29 April 2010


Ready to move

On Saturday, I'll be switching this blog from the Blogger publishing system, which I've used for almost ten years, over to Movable Type. I've been preparing for the move for a few weeks, and everything is pretty much ready.

What will change?

For you as a reader, not much:

  • If you read my posts on my website at penmachine.com, you'll see a few minor alterations to the site layout, but overall things will be familiar. Similarly, if you read them as Notes on Facebook, everything will continue as normal.
  • If you subscribe to my blog feed at penmachine.com/index.xml, some recent entries might appear twice, but new ones will only be there once, so it will soon settle back to normal. If you're using one of my older feed addresses (something like penmachine.com/rss.xml or penmachine.com/rss/rss.xml), things should redirect automatically. But if you don't see any updates in the first two days of May, then please re-subscribe using the proper address.
  • My Penmachine Podcast feed remains at penmachine.com/podcast/index.xml. Nothing has changed there, and I haven't updated it since July 2009, so don't expect anything new for the moment.
  • There will be a new subscription feed for comments on my blog, at penmachine.com/comments.xml, but as of today (April 29), that's not active yet.

Speaking of comments, perhaps the biggest change (which has happened already) is that you can no longer post new comments on any of my archived posts from October 2000 to April 2010, including this very entry. That's not the way I'd prefer it, but in starting fresh with Movable Type, it's just easier to lock down all the old stuff and move on.

You'll be able to post comments on new entries I publish from May 2010 onward. How you do that will look a little bit different than it used to, but will work essentially the same way as before, with a bit more flexibility for you.

Smooth, real smooth

I'm hoping that what is a fairly major technical transition for me is a smooth and barely noticeable change for you many kind folks who read this blog. What should matter to you (at least a little) is what I write, not how I publish it. There will likely be a few minor bumps and anomalies in the first week or so, but I hope to iron those out quickly.

Then I can get on with the next ten years of stuff.

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14 April 2010


Movable Type vs. WordPress, Round 2

A bit more blogging platform geekiness, but much shorter this time.

Contrary to my first impressions a couple of days ago, I'm warming to the way Movable Type works. It's taken only a little effort to customize it, roughly to match my existing page design and typography here—easier than I've experienced with WordPress.

So, two days later, it looks light I might end up using Movable Type 5 after all. But we'll see if my further experiments blow it up in some nasty way.

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12 April 2010


Replacing Blogger: Movable Type vs. WordPress

This is a big long nerd brain dump about behind-the scenes software stuff on this website. Even if you're not a web geek, there's a possibility you might find some of it interesting. But if not, you've been warned.

UPDATE: A couple of days later, I may have changed my mind about my apparent decision below. Find out more.

Gotta move

Since Blogger announced the shutdown of its venerable FTP publishing system a couple of months ago, I've been working to figure out what new system I'm going to use to publish my writing here. (I'm glad Blogger postponed the shutdown for an extra month, but of course that meant I simply procrastinated about it until now.)

I have about three weeks to make the change, and I've boiled it down to two options, neither of which is ideal, but both of which are serviceable:

They are two of the most popular and long-running blogging platforms on the Web. There are other possibilities, but I don't need all the complexity of Drupal, and don't find other options like ExpressionEngine all that compelling. Movable Type has always used the static files publishing model I prefer, while WordPress requires a plugin like Really Static to hack it into doing what I want.

Movable Type in the sunset?

However, Movable Type's day in the sun may be past. While some high-profile sites of people I know—such as John Gruber and Dave Shea—use it, its popularity seems to have been in general decline since the licensing controversies of version 3, way back in 2004. The current version 5 (MT5) is brand new, and an open source project, but I don't sense the same community vibrancy and wealth of third-party extensions WordPress has. Six Apart, the company that created Movable Type, also seems to have been focused on its other hosted blogging tools, TypePad and Vox, for years.

There's a fork of Movable Type called Melody too, which is cool. But forks like that tend to arise when the originating platform is losing air. Yes, I know there are lots of people who love it, but I just get the sense that general enthusiasm for Movable Type has faded—even in the vibe I feel after installing and playing around with MT5 last night. The basic software is great, mature, and solid. But when I want to muck around and extend it, the available resources are a little sparse and often out of date.

WordPress on a tear

Just when Movable Type stumbled in 2004, Matt Mullenweg's WordPress—itself a fork of the awkwardly-named b2/cafelog blogging platform—was hitting its stride. I know Matt a bit, and have been using WordPress on other websites (most notably Inside Home Recording and Lip Gloss and Laptops) since 2006. I like it and recommend it to friends, despite its sometimes-sprawling nature, and its reliance on a dynamic, on-the-fly, database-driven publishing approach that I find somewhat brittle.

Indeed, that dynamic approach really was the only thing keeping me from switching to WordPress right away. I understand WordPress and how to tweak it, I like the wide range of themes and plugins available for it, most of my geek friends use it in some form or another, and the community is second to none. Recent versions are also very easy to upgrade in place, which is a big improvement over the way most installable blog platforms (WordPress and Movable Type included) have usually worked.

