photos from Kris Krug of the conference, you'll notice the heavy preponderance of Apple laptops in the crowd (mine included), with the occasional Sony Vaio, Tablet PC, or other Windows device here and there. As Dave Shea noted during his "Lightning Tools" talk, you would expect that if this were a design conference, but I didn't expect it at Northern Voice in particular.

I've been reflecting on some of the issues we types discussed at the conference, and, more particularly, issues that arose in my mind around who we were discussing these things. I hope to post some of my thoughts in the next few days.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005 - newest items first
# 12:22:00 PM:

More Northern Voice photos, sort of

kk+'s photo of me at Northern VoiceAfter posting photos of the Northern Voice conference to Flickr this morning, I've added the same batch as a photo essay in my ongoing collection here on this site.

Via Flickr, I also found some photos of the panel I was on (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Of course, there is the famous Blog Widow shirt. And apparently I'm a hipster too. I knew there was a reason I decided to wear the cool orange T with the Clinton Kelly–style striped dress shirt (a gift from my wife for Valentine's Day).

UPDATE: Uh, then again, maybe the "hipster" label was a bit premature.

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# 9:28:00 AM:

Northern Voice photos posted

Sunset TowersFollowing my conversion to the Flickr religion by Roland's presentation yesterday, here's my first set of photos there. They're of the Northern Voice conference itself, of course.

For some reason, they have not yet shown up in the northernvoice photo stream as of this writing, though I think they're properly tagged to do so.

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Saturday, February 19, 2005 - newest items first
# 5:10:00 PM:

Northern Voice notes in near real-time

These posts will eventually be archived at penmachine.com/voice.

Northern Voice: Lightning Tools

4:15-5:15

  • Okay, Roland has gotten me onto the Flickr religion. I guess I'll have to go join.
  • Dave Shea (who actually told me about Flickr last year, but somehow I wasn't convinced) demoed his blog posting workflow, with NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Safari, and Movable Type. I heard a few "oohs" about Mac OS X's Exposé feature.
  • Tris Hussey, demoed his company's Qumana, which is a pretty cool blog-posting application for Windows (and makes a cool combo with Lektora).
  • Seb Pacquet demoed WebJay, which hosts links to freely downloadable and streamable music (the playlist "Extreme Lounge Terror (International)" was pretty swanky. So is the XPSF player he found. Some interesting social elements there, which differ from other audio (and video) sites. But will I use it? Hard to say.
  • Robert Scoble (whose name I serendipitously pulled out of the hat to win a mug right before he started) flew through his blog-reading and -posting workflow using Memeorandum, Feedster, Technorati, NewsGator, etc.—and hey, NewsGator works on a Media Center PC and smartphones.
  • Nancy White ("I am not a techie!"), like me, uses Blogger. She calls herself a late first-wave or second-wave blogger. It was too painful to set it up on her own site. She has to ask: How did you get the sidebar stuff on there? Why didn't someone tell me about private subscriptions, folders? Why didn't I know Blogger has comments? It would be really helpful to have someone sit down with you to sort that out. People don't want to look stupid. There's a big learning curve, so how do you make it simpler? P.S. "Chocolate solves everything."

Northern Voice: personal blogging

3:15-4:15

I began posting on this panel, but the loose connection in my iBook screen started freaking out, so I closed it and just listened and asked questions instead. So here are the abbreviated notes:

  • Arjun Singh:
  • how flexible the blogging medium is
  • personal, professional, group blogs—all by one person
  • can be password-protected so they're not
  • friendlytechnology.com
  • how to find something useful: go to Google, type something you like, then add "blog"
  • Julie Leung:
  • gives an entire family separate voices
  • but there are concerns: how do you mask and protect what you want to keep private?
  • Susannah Gardner:
  • personal blogs from people who really want to promote themselves, or who end up doing so even if they didn't intend to
  • trixieupdate.com - detailed baby blog
  • dooce.com - early person fired for blogging, but still popular for her strong writing
  • smartypants.diaryland.com - also strong writing
  • 1976design.com - personal blog led to a job with Apple
  • post often, link to others, be part of the community
  • be able to measure whether you've succeeded
  • posting photos of yourself on your blog?
  • Susannah - worth doing just to give your blog some sort of appearance
  • Julie - need to be more careful with your family, especially children
  • Arjun - having a picture lets people know it's a real person
  • personal life, politics, food in Vancouver
  • how could various sub-blogs interpollinate
  • can you be discreet or separate without being anonymous? not really
  • quite common to split blogs on different topics into separate ones
  • especially personal vs. professional

Northern Voice: promoting your blog

1:30-3:00

Since I was on this panel (and Darren borrowed my laptop to use with the projector during the session, I didn't take notes. But if you recorded audio of the session, please let me know (or leave a comment at the bottom of this post)—I'd like to host or link to a copy, and maybe transcribe some of the choicer quotes.

