Journal: News & Comment

This is " February 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.

Wednesday, February 28, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:44:00 PM:

Hey now, shakey shakey!

This morning we had an earthquake here in Vancouver. It wasn't major, but apparently measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. It was centred about 17 km northeast of Olympia, Washington, south of Seattle and a few hundred kilometres south of here.

In Seattle, some buildings suffered significant damage. Bill Gates had a speech interrupted (there's video on the Web).

Here in my basement office, the walls swayed, doors rattled, and I found myself feeling a cold dread. I stood in a doorway for a moment until the tremor passed, then tried calling my parents' house next door to see how my two kids were doing -- but the phones were out. So I walked next door instead. About 20 minutes later my wife called me -- which let me know the phones were back on. It's the first quake I can remember feeling so strongly since the 1970s.

A couple of weeks ago there was a similar quake in Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands north of here. We live in an active tectonic zone. And it's good to be reminded of that every once in a while.


Tuesday, February 20, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:20:00 AM:

What makes a good day?

Yesterday, my friend Alistair wondered why he felt so good -- after all, he'd just been told that he needed rather extensive root canal work on his teeth. But it was a sunny day, and he speculated that he must be in denial.

Today is also sunny -- remarkably pleasant for February in Vancouver -- but my day started off poorly. Shortly after my wife left for work at 7:30, the mild cough I had last night rapidly and inexplicably became nausea and weakness. For the next two hours I gently fought off my daughters, who wanted to play, while I lay on the couch.

Then, just as I'd dragged myself to the kitchen to make breakfast, I felt fine again. And now, as long as I feel better from now on than I did this morning, it will be a good day.


Monday, February 19, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:15:00 AM:

Come on in my kitchen

Adam and Tonya Engst live in the Seattle area with their son Tristan. They publish the venerable e-mail magazine TidBITS, in which they have often discussed the usefulness of having a computer in their kitchen.

From the earliest days of personal computers, people have speculated about putting them in kitchens, but for some reason the most common proposal was to have them serve up recipes -- something for which traditional index cards and cookbooks are far more suitable, as any cook knows. (You can drip gravy on a cookbook without worrying about blowing it up, for instance.)

More recently, a spate of "Internet appliances," many with flat touch screens and no keyboards, and even Internet refrigerators, have appeared. For the most part, they cost too much.

Yesterday, I connected the last piece in the puzzle of our own kitchen Internet appliance. It comprises my old pizza-box style Macintosh Centris 660AV ($3000 when I bought in it 1993, but worth a small fraction of that now), an NEC 14" monitor I picked up for $10 at a huge computer yard sale a few months back, a 630 MB external hard drive the size (and weight) of a cinder block, two small Logitech speakers, Apple's smallest-ever keyboard (the Apple IIgs keyboard, which also works on Macs), and a one-button Kensington mouse. Oh, and a Winnie-the-Pooh mouse pad.

The puzzle piece I finished yesterday was the most awkward bit: drilling a hole in the kitchen ceiling so I could run a network cable through our attic crawlspace and down through the ceiling in my youngest daughter's bedroom closet, where it hooks into the Ethernet hub I have connected to my ADSL Internet connection.

I'm now writing this using an old copy of Netscape Navigator on the kitchen computer, while my daughters watch Rolie Polie Olie in the living room. It beats having to trek downstairs to my office. I might even get some work done here.

But, given that my one-year-old just walked up holding a roll of bathroom tissue and growling like a bear, I doubt it.


Sunday, February 18, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:59:00 PM:

Have a banana

I've never liked acronyms, especially those used as heavy-handed jargon whose only purpose seems to be to exclude people who don't understand it.

Even so, sometimes acronyms are both useful and funny. The one I discovered most recently (though it has apparently been around for some time) is closely related to NIMBY, "not in my back yard": it is BANANA, "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone" (or "anything" in some variants).

While searching for BANANA on the Web, I found a list from the University of Washington that includes a few more land-use terms:

  • BANANA =Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything
  • LULU = Locally Undesirable Land Use
  • NIABY = Not in Anyone's Back Yard
  • NIMBY = Not in My Back Yard
  • NIMTOO or NIMTOF = Not in My Term of Office
  • NOPE = Not on Planet Earth
  • SLAPPs = Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation
  • TOADS = Temporarily Obsolete Abandoned Derelict Sites
  • YIMBY = Yes in My Back Yard

My back yard isn't much for building -- it's pretty much a narrow slab of concrete.


Friday, February 16, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:35:00 PM:

Contractor life: the paying waiting room

I'm now officially self-employed, working on technical writing contracts for two high-tech companies in the Vancouver area. Although I've done that sort of work on the side for nearly a decade now, on and off, I now depend on it for my livelihood. (It helps, of course, that my wife is a math teacher -- as close to a guaranteed lifetime job as it gets these days.)

So today I went to a local medical lab for some regular blood tests. A number of people waited ahead of me. It was busy. I sat down with a sheaf of reading and proceeded to teach myself about cellular digital packet data (CDPD), a method of transmitting and receiving data using a wireless modem (often attached to a laptop computer) through the analog cellular phone network -- essentially worming the data packets into the blank spaces between voice cellular calls.

I knew next to nothing about CDPD or any other mobile wireless networking technology before I started the editing contract, but there I was, waiting in the medical lab foyer, making notes on the printouts and charging billable time while doing it. I've never been paid to wait for a medical procedure before.

If you're interested in wireless communications -- or telecommunications in general -- I'd highly recommend the book The Race for Bandwidth by the late Cary Lu (Microsoft Press, 1998). It's a great introduction to the subject, whether you're technically minded or not.