So when Matt Mullenweg's colleague, Victoria-based Lloyd Budd, pointed out the Really Static plugin to me, it looked like a perfect solution. It takes a regular WordPress blog and generates plain-old text files which otherwise continue to look and work pretty much just like the original WordPress pages. Nice.

The showdown

Therefore, last night, after all that procrastinating and evaluating, I installed both WordPress 2.9.2 (with Really Static) and Movable Type 5.01 into test directories on my server. The WordPress install went smoothly, since I've done it before. Movable Type took a couple of tries, but I got it working without too much trouble. Disabling either software installation seems to leave the resulting static blog pages essentially intact, which, after all, is my key criterion in this whole production.

As I said above, I found Movable Type underwhelming. I really, really wanted to like it, because it would be interesting for me to learn how to work with and tweak a new publishing system. The default appearance theme is certainly nicer than WordPress's, and its more modular system of templates and styles is also a bit more elegant. Though not a key feature for me, it's much easier to publish multiple blogs with a single Movable Type installation (at least for now). Some tech-head friends I respect a lot think its Perl-based CGI architecture is inherently better than WordPress's collage of PHP scripts.

All that may be true, but MT5 looks, to me, like it's catching up to features and polish that WordPress has offered for at least two or three years. Searching for some alternative themes and styles, as well as fairly simple plugins (displaying my recent Twitter posts on my home page, for instance), didn't yield very many options, and most of the results I did get seemed to be talking about MT installs a version or two old.

Not that the WordPress option is perfect. The forest of PHP files that WP uses can make heavy customizing kind of a chore ("which of those 250 files was I supposed to edit again?"). The Really Static plugin remains a hack, though an effective one, so making it do what I want requires some duplication of template files, some advance planning of how I want to structure my blog and archives, careful pruning of HTML pages on the server if I choose to delete something, and the awareness that when WordPress releases a new version (like the upcoming 3.0, or even a service update like 2.9.3), I might have to wait to make sure Really Static plays nice with it.

So right now, I'm leaning heavily toward the WordPress/Really Static approach [but wait! see my April 14 post to find out if I changed my mind]. Any Movable Type advocates (or people with different suggestions) who want to convince me otherwise can email me or leave a comment here—at least until I disable comments on this post at the end of the month (see below).

Other housekeeping

One annoying thing about moving away from Blogger as my publishing system is that I'm going to have to lock down my blog archives. What I mean is, I'm not planning to import all my nearly 10 years of existing blog posts into the new system and republish them. Indeed, one of the advantages of the static-files approach I'm choosing is that I can just leave my old posts exactly as they are, whether from 2001 or 2009.

But since I'll no longer be able to update the pages from Blogger, that also means that no one will be able to post new comments to those posts—or, more accurately, if I leave things as they are, people can write comments, but they'll never show up on this website. So my plan, over the course of the next three weeks, is to disable new comments on my old posts, and gradually disable them on newer and newer ones until FTP publishing stops working at the end of the month. Then, if I time things right, I can seal off comments on my latest entries, tie up the old blog in a bow, fire up the by-then-ready new system, and be done.

I've already started. Want to comment on one of my posts from April 2007 or earlier? Sorry, you can't. Same for entries for my occasional Penmachine Podcast from last year or before. They were never much for comments either.

Yeah, it's a bit of an awkward transition, but after a decade of largely smooth sailing with Blogger, I can hardly expect anything else. I'll miss the simplicity and familiar orange-and-blue colour scheme of writing in Blogger, but I won't miss its bizarre system of labels, its strange way of handling podcast enclosures, and of course the consistent unreliability of FTP publishing in the first place. Besides, for the geek in me, making the change is sort of fun.

As long as I don't screw anything up too badly over the next few weeks, anyway.

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31 March 2010


Eumerdification: writing to impress academics

Deep in the notes at the back of philosopher Daniel Dennett's 2006 book Breaking the Spell, there's a funny little story:

John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: "Michel, you're so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?" To which Foucault replied, "That's because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense." I have coined a term for this tactic, in honour of Foucault's candor: eumerdification.

The word is much nicer in French, since in English it would be something like shittifying. So here's the definition:

Making academic writing at least 25% incomprehensible crap, to seem smarter.

I love that. I suspect there's some eumerdification in this article I reformatted several years ago.

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20 March 2010


Would he be OK with the fake one?

There's some great logic in these conversation snippets with kids. They reflect straightforward thinking and plain speaking, which we adults often spend a lot of time overthinking around.

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02 February 2010


So long, Blogger.com: I need a new blogging platform to publish static files

Blogger logoFor close to a decade, since October 2000, I've published this home page using Blogger, the online publishing platform now owned by Google. That entire time, I've used the original hacky kludge created by Blogger's founders back in 1999, where I write my posts at the blogger.com website, but it then sends the resulting text files over the Internet to a web server I rent, using the venerable FTP (File Transfer Protocol) standard—which was itself last formally updated in 1985. This is known as Blogger FTP publishing.