Northern Voice: Julie Leung

Making masks: blogging as a social tool and family lifestyle

10:30-11:30
http://www.julieleung.com

  • stories and experience about family, social life, and blogging
  • own photos, posts from others, etc.
  • photo of beach where she and her family scattered ashes of her brother
  • what parts of this am I going to put on my blog?
  • what can be made public?
  • kids are home-schooled, both parents blog
  • kids spell RSS on the fridge, make paper laptops, and a paper blog
  • they used the camera one day when Dave Winer came for lunch, and they've been posted on the blog
  • "social interaction is a negotiation between individuals"
  • we're not the same people in different circumstances
  • we all have multiple masks, and we select one depending on the situation
  • blogging is fragline is both public and permanent
  • "just a few hundred pixels on the screen can change people's perception of you"
  • once your audience gets wider, it can become complicated and frightening
  • "there are so many things I can't blog about"
  • cameras, Internet access, and other things have made private lives public
  • can we trust the world to handle our secrets?
  • we risk relationships when we choose to reveal things others would rather we not
  • think of your mom discovering your blog
  • what you share on your blog can be deeper than what you share in person
  • transparency, conversation, authenticity—are these safe things?
  • 18th century concept of public persona that differs from the private one
  • you have no obligation to share your personal life, and neither does anybody else
  • anonymity is an option, but there's no guarantee that you won't be discovered
  • more difficult if someone else in your family is already public, at least if you want to talk about the things you share
  • openness is a political stance, and may determine whom you can work for, for example
  • each family is different
  • what to keep private:
    • preservation - avoid being "paparazzi" in your own life
    • protection - restrict topics (do you want that associated with your name in Google?), for example; when you release things into the world, you can't predict how others can react; kids may not understand that—it's like a giant worldwide junior high; posting photos without faces
    • privacy - you can share life without opening up everything
  • why would you take the risk to blog?
  • if we're willing to make what is private into something public?
  • something you can use to share family things with the world
  • you can both break and build relationships
  • "perfect strangers make time to come to this site every day"—and so do other members of your family
  • it's both something new (being a diarist) and something new (immediate, communicative, etc.)
  • juxtapositions that you can't immediately understand (why did this person link to me on that topic?), which create new ideas
  • it can be a place to speak secrets, what's hidden, what no one else notices
  • children don't have much of a voice, and blogs can show what they see through their eyes
  • educate and encourage others
  • you can learn that you're not alone when talking about difficult topics
  • connect with others across continents, or in your own neighbourhood
  • you can "find your tribe"
  • "now I feel it when other people face rejection or loss"
  • we love stories: narratives help us become who we want to be
  • our real self is engaged with others
  • share things for others who are in, have been, or will be in a similar position
  • I asked about Julie's reaction to Eric Meyer's "Be a Parent" post
  • is this a religious/spiritual experience as well?

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Friday, February 18, 2005 - newest items first
# 11:14:00 PM:

Permanent URL for my Northern Voice notes

I'll be putting notes from my panel appearance at—and other stuff about—the Northern Voice blogging conference that takes place tomorrow 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. With luck I may even have some audio of the panel discussion.

Incidentally, Northern Voice has a spiffy two-page map and schedule (in PDF form) that you can print out. It includes instructions on how to get Wi-Fi wireless access at the event.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005 - newest items first
# 11:56:00 PM:

Links of interest (2005-02-17):

  • "So why should you be adamant about valid code and pushing for more Web development using XHTML? That's easy. It costs less and is more flexible. [...] People simply don't recognize how much it's costing them not to code to standards."

  • "Maria Schneider won the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammy without selling CDs in a record store."

  • Just because a weblog is popular doesn't mean it's good, for the same reason lousy TV shows can still be hits.

  • A photo of Les Paul playing his namesake guitar at his 90th birthday last month. Paul is one of the great music technology geniuses of the last century. Among other things, he invented multitrack recording (and had some huge hits with it) and created a home-built prototype for a solidbody electric guitar when everyone thought it was a silly idea.

  • O'Reilly's new Make magazine seems so cool (and has been heavily endorsed by Dan Bricklin, co-inventor of VisiCalc, the first-ever spreadsheet program) that I bought my dad a gift subscription sight unseen.

  • Biggest brand winner and loser of 2004? Apple iPod and Coke C2, respectively.

  • Top ten digital photography tips.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - newest items first
# 7:25:00 AM:

Last day to register for Vancouver weblog conference

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 Moose is Loose - Northern Voice Blog Conference 2005]Today is your last chance to pre-register for the Northern Voice weblogging conference that takes place this upcoming Saturday, February 19, 2005, at UBC Robson Square in Vancouver.

As a panelist, I'm part of the Promoting Your Blog panel at 1:30 p.m., along with other bloggers both local and international. Registration for the whole day-long conference is only $30 Cdn ($20 if you get to it today), so it's a fine deal. Maybe I'll see you there.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - newest items first
# 10:35:00 PM:

Schuss

I'm not much of a skier, but if I were, it wouldn't take much more than these photos to entice me up the mountain this week.

