Journal: News & Comment

This is " March 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.

Saturday, March 31, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:54:00 AM:

Ever wanted a computer you could roll up?

Maybe not, but you might be able to get one soon anyway.


# 1:02:00 AM:

The two newest contracts

My latest two freelance assignments are for ThoughtShare Communications (some documentation) and Navarik Corp. (marketing writing).

Many people at ThoughtShare are former co-workers of mine from Multiactive Software, and Navarik is run and largely staffed by people with whom I served on UBC Student Council a decade ago.

I trust that they employ me because they know the quality of my work, not just because they know me.

Disclaimer (added May 2004): While I now work for Navarik Corp., this site is my own, and doesn't represent the company's position on anything.


Thursday, March 29, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:23:00 AM:

Two books you should read

If you are at all involved in technology, you must read these two books:

  1. The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper of Cooper Interaction Design
  2. Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing by Philip Greenspun of MIT (also available in its entirety and more online -- except for the very nice photos from the print edition)

Read them. Love them. Thank me later.


Wednesday, March 28, 2001 - newest items first
# 7:58:00 PM:

Maybe useful, probably useless, and likely clueless

Three unrelated items caught my eye in Tuesday's "Good Morning Silicon Valley" column in the San Jose Mercury News. (Even if you live far from Silicon Valley, as I do, GMSV is worth subscribing to, either by e-mail or using the AvantGo mobile edition.)

The first is a blurb about Powerline and HomePlug, which "may make high-speed Internet access via electricity cables a reality as soon as this year." In other words, avoid running network cables or dealing with sometimes-flaky wireless networks -- just use every power socket in your house as a network connection. Potentially very cool. If it works.

Next, I think both inventor Paul Moller, who has invented something he calls the Skycar ("the future of commuter transportation"), and John Hansman, an MIT aeronautics researcher (who calls the Skycar "a piece of junk") are missing the point. Yes, as Hansman points out, "everybody has always wanted to have an airplane that would launch from their driveway and fly to wherever they wanted to go, and it exists and it's called a helicopter." But the reason not everyone has a helicopter or a private plane is only partly the expense and inconvenience. The major problem is that people drive poorly and get into accidents just fine in two dimensions, on roads. Add a third dimension and the potential to fall several thousand feet after a fender-bender, and you understand that there is a very good reason why air travel of any sort is very heavily regulated.

Finally, an organization called Bountyquest has an interesting way of trying to foil some of the more insane patents being granted these days: offer a substantial reward to anyone who can provide the "prior art" (evidence that similar things were going on before patent applicants "invented" their creations) that would invalidate patent claims. What's really strange is that the venture is being backed not just by publisher Tim O'Reilly -- who has been outspoken about the problems with the patent system in the past -- but also by Jeff Bezos of, notorious for his "one-click shopping" patent, decried as perhaps the worst example of the U.S. Patent Office's cluelessness. One of those slamming one-click was O'Reilly himself, who called Bezos's patent "intellectual property gone mad."

So, data from wall power, the scary concept of flying cars in the hands of slow-drivers who can barely see over the wheel, and patent cooperation between two seeming polar opposites. Some good reading.


# 10:31:00 AM:

It's official

As of yesterday, I am now the proprietor of the Penmachine Media Company, an officially registered business proprietorship with the Province of British Columbia.

What's different? Er, nothing really. I did set up a business account at my credit union, though, so people can write cheques to "Penmachine" now and I can cash them. I suppose I'll add a little note about the company name to my copyright info at the bottom of these Web pages too.

Oh, and I bought a briefcase. Need to be professional and all that (he writes, sitting at his computer in T-shirt, jeans, and sandals...).


Sunday, March 25, 2001 - newest items first
# 1:57:00 AM:

The shock of the new

For centuries now, academics have bound their lives to the journals in which they publish their research -- periodicals such as Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. While in university, I was shocked to discover how much it cost to subscribe to those journals. A subscription to a single publication can cost $15,000 (U.S. funds) per year. (Martha Stewart Living looks pretty cheap then, doesn't it?)

As with so many other things, the Internet is changing it all, as the article "For Medical Journals, A New World Online" in the March 20 New York Times (free registration required) reveals. Every medical journal must now deal with a new reality: in the fast-moving and high-priority world of life and death, the speed, efficiency, and low cost of publishing on the Internet is eating into their business. And people worldwide seem unwilling to put medical journals' business models ahead of human health.