While often unreliable for various technical reasons, Blogger FTP works effectively for me, with my 13 years of accumulated stuff on this website. But I am in a small, small minority of Blogger users (under 0.5%, says Google). Almost everyone now:

  • Uses Blogger's own servers for their sites.
  • Or another hosted service that takes care of everything for them.
  • Or if they want to publish on their own servers, another tool like Movable Type, WordPress, or ExpressionEngine, which you install on your server and publish from there.

So, as I've been expecting for years, Blogger is now permanently turning off FTP publishing, as of late March 2010. And, in my particular case, that means I need to find a new blog publishing tool within the next month or so.

This has been coming for a long time

Blogger has all sorts of clever solutions and resources for people using FTP publishing who want to migrate to Google's more modern server infrastructure, but they don't fit for me. I have specific and very personal needs and weird proclivities about how I want to run this website, and putting my blog on Google's servers simply doesn't meet them.

That's sad, and a little frustrating, but I'm not angry about it—and I think it's misguided that many people commenting on this topic seem to be. I realize that I have been getting an amazing, easy publishing service for free for almost a quarter of my life from Blogger. It has enriched my interactions with thousands of people. Again, for free. (Actually, I did pay for Blogger Pro back in the day before the 2003 Google acquisition, but that was brief. And as thanks, Google sent me a free Blogger hoodie afterwards—I still wear that.)

The vast, vast, vast majority of users find the newer ways of publishing with Blogger meet their needs. And any of us who has used FTP publishing for years knows it's flaky and convoluted and something of a pain in the butt, and always has been since Ev and his team cobbled it together. I've been happily surprised that Blogger has supported it for so long—again, free.

Yes, it was a distinguishing feature of Blogger that you could use a fully hosted editing and publishing system to post to a web server where you don't have to install anything yourself. Very nice, but I think there are good technical reasons that no other service, free or paid—whether WordPress.com, TypePad, SquareSpace, or anything else—ever offered something similar.

I applaud the Blogger team for trying to do the best they can for us oddballs. And it serves as a reminder: Blogger FTP can go away. Gmail could go away. Facebook could go away. Flickr could go away. Twitter could go away. WordPress.com could go away. If you're building your life or business around free online tools, you need some sort of Plan B.

I've had this possibility on my mind at least since the Google takeover, seven years ago. Now I have to act on it. But I'm thankful for a decade of generally great and reliable free service from Blogger. I haven't had ten free years of anything like it from any other company (online or in the real world), as far as I know.

Getting nothing but static

One other thing I've always liked about Blogger's FTP publishing is that it creates static files: plain-text files (with file extensions like .html or .php or .css, or even no extensions at all). It generates those files from a database on Google's servers, but once they're published to my website, they're just text, which web browsers interpret as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) to create the formatting and colours as such.

Most other blogging tools, including Blogger's hosted services, generate their web pages on the fly from a database. That's often more convenient for a whole bunch of reasons, and I'm happy to run other sites, such as Inside Home Recording and Lip Gloss and Laptops, with a database-dependent tool such as WordPress.

But this site is my personal one—the archive of most of my writing over the past 25% of my life. And I'm a writer and editor by trade. This website is my thing, and I've worked fairly hard to keep it alive and functional, without breaking incoming links from other sites, for well over a decade now. I've always wanted to keep it running with static files, which is one reason I didn't migrate from Blogger to WordPress four or five years ago. Over on Facebook, Gillian asked me why I'm so hardheaded about it. (She's a database administrator by trade.)

I'll be blunt about the most extreme case: I have cancer. I may not live that long. But I'd like my website to stay, even if only so my kids can look at it later. If necessary, if I'm dead, I want someone to be able to zip up the directory structure of my blog, move it to a new server, unzip it, and there it is, live on the Web. I don't want to have to plan for future database administration in my will.

In that worst case I won't need to update my site anymore, but I think static files on a generic web server are more reliable in the long run. To make a bulk change, a simple search-and-replace can update the text files, for example, to note that it's not worth emailing me, since, being dead, I'll be unable to answer.

On other blogging and content management systems I've worked with, I've had MySQL databases die or get corrupted. Restoring from MySQL backups is a pain for non-techies, or even for me. I've blown up a WordPress site by mis-editing one part of one file, and I've been able to fix it—but I don't want someone else to have to do that.

Right now, if Blogger died entirely, my site would still work exactly as-is. If my web host went belly-up, anyone with a teeny bit of web savvy and access to my passwords and one of my computers could redirect penmachine.com to a new server, upload the contents of one of my backup directories to it by FTP, and (other than visitors being able to post new comments) it would be up and live just like it was within a day or two.