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# 6:57:00 PM:

iPod shuffle grab bag

Since getting an iPod shuffle last Friday, I've collected a few additional tips and links about it:

Playing music files from more than one computer on the iPod shuffle

So, how the heck are you supposed to put song files from multiple computers onto your iPod shuffle at the same time? Quick answer: you’re not supposed to be able to. But there are workarounds.

One of Apple’s concessions to the record companies is that you can only “mate” an iPod shuffle to one computer at a time. Once you hook it up to another machine, it will either overwrite the music or (if you choose) do nothing. Essentially, the iPod keeps its playable song files in a separate, invisible folder along with associated playlist database files and information about which computer they’re supposed to sync to, so they don’t act like regular filesystem files. So...

  • The easiest workaround is to keep the same music on your machines at home and at work, i.e. make sure you have the whole collection in both places.
  • You can also set the iPod so that part (or all) of it acts as a regular flash drive, which lets you move the music files from one computer to another (but you can’t play the songs on your iPod while they’re stored on the flash-drive portion of it). Then you can add the files to iTunes on the other computer, to merge the two lists for syncing back to the iPod, so they’re all playable.
  • Finally, if you want to get adventurous, the command line lets you get songs (from home, for example) off the iPod so you can add them to your iTunes at work, then merge the two lists to get all the songs you want on the iPod.

Awkward, I know, but it’s Apple’s attempt to prevent people from dead-easily just giving their friends all their songs. (Yeah, like that’s gonna stop people.) There used to be a utility to do this easily, but Apple has done their best to disable it and get it removed from the Web. Nice player, not always so nice a company—such is the price of record company paranoia and Apple’s acquiescence to it.

The bigger iPods (iPod mini, regular iPod, iPod photo) have a manual mode you can use to put songs from several computers onto it, so they can all be played (though not easily extracted). But not the shuffle:

Can I take a friend’s iPod shuffle and browse or play its content on my machine (like I can with other iPods)? No, there is no manual mode that allows you to view or play the content from a friend’s iPod shuffle on your computer. This also means that you cannot load music from multiple computers or iTunes libraries onto iPod shuffle like you can with other iPods.

Cases and accessories for the iPod shuffle

UPDATE The metal cases are starting to arrive, at least in Japan. (Thanks to Mark for the link.)

The selection of accessories is pretty limited for the shuffle right now. For example, other than Apple's one case, here's all I've found:

Miscellaneous other resources

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Monday, February 14, 2005 - newest items first
# 12:13:00 PM:

Ahead of the game

Miss M, age 7During the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, around 4 a.m. Vancouver time, my wife and I received an excellent Valentine's Day present.

Today she turns seven years old, and is off at school. I remember being seven very well: it was 1976, the year my parents and I took a long driving vacation through Oregon in our big Mercury station wagon, visiting Portland, Lincoln City, Bend, Crater Lake, and more.

My seven-year-old has been to Oregon twice, is taking math and spelling tests (which I don't remember from Grade 1), plays Nintendo GameCube (er, no, didn't have those), and is learning piano (I hadn't even started guitar yet). So in many ways she's ahead of where I was.

Happy birthday, Miss M!

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Sunday, February 13, 2005 - newest items first
# 12:34:00 AM:

I'd forgotten about this line...

...from Norm MacDonald: "The Diamond Council of America advises that men spend two months' salary on an engagement ring. [Similarly], the U.S. Crack Association recommends that you spend all your salary—on crack."

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Saturday, February 12, 2005 - newest items first
# 9:10:00 PM:

Do I have one of the first iPod shuffles in Canada?

UPDATE: To answer the title's question, a couple of my readers tell me that no, I don't. And even saying that it's one of the first in Vancouver is dead wrong, since apparently Mac Station has been selling them for a couple of weeks, though they remain in short supply. So all I can say confidently is that the ones we received at work were the first ones I'd seen.

iPod shuffle on fingerI can't confirm the claim, but yesterday the employees at my work apparently became the owners of the first shipment of Apple's iPod shuffle players in Canada. They are almost certainly the first shipped to Vancouver. (My company's founders kindly gave each of us a 512 MB one to celebrate a good year.)

So now I'm part of the tribe. My first impression was not about how small it is (plenty of MP3 players are small), but how light. When it's in a pocket or bag or around your neck, you just don't notice it's there (which will, I'm sure, lead to many people losing their iPod shuffles, or having them stolen, and not finding out till much later). It is, I expect, the lightest way to carry around 120–150 songs that has ever existed.

Like James Lileks, I've found the iPod shuffle experience educational:

...when you have 10,000 songs you are always compelled to see what's next, whether it's better than this. When you have 100 songs, and A) have no idea what comes next and B) haven't heard 60 of them in a long long time, if ever, you tend to listen.

