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30 November 2007

 

An end of month mishmash

To honour the end of NaBloPoMo (in which I didn't participate officially), this final post of November will contain a mishmash of nothing in particular:

Cory Doctorow is reasonably digitally paranoid, but he has a point about Facebook: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance."

It's worth listening to what Dave Winer has to say about podcasting, since he helped invent it, so when he writes, "I've heard that podcasting didn't achieve its promise," that's worth reading. His response begins: "First, obviously it depends on what you felt was the promise. Second, it depends whether you think there's more to do." He does.

Evel Knievel was an icon during my childhood, the epitome of cool to elementary school boys in the '70s. He died today.

Finally, here's a video of our pal Dizzy the Podcast Puppy licking my daughter on the face, after some prompting:

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29 November 2007

 

Shopping time

LED LightsMy wife and I made up a Christmas shopping list today. We're trying to cut down on total spending craziness, and so far, thanks to her industriousness, we're doing pretty well with that so far.

Right now she's out taking care of some more of the list while I flake out at home with my chemo bottle. We'll probably put up the tree this weekend when I'm feeling a little better.

Here it comes, everybody, ready or not.

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28 November 2007

 

Podcasts-a-poppin'

Lip Gloss and Laptops featured at iTunes U.S. podcast directory at Flickr.comMy wife's Lip Gloss and Laptops podcast has been featured on the main page of the Fashion and Beauty podcast category in the U.S. iTunes Store (they're on the second page here in Canada). We also figured out today that the show is #34 in that top 100 in Canada, and #68 in the U.S.A.

So congratulations, LGL, on 84 episodes and a feature at iTunes.

In addition, my podcast co-host Paul Garay and I have posted our 50th episode of Inside Home Recording, which we recorded live at a Coquitlam restaurant a couple of days ago. Mmmm, calzone.

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27 November 2007

 

I'll let you guess how I'm feeling today

Wicked head cold at Flickr.comThere's a clue in the photo.

Normally a cold wouldn't be a big deal, but tomorrow I have another chemotherapy treatment. I called the Cancer Agency wondering if I needed to take any extra precautions, either for myself or to avoid infecting anyone else.

They said a simple head cold was indeed no big deal, and that I should just rest, drink fluids, and have some soup. (There's modern medical science for you!) I'll go in for the treatment tomorrow as usual. I expect a compound crappy feeling by Thursday, when the chemo usually feels its worst.

I will also take this opportunity to reinforce that Tylenol Cold really works. I no longer have the pounding sinus headache I woke up with.

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26 November 2007

 

IHR #50 coming soon

Today my podcast co-host Paul Garay and I recorded our 50th episode of Inside Home Recording (IHR). Usually we put together a whole bunch of separate segments and edit them into a proper show over the course of several days, but today we simply sat down at a restaurant and chatted for about 45 minutes about that process: how we usually construct our podcast.

Paul started IHR back in August 2005, when podcasting itself was less than a year old, and Apple had just added podcasting support to iTunes. It's the longest-running podcast on home and project studio audio recording. I joined on episode #16 in early 2006. It's been a fair bit of work for an essentially unpaid hobby, but also a lot of fun.

Episode #50 be a bit of a different show, but I hope an interesting one. We should have it posted in a day or two.

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25 November 2007

 

It's beginning to look a lot like...

...we went to a parade today:

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24 November 2007

 

Chemotherapy side effects

So far I have been pretty lucky with the side effects of this round of chemotherapy. I've had three treatments (of 12) since early October, and I still have my hair. (Not even any thinning yet.) I feel a bit nauseated for the three days of the treatment itself, but not long after I am merely a somewhat tired version of normal.

But there are effects. During treatments I get frequent hiccups. Outside that time I also sneeze pretty often. I have a consistently runny nose, and sometimes the discharge is a bit pink (yummy). And yes, I get tired easily.

I've also noticed that I'm more sensitive to temperature: hot showers feel hotter, and cold diet pop bites in my throat more than it used to. That may get more severe over time.

Other colorectal cancer patients I've talked to have had it much worse, even early in their treatments. Some have been relatively healthy through the whole cycle, while others started getting ill about half-way through. I'm hoping I'm in the former category.

In other words, so far so good.

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23 November 2007

 

A whale straight in the eye

Blue whaleBlue whales are so large that, in most oceans in the world, if you were underwater with an adult one, you wouldn't be able to see one end from the other.