In addition, tools like WordPress are brittle. I like using them, but there are security updates all the time, so the software goes out of date. That's fine if you're maintaining your site all the time, but if not, it becomes vulnerable to hacks. So if a database-driven site choogles on without updates, it's liable to get compromised, and be defaced or destroyed. That's less likely with a bunch of HTML files in directories—or at least I think so.

Betting on text

Plain text has been the language of computer interchange for decades. If the Web ever stops supporting plain text files containing HTML, we'll all have big problems. But I don't think that will happen. The first web page ever made still works, and I hope and expect it will continue to. My oldest pages here are mild derivatives from pages that are only five years younger than that one. They still work, and I hope and expect that they will continue to.

At worst, even a relatively non-technical person can take a directory dump backup of my current website and open the pages in a text editor. I can do that with files I've had since before the Web existed—I still have copies on my hard drive of nonsensical stories from BBSes I posted to in the '80s (here's an HTML conversion I made of one of them). I wrote those stories with my friends, some of whom are now dead, but I can still read what we wrote together.

Those old text files, copies of words I wrote before some of the readers of this blog were born, still work, and I hope and expect they will continue to. Yeah, maybe a SQL backup would be wise, but I'll still place my bets on plain text. Okay, I'm weird, but there you go.


Okay, so I need a new blogging platform. Probably one I can install on my server, but definitely one that generates static files that don't depend on a live database. Movable Type does that. ExpressionEngine might. More obscure options, like Bloxsom and nanoc, do so in slightly more obscure ways.

If you know of others I should look at, please email me or leave a comment. However long I'm around, I'll remain nostalgic about and thankful to Blogger. It's been a good run.

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01 February 2010


My 13 jobs

This month, February 2010, marks three fricking years since I first went on disability leave for cancer treatment. (And, incidentally, since we got our Nintendo Wii.) This got me thinking about all the jobs I've had in my life, starting back when I was still in high school.

It turns out that I've worked for 13 organizations, if you include my own company when I was freelancing. I did not enjoy every job, but each taught me something:

Year(s) Job Lesson
1985? Graveyard-shift self-serve gas station attendant Don't be a graveyard-shift self-serve gas station attendant. Also, burnt coffee smells really bad.
1988 Park naturalist Science is fun, five-year-olds aren't patient, but summer jobs are a great place to meet your future wife. Also, avoid flipping your canoe.
1989 Science centre floor staff Science is fun, but you'll spend most of your time telling people where the bathrooms are.
1990 Student handbook editor Choose your fonts carefully, and people never get things in on deadline.
1991 Student society admin assistant It's a long way to pick up your printouts across campus when you type them on a mainframe computer.
1991 English conversation coach Japanese girls definitely interested in learning English; Japanese boys (who smoke like chimneys), not so much.
1992–1994 Student issues researcher Creating your own job is great, but it sure would be nice to have an office with a window.
1994–1995 Full-time rock 'n' roll drummer Playing live music onstage is often awesome. Everything offstage, however, usually sucks.
1995–1996 Magazine advertising assistant No matter how nice your co-workers, a bad boss can ruin the whole experience.
1996–2001 Various software company jobs, from developers' assistant to webmaster Even if you know almost nothing about how to do it, when someone asks you if you want to run a website, it's still worthwhile to say "sure!"
2001–2003 Freelance technical writer and editor The paperwork to run your own business is immensely boring.
2001–2003 Semi–full-time rock 'n' roll drummer Rock is more fun when you mostly stay in town and get paid better.
2003–2007 Communications Manager, Navarik Working with friends can be a good thing, especially when they have good ideas. Oh, and a decent extended-health plan is really, really important.

In the late '80s, I also helped my friend Chris install alarm systems in people's homes and businesses, but while I got some money from it, it wasn't quite a job in the same way. It was more like when I helped him repair cars and resell them around the same time. Though in those cases, I did learn that I dislike crawling around in fibreglass-filled attics running wires, and that I'm not too fond of all the grease, gunk, and rust involved in auto work either.

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28 July 2009


Making stories, showing off (for Raul's Blogathon)

This is a re-post of the guest entry I wrote for Raul's Blogathon on Saturday.

Derek 1974 vs. Derek 2007Here's a story. Two years ago this week, I weighed 145 pounds, about 70 pounds less than I do now. I looked like I'd been in a PoW camp, pale and skeletal. I'd just left St. Paul's Hospital, where I'd been for close to a month after major cancer surgery and an intestinal blockage.

By October I'd gained back 30 of those pounds. Within a year I'd taken a bunch more chemotherapy, lost my hair and grown it back, and had terrible chemo-induced acne. A year after that, the cancer is still here, but I'm fighting it, and I feel pretty good. End of story, for now.

We all grow up making stories—when we're kids, we call it playing, whether it's using an infant mobile or a video camera. And our stories are best when we make them for others, or with them. Unfortunately, many of us become unused to playing, thinking it childish. We grow up terrified of giving speeches, or we write our thoughts only in diaries instead of for reading. We become shy.