Some, such as the British Medical Journal, have responded by making their content available online for free. Others, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, are resisting any such move, to protect their millions in annual revenue -- and, they argue, the quality and integrity that revenue guarantees.

But with talk of high-profile researchers boycotting journals that refuse to publish cheaply or free online, universities (especially in the developing world) rebelling against high subscription prices, and governments making vast archives available online at no charge, journals will have to adapt. If that makes it easier for doctors in sub-Saharan Africa to give their millions of AIDS patients the latest treatments, can we possibly complain?


Wednesday, March 21, 2001 - newest items first
# 2:16:00 AM:

Black leather hospital gown?

I heard today on the radio that Joey Ramone, singer for the immortal Ramones, has been hospitalized with lymphoma.

Not all punk rockers self-destruct, but they are not immune to other ails, it seems.


Monday, March 19, 2001 - newest items first
# 3:51:00 PM:

Celebrity testimonial

Okay, I'm not a celebrity. But if you are planning a stay in the Seattle area and have access to a vehicle while you're there, I'd recommend you go to a hotel that's just a bit north of town, at the Silver Cloud Inn at Mukilteo, on the ocean near the Boeing plant in Everett.

It's about twenty minutes from downtown Seattle on the freeway, and offers a great view, excellent rooms, and a spectacular continental breakfast (you can make your own waffles). My family and I stayed there this past weekend, and we'll be going back.

If, on the other hand, you're going to Victoria, the place to stay is the Bedford Regency Hotel, right downtown. The down comforters and soaker tubs are comfy as can be, and the in-room fireplaces are a pleasant luxury.

And now, back to our regular programming...


Thursday, March 15, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:17:00 AM:

Now semi-officially almost the Penmachine Media Company

That headline reads like the title of a Monty Python sketch or an obscure, slightly funny but drably photographed art-house movie. But instead, it's what I did today.

I received approval in the mail this morning from the British Columbia government to register my business as the "Penmachine Media Company," encompassing my writing, editing, Web work, computer consulting, drumming, and occasional photography. In order to make that official, I took my second trip in four days to the B.C. Business Centre at the Waterfront SkyTrain station in Vancouver, paid them another $30, and sat at a computer terminal for a few minutes filling out forms to make the name official.

Ideally, I could have done the whole thing over the Internet -- the software I was using even ran in a Web browser -- but so far the provincial bureaucracy hasn't quite figured out how to make that happen. So instead of sitting in front of my own computer filling out forms, I had to go downtown to sit at someone else's computer to do it. Ah well. It gave me a chance to get out for a coffee, anyway.

Next, I wait for confirmation in the mail. Good thing I got some actual paying work done today too.


Monday, March 12, 2001 - newest items first
# 11:01:00 AM:

Whale day

[Note added April 24, 2002: I have finally put one of my photos of Bjossa on this site, after discovering many people coming here via search engines looking for such a shot. The photo was taken the same day I posted this journal entry, and my daughter (she has much more hair now) is in the foreground. Bjossa died last year, a few months after the picture was taken.]

My wife and I took our two daughters to the Vancouver Aquarium yesterday morning, as we often do. But yesterday something unusual happened.

We were watching Bjossa, the Aquarium's last remaining orca whale (who will be leaving the Aquarium for another facility where she can be with other orcas), in the underwater viewing area. My daughter was perched on the ledge by the window.

I've seen Bjossa and her late tank-mate Finna -- as well as their predecessor, Skana, one of the first killer whales in captivity -- come up to the glass and eye us humans before. This time, however, she stared quite distinctly at my daughter, then turned her nose to the window and let out a loud underwater whistle that we could hear right through the glass, which is inches thick and normally almost completely soundproof. Next, she did it again. My youngest, startled, was a bit upset.

A few minutes later, after Bjossa had swum away into another part of the tank, we had our little girl at the glass again, observing Whitewings, the dolphin who shares Bjossa's habitat. Bjossa returned, and again came straight to us (ignoring the other kids who were calling out and waving at other windows). She let out another few whistles, then swam off.

That evening, after the kids were asleep, I happened to catch a 1997 National Geographic documentary on the Knowledge Network called "Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid." It included some of the most amazing video footage I've ever seen: a group of sperm whales diving to 400 metres off the coast of New Zealand, recorded by a "crittercam" attached to one whale's back (!).