If one were swimming in the nutrient-rich waters near Vancouver, for instance, the body of the whale would disappear into the distance because the visibility is too obscured (by plankton and other things in the water itself) to take in the animal's entire 30-metre length—about the same as three typical shipping containers.

But if you want to see what it would be like to examine a blue whale up close, life size, here's a web page (via Mirabilis) where you can do it.

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22 November 2007

 

The mug

My favourite mug at Flickr.comMost mornings I make myself coffee, like many people. And like many of you, I'm sure, I have a favourite mug. It's pretty large, wide, and stable, with a big handle and a smooth rim. Running part way around the lower side is an arced ridge in the ceramic. The glaze is grey with dark speckles, and the bottom is unfinished and gritty.

My father-in-law made it. He's been making pottery as a hobby for decades, and from time to time we get the chance to rummage through his stockpile and pick pieces we particularly like. I'm not sure what it is about this particular mug that appeals to me, but it makes the coffee taste better, as well as hard to spill.

It's also unique, as handmade pottery must be. He has crafted some others like it, but none identical. If it ever goes missing or breaks, there are others we own, both handmade and commercial, that will do the job. But not quite the same.

Do you have a favourite mug? Why that one?

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The sad family of iPod Touch fonts

Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch ship with a rather limited range of web fonts, and as John Gruber wrote back in the summer:

It's a shame this wonderful display is being held back by such a poor selection of installed fonts.

I wanted to see what this meant in real-world usage, so I hopped over to Code Style's Top 40 Fonts list of most popular available type options on the Web, updated by surveys earlier this month. Here was the result when I compared the font list displayed on my MacBook (left) to the same list on the iPhone (right)—click for a full-size PNG-format version:

Top 40 Fonts

Notice how few fonts actually display as themselves. Of the top ten, only three (Arial, Helvetica, and Verdana) show up correctly. Courier is actually the flimsier Courier New, and everything else defaults to one variant or other of the built-in Helvetica or Arial sans-serif typefaces. Here's a close-up:

Top 40 Fonts Crop

Further down the list, some of the choices (Marker Felt, Zapfino) are just bizarre to include, while others (Gill Sans, Futura, the Lucida family, my old fave Palatino) are sadly absent. I'm happy to see Georgia in there, and equally pleased that Comic Sans isn't.

Text looks great on the high-density iPod screen—it's a pity there aren't more interesting fonts to try on it. On the plus side, it's quite possible that Apple or others might be able to install some better ones through future firmware updates or software installations.

Here's hoping.

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21 November 2007

 

Play some guitar

This may be the earliest video of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing a concert with his band Double Trouble, from May 1980 in Lubbock, Texas:

He was using his signature beat-up "Number One" guitar, already seriously worn in the seven years he'd owned it. Bass player Jackie Newhouse would be replaced the next year by Tommy Shannon, before the band broke big in 1984.

"The world misses his music," said Jimmie Vaughan, "but I miss my brother."

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20 November 2007

 

iPod Touch: my first impressions and review

iPod Touch - complex PDF from the WebSince I'm on medical leave from work and am sitting at home feeling slightly barfy, I've had a fair bit of time to try out the iPod Touch I received yesterday. My summary: like its sibling the iPhone, it is a fantastic little portable computer. For video, enhanced podcasts with artwork, listening in the car, web browsing, and reading text, it's fabulous. However, as a pure portable music player, I think the other iPods are superior. Here's why.

I miss the click wheel

The iPod Touch and iPhone lack the classic iPod click wheel, or even the round switch arrangement of the iPod Shuffle. The Touch and iPhone screens are big, beautiful, touch-sensitive blank slates—which makes them impossible to use if you can't see them. So when my iPod Touch is in my pocket, I can't skip songs, change the volume, scrub through a podcast, or even pause a track without taking it out to look at it. When I'm on the go, it's therefore slower and more awkward to use than my 5G iPod.

Yes, if you have an iPhone (not yet available in Canada), the headphones include a simple remote to address some of those problems; on the iPod Touch, you need to buy a third-party remote, which I'm seriously considering. Even then, you have only rudimentary, iPod Shuffle–like control over your player.