For whatever reason, that didn't happen to me. I've been passionate about many things in my 40 years—computers, photography, public speaking, music, making websites, writing and language, science and space, commuting by bicycle, building a life with my wife and family—but when I took at them all, each one is really about making stories for others. Or, as my wife succinctly pointed out, about showing off. I'll admit to that.

Some examples, in no real order:

  • Helping put together a school newspaper in sixth grade (or high school, or university).
  • Donning a smoking jacket and hand prosthetic to play Captain Hook on the elementary school stage.
  • Setting my daughters up with blogs and email addresses before they each turned ten.
  • Posting photographs to MacDesktops in the late '90s and photo.net a few years later.
  • Playing in a band in crappy bars or luxury New York hotels.
  • Editing my high school yearbook (with others) and the UBC student handbook (by myself).
  • Teaching courses about Microsoft Word.
  • Talking about my cancer on the radio.
  • Talking about geeky stuff on TV.
  • Recording songs and giving them away for free.
  • Helping my wife Air put together her podcast.
  • Uploading thousands of pictures and videos to Flickr.
  • Crafting obscure technical documents to make them understandable.
  • And of course blogging and blogging and blogging for close to nine years.

I've done many of these things for no money (and some for lots of money), but for almost all of them, I wanted other people to know.

Okay, yes, I wanted to show off. Is that healthy?

For me, on balance, I think so. Whether for my jobs or my hobbies, being a ham and wanting others to see and appreciate what I do prods me to make those stories good, and useful. Humans are natural tellers of stories, and we enjoy anything presented in a story-like way. So I've tried to make all of those things in the form of a story. Whether a discussion of evolutionary biology, a fun rockabilly instrumental, a bunch of rants about PowerPoint, or a pretty photograph (or yes, even the instruction manual to install a wireless cellular modem in a police car), I want it to generate a story in your mind.

Stories don't always have an obvious structure. They don't necessarily go in predictable directions, or have a moral or meaning. I certainly didn't see it coming when all this cancer stuff from the past two and a half years happened. But I've been able to make it a story that other people can read, understand, and maybe find helpful. So too with my other passions.

So whatever you're trying to do, whatever hobby or job or habit you have, if you want to share it with others, try to craft it like a story—short or long, visual or auditory, but something that flows. Show it off. That, it seems, is what I like to do.

Derek K. Miller is a writer, editor, web guy, drummer, photographer, and dad. Not in that order. He's been blogging at penmachine.com since 2000, and has been on medical leave from his position as Communications Manager at Navarik Corp. since 2007. His wife and two daughters have put up with his show-offishness way longer than that.

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02 June 2009


Those damned angry atheists

Christopher Hitchens was his usual bombastic and arrogant self on CBC's "Q" today (MP3 file). That's no surprise, since he is perhaps the angriest—or at least the most provocative—of the angry New Atheists who have had bestselling books over the past few years. Many religious people, and a good number of my fellow atheists too, think Hitchens's take-no-prisoners approach is wrong and counterproductive. Why, they ask, should atheists antagonize believers the way he and others, like Richard Dawkins, do?

"Q" host Jian Ghomeshi asked Hitchens a similar question today:

Tell me who you think your audience is, because you're quite aggressive with your argument. [...] If you really want to change things, it might take some effort to overcome organized religion in the world, but I'm wondering if [...] being a little softer in your approach might be more effective?

It's true that most atheists would prefer to be more conciliatory towards the world's religious majorities. But I think Hitchens and his compatriots serve a valuable purpose. With their polemics, their public profiles, indeed with their anger, they have made atheism visible in this new century, especially in America. Without them, we might not have heard Barack Obama's acknowledgment of non-believers in his inaugural address.

The angry New Atheists are like the activist vanguard of the LGBT rights movement, and of other civil rights movements before it. Not every gay person wants to march in protests, or make films outing hypocritical homosexual politicians. But the demands and self-righteousness of the vanguard are why same-sex marriage is a reality in Canada, and in several European countries and American states, today, rather than decades from now.

I grew up in an ostensibly secular Canada in the '70s, but we still said a prayer every morning in public school, and the Lord's Day Act prevented stores from opening on Sunday. Those rituals didn't offend me at the time, but as a non-religious youngster, I still felt like an outsider. The assumption seemed to be not only that everyone was religious, but that we were all Christians too. That has changed, largely because of Canada's increasing multiculturality.

High-profile writers like Hitchens and Salman Rushdie and Douglas Adams and Barbara Ehrenreich; scientists like Richard Dawkins and David Suzuki and Richard Feynman; comedians like Julia Sweeney and Ricky Gervais and George Carlin; musicians like Ani DiFranco and Mick Jagger and Eddie Vedder; actors like Omar Sharif and Eva Green and Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen and Katharine Hepburn; and others from Penn and Teller to Linus Torvalds to the MythBusters to Nigella Lawson—around the world, all profess their atheism.