The whales were hunting for giant squid (genus Archeteuthis), about which I wrote a research paper more than ten years ago during my studies for my Marine Biology degree. Unfortunately, the whales didn't catch or even see one -- had they done so, it would have been the first recording of a live giant squid ever. So far, the crittercam has had no further luck finding giant squid. Perhaps someday.


Saturday, March 10, 2001 - newest items first
# 3:31:00 PM:

Penmachine - soon to be official

I originally registered the domain almost exactly one year ago, after a long search for a good name for this site, often assisted by my friend Alistair (who, incidentally, is not as fond as you might expect of his eponymous dot-com). I was surprised that it was available, since many more obscure ones weren't -- but perhaps it had been a sign that "penmachine" came to me when I was half-asleep, in a semi-dream state.

Yesterday, I took the next step, which was to march on down to the B.C. Business Centre at the Waterfront SkyTrain station in Vancouver. There, I initiated a name search as the first stage of registering my business. Since business names in British Columbia require a certain structure, I had to provide my top three choices for my company. They were:

- Penmachine Media Company
- Penmachine Media Services
- Penmachine Wordsmiths Co.

The first two are rather general, because my work comprises more than writing and editing: I also get income from drumming and sometimes from photography. "Media" was the only thing that made sense.

In a few days, I'll find out if I get my first choice, and then I can register as a proprietorship. It's a thrill a minute, I tell you.


Thursday, March 08, 2001 - newest items first
# 10:31:00 PM:

50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong

Today I made an excellent discovery. The band for which I play drums has been searching for some sequined or lamé jackets for some time now, in order to spiff up the stage show a bit. This afternoon, while I was walking through the mall, I noticed a discount rack of gold and blue sequined jackets. Even better, they were marked down to $25 each. So I bought five -- four gold, one blue -- and talked the clerk down to $20 each for them.

That's remarkable because, when we've looked for such jackets in the past, a single one cost more than the $120 I spent for five -- sometimes twice as much. So it was quite a deal.

Now if I could find matching pants...


Monday, March 05, 2001 - newest items first
# 9:59:00 PM:

Something (okay, many things) in the air

Last night I finished my first major project since I started working exclusively on contract in February. It's a 42-page document for Sierra Wireless Inc. about Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) -- which is a standard for connecting to the Internet wirelessly, using the same infrastructure and radio frequencies as analog cellular phones.

Having immersed myself in the subject of wireless data communications for two weeks, I was obviously interested when I spotted an article in today's online edition of the New York Times called "Locating Devices Rise in Popularity But Raise Privacy Concerns"(free registration required). It announces that a long-time science fiction idea is now upon us: being able to pinpoint a person's whereabouts precisely, almost anywhere on earth. This development has both benefits (call 911 and they'll know where you are within a few metres, even if you can't speak) and drawbacks (your employer always knows where your company vehicle is -- even if it's the parking lot of a strip club).

The discussion also reiterates something I've been thinking of for some time. The air around us is thick with invisible information:

  • radio and TV broadcasts.
  • cell phone calls of several different analog and digital varieties.
  • police, firefighting, marine, aircraft, military, taxi, dispatch, and other two-way radio.
  • wireless data in a whole bunch of guises.
  • the electromagnetic detritus of all the motors, signals, power lines, and miscellaneous gadgets we live with.

All these signals are modulated, multiplexed, layered, and intermixed into a cacophanous soup -- but one that none of our natural senses can detect. Yet does it affect us? It seems not, but we're not sure yet. Then again, the last century exposed human beings to many new things (plastics, antibiotics, puffed food products) and we live longer than ever.

For all but the latest brief, infinitesimal slice of human history -- the previous hundred years -- the radio spectrum on earth was nearly silent. The only radio waves we'd find interesting today were, generally, from space. Now we spew so much out that radio astronomers are looking longingly at the far side of the moon, because the only thing that can block the constant radio buzz from our planet is a whole moon's worth of solid rock.

As Madge would say, "You're soaking in it."


Thursday, March 01, 2001 - newest items first
# 12:58:00 PM:

So what am I now?

In February, I started working from home as a freelance writer and editor on contract. I had to get used to providing a new answer when people ask me what I do for a living.

But my answer isn't quite true. As of this month, I've rejoined my old band as the drummer, and we'll be playing at least four shows in March. My income from them may meet or even exceed that from writing and editing.

So what am I? A freelance writer, editor... and drummer?

I guess so, but I don't think I'll put that on my business card.


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