The click wheel is one of the great genius pieces of design in Apple's iPod lineup, a patented, distinctive component of the iPod's success since 2001. It's brave of the company to ditch it entirely on these new flagship models, in favour of the remarkable new "pinch, tap, and flick" multi-touch interface. But when you're used to the familiar thumb-spinning action of the click wheel, having to hunt for onscreen sliders and scrubbers and virtual buttons is, simply, a chore.

Good for music, great for much else, destined to get better

Don't think that I dislike the iPod Touch. When I use it, it feels like a piece of the future in my hand. I'm hugely looking forward to Apple's promised software development kit (SDK), coming in February, after which programmers everywhere will be able to create all sorts of amazing applications for it, from document readers and word processors to games and screen savers—on top of the already impressive selection of web apps out there. Right now we're limited to the programs Apple ships on it, which are interesting but few.

Because it is a more general-purpose device than other iPods, I find there's more tapping and menu navigating on the Touch, because it does more, but that makes it a little slower to use for most tasks. Some features I've become used to with other iPods, such as using my Belkin audio recorder or setting up the device as a USB flash drive, are unfortunately gone too. Like most iPods, it also feels rather fragile on its own, so I picked up a silicone case and screen protector today from Westworld, seemingly the only retailer in Vancouver with any iPod Touch accessories at all so far.

Compared to the iPhone, it has no camera, speaker/mic, physical volume switch (argh!), headphones with mini-remote, or certain built-in applications (local client email, Google Maps, etc.)—so you have to use them via the Web. The colour scheme is a bit different too. The front bezel is dark, and the back is the usual smudge-o-licious iPod chrome, rather than the flat metal of the iPhone.

iPod Touch - Navarik logo

It does have a YouTube app and, best of all, Apple's Safari browser. Most websites work perfectly, and the ability to zoom, rotate, and manipulate the display makes everything from using Gmail or WordPress or Blogger to reading blogs and news sites simple and surprisingly pleasant for such a small screen. The onscreen keyboard doesn't beat something real to type on, but particularly in landscape mode it works tolerably with my largish fingers. (Someone who builds an external keyboard for this thing will sell quite a few.)

I think it would make a great e-book reader, but right now there is no easy way I know of to load up text or PDF documents for reading. The Touch can display PDFs and text files from the Web very well (though I wish text files would word-wrap more neatly), but unless you want to set up your own web server (not hard for webby geeks like me) or email yourself a book (feasible but awkward), we'll have to wait for the SDK before that's easy.

Early in the revolution

The multi-touch interface is a revolution, though an early stage one. My fingers are finding themselves a bit confused. I still instinctively try the circular motion of the click wheel when wanting to adjust the volume, pause, or change tracks.

And when I get back to my MacBook laptop, I'm really flummoxed, because there I can scroll with two fingers on the trackpad too. But the scrolling direction is (quite logically, but still contradictorily) completely the opposite of the flicking motion on the Touch. On the MacBook, to scroll a page down I put two fingers on the pad and drag them down; on the Touch, I use one finger on the screen and flick the page up. The transition is like switching between two languages you're fluent in—it takes a bit of time for your brain to make the change.

The cool factor of the iPod Touch is certainly hard to beat. The screen is super-sharp, and photos and video look just great on it. The Touch also works perfectly with my car FM adapter, and in that context it's better than the old iPod because you can see the screen better—but I had to turn the brightness down when I tried it last night, because it was like a searchlight compared to the dashboard instruments!

A device unsure of itself

When the iPhone first came out, many people wanted one without the phone part. The iPod Touch is pretty close, but that also makes it a device that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Is it a portable computer? A music player? A video device? A web appliance? Well, yes and not quite. Apple positions it and the iPhone as their top-of-the-line models, but if you listen to a lot of audio, or need to record, or like to store data too, think carefully. The massive storage and reliable old click wheel of the iPod Classic or the miniscule convenience of the iPod Nano might work better for you.

iPod Touch - slide to unlock

Despite that, I suspect that I'll be carrying and listening to the iPod Touch a lot more than my old 5G iPod. When I wake the screen from sleep and slide the virtual switch to unlock it, or flip the iPod sideways and watch the screen display flip too, or grab a chunk of web page and move my fingers to zoom it, or flick a list of podcasts and observe the carefully-calibrated ballistics of how the list decelerates to a stop, there's something amazing about that experience. It's a new kind of computer in my pocket.

A few niggles here and there don't negate the amazement. And I get the feeling that once it's no longer amazing, that experience will simply be something I expect, and almost everything else will seem old-fashioned.

