I've put together 14 high-quality original podsafe instrumental tunes from my Penmachine Podcast into a CD album you can buy. It also includes a bonus data DVD with a bunch of cool stuff that isn't on this website. Find out more...
This is "Penmachine.com: April 2002," 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.
In every man lives a little boy. And a site like skyscrapers.com is for the little boy. It contains a rather scary amount of information about a vast number of tall buildings around the world, including quite a number in metro Vancouver, where I live. It revealed something I didn't know about Vancouver itself:
Per capita few cities in North America have more residential hi-rise towers than Vancouver. [...] The vast majority of Vancouver's 500 tall buildings are apartment condos and more and more are either under construction or on the drawing boards. There seems to be no end to the trend for living downtown that began way back in 1962.
Sometimes we feel like we know celebrities, which is why their private lives fascinate us, and why being famous must be very strange. That feeling of knowing is one-way -- to the fan, the celebrity is a friend, or at least an acquaintance, but to the celebrity, the fan is a stranger, and sometimes a scary one.
On the Web, those kinds of one-way relationships come down a notch. I feel I know something about the people who write some of the sites and weblogs I link to from this page. Some of them I do know personally; others have no idea who I am. And maybe some of you reading this site feel you know something about me, though we've never met.
Robert X. Cringely (real name: Mark Stephens) is somewhere in between. He's hosted some famous TV programs and written books. But he writes a an online column I read regularly, so it feels like I know him a bit. And now, I just read on his site that his son Chase Stephens died of sudden infant death syndrome a few days ago. Chase wasn't even three months old.
As with so many others, that which wounded Bob Cringely terribly, personally, and unexpectedly is now his cause, and he's on the attack against it, with all the engineering brainpower he can muster. He is a very smart man, and maybe he can win.
I'm a dad too, and it seems that losing one of my daughters would be unbearable. But people like Bob bear it, somehow. Good luck to him. And goodbye, Chase, though we never met either.
The Earth Day phenomenon peaked in 1990 -- that year, it was all over the news, and people seemed ready to commit to genuine change in how we lived our lives. Post-consumer recycled materials were everywhere, environmental books were bestsellers, and change was in the air.
But that was before the messy reality of bureaucracy, government negotiation, and the impact of "environmental responsibility" on day-to-day living set in. Yes, we've integrated some techniques into our lifestyles: curbside recycling, some ultra-low-emission cars, low-flow shower heads, and Energy Star gadgets, for instance.
But we still buy SUVs and don't carpool or walk or bike or take transit, still avoid solar and wind and thermal power, still throw away and burn and eat and plug in too much. We still forge ahead with biotechnology and genetic engineering, without understanding their full implications. Earth Day 2002 was last week. Did you notice?
Yet there's a fallacy on the enviro-side too, when we talk about "saving the planet." The planet doesn't need saving. We haven't changed its orbit or affected its spin. Even the thin layer of life on the surface has survived far worse things than us -- asteroid collisions, ice ages, moving continents, the works. Yes, we're driving many species extinct, but life as a whole -- trees, shrubs, algae, grasses, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, echinoderms, plankton, and so on -- will keep living, as it always has.
We're not talking about saving the planet. We're talking about saving ourselves. And humans are crafty enough to survive even our own environmental incompetence -- if all we want to do is survive. We won't go extinct. We'll have a future of some sort. The question is what kind of future, and how nasty the transition into it will be.
Doc Searls writes a great weblog (to be honest, I find many of the links I put in my blog while reading his). One of Doc's recent entries discusses a conversation he had with his five-year-old son about a tadpole.
When confronted with the strong possibility that the tadpole would die, the boy said to his dad, as a way to find a solution, "Look on Google."
My oldest daughter is four, and may very well make the same sort of suggestion within the year. She already knows what a Web site is, how to turn on a PC or Mac, how to run a browser, and how to insert and play a CD-ROM game. Not only did I not know how to do those things at age four -- those things didn't even exist to be known.
I've wondered too whether my kids' generation is the first to lust after the same toys -- because of the same commercials, sometimes -- as its parents (us) did. My mom and dad certainly had no Star Wars toys or Sesame Street activity books, so they felt no nostalgia when, seduced by advertising, I wanted those things. But my daughters are watching Toucan Sam and Sugar Bear in the cereal commercials just as I did, ogling the same plastic Hot Wheels track as my friends used to have, and even resurrecting my wife's and my old 1970s R2-D2 and Barbie dolls -- not as cool retro toys, but as versions of the things they recognize in stores today.
Nevertheless, I'm inevitably destined to be hopelessly uncool in some way once my girls are teenagers. That's as it must be.
