Today's colour scheme is for Alistair, who bugged me last year when my site wasn't Halloweeny enough.
This is "Penmachine.com: October 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.
Thursday, October 31, 2002 - newest items first
# 7:58:00 AM:
I'm a fan of short, effective summaries, even though I can rarely write them myself. Whittling something down to its essentials gladdens my editor's heart. So here is this week's nominee: Andrew O'Hehir, writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey in his list of 40 essential films at Salon:
There may be no explaining or understanding this picture, which seems just as strange now as the day it was released, and is basically a near-abstract art film disguised as a major Hollywood release.
I saw the end of the movie on the Space Channel last week, and was reminded that there is no film like 2001, not that I've ever heard of. O'Hehir's summary tells why.
Wednesday, October 30, 2002 - newest items first
# 11:15:00 PM:
John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man," Derek and the Dominos' "Layla," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." And the atomic bomb. One man had a hand in all of them: Tom Dowd, record producer and engineer.
Not long out of high school, he worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The work was so secret that he could not reveal his expertise after the War, and so couldn't find any work as a physicist. So he became a recording engineer -- probably a simple job by comparison -- and went on to pioneer multitrack tape and to bring out amazing, natural performances from a wide range of artists. He died a few days ago, on October 27. I knew his name from liner notes, but never realized all he'd done until I read his obituaries. It's often that way.
One way they distinguish between the lines is that only the professional models support monitor spanning, where the operating system desktop can extend to more than one display screen, so you can drag windows from one to the other and have different programs on different displays, for instance. I use such a setup on my older Power Mac, and find it very handy. The consumer models let you use an external screen, but only to duplicate what the built-in display shows. However, those models contain graphics chips that are perfectly capable of monitor spanning -- Apple has simply disabled them from actually supporting it.
Now some enterprising Mac enthusiasts have managed to trick some iBook models into supporting monitor spanning. As usually happens, hackers found a way around arbitrary restrictions eventually.
Tuesday, October 29, 2002 - newest items first
# 4:16:00 PM:
My Web hosting provider is moving the server on which this site lives from Nevada to Texas (though I'm in Vancouver), and some things aren't working right. In fact, be glad you could reach the site at all -- it was unavailable for most of the day today. Pictures may not appear, links may not work, and other things may be slow or unreliable. I hope to have everything sorted out in a day or two.
UPDATE 7:34:08 PM: The site seems to be operating properly again, if a bit slowly. However, I have noticed difficulties reaching other sites, so there may be a more generalized Internet problem this evening.
Monday, October 28, 2002 - newest items first
# 2:58:00 PM:
I drank no coffee until I was 22 years old. It wasn't any sort of moral choice -- I just didn't like it. But free coffee and some late nights at a job that year made me into a caffeine addict, and I remain one. People talk about being "coffee addicts" as a joke, but it's still true. Caffeine is certainly addictive, but only mildly so, and the drug's effects are also relatively benign. That's why it's still legal.
This past weekend, while on a one-night road trip to the very posh Château Whistler Resort with my band, I did an unusual thing: even though there was free in-room coffee, I didn't drink any first thing in the morning, until we had brunch around 10:00 am. I was sluggish and headachy, in genuine withdrawal. (I was also developing a small cold and had been up fairly late too, of course.)
Still, of life's guilty pleasures, a good coffee is nothing to worry about. I hope.
Friday, October 25, 2002 - newest items first
# 7:46:00 AM:
We've never had an autumn like this in Vancouver. I well recall my years in university where early September afternoons spent lolling in the sun outside the library turned to dark, dreary slogs to the parking lot through piles of rain-soaked leaves in early October, just as the first mid-terms arrived. But in my 33 years of living in Vancouver, I don't remember ever having as much sunshine in October as we've had in 2002, and September also had unusually little rain. (My parents' houseguest from Germany said, "I thought it was supposed to rain here.")