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19 November 2007

 

Warming the cockles of geeks' hearts

UPDATE: See my review of the iPod Touch.

iPod Touch - Safari browser at Flickr.comThe company I work for, Navarik, has been amazingly supportive during my medical leave for cancer treatment. It has always been a great place to work, even in the darkest depths of the dot-com bust in which the company started in 2000 (I did freelance editing work for them back then, and started as a proper employee in 2003). That's because the company's founders—university colleagues of mine—created a culture where people are important. It's the main reason I wanted to work there originally, because in the technology industry, you can't necessarily predict what kind of work you'll be doing in the future—but you can judge the culture of your employer pretty easily.

While I've been here at home recovering from surgery and pumping my body full of chemotherapy poisons, everyone else at Navarik has been working incredibly hard on some fascinating and powerful software that will help many people in the maritime shipping industry and elsewhere around the world do their jobs better.

This afternoon my daughters and I dropped by the office for the first time in some months. Coincidentally, it was the same day that the management team presented each employee with a Navarik-personalized iPod Touch (what's the plural of that? iPod Touches? iPods Touch?) as thanks for that effort. Amazingly, I received one too. The accompanying handwritten note from our CEO brought me (and my wife, when she read it) pretty close to tears.

This is not a new thing, nor a token attempt at recognizing the great people who work for the company. I'll write about my impressions of the iPod Touch tomorrow, but my impression of Navarik has only been reinforced: it would be hard to find a better place to work.

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18 November 2007

 

Stylin' with age

There's lots of grey hair in the soul patch I've been growing. Maybe I can attribute some of that to chemotherapy, but I think most of it is just age:

Grey soul patch

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17 November 2007

 

Apple lies too

Smiley Face is still thereRobert and Dave are right. Macs don't work properly all the time. No personal computer does, or ever has, unless you get it into a working-perfectly-for-a-particular-task state and then don't change anything. Sound engineers and video techs who use their Macs (or PCs) to make money know that, which is why once they've got a system wired up and configured and working, they lock it down, keep it off the Internet, and avoid even innocuous things like bug-fix updates until they have a bit of spare time to tinker if something goes wrong.

We Mac-heads enjoy all those "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads, but we know they lie. The new Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" breaks things just as Windows Vista does. People have fun with their Windows PCs (seen all those games?). My in-laws had their iMac lock up after playing a YouTube video yesterday, but they managed to sort it out without my help. The brand promise Robert talks about of Macs "just working" is true a lot of the time, but not all the time—and not in the way we expect of our cars or fridges or TVs or stoves or pacemakers or jet aircraft or roadways or electrical grids or dialysis machines.

It's also true that, despite the problems—and I've had a few—I enjoy using my Macs, and do find they stay out of my way, more than I ever did with any of the Windows or Linux (or DOS or Unix or Apple II or PDP-11 or mainframe) computers I've worked with over the decades. In part that's Apple's doing, in part it's the hard work of the people who design the Mac software I like, and in part it's my familiarity with the platform, because if I have a problem, I also usually have some idea how to fix it. (After working with Windows a lot, it's true for me there too, but not as much.)

There are reasons people like me have stuck with Apple machines even when they weren't very fast, or very cool, or even with any apparent future. It's not just running with the underdog either. I'm not impressed with some of Apple's behaviour recently in markets where it now dominates, such as the iPod and online music and video sales. But it is no shock: Apple has always spun its stories, and has always had a streak of hubris—a pretty wide one at that. I don't think many people would like a computing world where Steve Jobs beat Bill Gates in the early '80s.

Yet when I open the lid on my MacBook to get something done, it generally helps me do it, and seems friendly in the effort. Even if you don't see it as much anymore, the smiley face is still there in spirit.

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16 November 2007

 

Hacked or not?

A few days I ago I decided to change all my passwords. It was a precautionary measure, prompted by some spam emails sent out to users at eBay, ostensibly from my eBay account—an account which eBay temporarily suspended later that day.

I haven't bought anything on eBay in over a year, but I do get a lot of spam that mentions the company, so when I saw some emails to me, supposedly from my own account, I figured everything was spoofed and just spam, and turfed them without thinking further. Then I received an official-looking message apparently from eBay itself, titled "TKO NOTICE: eBay Registration Suspension - Possible Unauthorized Account Use." It looked a bit more legit, but I know better than to click links within emails like that, so I signed in at eBay itself.