If you're in Vancouver early tomorrow morning (Sunday April 21) to join a few tens of thousands of other people at the annual Sun Run, watch for me playing drums on the platform at the starting line at Burrard and Georgia streets. For the ninth year in a row, my little fab-rock combo, The Neurotics, will be the starting-line band.
The Web is full of political orientation surveys and quizzes (never mind the thousands of other surveys). I took a few this morning.
Although I'm a middle-class white male who runs my own business, according to the U.K.-based "political compass" survey, I'm a substantially left-leaning libertarian (Economic 5.50 left,
Libertarian 6.97). In a way I knew that, but I didn't realize that my views were, to some people's minds, extreme.
Another, shorter survey gives me a similar skew, but with a different emphasis, calling me a "left-liberal," which is probably more how I'd describe myself. If I were American, the U.S. "party match" quiz says my opinions most closely match the policies of the Green Party, then the Democrats, then the Republicans. Then there's this one, which calls me a "social liberal."
Seems pretty clear. Will I, as most people are expected to, become more conservative as I age? So far I see few signs of that.
While arguing that glasses -- contrary to what everyone seems to think -- can enhance a woman's attractiveness, Charles Taylor of Salon writes:
We are all tied to the belief that glasses denote intelligence, while not being a guarantee of it. And maybe, where women are concerned, the belief that glasses are unsexy is a subtle way of saying that brains aren't sexy...
Maybe it is, and that's a shame. Intelligence sure is sexy, and so are nice glasses. My wife looks great in hers.
(Full disclosure: I wear glasses too, but it's not up to me to decide if they improve how I look.)
Americans have to file their income tax forms by April 15. We Canadians have until April 30. I don't hate having to pay taxes, but I dislike doing them. That's why, in 1996, my wife and I found ourselves an accountant.
Ours is Benjamin Cheng, who runs a small office in East Vancouver. Yesterday, he finished our 2001 income tax forms for us. He charges us about $250 (plus GST) each spring, but that can be deducted from the next year's taxes. This year alone, I'd guess he saved me $2000, simply by knowing things I don't about how income taxes work. Well worth the money, I'd say.
Most of us identify part of ourselves by the music we grew up with in high school and college. Somehow, I got caught up mostly in the '60s revival of the late '80s, so while I feel a certain nostalgia for the electro-hair bands of New Wave, post-punk, and their contemporaries, my musical tastes lean to the high-school music of people twenty years older than me. (That's why I'm in this band.)
But no one can deny that hip-hop has defined musical culture for at least the past fifteen years. And a story in the Los Angeles Times tells how hip-hop, with gangsta rap as its sharp tip, took over.
Dan Bricklin, who co-invented the first computer spreadsheet (VisiCalc), has written a detailed first-impressions review of the Segway Human Transporter, which garnered so much publicity last year as "Ginger" or "IT."
His article describes using the device better than anything else I've read, and also answers some of those nagging questions, such as "does it work on snow?" and "what if I run over someone's foot with it?"
Peter Ommundsen of Saltspring Island here in B.C. has created a Web site to help you pronounce all those nasty Latin names used in biology. Near the end of his useful guide is something quite neat:
An estimated pronunciation from the Golden Age of Rome (80-14 C.E.) is used for the reading of ancient literature. This pronunciation differs greatly from English scientific Latin, and is more difficult to master. For example, Cicero is "kickero," Caesar is "Kysar," vertebrae is "wertebrye," and Vaccinium is "wakkeeniom."
Those were certainly not the pronunciations I learned when I took Latin twenty years ago -- even though our textbooks told tales of the lives of families in ancient Rome.
By the way, my favourite Latin organism name lets my marine biology degree show. It's for the common green sea urchin: Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis. It may be the longest Latin name of any living animal. Or maybe not.
Had the world been slightly different, a Bantu leader riding a rhinoceros might very well have led a conquering army from sub-Saharan Africa to overthrow the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. Today, we would be living in a world dominated by African cultures and institutions.
But it didn't happen. A big reason is that rhinos, unlike horses, cannot be domesticated. Seemingly trivial facts like that have profoundly affected how history did turn out. If you'd like to find out why, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
The language may be rather more academic than I'd like, but this research paper makes a good point:
...it is not enough to wire all communities and declare that everyone now has equal access to the Internet. People may have technical access, but they may still continue to lack effective access in that they may not know how to extract information from the Web...
Over the course of twelve hours yesterday night and this morning, I packed a bunch of musical equipment into my car, drove to North Vancouver to pick up Adam the guitarist, took the Sea-to-Sky highway to Squamish and ate dinner at White Spot, completed the highway journey to a restaurant in Whistler, helped set up instruments and PA equipment, put on a costume, played two and a half hours of music (and changed costumes between sets), disassembled and repacked the gear, drove back to drop Adam off at his place, and came home at 4:00 a.m.