One unexpected benefit is that, for once, we get to see the full colours of the trees as they turn in autumn, instead of having the leaves blown away by storms or darkened by clouds and drizzle. I've always loved living here, now more than ever.
I use an 8 MB Palm IIIxe organizer (circa 1999) and obviously am not in the target market for the new $100 US ($165 Cdn) Palm Zire, but not because it's fundamentally the wrong product idea for me. Here's why: the two most important things for me in a Palm are the amount of memory and the backlight. And I hardly ever use the device to keep track of contact information and to-do's.
I mostly do two things:
- Read downloaded online content (including TidBITS, friends' weblogs, and a number of other channels I have customized) using the AvantGo Mobile Internet service -- which still doesn't provide a native Mac OS X sync conduit, so I end up syncing using our house Windows PC or on the rare occasion I'm booted into Mac OS 9.
- Read and write using the WordSmith Palm word processor, in which I compose and edit rough drafts of articles and read longer content like daily issues of Salon from my Salon Premium download subscription.
I often do all that Palm reading in bed, while my wife sleeps, and the backlight is the reason I can. And 2 MB won't hold the applications I use and leave enough room for actual content to work with.
So if I dropped and broke my IIIxe, I'd have to hunt for a clearance Palm m105, which does everything I need for the same price as the Zire. Or try finding another IIIxe on eBay, I guess. The higher-end models with colour screens, snazzy metal cases, wireless modems, built-in video cameras, MP3 players, wireless phones, and so on are just too expensive for what I need. Handspring still makes some decent low-end models, though, and even Sony's bottom-line Cli&eagu; organizers are getting into a better price range.
If the Zire had a backlight and even 4 MB of memory, I might consider it as a replacement because of its price and the battery. But when it drops to $50 US ($85 Canadian), I'd recommend it to friends if they need the basic organizer functionality.
Thursday, October 24, 2002 - newest items first
# 3:05:00 PM:
Since I went to bed last night, I have received over 1500 (!) e-mails bounced back from what appears to be a spam mail campaign that may have forged its "from" address to be a very outdated e-mail address of mine -- one which I thought I'd gotten rid of at least two years ago. It turns out that, while I had phased out the e-mail account itself, two administrative e-mail addresses (for a mailing list I used to run from the phased-out address) still exist.
And the mail is still rolling in. "Mail delivery failed," over and over again. Worse yet, the site from which the bounces originate lists its contact e-mail as email@example.com -- and mail sent there bounces back too.
I'm trying to get IT Services at the University of B.C., where my old account lived, to shut this thing down. They say they'll respond within 72 hours (!!). So by then I should have received, oh, something like 10,000 bounced e-mails. Great.
UPDATE: UBC responded in less than six hours, and the e-mail firehose has been shut down. Thank you, IT Services!
Tuesday, October 22, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:32:00 PM:
The Visual Thesaurus from Plumb Design is an online program, written in the Java programming language, that runs inside your Web browser. Most Java applications suck. The Visual Thesaurus, however, is the greatest Java app I have ever seen. It makes the English language's glorious complexity into a floating, blooming, living thing, as I sometimes imagine it in my head.
Once it loads, type in a simple word like "happy" and watch the florettes of related words appear like a crystal growing. Click on them and watch the shapes change. It makes me happy just to look.
I guess I'm an editor for a good reason. Thanks to Martin Townsend on the Editors' Association of Canada e-mail list for the link.
P.S. I can't seem to view the Visual Thesaurus using Internet Explorer on Windows, but the Mozilla/Netscape browser family seems to work fine on both Windows and Mac, so try that if you're having trouble.
Dawn Hunter, an editor from Ontario (search down this page to find her), wrote on a mailing list to which I subscribe:
I just came across an interesting Web page in a large site, Statistics Every Writer Should Know. For those who are statistically challenged, it might be useful. I haven't looked at it in great detail yet, but it seemed worth passing on.