Sure enough, my account had been suspended, apparently because of spam complaints from other eBay users. After a live support chat, I was reinstated and I changed my password. I'm still not sure whether the outgoing spam mails were spoofed, or if someone hacked into my eBay account. So just to be safe, I changed passwords everywhere else (email, Amazon, .Mac, Flickr, blogs, and so on).

By the way, if you want a really good password, I have a couple of recommendations: the built-in Password Assistant in Mac OS X (which has options to create strong passwords that are still memorable, as well as evaluate whether a password you choose yourself is strong enough), and Steve Gibson's Perfect Passwords page (which creates really insane passwords that no one could ever guess).

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15 November 2007

 

Why 2007 continues to suck

Early yesterday morning, my mom's oldest friend died. Sonia met my mother when they were both in elementary school here in Vancouver, almost 60 years ago. By comparison, that's like my older daughter staying friends with one of her classmates until 2066. There was an autopsy today, but I haven't heard the results yet; we expect a heart attack, following Sonia's bypass surgery not long ago.

I knew Sonia my whole life, along with my mother's two other longtime friends, who have all continued to cook each other fancy dinners and share social events for over half a century. The four of them traveled through Europe for two years in the early sixties, and returned for a month-long reprise in 1981. Sonia was one of my mom's bridesmaids, and the two of them took belly-dancing lessons together in the seventies.

Like her friends, Sonia was an intelligent, independent, and individual woman. She traveled extensively around the world for many years, made and sold paintings, and lived in the same East Vancouver walkup apartment—a few blocks from the house I first lived in as an infant, and where my aunt and uncle live now—as long as I can remember. She never married or had children, and retired from her job with ICBC, our provincial auto insurance agency, several years ago.

Theoretically, hers was not a death in the family, but it's as close as you can get. I last saw her and her dark hair at our Thanksgiving dinner in October. I'll miss her at Christmas.

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All acrylic deliciousness

I love Chris Reccardi's super-retro prints and paintings (via Music Thing).

Oh, and Lala from Tiki Bar TV is going to sell a lot of these calendars.

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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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13 November 2007

 

Funny story

A couple of nights ago, my wife told me she was in the process of buying the Pol Pots album from iTunes. The Pol Pots? I thought. What kind of sick band name is that?

"That's like calling your band The Hitlers!" I said. She looked at me blankly.

Then she explained, quite patiently, that she was talking about the new album by Paul Potts, the British mobile phone salesman–turned–opera singer.

Whoops.

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12 November 2007

 

Whither the Apple subnotebook?

Mini Mac notebook concept mockupEver since Apple replaced the trusty iBook and PowerBook G4 series of laptops with the MacBook line in 2006, Apple fanboys and -girls round the world have been clamouring for a smaller, lighter ultraportable Mac, along the lines of the 12" PowerBook or 12" iBook like my wife owns. The 13" MacBook (like mine) is a fine computer, but it's not quite as backpackable as its predecessors.

Now that her iBook is coming up on its third birthday, my wife might appreciate fresh rumours that Apple might be announcing a super-thin MacBook in January. These rumours have been around forever (almost as long as those about a Mac tablet), but they're picking up steam this week.

I wouldn't place any bets, but if you're in the market for a small Mac notebook (rather than a ginormous one, which Apple has been happy to sell you for years) and can wait till January, you might just be in luck. Or not. You never know with these guys.

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11 November 2007

 

The Nerd Handbook

I'm pretty nerdy, but not completely so, according to the Nerd Handbook (via Gruber). For instance:

  • I do not see the world as "a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable." We humans can learn a lot, but not everything, which I think is kind of cool.
  • While I have built myself a Cave (in the basement, natch), I don't spend very much time in it since I bought a laptop.
  • I don't love video games. Fun, sure, but I can take them or leave them. It's why we own a Wii instead of an Xbox or PS3.
  • I'm decent at small talk, and I love talking in front of crowds. But I'm not a big fan of calling up strangers on the phone.

However, much of the rest is pretty darn accurate. And going through the article to nit-pick out the parts that don't apply to me is pretty darn nerdy of me too, isn't it?