In doing so, they affirm that the non-religious and non-spiritual among us are part of the full and honourable diversity of human society. So the audience for Christopher Hitchens need not be religious people he is trying to de-convert (even if that is his goal). Rather, it can be the millions of us who believe in no gods or spirits, and who are comfortable saying so, because Hitchens is shouting it too.

UPDATE: Biologist Jerry Coyne, who is outspoken in his assertion that science and religion are incompatible, has an interesting post on this same topic.

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17 May 2009


Black Destroyer

Enthusiasts agree that science fiction's Golden Age began with A.E. van Vogt's short story "Black Destroyer," published in July 1939, two months after my father was born. You can read the story online, and you'll recognize a lot in it.

So many SF stories have followed in its tradition, but few have done the most interesting thing van Vogt tried: he got inside the head of the lone alien monster, and told most of the tale from its point of view. The atomic power in the story seems a bit hackneyed now—but recall, it was 1939, six years before the Manhattan Project.

Van Vogt, a Canadian, lived a long time, and he saw real voyages through the solar system. He died on January 26, 2000, coincidentally the same day my younger daughter was born. And "Black Destroyer" is still one of the coolest SF short story titles I can think of.

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25 January 2009


Links of interest (2009-01-25):

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16 October 2008


Links of interest (2008-10-16):

I'm still doped up on Tylenol 3's and pretty tired post-surgery, so am not up for much thinking or original posts. I'm also contemplating email bankrupcy again, mere months after my last one, as my inbox creeps up to 800 once more. Sigh. Anyway, here's some interesting stuff:

  • What if all movies had cell phones? (There's a good reason No Country for Old Men was set in 1980, by the way.)
  • A worthy quote in this electional season: "I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." - Oliver Wendell Holmes (though it may be a folksier recasting of "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society").
  • "Hey news executives! Try this newsroom pop quiz: Give each staff member a pencil and tell everyone to stop what they're doing and write out the tag that creates a hypertext link." (via Dan)
  • Andrew Sullivan rounds up quotes from a number of last night's press and blogger reactions to the final McCain-Obama debate.
  • Also from Sullivan, it's a bit sad how well this video reflects the approach of the McCain campaign right now.
  • While Leica's upcoming S2 camera is quite large (especially the lenses) for a digital SLR, it has a medium-format size sensor, meaning that it is smaller and probably more ergonomic than most of its direct competitors, and that even the rumoured €10,000–20,000 price isn't as insane as it sounds. Nevertheless, the cost of a reasonably complete S2 system when it's released next year will rival that of a condominium. It also bodes well for future "lower end" (for Leica, at least) cameras from this legendary manufacturer.
  • What's it like to write other people's term papers for a living? (via Kottke)
  • The web comic Basic Instructions makes me laugh almost every single time a new one comes out.
  • Vancouver locals Buzz Bishop and Darren Barefoot accurately summarize the Canadian election held this week, in which nothing much changed. The result (as I discussed earlier) bodes poorly for our country's environmental and climate policy, which is one subject we can't afford to waste time on, unfortunately.

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27 June 2008


An author chimes in

Steve Ettlinger, author of Twinkie, Deconstructed, which I wrote about recently, left a comment saying that my blog post was his favorite review of the book.

In part that must be because I liked it, but it also seems that most other reviewers missed the winking irony in his use of Registered Trademark Symbols® throughout, which reminded me of Douglas Coupland's early-'90s novel Shampoo Planet. In that previous case the brands were made up, but the effect is similar: as a reader you feel a bit uncomfortable being hyper-aware of them.

I like that Ettlinger is keeping track of online reviews, in addition to those in traditional publications and media.

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09 June 2008


Book review: "Twinkie, Deconstructed," deconstructed

twinkie at Flickr.comAnyone who's ever eaten a Twinkie remembers the experience, even if it's been years. The textured, firm, sweet dough combined with the intense vanilla creme (not cream, mind you) filling is distinctive and, especially when you're a kid, delicious, yet obviously somehow sinful and wrong and unnatural at the same time.

While I was in hospital last week, my wife brought me Steve Ettlinger's book Twinkie, Deconstructed (buy using my affiliate code at Amazon Canada or U.S.A.). It's a perfect "Derek's sick" book: a sort of "science lite" non-fiction tome that's fascinating, informative, and non-polemical while still making a political point. I finished it in a little over a day.

The concept is brilliant. Prompted by a question from one of his kids, Ettlinger, a long-time science and consumer products writer, tells a story of traveling around the world to find out where each of the dozens of ingredients in a Hostess Twinkie comes from—in the order in which they're listed on the package. In doing so, he visits a lot more factories than farms, and encounters many more industrial centrifuges than ploughs.

Some reviewers think that Ettlinger got co-opted into the "Twinkie-Industrial Complex" (as he calls it) during the writing of the book. They think that he is too accepting, too uncritical, and indeed too friendly to the various large corporate interests who show him (or, in many cases, refuse to show him) around their facilities and processes. But I think he's smarter and more subversive than that.