And it was. It's a great resource for understanding the basics of statistical analysis, so you don't get fooled by sloppy polling and economics in the news media, for instance.
Back in August I posted three sets of photographs of the 2002 Celebration of Light fireworks festival. Fubsy.net has posted 25 different ones, from farther away, at another angle. Here are a few more (a couple quite lovely), from Michael Wu at UBC. This site has no normal Web address, only a number, so it may not last long -- but there are movies.
Monday, October 21, 2002 - newest items first
# 6:33:00 PM:
This site has had one (confirmed) visitor from each of the following countries: Latvia, Thailand, Mauritius, Côte D'Ivoire, India, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Peru, Slovenia, and Guatemala.
Chances are there have been many others from at least some of those places (India, for instance) who have come through something that doesn't report its location -- those results are only from computers that report themselves as being, for example, in the .gt domain for Guatemala. Others probably came in through .com, .net, .org, or computers that report only an IP address number.
Still, to know that at least one person in mountainous Slovenia, tropical Costa Rica, or the hot island of Bahrain read something I wrote here in Vancouver is both exhilarating and, strangely, comforting. Even ten years ago, how could people from those places have read something I wrote, ever?
Oblivio notes that we are often much more reasonable when talking to others than to ourselves:
If I were someone else and were talking with me about my problems? that is, if I came and told myself my problems, my response would be something like, This is who you are, big guy, so get used to it.
Phil, a freelance writer from Toronto, visited my site today, and asked:
I was wondering if you could give me an idea of the kind of income you can make doing writing/editing independently. Are you able to make the equivalent of what someone making $40,000 at a regular job does?
That said, let's try running the numbers for full-time work.
- Take a straight $40K annual income as your starting point.
- Add another $10K for expenses, including portions of rent, utilities, and transport, plus actual straight business expenditures, childcare, insurance, accounting fees, and so on. (That's off the top of my head -- the expenses are probably higher for many people.)
- Divide that by 50 weeks in the year (taking two weeks for holidays and other days off), five working days a week, six hours a day (leaving two for administration and other unpaid time), and you'd have to charge a bare minimum of $33 an hour.
- If you want more vacation, have higher expenses, or guess you'll charge fewer bookable hours per day (and I'd expect so), you'll need to charge more.
- If you want to work like a dog, take no vacation, and think you can rustle up enough work to fill all your available time (unlikely, especially in mid-summer and the end of December, when all your clients are on vacation), you could conceivably charge less, but I wouldn't bet my car payments on it.
Last year I made about 25% of my income from music and other miscellaneous work, and 75% from writing and (mostly) editing. This year it's more like 40% and 60%, respectively, but my overall income is down about 25% because, while the band is making more, I had a big juicy editing contract for three months in the summer of 2001, and nothing equivalent this year.
Luckily, my wife is a teacher, with a spectacularly predictable (but not huge) income, so we can pay the rent and eat.
My income comes on a very part-time schedule (one day a week when the kids are with the grandparents, plus evenings and weekends for both words and music, and more time when needed), so it should be possible to net what a $40K job would, i.e. about $27K after taxes, on a full-time schedule. On average -- just don't expect it to be consistent from month to month or year to year.
I doubt anyone wanting to make a living at it could do it for much less than $40 per hour, honestly. I generally charge $50 Canadian per hour, plus GST. Potential clients who find that too much are usually not worth my time, for reasons of simple math.
Sunday, October 20, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:08:00 PM:
Last night, for the first time in more than thirteen years as a professional musician, I fell backwards off my drum stool at the rear of the stage. At the time, I thought I might go right through the window behind me and fall six metres onto the badminton court below, but I was stopped by a metal cross-brace and was able to leap up and begin the next song, playing standing up.
No, I hadn't been drinking. The stage was just very narrow, and I'd set up my kit slightly farther back than I should have.
Saturday, October 19, 2002 - newest items first
# 12:37:00 PM:
My previous posting noted that I often create new entries here by adapting e-mail conversations into informational mini-articles. Here's another.