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Graves

Flanders

Photo © 2007 by Michael Hurt

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10 November 2007

 

Software update hell

Microsoft has been diligent in releasing updates to its Office 2004 suite for Mac, largely to address security vulnerabilities. That's good. But their updater software sucks. Here's why:

Office 10.3.8 Update

Office 10.3.9 Update

The latest update is version 11.3.9. It turns out that I hadn't updated since 11.3.4 or thereabouts. Now, you'd think that the 11.3.9 update would update any version of Office to the latest version. Nope, here's what I had to install today:

Today's Office Updates

If you look at those screenshots above, you'll notice that only one update appears in Microsoft's AutoUpdate software at a time. That's right, I had to run the updater, apply the version 11.3.5 patch, quit that, run the updater, apply the 11.3.6 patch, quit that... and so on.

I fear to think how long it would take if I had to reinstall from my original-release Office 2004 (11.0.0, I guess) disc. I suppose I should be glad I didn't have to reboot each time!

UPDATE: I forgot to link to my previous rant from last year about the even worse procedure I went through with Adobe Reader.

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Worth remembering

Tom Stewart - 2I went to St. George's School, a private boys' high school in Vancouver. It was founded in the early 1930s, so many of the school's first graduates fought in World War II. Quite a number of them died.

Each year on Remembrance Day, November 11 (even if it falls on a weekend, as it does tomorrow), the school holds a large service where the names of those dead former students are read out. It takes some time.

My daughters' public elementary school, Chaffey-Burke in Burnaby, also used to be my school, from kindergarten through grade seven. It held its Remembrance Day assembly yesterday, and I attended. The school was built in the late '60s, so none of its former students are veterans of the big wars, but the assembly was still a significant event. The staff work hard to make the remembrance something real, not a simple reciting of platitudes.

As part of the event, the school invited Mr. Tom Stewart, a local World War II veteran, to attend and speak. He brought a photo of himself as a boy in uniform, before he set out to fight, and reminded the students that kids like the one he was, teenagers not that much older than the pupils themselves, not only went off to Europe and the Pacific then, but are doing just as hard and dangerous a job in Afghanistan now. The military, he said, doesn't decide to fight—those are political choices—but youngsters are always the ones hired to do the work, to risk injury and death.

As they filed from the gym, each student shook his hand—many in a rush to get some lunch, but some with genuine appreciation.

Canada treats Remembrance Day pretty seriously, even though we haven't had a drastic war on our own soil. The carnage of World War I in Europe, which inspired the day, changed the demographics and politics and character of this country irrevocably. And Canadian coffins flown back regularly this year from Central Asia remind us that despite what we should have learned from all the horrors of the 20th century, peace is a long way off for many people in the world—ourselves included.

I've always treated Remembrance Day pretty seriously too, in part because of that list of names of my distant high-school colleagues. More so this year, as I face my own thoughts of death. Even a hardened cynic would find it pretty hard to hear 400 poppy-wearing little kids singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and not get a bit choked up. Especially when they start singing it again spontaneously at the end of the ceremony, long after they were supposed to be finished.

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09 November 2007

 

Vancouver podcaster/blogger meetup November 19

Mark Blevis, province-hopping Ottawa-based techie guy and co-host of the Canadian Podcast Buffet, among other podcasts, is putting together a podcaster-blogger-geek-nerd meetup on Monday, November 19 here in Vancouver.

It happens at 6:00 p.m. at Steamworks in Gastown:


View Larger Map

I'm sure many of Metro Vancouver's finest will be there—and I mean finest geeks, of course. Right now I have no idea whether I'll go, but you should. There will be beer.

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Why don't famous musicians release as much music as they used to?

Back in the '60s and early '70s, musicians were expected to release albums at a blistering pace. Consider The Beatles, who released at least 12 or 13 albums (being conservative by not counting repackagings and compilations, and depending on which ones you count as "real" albums) in a little over seven years between 1963 and 1970, plus various singles (like "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever") that didn't appear on LP before they broke up.

CCR were more prolific, putting out seven albums in just over four years—three of those in 1969 alone. Led Zeppelin's first four LPs emerged between 1969 and 1971. And so on. Even R.E.M. reliably put out an album every year through most of the '80s.

Contrast that with someone more contemporary, such as our hometown girl Sarah McLachlan. Her recording career spans close to 20 years now, since her debut Touch in 1988. In that time, excluding remixes, re-releases, compilations, live albums, and other side projects, she has put out five (yes, five) complete studio albums of new material. Six if you include last year's Christmas disc (I don't usually count "very special" holiday releases of traditional music as real albums, but you can if you want). That's something between 55 and 70 new album tracks (again, depending on how you count) over her entire career, or an average of three or four new songs per year.