Finally, as a bit of trivia, today (February 16) is the forty-second anniversary of the day Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. Those U.S. sanctions are sure working well, aren't they?


Thursday, February 15, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:36:00 PM:

Happy day-after-your-birthday

A nasty Internet semi-outage prevented me from posting this yesterday, but February 14 is notable in my life not just for Valentine's Day, but because it is my older daughter's birthday. She turned three yesterday. We had some cake and she got a few presents, including a Fisher-Price dollhouse she seems to love.

Oddly, February 14 is also the birthday of my Aunt Erika and John de Castell, a Montreal city councillor who is also the brother of my former roommate and current guitar player, Sebastien. Others with the same birthday include Meg Tilly and Gregory Hines; the late John Barrymore, Vic Morrow, and Jack Benny; and the presumably late Jimmy Hoffa.


Monday, February 12, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:17:00 PM:

The network comes through

Less than two weeks ago, I lost my job and almost immediately sent out an e-mail to my entire network of friends and acquaintances.

Quick responses from a few people helped lead me to two contracts -- with Sierra Wireless in Richmond, B.C. (still in negotiations), and Stargate Connections in Burnaby (already underway) -- which should keep me happily working for some time. I have a line on a few other projects too, if I have time to do them.

So, thanks everyone. I didn't expect things to recover so quickly. As a proper writer would say, "it's whom you know, after all."


Sunday, February 11, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:54:00 PM:

Site changes

I've slightly redesigned how this site looks and how the navigation works. I hope it's a bit easier to use now, and works better in its AvantGo handheld edition.

I'll be making some further tweaks to the content and design over time. I welcome suggestions.


Thursday, February 08, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:10:00 AM:

Not young, not old, but nostalgic anyway

I reminisce frequently on this page, because I'm at that stable-ish early-thirties stage where life is often routine (care for the kids, save for a house, watch TV with my wife), and memories of my late teens and early twenties seem charged with danger and excitement -- even if they were dominated by late-night trips to Denny's.

Last night I had a reminisce-o-fest at the Jolly Taxpayer pub with four old computer-geek friends of mine, known fifteen years ago by their online pseudonyms Bike Repair Man, El Loco, The Unbeliever, and Beelzebub. (I was The Grodd.)

Other than The Unbeliever, who is a consulting archaeologist (and a collector of Macintosh computers), we all work in computing and technology. As we discussed the whereabouts of others from that era, we realized that most of them (about whom we know anything, at least) do too.

In the '80s, it wasn't cool to be a computer geek. Today it has a strange cachet -- and often some financial reward.

It beats the chess club, anyway.


# 11:01:00 AM:

Losing job, part three: it's over!

Two days ago, I picked up my severance and vacation pay from Multiactive Software, which had laid off 38 of us (of some 190 in the U.S. and Canada, or about 20% of the staff) the previous Wednesday. It was the official end of my four and a half year working relationship with the company.

While there, I held five different jobs and sat at fifteen (yes, 15) different desks on three different floors. Only about ten people remain from when I started -- and at least two of those fired last week had been there longer than I had.

I had been planning on leaving anyway. I had been there too long (an eternity in high tech), and wasn't fond of the direction in which the reorganized upper management was taking the company. So being laid off -- with the bigger severance, employment insurance eligibility, and nice reference letter -- was, on balance, beneficial.

The main difficulty is that I'd rather work only part time, since I take care of my daughters (ages three and one).

To that end, I had two meetings yesterday about technical and marketing writing contracts with Sierra Wireless and Stargate Connections. Things look pretty good only a week after I lost my job -- sure, I'd prefer something permanent part-time, but I won't turn down interesting work available to me now.


Sunday, February 04, 2001 - newest items first
# 8:47:00 PM:

Bad fiction -- the easy way

Writers are always writing. That doesn't mean that we're always writing well, however.

Years ago, I used to write stories with other people, using online bulletin board systems (BBSs). Typically, the BBSs (a.k.a. boards) were microcomputers (Apple IIs or Commodore 64s) in someone's bedroom or closet, connected to a modem that let one person at a time dial in, read and write messages and e-mail, and so on. The boards had fanciful names -- in the case of our story-writing ones, The Crunchy Frog and The Twilight Zone.

The advantage of having only one person at a time dial in was that no two people could contribute to the story at the same time. That avoided confusion and chaos.

Since then, some of us have made other attempts to write chain stories on the Internet, but they never quite work the same way, because in order to avoid the confusion and chaos, the people who set them up have to impose an arbitrary order in which people write. Maybe someday soon we'll be able to set up something where anyone in the contributor list can write at any time, but no one else can write simultaneously, thus closely emulating the old BBS method.

Here is our latest attempt at an Internet chain story -- so far it's some sort of sci-fi thing. There is also an archive of a few of our ancient tales, some dating back to 1987.

Enjoy. Most of it is pretty cheesy.


Friday, February 02, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:35:00 PM:

Losing job, step two

Here is Multiactive's official press release on its 38 layoffs of January 31, including mine. The other "restructuring" changes were already in place beforehand, but the company hadn't announced them.

Two days since the layoffs came, and today I signed my termination agreement -- now there's a lovely phrase -- and turned it in. My severance and (apparently rather massive) unused vacation payout should be ready on Monday or Tuesday.

In this brief time, I've gone from moderate surprise, to a weird giddiness, to bummed out, and now to optimistic anticipation of whatever comes next. It certainly helps that most of my computer geek friends from fifteen years ago are still part of my contact network. It looks like I may have an interview or two next week. With luck, I won't even have to try the more traditional job-hunting avenues.

In the meantime, I've bought some fine Newcastle Brown Ale, and I'll be revising this Web site over the next few days.


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