Editor Krysia Lear asked:
I need to replace my monitor, a Spectre, 17 inch. It emits a high pitched electronic whine that has worn me down. I don't operate games or do DTP. But I do spend hours in front of the screen, and my eyes have been getting very tired because of the reflection. (Using eye drops has helped relieve the strain.) Does a flat screen offer a significant improvement over the older curved models? What's best?
Most of the major brands these days are good, and flat screens are certainly less strain on the eyes. Avoid brands you've never heard of. I've also found that recently, the big computer makers haven't been selling particularly good monitors under their own names. HP, IBM, Dell, and others used to sell only top-quality products, but that is no longer so (and Apple, which used to have good CRTs, makes only flat-screen LCDs that connect exclusively to Macs now). Some can be good, but it's a crap shoot.
Models from NEC, Hitachi, ViewSonic, Iiyama, Samsung, Philips, Sony, and Mitsubishi are well regarded, but see if you can look at the actual monitor you will be purchasing, since there still is variation from screen to screen, and you may not prefer what I prefer.
Traditional CRT monitors
There are two basic cathode ray tube (CRT) technologies: aperture grille and shadow mask. They differ in how they create pixels on the front of the screen. I used to recommend aperture grille (Sony's Trinitron and Mitsubishi's DiamondTron) over shadow mask -- and they were the first to introduce flat screens too -- but recent innovations and hybrid designs mean shadow mask is sometimes just as good.
17" models are quite inexpensive these days, but you can likely get an expansive (yet not expensive) 19" model for what you might have paid for your Spectre a few years ago. And look for something that has a high refresh rate (how often the screen gets re-drawn) at the resolution you prefer to use. Generally, you shouldn't spend more than $550 Cdn for a CRT -- you can get a good 19" model for $400-450, and a 17" for $250-300, maybe less on sale.
Here is a good primer on what to look for.
Is it worth buying a LCD panel, or is it too early in their development and pricing for someone with my needs? I don't want to buy a low end one and end up with other troubles. What's best?
Time for an LCD
LCD (liquid crystal display) flat panels are now mainstream enough that they're worth buying, for several reasons:
- They take up much less space, leaving you more desk for groaning piles of paper, or cups of coffee.
- They are more energy efficient -- if you use your screen many hours a day, you might even notice your power bill goes down a bit.
- Unlike traditional CRTs, they do not flicker, and are usually easier on the eyes over long periods.
- They have no black border around the screen image, so a smaller-sized screen acts like a bigger CRT.
You can get a good 15" flat panel (with 1024x768-pixel resolution like a 17" CRT) for $500-600. Even 17" models (which are like 19" or 20" CRTs) can be had for less than $1000. Tom's Hardware a good recent roundup, which recommends the Samsung SyncMaster 152T (15") and (among others) the Iiyama AS4332UT (17") overall.
Two things to note: First, if you prefer a lower resolution (i.e. more magnified image), or if you like to change resolutions, then LCDs are a hassle -- they only look good at their highest "native" resolution, with lower resolutions (800x600 or 640x480) looking fuzzy.
Second, the vast majority of LCD monitors use actual glass screens manufactured by one of only two companies: either Philips/LG or Samsung. So the differences between them are often more about design and build quality, not image.
If you can afford it, I would recommend connecting more than one monitor to your computer (something which probably requires a second video card) -- two 17" screens can be more useful than one 19". I've had three smaller displays connected to my Mac for years, and it's remarkable how it's helped my productivity to have reference materials, main workspace, and e-mail -- or Web browser, or MP3 software, or whatever combination I want -- visible simultaneously.
Here's a photo of a recent version of my setup (I needed an excuse to link to that) -- though I've since moved the smallest screen off to the right -- and some info on why using multiple monitors can be good:
Think about getting a display with a housing that's not white -- I find black or dark blue make the screen appear brighter and are less of a long-term peripheral vision distraction than beige, white, or grey.