Here's something from page 195:

In an undisclosed location, perhaps in an industrial park near Chicago, maybe in rural, central Pennsylvania, possibly in riparian Delaware, in a plant full of tanks, railroad sidings, and a maze of pipes and catwalks, big, stainless steel vats are filled with fresh, hot, luscious, liquefied sorbitan monostearate.

Or check out this label-text Kremlinology from page 255:

...while it seems that not one natural color is use in Twinkies, sometime the label has said "color added," which would make me suspect that annato, the butter and cheese colorant that is popular with [Hostess's] competitors, is indeed in the mix. But their punctuation indicates otherwise. "Color added" is followed by "(yellow 5 red 40)" which would seem to indicate grammatically that they are the only colors involved.

One of the most obvious stylistic effects throughout the book is that whenever Ettlinger first mentions a trademarked product, he adds the registered trademark symbol: Yoo-hoo® Chocolate Drink, PAM® cooking spray, Clabber Girl®, Davis®, and Calumet® baking soda, and so on. Normally you'd only see things written that way in a press release or corporate brochure.

You might think he was simply pressured by company lawyers, but when I read the book every trademark symbol seemed to me like a wink from the author, an unavoidable reminder that while he's breezing along in his personal, gee-whiz style, he hasn't forgotten that the process of Twinkie-making is huge and industrial, one that has only a little to do with baking and nourishment, and a lot with multinational chemical firms and drill rigs and mines and massive tract farms.

Twinkie, Deconstructed is no Silent Spring, or even Super Size Me. It's neither a manifesto nor a satire. It's not horrified at what Twinkies are made of—because ingredients originating from petroleum or minerals rather than food plants or animals is part of the Twinkie legend. What's surprising is only how far some of those ingredients have to travel, and how extensively they have to be mangled, reprocessed, ground, dissolved, flung, and dried before they get used in even minute quantities to bake those little cakes.

Ettlinger's book is, I think, more effective because he doesn't politicize it overtly. He simply tells us, repeatedly and relentlessly, about conveyor belts, pipes, pressure vessels, railroad cars, noxious chemical reactions, huge stainless steel tanks, monstrous earth-moving equipment, and what obviously must be enormous quantities of energy used in all those processes. He talks just as blithely about factories that refuse to tell him where their ingredients come from at all as he does friendly chemical engineers who show him around less secretive facilities. You can draw your own conclusions.

I did find myself wishing, at the end, that he had calculated how much energy a single Twinkie consumes in its manufacture—how much oil or coal or gas, or how many kilowatt-hours of electricity, it takes to bring all those ingredients together. And I was surprised that, after nearly 300 pages of background, Ettlinger never actually describes step-by-step how a Twinkie is made at the Hostess bakery.

But Twinkie, Deconstructed is a fun read. Whether you feel safe eating a Twinkie afterwards is a message you can safely infer from the book, rather than having to be clubbed over the head with it.

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08 May 2008


Einstein may have been inevitable, but the Beatles probably weren't

Gladwell and Einstein, men of big hairIn a recent CBC podcast, writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that "those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that this practice of talking about X by discussing Y is my only rhetorical move." His recent excellent article in The New Yorker, about scientists who independently discovered or invented things at the same time (via Angela Gunn), is a prime example.

The article is about 7000 words long. Here is Gladwell's thesis statement:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call "multiples"—turns out to be extremely common.

You don't get to read that until more than 3500 words have passed: if you skip the title of the piece ("In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas Are Rare?"), Gladwell doesn't tell you what his essay is about until it's more than half over. It's nevertheless fascinating, but even (or perhaps especially) if you have read the title, you might be like me. As you read the first half, you may very well keep thinking, "Yeah, Malcolm, so what's your point?"

When the time is right

His main one is that many inventions and scientific discoveries happen because the time is right. Many people are working on certain types of ideas (the mathematics of changing systems, the relationships of fossil organisms after discovering that the earth is very old, the next step of electrical communications after the telegraph), so it's very likely that someone—maybe several someones—will come up with a key new concept based on those ideas (calculus, evolution by natural selection, the telephone).

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's wonderful 2007 biography of Albert Einstein, the first published after the release of many of Einstein's private letters and writings. Einstein was so remarkable that his last name has become a noun, a synonym for genius around the world.

Yet of course he didn't generate his world-changing ideas out of the ether (nor, since he disproved the existence of the ether, out of a vacuum). Einstein's synthesis of the ideas of Planck and Mach and Maxwell and others with the experimental results of Faraday, Curie, Michelson and Morley, and still others would have happened eventually. But it might have taken a few decades, and probably a number of eminent scientists, to reveal that atoms actually existed, that light is a wave-particle duality, that gravity can be thought of as the warping of space-time, and the dozens of other ideas that Einstein figured out largely on his own during feverish bursts of creativity in between 1905 and 1917.

So what is genius?