The lack of a screen is fine in most circumstances, if you're just listening as you would to the radio or a CD changer. But it can be a pain if you're trying to find a specific track, or move on to the next album in a set, or simply figure out what that song you never knew you had is called when you're away from the computer. Still, it prods you to enjoy the music rather than analyze it.

What's most striking, after you've used it a bit, is the iPod shuffle's minimalism. Apple obviously spent considerable time and effort figuring out what to take away, rather than what to add, and how to make the remaining stripped-down essentials as easy and basic as possible. Here is everything you can do with it when it's not plugged into a computer:

  • Turn it off.
  • Switch it to regular play.
  • Switch it to shuffle play.
  • Check the battery status.
  • Plug or unplug headphones (or another audio line for the 1/8" jack).
  • Start music playing.
  • Pause music playing.
  • Lock the front-panel controls (so they don't press accidentally), or unlock them.
  • Go back the beginning of the list of tracks.
  • Skip to the next track.
  • Start the track over, or skip to the previous one.
  • Fast forward or rewind (in choppy increments).
  • Raise or lower the volume.
  • Remove the end cap, to pop on the lanyard cap, or to plug the iPod in.

I don't think I missed anything. And neither did Apple.

iPod shuffle and RCA Lyra MP3 playersBut that last task is the key. Besides the shuffle's appearance and good sound, its ability to plug in and synchronize with iTunes is what makes it an iPod. That's regardless of whether you buy songs from Apple's store, which I don't, or just use files ripped from your album collection, or those you make with GarageBand, or whatever. Much of the intelligence and power of the iPod brand—more than I realized, especially for this model—comes from that piece of software. Little touches make a huge difference, like the ability to transcode tracks to good-quality 128 kbps AAC files if they are stored at a higher, larger-file-size bitrate—or in an incompatible format—on your computer.

My previous MP3 player is nearly as small, and almost as light, and it has a screen (see photo). But it is profoundly inferior: it doesn't work seamlessly with iTunes, its interface and appearance are clunky, it has been a bit flaky since I first got it, and over time firmware upgrades have actually worsened its performance, even degrading the sound quality significantly. Plus it holds many fewer songs, and was more expensive. I speculated that Apple would own the entire MP3 player market after the shuffle was introduced. Now that I own one, I'm sure of it.

TIP: If you use the Autofill feature of iTunes with an iPod shuffle, set it to pick from a Smart Playlist that excludes stuff you don't want to take along. My "Mostly Rock" list, for example, is set so that it contains only songs where the Genre does not include terms such as Christmas, Spoken Word, Children's, Holiday, and Sound Effects, among others. Here are some more tips.

Now, I was faced with a decision: use the distinctive white earbuds, or not? For me, the choice was easy, since I prefer my Sony behind-the-neck headphones, for comfort, convenience, and sound—I've never liked earbuds for a variety of reasons. But I was tempted, because unlike some people, I kind of want people to know I have an iPod. I've rarely been swayed by fashion over convenience, but I nearly was in this case.

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Friday, February 11, 2005 - newest items first
# 3:31:00 PM:

A useful Java applet

A few years ago I would never have thought such a thing would exist, but this baby name graph, where you start typing any first name and it dynamically graphs its popularity over several recent decades, is extremely cool. Even if my babies were both named years ago.

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Thursday, February 10, 2005 - newest items first
# 10:39:00 PM:

Wedding cakes in Vancouver

People are planning their summer weddings now, as my wife and I did ten years ago. If you're one of 2005's couples, our friend Jill, who used to make wedding cakes for Lesley Stowe Fine Foods in Vancouver, now has her own cake-making business. Of her many excellent designs, my favourite is this one, named after Jill's lovely little daughter.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005 - newest items first
# 12:18:00 PM:

Farewell, Word?

While I'll still be giving another seminar about Microsoft Word on March 12, I've been trying out Apple's new Pages word processor/layout application for some real-world, mission-critical work, and it's enough of a winner that I think I'll now be using Word only when absolutely necessary.

Yes, Pages is a 1.0 product, with some flaws, missing features, and strange design choices. But overall it is remarkably polished and useful. It works. And it stays out of my way when I'm crafting a document—something that Nisus Writer and Mariner Write don't quite manage for me, and that Word has become worse and worse at doing over the years.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005 - newest items first
# 10:13:00 PM:

Man of a century

Between 1928 and 1930, when he was in his mid-20s, Dr. Ernst Mayr catalogued hundreds of kinds of birds in New Guinea. Before him, most scientists thought that the species of organisms they described were simply convenient categories for study. But he found differently:

I discovered that the very same aggregations or groupings of individuals that the trained zoologist called separate species were called species by the New Guinea natives. I collected 137 species of birds. The natives had 136 names for these birds—they confused only two of them. The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature.

Dr. Mayr went on to define a distinct species as scientists do today. Organisms that cannot successfully interbreed are distinct species, no matter how otherwise similar they may be (donkeys and horses can mate, but their offspring are sterile mules, so they are different species). Conversely, organisms that can successfully interbreed are the same species, no matter how outwardly different (St. Bernard and Pomeranian dogs can breed—with some difficulty—so they are the same species).