Finally, consider the ergonomics of your workspace, especially lighting, and keyboard and screen height. They can all make a huge difference in fatigue. Here are some good resources:
I hope that helps.
Friday, October 18, 2002 - newest items first
# 11:55:00 PM:
Working alone, usually at home, as I do (well, except when I'm being a drummer), it's a great joy to be able to go to the monthly meetings of the Editors' Association of Canada and gab with others who are as perversely picky about written words as I am.
We had a meeting this week, and afterwards, a talented editor and indexer named Naomi Pauls, who runs Paper Trail Publishing, visited this site and had some questions. I thought the answers might be useful to other visitors too.
How much time do you spend on your Web site?
It varies. I spend some time (usually a few minutes, sometimes much longer if I'm on a roll) writing journal entries every day. It helps keep me writing while I stay at home with my daughters (ages two and four). I periodically add new batches of photos, or reorganize, or do something else, often late at night when everyone else in the house is asleep.
The nice thing about a Web site is, if you set it up properly, all your past work remains online, so, in my case, nearly everything I've accumulated since 1997 is here. That's how it got big, one smidge at a time.
Does it bring you business?
It does bring me business. If you search for "writer editor Canada" or even "editor Canada," well, here's what you see (scroll down to find me on some pages):
- Google search for "writer editor Canada"
- Google search for "editor Canada"
- Yahoo! search for "writer editor Canada"
- Yahoo! search for "editor Canada"
Those results are from, (a) having my site (and its title at the top of the window) actually be about what I do, (b) regular updates to the journal, which Google etc. like and which add to the relevant content that the search engines track, and (c) having been around for a few years, with other people who link to me. (Google likes that.)
I have not done anything special to get better search results, other than trying to make my site good, and making sure that anytime I publish anything online, it includes my Web address. (I think anyone with a Web site should have its address as their primary contact point -- for my upcoming Yellow Pages listing, for instance, I put the name of my company as Penmachine.com, which will be the boldface text in the Superpages book.)
People find me when they're looking for someone who does what I do. So far those projects that have come in have not been big -- larger ones have come from friends and other contacts -- but they make maintaining the site well worth the work. Plus I enjoy it -- I used to work on a Web site for a living, and I also designed and maintain these other sites:
- www.theneurotics.com (my other job)
- www.adamwoodallband.com (my guitar player's other band)
- www.talkingtoair.com (a fun little photo site)
One way I add content to the site is when someone like you asks a question and I end up rambling on and on in an answer like this one. I'll end up converting the answer into Web text and posting it as a journal entry in the next day or two -- and Google will find more relevant information about writing, editing, and Web sites for when people are searching.
And on it goes...
Thursday, October 17, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:13:00 PM:
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, I would have loved a place like the Gator Pit -- a large, multi-storey indoor play structure at Park Royal Mall in West Vancouver. There was nothing so interesting at Park Royal when I was a preschooler. I took my two daughters there today, and they loved it.
My nearest equivalent to the Gator Pit was far away, between 1978 and 1982, when my parents and I stayed in a condo in San Diego (owned by one of my mom's friends) for a month every summer. I usually bought a kid's annual pass to Sea World while we were there, mostly because I visited Shamu's Happy Harbor over and over again. Then, suddenly, one year, I was twelve and too tall.
But the Gator Pit lets adults go in! So I did, of course.
Wednesday, October 16, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:27:00 AM:
This morning's National Post calls my home town of Vancouver a "mountain city." I don't think that's a term anyone who lives here would use, even though it's true. I, for one, picture a mountain city as landlocked, nastled in the notch of a deep valley between snow-covered peaks, like the stereotype of a European ski resort, or maybe Whistler. Besides, by the Post's definition, most cities in B.C. would be "mountain cities."
