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25 February 2010

 

Venti sherry

Speaking of Craig Ferguson, watch this excerpt from three years ago. Not as funny as most of his pieces, but it cuts:

Thanks to T for the pointer.

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24 February 2010

 

I wish I'd discovered Craig Ferguson five years ago

2009-11-13 345 at Flickr.comI've only occasionally stumbled on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson since he started hosting the program in 2005. It starts after 12:30 a.m., after all, and I'm not the night-owl musician I used to be. I always found him funny.

Since we got an HDTV and a PVR in January, we're not only easily able to record whatever shows we want, but we also have access to channels such as CBS Detroit that are on East Coast time—so Ferguson is on at a much more reasonable hour. I've been watching him pretty much every day.

That's because he's both extremely smart and entirely hilarious. I don't think I've ever laughed as much at any other late-night show, not Johnny Carson, not David Letterman, not Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. Interestingly, while The Late Late Show has a fairly traditional talk-show format, with a monologue and guests, Ferguson has no co-host/sidekick, and no band. And he's better for it.

He's also keen to disassemble how talk shows work, to change the format, to take humour out of awkward pauses and improvisations. (His 1000th episode last year was performed almost entirely by puppets.) It clicks completely with the kind of humour I like.

His memoir, American on Purpose, is also a great read as I recommended before. And you can follow him on Twitter. But he shines on late night, and you should watch him there. I wish I'd discovered his show five years ago.

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22 February 2010

 

Shortest Winter Olympic event?

I asked this on Facebook already, but I'm still wondering. Curling seems to be the Winter Olympic discipline with the longest event time (matches can last for hours), but which event is the shortest? Moguls, snowboard halfpipe, and freestyle aerials seem to be candidates (tens of seconds per run)—anyone know which takes the shortest-event crown?

Let's ignore sports outside the Winter Olympics: events like the 100-metre dash or diving in the Summer Games are obviously extremely quick, under ten seconds.

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18 February 2010

 

Out front

Many Olympic victories are won by the slimmest of margins. For example, today, Canada's Christine Nesbitt garnered a gold medal in speed skating by 1/50th of a second, while traveling as fast as a car.

But then there are those athletes who so dominate their runs that they're almost in a different race. Maëlle Ricker did that in her gold-medal snowboard cross event a couple of days ago, opening up a huge lead within the first five seconds and disappearing beyond the other riders' horizon shortly after.

Maëlle Ricker by Gaeia on Flickr.com
Photo by Gaeia

China's Wang Meng performed a similar feat in short-track speed skating, setting an Olympic record and leaving her rivals, including eventual silver medalist Mariane St-Gelais of Canada, to battle for the other two medals.

Shaun White by Lee LeFever on Flickr.com
Photo by Harrison Ha

And of course there's Shaun White, the American snowboarder who already had the halfpipe gold medal sewn up, but used his second run to annihilate any prospect of competition from other riders. I was at the Irish House pavilion in downtown Vancouver when his run appeared on the big screen, and you could see jaws drop across the huge room. I don't know much about snowboarding, but even I knew that his near-impossible tricks meant no one could touch him.

Shaun White by Lee LeFever on Flickr.com
Photo by Lee LeFever

The Olympics often seems like a huge circus of media and entertainment and money and megaproject building. It can obscure the actual sports. But when you witness the achievements of truly outstanding individuals, you remember, and you have to admire what they can make the human body do.

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15 February 2010

 

Discovering Vancouver's Winter Olympics vibe

Today, while the kids were at school, and after I had another one of my chemotherapy-induced random barfs at home, I took the SkyTrain into downtown Vancouver to check out the Winter Olympics vibe. And what a vibe it was.

Vancouver Art Gallery HDR

I walked from Science World (currently the Russian Pavilion) past the various provincial pavilions, up the downtown escarpment, along Georgia Street, to Robson Square, then down to Canada Place and the Olympic Cauldron on Coal Harbour. On the way I ate at the world famous Japadog hot dog cart for the first time (yes, even for a native Vancouverite!), and before I came home I had a coffee at the very civilized Cascades Lounge in the Pan Pacific Hotel.