That was only one of his earliest accomplishments. Mayr was also a key player in the synthesis of genetics, field biology, and evolutionary theory that helped scientists realize that Darwin's processes of natural selection really work—and how they work—even with all the entirely new information learned since Darwin's time. (In effect, he and his contemporaries learned afresh that Darwinian evolution is real, and demonstrated the molecular mechanisms by which it operates.) He also created from scratch the study of the history and philosophy of biology.

Mayr was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, and thus one of those who has most helped shape our modern understanding of the world. He died this week at the age of 100.

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# 10:07:00 AM:

Q and A about becoming a writer or editor

Some answers I gave to questions from a reader yesterday, following up on previous responses to readers I've posted here over the years:

Q. What personality trait do you believe is the most advantageous in being either a writer or an editor? I often think I could be both, but I'm wondering if certain people are more suited to one or the other, or if the two are pretty much interchangeable.
They are indeed very different pursuits, and while being good at one or the other may be related, it's more a case of overlapping talents than identical ones. Some writers can't be editors, and some editors are lousy writers. Many people can do both, but maybe not in all varieties.
To be a good editor, you need to be instinctively concerned with detail and structure—the kind of person who mentally corrects "tomatoe's for sale" and subconsciously reworks awkward newspaper headlines, just for fun, or because you can't help it. You should cringe at typos and poor writing when you see them, especially if you've been in any way responsible for preventing them—but even if they're someone else's.
You also need to be patient, yet firm and clear in making arguments for changes you recommend. You must be able to work under tight deadlines without significantly sacrificing the quality of what you do. Being an editor is, by definition, a collaborative role, so you must be able to work with clients and others, even if you don't like them much.
Being a writer can be collaborative, but is more often solitary, and requires a different sort of discipline. Being able to craft words and sentences and paragraphs effectively, clearly, and evocatively is different from being able to edit something that already exists. A writer (whether fiction, non-fiction, poetic, corporate, or whatever) needs creativity and ideas in ways an editor often doesn't.
In both fields, you need to be able not to take criticism personally, and to deal with rejection of your work in various ways. Writers take their writing seriously, and many aren't comfortable with an editor changing it; good writers, however, know that their work is never perfect, and will take whatever help they can get to make it better. They also write compulsively, whether paid or not.
Q. Although the freelance avenue is very intriguing, I'm not yet sure if I am willing to tackle it just yet—at least not until I gather a few more years of writing experience under my belt. However, do you think that more companies are hiring people on a freelance basis rather than maintaining an additional employee to suck their benefits dry? I guess my question is, is there much of an opportunity for full-time editors or writers out there?
There is, but many people start out freelancing. That said, I came into the trade by sliding into an editorial role at a software company where I had been hired as an administrative assistant (I'd done a lot of writing and editing work in my spare time in high school and university too, so it wasn't out of the blue). If you have talents, you can make them known at your job. It also wouldn't hurt to try approaching companies and organizations with your services, whether writing or editorial or both.
Many people don't write well, or need a lot of editorial help, but they rarely advertise for that. You'll need to find them, and often the best way is through the grapevine of friends, family, and acquaintances, then by word of mouth from there.
Q. Are there occasions as both an editor and a writer where you find yourself anxious because you aren't entirely comfortable with the subject matter (i.e. something that is not in your range of knowledge)? Do your clients expect this from you? If not, how are you able to sell the fact that you can interpret their information with confidence? And what first steps do you take once you get one of these assignments?
Any good writer or editor can work in fields he or she knows little about. Another personality trait I didn't mention above is that you must be able to learn quickly, and this is why. Certainly, it helps to start out in fields you're familiar with, but eventually we all get jobs that cover material well outside our body of knowledge.
The key is this: you are a wordsmith. You know about words and documents. Clients expect that you'll be able to craft something, or improve something, whether you knew about it before or not. We're like plumbers: even if they've never worked with a German-made bidet before, we expect that they're smart and experienced enough to figure it out.
Sometimes it even helps not to be deep into the industry you're working in—especially if you're writing material for people outside that field, your inexperience will force people to explain the stuff to you so that you can explain it to your audience. That's one way to sell it, but the main thing is to say it clearly: my job is to write well, or to improve what you already have. I do that for all sorts of people in all sorts of fields, and I'll learn what I need to know to do it for you.
To prepare for those kinds of jobs, I ask my clients what I should read and whom I should talk to. Then I read it and talk to them, and make sure I have people I can ask questions of while I'm working. Make sure to build that sort of time into your estimates and billing if you're working freelance or on contract, by the way.
Q. I know you're not a labour market analyst, but you must spend enough time in the editing and writing community to comfortably answer this: in what specific field is writing or editing in highest demand (copy writing/editing, corporate communications, technical writing)? I'm going to wager a guess and assume it's technical writing. Yes? No?
There's a lot of demand there, but it also requires the ability to translate between engineers and normal people, which can be a challenge. (It does help to have some techie background to get started there, certainly.) There is demand in every field you mention, but the hard part is finding the people who need your help and getting work from them. I'm sure if you offered your copy-editing and proofreading services to hair salons that produce newsletters or other small firms, you might find some work there too.
I would suggest that, if you have a background in any one field in particular, you start there and move on when you have some experience in it, unless you find enough work to keep you going.
Q. I am considering enrollment in SFU's Editing program. Would you say that this would be a wise option? I often see that a lot of employers seek English majors to fill writing positions; myself, I have a degree in Radio & Television Arts (writing stream), and I do have scattered real-world writing experience. Getting an English degree on top of this and having to attend school full-time makes me quake in my boots, so I'm hoping that this certificate program may be a viable option. General thoughts?
The employers ask for that because it's the first thing that comes to mind; if you have education or experience that's more practical, they'll see the value in it. SFU's program is good, as it Douglas College's Print Futures program. I don't have any of them—I took a writing diploma at UBC, but what really got me into the field now was just doing the work for a long time, and loving to do it. That shows.
If you know that this is what you want to do, you can succeed regardless of your formal training. My degree is in marine biology, and that's not directly related to what I do now. But I wrote and edited for newspapers and magazines and things throughout my school life and afterwards. People who read my website realize that I can write and organize material. Sometimes that's all it takes.