Vancouver, you see, is also an ocean city, and a river city, as well as a park city and a border city. It is the economic hub of British Columbia, but not its capital (that's Victoria). While some of our suburbs (North and West Vancouver, Port Moody, Coquitlam) scale the sides of mountains, others (Richmond, Delta, Ladner) are so flat that their highest points are either buildings or highway overpasses. The City of Vancouver itself is a peninsula, with the Fraser River on the south and the fjord of Burrard Inlet to the north. Its highest point, Little Mountain, is aptly named -- the former rock quarry reaches the Olympian height of 160 metres above sea level.
Yet the real mountains (1200 metres and taller) dominate nevertheless. We know that north is always in their direction, and every year, people get lost or die in the ravines, where they can see the city lights but not reach them, reminding us how close wilderness is.
Tuesday, October 15, 2002 - newest items first
# 11:51:00 AM:
To understand how colossally media companies are screwing up their approach to digital music, movies, and downloads, read Jack Kapica's article in Globe Technology (despite its almost criminally long and complex Web address), via Doc Searls.
I am in the process of converting my entire collection of more than 200 CDs into MP3s on my computer. It will take days, maybe a couple of weeks, and consume (probably) more than 20 GB of space. It is, incidentally, entirely legal -- but record companies would prefer it were not. That's why you can't very easily convert a DVD (technology developed more recently than CDs) into digital video to watch on your computer, or even transfer it to videotape, even though, for your own use, that would be legal too.
Monday, October 14, 2002 - newest items first
# 12:49:00 PM:
This photo was taken out the window of the space shuttle while in orbit. This one, and this one, this one, and this one were also taken from orbit. The great detail and sometimes unusual angles make the photos look more like those from aircraft, but they were taken by astronauts -- sometimes hand-holding a camera -- from space.
Here's a composite satellite image showing average North American snow coverage in the first week of February, 2002. There's a reason they call Canada the Great White North. And here is a closer view (taken in April) of the part of Canada I live in, with the neighbouring chunk of the U.S. in the lower part of the photo.
Oh, and it's not from a satellite, but here's an amazing photo you might have seen, of a wildfire from the summer of 2000.
Sunday, October 13, 2002 - newest items first
# 10:10:00 AM:
Doc Searls wrote on Friday about a hotel he just stayed in: "I'm in Seattle now, at a hotel with nice wide broadband. The bellman handed me a yellow ethernet cable when I arrived."
I've had Type 1 diabetes since 1991, and take insulin injections three times a day. People often ask me to explain the disease, but this article from Reuters provides a better, more succinct summary than I've ever managed:
Diabetes, which can lead to heart and circulatory disease, kidney failure and blindness, is caused by a shortage of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, or by the body's failure to respond to it.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system attacks cells in the insulin-making parts of the pancreas, called the islets of Langerhans. The body is then unable to control blood sugar levels and insulin must be injected daily.
Type 2 diabetes, which is more common, arises when the body becomes resistant to insulin, often as a result of obesity.
And there you have it. While the two types are physiologically quite different -- almost opposites -- each has the same effect: raising average sugar concentrations in the bloodstream. If not regulated, that sugar can be toxic in the long term.
Saturday, October 12, 2002 - newest items first
# 3:01:00 PM:
Anyone who's ever looked out the window of a jet while taking off will be amazed by this shuttle's-eye view of a space shot liftoff. Mere tens of seconds after ignition, the shuttle is higher than any commercial plane, and within two minutes the Earth is noticeably curved, the sky is black -- and the craft is flying at 4500 kph.
Friday, October 11, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:10:00 AM:
In an article about backing up your data from July 2000, which I just re-posted below, I wrote:
...unless they're selling you a fairly high-end server, computer and operating system manufacturers [...] don't make it easy to reliably back up your system out of the box. Yeah, they'll chuck in a DVD drive and a free movie, but how about a tape drive or CD-R drive and a Backup Configuration Assistant that runs the first time you fire up the machine?