I've lived my whole 40 years in Vancouver, and I have never seen it like it is this week. Even during Expo 86 (check this throwback I spotted), the crowds and events were largely confined to the Expo site on False Creek, while the Olympics—aside from being more intensely focused by being two weeks instead of five months long—permeate the downtown core, as well as extending elsewhere in Greater Vancouver and up to Whistler. But we are a more global, better-known city than we were 24 years ago too.

Hockey House

There are seas of people young and old downtown, night and day. Many are dressed in Canadian red, but others are sporting colours and languages from many other nations. Way out from downtown, at Metrotown near my house, the mall is full of Russians. There are flat-screen TVs all over the place showing live and repeat Olympic competitions.

I returned home, exhausted, to walk the dog, meet the kids on their way home from school, and then soak my feet. I didn't go inside any pavilions or Olympic attractions, and I hardly spoke to anyone. A number of my friends had been in the downtown area, but were busy at press conferences and other official events, and I was happy to go it alone, to get a sense of how downtown is transformed.

Olympic cauldron HDR

It is an odd thing, for a sporting event to energize my still-young, laid-back hometown. I expect something similar will happen when the next Winter Olympics come to Sochi, Russia in 2014. While almost the same age as Vancouver, Sochi is smaller and certainly less familiar to the rest of the world. It also has many palm trees—perhaps a first for a Winter Games host city? It may be unusually warm here for February, but it's not that warm.

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14 February 2010

 

Happy birthday, Marina

Candles out at Flickr.comFebruary 14 has many meanings for me. It's Valentine's Day, of course—the 16th my wife Air and I have spent together. It is also our daughter Marina's 12 birthday. But with the Winter Olympics here in Vancouver, including Canada's first gold medal of the event, there's extra resonance, since one of our athletes won gold on the day Marina was born back in 1998 too.

Air had a long, hard labour that February, and with the Nagano Olympics half a world away, we were able to watch many events live as a distraction in the middle of the night. Now our daughter is nearly a teenager, with her own mobile phone and Twitter account. (I got my first mobile phone when Air was pregnant that first time. I was 28. And getting on Twitter? I was 37.)

Happy birthday, Marina. Happy Valentine's Day to my lovely, wonderful, resourceful, smart, sharp, and stylish wife Air. Happy Olympics to all of you too.

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12 February 2010

 

Doing it right

title|Ultimately the question of the night -- how to simultaneously celebrate and show respect? -- was answered best by the Kumaritashvili's Georgian teammates. at Flickr.comTonight's Winter Olympics opening ceremony was impressive, if often a bit phallic. There was one technical glitch with the hydraulics for the first, indoor cauldron in B.C. Place Stadium, but the ceremony did the most important thing right.

That was to remember Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died this morning in a terrifying crash during a training run on the Whistler luge track, at the age of 21. (He was born the year the Winter Olympics were last in Canada, in Calgary in 1988.) He was the fourth athlete to die during a sporting event at the Winter Games since they began in 1924.

Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, pre-empted his prepared remarks with a memorial to Kumaritashvili. Vancouver head organizer John Furlong also included the late athlete in his speech. There was a minute of silence during the ceremony, and a standing ovation for the remaining members of the small Georgian team, walking sadly wearing black armbands.

And the bonus? Instead of the rumoured Celine Dion, we got a spectacular k.d. lang. Good choice.

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11 February 2010

 

One down

Three years ago, I set a couple of goals: to try to beat back cancer long enough to see the Winter Olympics come to Vancouver, and to live a couple of years longer so I could renew my driver's license when it expires in 2012.

Well, I hit the first one:

Burnaby Willingdon torch relay - 14

That's the Olympic torch being carried up Willingdon Avenue, about four blocks from my house, on its way through Burnaby and Vancouver to the opening ceremony tomorrow. Two years and a bit from now, maybe I'll get that new driver's license too.

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10 February 2010

 

Four eyes

Every few years, I get new glasses, not because my prescription has changed (it's been pretty stable for about a decade), but because my old spectacles simply get old and worn out. This year, I took advantage of a two-for-one sale and got one set of new plastic frames (centre below) and one set of metal ones (right):

Glasses old and new

They're not a big change from my old set (left), but I like the new looks, though I'm not sure which of the two I prefer. Back in 2008 when I bought my last set, I wasn't sure I'd survive long enough to need new ones, but here I am. Yay.

Which pair do you prefer?