Gladwell doesn't talk about Einstein at all, but he also doesn't diminish genius in his article. Rather, he reframes it: someone like Einstein (or Newton, or Kelvin) is brilliant enough to make a wide range of discoveries. To get a similar range of insights or inventions, you'd need a brainstorming session, or a committee, or an "invention session" of smart, but not genius-level, people. And they might not come up with genius-level ideas all at once.

In other words, in science and technology, a genius can do the work of a big group of regular people. And so geniuses often contribute to "multiples," but also do more. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus, but Leibniz didn't come up with anything like Newton's discoveries in optics or gravity.

Gladwell also has a third point, one that helps distinguish science from art. Namely, that a scientific genius and an artistic genius are different things, even though we use the same word:

You can't pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart's Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse's "La Danse." A work of artistic genius is singular.

Creating and discovering

That makes intuitive sense—there is a difference between creating something and discovering something. Einstein himself was profoundly uncomfortable with quantum theory and wave mechanics, even though he established that field of study. He spent the last half of his life fighting against their probabilistic implications. Yet quantum theory was still there, whether Einstein was involved or not.

Conversely, let's take another example that Gladwell doesn't use. Sure, without the Beatles there would still have been some kind of rock and roll after Elvis, and maybe even psychedelia in the '60s. But there wouldn't have been Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, nor maybe any record quite like it. (I doubt the Rolling Stones would have made Their Satanic Majesties Request, for instance.)

Similarly, the work of Watson, Crick, and Franklin in discovering DNA was part of a feverish mid-century effort throughout biology to determine what genes might be made of. Somebody was going to find the double helix. But nobody made paintings exactly like Picasso, or sang just like Ella. Without them, maybe no one ever would.

We are social creatures, so the twining influences and effects of our creativity can be hard to tease out. That's part of what's so cool about them.

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30 March 2008


Life, death, and the blog

I spoke to the BC Branch of the Editors' Association of Canada a week and a half ago, about how I've integrated my online and offline lives since getting cancer last year. I've now posted an enhanced audio podcast of my talk, which includes my slides as part of the MPEG-4 file (24 MB, about 1 hour).

If you're subscribed to my podcast feed, you may already have the file on your computer or iPod.

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01 January 2008


One words for 2008

Let's start off the year with one of those taggy blog post things. I stumbled across it at Jen's site last night, which is when I filled it out:

  • Your last meal: appies
  • Something on your desk/work area: microphones
  • Your New Year’s Eve plans: family
  • The smallest gift you received this year: adenocarcinoma
  • The largest gift you received this year: life
  • Something you wish you hadn’t eaten so much of during the holidays: nuts
  • On your feet: callouses
  • Your hair: greying
  • How many other countries you’ve traveled to: nine
  • One country you dream of visiting: Antarctica
  • A hobby you’d like to take up/revisit this year: cycling
  • A hobby of yours that died (aww, buh-bye) this past year: bass
  • A publication you subscribe to (print): Wired
  • The most embarrassing subscription in your feed reader (if you have one): egofeeds
  • One of your favorite stores to window shop dreamily in: L&M
  • One of your favorite online stores to window shop dreamily on: cameracanada.com
  • A color you love to wear: purple
  • Your bed pillow: doubled
  • The color of your kitchen counter: 1967oleum
  • What you plan to do when you get up from the computer: sleep

Why not try your own, either in the comments here, at Jen's post, or on your own blog? The rules: answer all questions with one word only; you may need to get creative if, for instance, your favourite store is more than one word. This will be strictly enforced, in a scary way that shall not be revealed unless necessary.

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14 November 2007


The best technical writing on the Web

This week's issue of TidBITS, a free online Mac-focused newsletter published by Adam and Tonya Engst continuously since 1990, exemplifies why I've been a subscriber for so long (I can't even remember when I first signed up). Two articles were particularly impressive: Matt Neuburg's Spotlight Strikes Back and Glenn Fleishman's Google's View of Our Cell Phone Future.

TidBITS regularly takes its coverage of tech topics several steps deeper than most other media, online or offline, even when its articles are short. I don't think you could find a better explanation of the vastly improved Spotlight search feature in Apple's latest "Leopard" operating system release than Matt's. I learned not only what's better about Spotlight in Leopard (nearly everything), but also some of its engineering quirks and powerful search syntax. Much better than anything Apple offers.

Glenn's article about Google's new "Android" mobile phone platform announcement is a masterpiece. He summarizes the international history and technical infrastructure of the entire cellular phone industry; Google's motivations and activities so far—and those of its partners in the consortium—in introducing Android; and how it compares to, and might affect products and strategies from, competitors such as Nokia/Symbian, Microsoft, and Apple. All in fewer than 3000 words. I worked for a wireless telecommunications company several years ago, and I still learned lots of new things.

Yes, I've written for TidBITS in the past, but that just puts me in honoured company. Articles like Matt's and Glenn's are some of the best general-audience technical writing on the Web.

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