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# 1:39:00 AM:

Google Maps makes pretty pictures

Google Maps (doesn't yet work in Safari, but Firefox is fine) makes by far the best-looking and easiest to use online street maps I've seen yet (via Darren). Check out this one for my kids' doctor's office:

Map to Dr. Lui's office

Love the big shadow. However, while the map is accurate, the street (McBride Blvd.) makes no sense at all: the doctor is on Kingsway, and the one McBride in Burnaby is nowhere near there. Beta!

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Monday, February 07, 2005 - newest items first
# 7:21:00 AM:

First-hand tsunami report

As I sat here in my comfortable kitchen in December and early January, writing about the physics of tsunamis, I had no idea that someone I knew had actually been in the waves. But I heard his story last night.

Mark plays guitar, and sometimes keyboard and bass, in my band. On December 26, he was in Malaysia with one of his other bands, an Abba tribute act, and was on the beach. As he described it, he and the people with him noticed the crest of a wave stretching from horizon to horizon, and thought, "Hey, that looks neat. Let's see what happens when it comes in."

He noticed no drawdown, which means that where he was, the crest of one of the waves hit first. The initial wave in the series reached his feet. The next, a few seconds later, the tops of his legs. The third was chest high, and already dirty and full of debris. When it retreated, it pulled another tourist standing next to Mark under the water. Mark helped the man up and they headed inland. In the process, he was bumped by a floating gazebo.

And that was it. He found a nearby hotel, wrung the water from his clothes, and went to have a drink. He didn't hear till later that people had died even on nearby beaches—but because Malaysia was shielded by the island of Sumatra to the west, everyone in the area had been spared the true brunt of the waves.

Mark was uninjured, and has been back in Vancouver for several weeks now.

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Sunday, February 06, 2005 - newest items first
# 11:30:00 AM:

Links of interest (2005-02-06):

  • "The more difficult mistakes are to correct, the more likely that you're going to try not to make them."

  • "Even if your site is technically perfect for search engine robots, it won't do you any good unless you also fill it with good content. Yes, really!"

  • "I know [...] the argument that says that if the world was using Macs instead of PCs, the hackers would be attacking the Macs. It's a game of numbers, after all. [...] Which is, of course, mostly bull."

  • "Luckily, we don't have to buy a [new web design] book every day anymore. But there are a few books you might have missed that aren't brand spanking new."

  • "in terms of the actual layout and editing of documents, to me [Apple's new Pages word processor] is far ahead of Microsoft Word for Mac OS X, and I'll never switch back. Goodbye Word and OmniGraffle, hello Pages!"

  • "The new visual design of MSN is quite uninspired [and] looks like it may have gone directly from a Product Manager's sketch to the developer who coded it. [But] the underpinnings of the home page represent a considerable move toward web standards."

  • Lifehacker: "Lifehacker recommends the downloads, web sites and shortcuts that actually save time. Don't live to geek; geek to live."

  • "If you absolutely must write down your thoughts and feelings about how hard it is to be a parent, do so in a private journal. Fifteen years from now, you can decide whether or not to give it to your child, and if you do, they can decide what to do with it. But don't throw it out into the world as if it were a list of your favorite movies. That's unnecessarily cruel."

  • "The only difference between males and females in The Sims is whether they leave the toilet seat up. Otherwise, they have the same social abilities, the same sexual options, whatever."

  • "Imagine the silence and red faces round the table (and the smile on mine) when I played the recording of a recognisable chief designer clearly stating 'That spec does not apply...'"