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08 February 2010

 

Choosing disposable books

For Christmas, my longtime friend Sebastien bought me an Amazon Kindle ebook reader. It's been great—while it has its flaws, it's a convenient and non-fatiguing way to read electronic documents, much more pleasant than the backlit screens of my laptop or iPhone (or, probably, the iPad). But I find it has also influenced my reading choices in an interesting way.

I first read a few ebooks that I had kicking around on my hard drive, mostly in plain-text format. I honestly don't remember where I got them, since I've had them so long. They're almost all science fiction titles, and judging by the oddball typos, most of them were obviously illegitimately scanned and OCRed years ago. But the Kindle does a good job with plain text, so I was impressed.

Next, I moved on to buying a few books at Amazon's Kindle Store. And it's the store that altered my choices. So far I've only bought three ebooks there, but the ones I've sampled without buying have been similar, and uncharacteristic for me.

Kindle books, like most ebooks these days, are locked down by DRM, making then significantly less portable and shareable than plain-text or other open formats, or than traditional paper books, and more likely to suffer digital rot, likely making them inaccessible years down the line. So the ebooks I have bought and read aren't the type I would previously have kept on my bookshelf. All of them, oddly enough, have been memoirs, not a genre I've previously chosen much:

I recommend all three, by the way, though Infidel is the best if you choose just one. But I consider memoirs generally disposable: I can read them once and not have much interest in re-reading them in the future. Maybe that's why my mom has always been a reader of memoirs and biographies. For decades, she has picked them up second-hand and breezed through them in a few days.

My gut feeling is that DRM-protected ebooks should cost less than they do: $5 to $7 feels about right, while the current $11 to $15 range for many mainstream titles (like the three I read) is too much—though I might regularly pay the higher price for unlocked ebooks. I don't think I'm alone in this: notice that many of Amazon's Kindle bestsellers are in the cheaper price range. Also notice that many of those books are old enough to be public domain, so no one has to pay the authors anymore. You can even get them for free, and unlocked, elsewhere.

Ebook prices can be more flexible than traditional hard-copy paper book prices, though. Publishers seem to want to charge $15 and up for in-demand new titles, and then lower prices to pick up more price-sensitive readers later—and they seem willing to fight to be able to do that. I'm willing to wait, so I guess that sort of arrangement would be okay with me.

I'd still prefer they ditched the DRM. And I'd still pay a bit more for that if they did.

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04 February 2010

 

My tumours have shrunk for the first time ever

Flowers for shrunken tumoursToday I heard something I've never heard before: "your tumours have shrunk." Through all the many different varieties of chemotherapy and radiation and immunotherapy and experimental Phase 1 drug trials I've put myself under during the past three years, only surgery has ever knocked my cancer back. Everything else, at best, kept it at bay.

Until now. Of course this is good news—but that's all relative. The tumours I showed you back in September are still pretty big, but they are measurably smaller than they were in November. And that includes the new ones that had just appeared in the fall. So I still have cancer, a lot of it all over the inside of my chest, but just a little less of it than I did a couple of months ago. As I wrote to some friends, I'm not out of the woods, but at least I'm no longer sinking slowly into quicksand either.

Thus, this afternoon on the way out of the cancer clinic, my wife Air and I smiled a little, held hands, and bought some flowers to put in the house in celebration. Later on we had takeout sushi with the kids. And tomorrow I go back in for more chemotherapy, which I hope will continue to beat the shit out of those metastatic growths.

So I'll be a sleepy, nauseated lump of crap for the next three or four days. A bit of good news doesn't suddenly make things go easily, you see.

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03 February 2010

 

Server move, comments disabled

UPDATE: My files seem to have moved successfully, and now I'm just waiting for the Internet-wide DNS updates to do their thing, so when everyone types www.penmachine.com they go to the right place. If you can read this, you already are.

I'm going to disable comments for half a day or so here, because tomorrow morning, February 4, my blog will be moving to an upgraded server computer at the Texas server farm of my host JaguarPC. That means, to avoid losing anything, I should lock down the site while the move is taking place. Comments will return later in the day, I expect.

This is all in preparation for my installing new blogging software in the next few weeks. I have not yet decided what exactly I'll be using to publish yet (here's a big list of options), but it can't hurt to be running the latest and greatest web thingies to do so. I'll let you know when it's all finished.

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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.

Suggestions

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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