Fall Out Boy are still in the initial bloom of their career (work with me here, I'm sure many people think they're totally passé by now, but I need to talk about bands that are more than a year or two old), and they've put out four albums in almost six years. That's pretty quick these days, but in their heyday Creedence would have lapped those emo cuties several times by now.

Peter Gabriel exemplifies the trend. After he left Genesis, he released solo studio albums in 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1982, not a bad clip (especially considering how groundbreaking some of them were). Then came So in 1986, which seemed a long wait, but Us took until 1992. Up didn't show up for ten years, in 2002. And his fans are still waiting for the next one.

I understand that the industry has changed. Fans don't expect a new album every few months anymore, singles have come back thanks to iTunes and other download services, tours are more extensive, there are videos and DVDs and other projects on the go. Digital studio technology means artists and producers can obsess about and try to perfect tiny details of tracks for months or years on end (hello, Stevie Wonder?). Bands back in the '60s often burned out from the relentless pace their customers and managers and record companies demanded (the Beatles included—by the time George Harrison, the youngest of the group, was recording his parts for Abbey Road, he was only 26, but he looked a lot older).

But you know, if I liked a particular artist, I'd feel a bit cheated if they couldn't put together more than three or four decent new tunes a year. These people are musicians, this is their job. In the mid-'60s, Bob Dylan was probably putting down three or four great new songs before lunch some days.

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08 November 2007

 

Winer's wisery

Dave Winer has a good point about why most conferences suck:

...if you want to have a truly useful conference that everyone gets something out of, structure it so that everyone has something to do at all times. Hopefully things that involve other people or the venue, if not, what's the point of going somewhere to do this stuff?

He's had a lot of interesting things to say recently, such as about Google ("...one thing they don't have in huge supply at Google is humility [...] the number one law of software, of course is Murphy's Law. And one of the big things it teaches is humility...") and how technology companies use the word open ("...they just serve someone's interest without thinking about the users' interest (at best) or counter to the users' interest (at worst)...").

Winer has been around the industry a long time. He's a controversial guy within it, but I think his experience has given him some wisdom about it too.

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07 November 2007

 

Nintendo Wii remote jacket unboxing

I received my four free wiimote jackets today. (I guess there was a whole lot more unintentional TV- and head-bonking than I've experienced.) Here's how the unpacking went:

Wiimote jacket unbox - 01 - bag Wiimote jacket unbox - 02 - contents Wiimote jacket unbox - 03 - side by side Wiimote jacket unbox - 04 - front Wiimote jacket unbox - 05 - side
Wiimote jacket unbox - 06 - back Wiimote jacket unbox - 07 - top IR transceiver Wiimote jacket unbox - 08 - bottom connector Wiimote jacket unbox - 09 - four jackets Wiimote jacket unbox - 10 - leaning towers

I like Nintendo's "puffy parka" silicone design better than the third-party skins I've seen up till now. The only problem? The wiimotes no longer sit upright in Nintendo's own organizer tray that we have.

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06 November 2007

 

American Express blew it too

Plastic payment methods at Flickr.comI've been an American Express customer for close to 20 years. Yesterday, I called them up to see if they might reduce the 18.5% interest rate (!) on my current card—I explained that I'm currently on long-term disability coverage and that I'm trying to reduce my expenses.

Any financial planner will generally advise calling your creditors and asking them to reduce your interest rate. It's in their interest to do so if you're likely to switch to another provider. So that's what I was doing—my wife and I, like everyone, routinely get offers for lower-interest credit cards in the mail. Even if those low 3% or 3.9% rates generally bump up again after a few months, I've checked, and they usually end up at a similar rate to what Amex has been charging me anyway. So those few months could save us quite a bit of money.

But no dice. Amex wouldn't offer me any kind of lower rate, nor a balance transfer. Nothing. So I cancelled my American Express card. (Gotta follow through.)

I still have to pay off the balance, of course, but I won't be making any further purchases with it. As with Telus a couple of years ago, Amex appears more interested in making attractive offers to new customers than on keeping current ones, which doesn't seem smart to me.

Maybe my other credit card provider will be more interested in keeping my business?