  • "The Eiffel Tower's likeness had long since been part of the public domain, [but in 2003, the City of Paris] adorned it with a distinctive lighting display, copyrighted the design, and in one fell swoop, reclaimed the nighttime image and likeness of the most popular monument on earth. [...] As a result, it's no longer legal to publish current photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night without permission."

  • "People don't make better products by not using the best ones that currently exist. And companies don't spot trends and opportunities by forcing their employees to lose faith in their own preferences and choices and become forced proselytisers of another's beliefs."

  • "By all means correct me if I'm wrong, but (as far as I can tell) modern-day browsers just don't have any way to extract [invisible but useful web page] information and display it to the user."

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Saturday, February 05, 2005 - newest items first
# 7:19:00 AM:

The Flu - jangle-pop ten years later

Logo for the band The Flu, with maple leafTen years ago today, I arrived with my snare drum and bandmates in Melbourne, Australia for the first and only international tour by our indie original music act, The Flu. It was our big attempt to Make It. In late 1994, we'd independently released an album (on cassette!) called Light House, had set up what may have been the first self-run indie-band e-mail list, and had for the last year been living entirely off music income, mostly by driving all over the province playing crappy bars as The Neurotics, as well as busking on downtown streets.

In Melbourne, it was a grueling but galvanizing three weeks, spent playing show after show at the Melbourne Music Festival. We started opening for a fairly popular local act, then played a series of nearly-empty pubs before word got out that we were actually pretty good. Among other Canadians at the festival, we got to hang around with Valdy, who remains one of the coolest musicians I've ever met.

Album cover for Light House by The Flu

An appearance at the outdoor St. Kilda Beach festival (in 40° C heat) and a following-act show for Silverchair brought more people to subsequent gigs, so that by the end of our stay, a dedicated crew of Flu fans followed us two hours inland to Bendigo, where a couple of them gave Dirk, our bass player, a custom T-shirt with his picture on it.

Then, at the end of February, 1995, we flew back home to Canada, where nobody knew who we were, and spent several more weeks in snowy Terrace, in northern B.C., playing a house gig at a hotel so we could pay off the loan I'd taken out to get us to Australia in the first place. We didn't know that, before Christmas and before we'd even left for Down Under, we had already played our last show in Vancouver.

The Flu 1995: Dirk, Alistair, Derek, and SebastienBy April we had done another small tour through Alberta, but after more than a year living in each other's pockets, we were now regularly at each other's throats. Alistair quit first, and while we searched for a replacement guitarist, we only found temporary fill-ins for The Neurotics cover-band shows. My wife and I got married in August, and, predictably, I bailed out of the band by October. The cover band soldiered on, with various personnel changes, and turned into a profitable act for weddings and corporate parties, so I re-joined The Neurotics five years later, in late 2000. But The Flu just fizzled out.

My family has gained a long-term friend in Leesa, who still lives in Melbourne but who has visited us many times since, including a one-year stint working here in Vancouver. And we did make that album. If you want to take a listen, here's a sample mix of three of the songs:

The Flu - "Light House" Medley
"Standing Your Ground"/"Disappear"/"Time Laughs at Me"

1.8 MB mono MP3 file (3 min 14 sec)
© 1993-94 The Flu (SOCAN)
Written by Boulter, Calder, de Castell, Miller
Produced by The Flu and Rev. Rick Royale
Engineered by Ian Jones, mixed by Steven Drake
Official 100% MAPL CanCon

Guitar, vocals: Sebastien de Castell
Guitar, vocals: Alistair Calder
Bass, vocals: Dirk Henke, Dennis Boulter
Drums, vocals: Derek Miller

Creative Commons License

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Friday, February 04, 2005 - newest items first
# 1:13:00 PM:

How to make PDF files smaller in Mac OS X

Mac OS X's pretty face user interface of images and text is built on Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) standard, which means it's always been easy to save a PDF file from any application, simply by choosing File > Print and clicking Save as PDF. The problem is, those files are often quite large, in order to keep them as high-quality as possible.

Until now, I thought the only way to make them smaller was to have a copy of Adobe's commercial Acrobat program, which lets you tweak the compression of images and text so the files shrink to more manageable size (usually at some slight detriment to quality or portability). Well, it turns out that's not necessary:

[There's] an easy workaround to this problem using a "hidden" feature of printing in Mac OS X 10.3 that I had completely overlooked. The "ColorSync" settings within the Print dialogue for Panther allow you to select "Reduce File Size" as an option for saving to PDF.

Here's what it looks like.

UPDATE October 2009: Later versions of Mac OS X, such as 10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard, have made this procedure a little more complicated, but it's still possible. Plus you can now shrink existing PDF files as well. See my update comment from August 2009 for details.

In any Mac OS X program, choose File > Print, then choose ColorSync from the bottom-most pop-up menu (which usually reads Copies & Pages to start):

Screenshot of picking ColorSync from Print dialog box

Next, in the ColorSync section that appears at the bottom, choose Reduce File Size from the Quartz pop-up menu:

Screenshot of picking Reduce File Size

Finally, simply click Save As PDF. I haven't tested how much smaller it makes files, but it should help somewhat, especially in files with lots of graphics. Sure, Adobe Acrobat still gives you lots more options, but this method is built into the operating system, thus saving you hundreds of dollars.