Here's a neat tidbit, part of an article sent to me by my good friend Alistair. English speakers tend to fill pauses in our speech with "um" and "er," but speakers of other languages use different filler sounds. Therefore:
English-speaking pupils learning foreign languages have a tendency to "um" and "er" in a way which is quite foreign to native speakers of the target language [...] using the correct alternatives gives an impression of fluency greater than that shown by pupils who avoid such utterances, but whose pronunciation is almost flawless.
So the best way to sound like you speak another language well is to make the right nonsense noises.
Have you ever wondered why the grammar checker in your word processor is so terrible? The reason is simple: there has been almost no research into improving it in a decade.
Bruce Wampler, who worked for one of the major grammar software developers in the early '90s, has written a summary of the situation. Essentially, the active development of grammar checkers from competing companies in the '80s and '90s died when Microsoft and WordPerfect bought two of the programs and built them into their word processors. They have spent nothing to make them any better since, and the remaining developers died off from a lack of customers.
one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career [...] its deeper harm comes in the false picture it will give of the true state of attitudes on this complex question.
A referendum is a blunt tool, and in many cases gives only a false sense of democracy, especially when the questions are worded poorly or in a biased manner. I have decided to vote No to all questions, rather than spoiling my ballot.
Today our household received our ballots for the B.C. Treaty Negotiations Referendum. I'm among those (I hope the majority of British Columbians) who think the whole referendum process is unnecessary, divisive, confrontational, probably illegal, and likely to be ineffective regardless of the results -- in other words, a waste of time. It is also another demonstration of how I fundamentally disagree with many of the key positions of the province's current government.
So far the best analysis of the referendum questions I've seen is from Chris Corrigan, who has worked both with governments and with native negotiators in the current treaty process (which the referendum has interrupted). He writes:
I feel strongly that the referendum process, if allowed to continue and dictate the terms of engagement in stark, black and white terms, will simply serve to drive First Nations into court for long and costly battles where the stakes are high and public input is not allowed. Ironically this experiment in democracy could result in a number of court decisions applied across the province in a most undemocratic way.
Legal experts appear to believe that the referendum is either:
so unclear that a vote either way (but especially No) yields no clear impression of what people want -- especially since those with opposite views on several of the issues could each vote No, but for different reasons.
My father-in-law is a dentist, and a few weeks ago he brought us a bag of the samples he often gets from dental product manufacturers. In it was "Glide" dental floss. I noticed the floss was made by W.L. Gore and Associates, who are most famous for Gore-Tex (the unofficial city fabric of Vancouver).
It turns out that Gore also makes guitar strings, vacuum cleaner air filters, electronic components, and medical products. And the floss is pretty nice too.
It's a shame when people confuse pure written quantity with quality or persuasiveness.
Today I received something rare: spam that wasn't e-mail, but plain old postal snail mail. It's a semi-insane polemic against big unions here in British Columbia, called the GREED and POVERTY (GnP) News [sic].
While similar to the signs you sometimes see on sandwich boards worn by solitary people parading in front of courthouses and company headquarters, it shares many more things with common electronic spam of the "this injustice is too great to ignore -- I must spam people to show them how infuriated I am!!!" variety:
It's way too big (four full legal-size sheets).
It has a lousy, too-urgent title at the top of the first page: "Help---Help---Help---SOCIAL JUSTICE---Help---Help---Help."
The typography is terrible. Lots of BIG BOLD LETTERS all glommed together with no proper spacing or indentation, lots of ----------lines of dashes---------- to set things off amid the mess, yellow highlighter across supposedly key pieces of text, and strange layout choices.
It selectively quotes all sorts of statistics and articles (many cut-and-pasted from newspapers in various orientations).
There are many parenthetical comments with UPPER CASE MESSAGES!!! including too many exclamation marks. As a bonus for being on paper, they are written in the few remaining margins, so that there is almost no white space left at all.
It wastes resources, in this case by being only single-sided.
There is no return address, either on the envelope or in the newsletter itself -- it simply requests that I "send copies to other sympathetic and supportive people" (assuming that I'm sympathetic and supportive).
The cancellation on the stamp is basic, including no post office information or date that I could use to trace the letter.
It is personally addressed to me (and my "family and friends"!) at the correct address, but there is a small error, in this case in the postal code.
In sum, the whole thing is such a mess I have no inclination to read it at all.
I assume the sender saw a letter to the editor I had published in the Georgia Straight recently, and then looked up my name in the phone book. It's the price of fame, I suppose.
I'd guess that genuinely famous people must receive nutty mail all the time. And I suppose that I really should have been suspicious of the un-postmarked letter with no return address, in case it contained anthrax.