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05 November 2007

 

Family TV

Earlier this evening my older daughter and I watched part of a television biography of Carol Burnett. My daughter recognized Burnett from her role in the movie Annie, and watching excerpts from several skits on The Carol Burnett Show, said, "I wish that show was still on. It looks funny."

My wife and I both recall The Carol Burnett Show—which ended in 1978, when we were about the same age as our kids are now—as a fun shared childhood experience, like M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as NOVA on PBS. In Canada, the program was always sponsored by Kraft Cracker Barrel cheese; in retrospect, the incredibly earnest, low-key ads for the cheese are almost as funny as the program itself, and are inextricable in our minds from Burnett.

What TV will our kids remember in a similar way? We do watch some together, so perhaps MythBusters, Survivor (which the girls watch with their mom), and That's So Raven fit the bill. We'll know in another 30 years.

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04 November 2007

 

Staying warm and dry

Back in July when I spent the month in hospital, I had several neighbours. The last one, who came in for intestinal surgery while I was on the ward and was still there when I left, was an older guy who'd moved to Canada from the Netherlands after World War II, worked as a machinist in a mill, and now likes to play golf in his retirement.

In the 1960s, he built his own house in Squamish, near the mill where he worked. I don't mean he paid people to build it—from what he said while we shared our hospital room, he constructed most of the house himself, with his own hands. He still lives in it.

I admire that. It's something I don't know how to do. I build ephemeral, non-material things like web pages, but I'd have no idea how to put together a building to shelter my family, and which could last more than 40 years. My grandfather was a carpenter, and helped build houses for a living, though he didn't build the last house he lived in, which is where I live now. My friend and podcast co-host Paul built himself a garage, and could probably pull off a house if need be.

For most of the vast span of human time, for hundreds of thousands of years in Africa and beyond, some of the only things worth knowing were how to create a shelter, and find food, and stay warm. Things many of us, like me, would have great trouble doing if cast out to our own devices in the wild. Today, even those who do know how to one thing, like build a house, might not know how to grow food or hunt an animal. That's a purely modern situation.

At least I was a Boy Scout. I can start a fire if I have to.

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03 November 2007

 

Paying the price

Jesse the wildman at Flickr.comYou know what's worse than having a hangover? Having a hangover when you didn't drink any alcohol. Last night my wife and I trekked to a pub in North Vancouver to see our pals in the Adam Woodall Band—I've played in other bands with Adam over the years, and also used to run the AWB website, so we like to see them when we can.

It was my first outing to a bar in a long time. We had lots of fun at the Queens Cross Pub, and the band was excellent, as usual. In addition to being designated driver, I'm still on chemotherapy, so it's not wise for me to get drunk. Indeed, I chose not to have any alcohol and all, sticking with Diet Coke and coffee, plus some fine Buffalo chicken wings and a steak sandwich.

Yet today I feel like complete crap. I woke up near noon with a headache, low blood glucose, body aches—all the symptoms of a hangover. So I'm paying the price, though I'm not sure what the price is for. The chemo makes me less resilient to staying out late than I used to be, I guess. Still, I'm glad we went.

Go buy the AWB's album Silver Ring, by the way. It's good.

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02 November 2007

 

Beware the future

Via Brian Chin, here is a list of 30 particularly egregious mistaken predictions about technology, derived from Wikipedia's much longer list. I've always liked this one:

Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.

High speed being as much as 50 kph in some cases!

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01 November 2007

 

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard first impressions

Leopard with proper menu bar at Flickr.comSo far I've installed Apple's new operating system on three computers (a MacBook, an iBook, and an iMac), and in each case it's gone quite smoothly. The most awkward part was clearing space on my MacBook and my wife's iBook—we're both prone to stuffing the hard disk almost to the brim.

I followed John Gruber's advice, creating a bootable backup first (something I've always done for previous upgrades), then performing a simple upgrade installation, without my usual overcautious "install and migrate" procedure.

Overall it's an unremarkable transition, and I mean that positively. There are cosmetic changes, some good, some bad, but everything operates pretty much as before. My unexpected favourite new features are Spaces (I never liked virtual desktops before, but Spaces is so seamless it really works for once), Quick Look, and screen sharing (sure to be a godsend for remote tech support with my in-laws). Oh, and Spotlight search actually works now.

Like many others, I dislike the new translucent menu bar, which doesn't mesh with the desktop pictures I prefer. But there's an easy solution: I just edited my desktop picture to have a white strip across the top the same height as the menu bar, and now it's back to readable again.

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