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# 10:12:00 AM:

Everyday things

Darren Barefoot muses about everyday things:

Wallets, shoes, bags—we spend a lot of time with these medium-term possessions. We purchase them with care, use them regularly and then replace them. Men, especially, as we're generally inclined to have fewer and use them more frequently.

We take many of these things—I'd add watches, jackets, and a few other types of clothes to the mix—entirely for granted until the old one wears out. I've only worn four wristwatches in my entire life, for instance. Each one marked a milestone: one inherited from my dad, the first one I picked out myself (a multifunction digital monstrosity, by the way), a classier metal analog model celebrating a new job (which I quit eight months later because it was so horrible), and (currently) a gift from my wife.

Techie gadgets don't really count, though. The "medium-term possessions" Darren talks about are really physical objects that wear in, becoming comfortable because of how they conform to the way we use them. Gadgets do that, but in different ways, and seem more disposable—often because we can move data from them to a newer device and just keep going. Once a wallet or jacket is worn out, we either throw it out or let it linger, but whatever we replace it with isn't quite the same, garnering its own history over time.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005 - newest items first
# 1:43:00 PM:

Incentive

If the interest charges aren't enough, here's a good way of prompting yourself to pay off your credit cards: hand draw a copy of each card statement you get until your balances are gone. (Via rexblog.)

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# 9:23:00 AM:

Pulling no punches

I love the list of 2004's worst web design mistakes from the venerable Web Pages That Suck:

  1. "Nobody cares about you or your site. Really. What visitors care about is getting their problems solved."
  2. "You should be able to look at the home page of any site and figure out what the site is about within four seconds. If you can't, your site has failed."
  3. "Web Standards, Usability, and tableless CSS. These are simply tools. Remember, nobody gets excited about the tools used to build a house ('Please tell me what brand of hammers you used!'). People get excited about how the house looks and performs."
  4. "As the client starts to sign the lucrative, long-term contract/pledge, you reach over across the table, grab the client by the throat, and yell 'Not so fast [...] I haven't finished my presentation!!!' You wouldn't do that, would you? Then why are you using design techniques that keep the visitor from getting to the sale?"
  5. "There are probably 10 million ways to screw up navigation."
  6. "Mystery Meat Navigation occurs when, in order to find specific pages in a site, the user must mouse over unmarked navigational 'buttons'—graphics that are usually blank or don't describe their function."
  7. "Unless you're an online shop selling t-shirts, cameras—you get the picture—your web site is not your marketing strategy. Your web site is part of your marketing strategy."
  8. "Ask yourself: 'What content do I have that would cause anybody in their right mind to visit my site a second, third, or fourth time?' [...] If you can't answer this question, you really shouldn't have a Web site."
  9. "Text is Text. Don't use graphics or Flash for text."
  10. "It's very easy to keep adding material to your home page until it gets out of control." (Ahem, cough, pay no attention to penmachine.com.)
  11. "Web design is the reverse of a magic trick. In a magic trick, you show the audience your right hand and perform the trick with your left. In Web design, you tell them where you're going first—and then go there."
  12. "Of course, we all realize that a 'Skip Intro' button signifies that the content on the page is worthless. Good Web designers only put content that must be viewed on a page. By giving them the option to skip this material, you're saying it's not worth seeing. If it isn't worth seeing, why do you have it on your site in the first place?"
  13. "Like Flash, there are so many ways to misuse graphics. I'm amazed by the number of sites with ugly graphics and the number that still use animated GIFs."
  14. "Microsoft doesn't use FrontPage to create pages on Microsoft.com—even the pages discussing FrontPage. If Microsoft doesn't use it, why should you?"

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005 - newest items first
# 10:37:00 PM:

New site for the Chamber

Since 1982, when I received the Grade 8 Art Award at Royal Oak Junior Secondary School in Burnaby, it's become obvious that I'm not an artist, nor much of a graphic designer (just look at this site). I'm also no good at computer programming. But as long as someone else creates the design and layout and codes the hard logic, I'm not bad at putting a decent website together.

The latest evidence is the new site for the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia, a project I've supervised and occasionally slaved over since last summer. The design, HTML templates, and CSS layout are by the always brilliant Dave Shea, and the programming came courtesy of Simian Systems of Winnipeg, who built the content management system the site runs on. But, entrusted by Bill and others at Navarik to look after the project once the contract was signed, I nurtured it along through some frustrating technical swamps, buggy first drafts of new features, and one complete re-thinking of the structure.

Staff at the Chamber can now update the website in a web browser, without having to mess with HTML code or FTP transfers. And it looks good. There remain some mop-up issues to take care of, but I'm glad to see it out of the nest.

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