Things aren't that far along yet, but they're improving. Apple still isn't including backup software with their operating system, but if you buy their ".mac" service, you can download a program called Backup that does the basics, and can use the included 100 MB iDisk Internet storage for offsite backups of small amounts of stuff (like your e-mail).
Hard disk maker Maxtor is producing external plug-in drives that will back up and synchronize data with your PC or Mac with the touch of a button. And these drives are big enough -- 80 GB to 250 GB, bigger than the stock drives in the vast majority of personal computers today -- to hold everything on your machine.
To jump to another hobby horse, I'd like to note that things would be much, much worse if someone years ago had managed to patent the whole idea of backups -- and patent offices have allowed sillier things. Luckily, the concept of backing up is public domain, like (as columnist Andrew Cassel notes) the ideas of loose-fit khakis, adjustable-rate mortgages, Thai-French fusion cuisine, emoticons, fabric and apparel designs, and coconut-mocha lattes.
Like him -- and even though I work in the copyright-heavy industries of writing and music -- I'm beginning to think the whole idea of copyright and patent protection needs serious re-examination. Or maybe elimination. Because, you know, Shakespeare and others did okay without them.
I was going to quote from an old article of mine from My Mac Magazine in July 2000, but it seems to have disappeared from the archives there. I'm republishing it now. While I have fixed or removed some of the dead links, my backup regimen has also changed, since I don't have a separate office to take backups to anymore -- and Zip disks are way too small to hold my stuff these days...
Why You Will Become A Backup Obsessive Like Me
by Derek K. Miller, July 2000
Four years ago, almost to the day, I came to bed very late and obviously agitated. My wife, half awake, asked what was wrong.
"I think I just nuked the computer's hard drive," I said, quivering.
"Yikes," she said, and wisely left asking the details till morning.
When the time comes for you to ask yourself, as I did that night, whether you have a backup, you won't ask the question calmly.
The Screaming, Swearing Little Voice
What I mean is, the little voice in your head will not say, "Gee, I wonder if I have a backup? Perhaps I'll go make a cup of tea and take a look."
No. Your little voice will first create a strong series of swear words, which you will then say out loud. Then it will proceed:
"Do I have a backup?! DO I? WHERE IS THE #@$% BACKUP?"
Your little voice will get louder (and probably cruder) to try to drown out the icy crackle of your stomach as it sinks into a dark, cold pit. For in your heart, you will know the truth: there is no backup.
I should have learned the first time, in 1988. That year, on a Saturday night, I was finishing an issue of the student newspaper I edited, when the 40 MB external hard drive for the Mac SE died. I was up until Sunday afternoon re-doing everything from scratch, running PageMaker from floppy disks. In my harried state, I forgot to call my mom on her 50th birthday.
Why Learn the Easy Way When You Can Suffer Instead?
Recently, I questioned some current and former software tech support people I know. How many of users' tech support crises, complete with icy stomach-pits and swearing and forgotten birthdays, could be avoided if their data was properly backed up?
About 80%, most agreed.
But the customers of my tech support friends are like you and me. They, or you, will never do proper backups until you're bitten. Hard. Maybe by a hard disk failure, maybe by a thunderstorm or brownout, maybe by burglars or lost luggage or sweaty hands trying to clutch a laptop while you're sprinting to catch a bus across hard, hard concrete.
Maybe they, or you, will click OK when you should have clicked Cancel, like I did.
The Obsessive's Agenda
I'll tell you what I do now.
- Every night at 10:00 p.m., my Power Mac fires up its Retrospect Express backup software and copies my family's e-mail databases (including over 15,000 archived messages) to a Zip disk.
- Twice a week, I take that Zip disk to my office downtown, along with another Zip disk of the same data, which I make using a regular Finder folder copy.
- I duplicate those Zips onto the hard drive of my UMAX Mac clone at work -- in two separate folders, in case one gets corrupted. So, right now, for instance, I have five copies of my e-mail database in two locations about 15 kilometers apart. One copy is "live," while one is six days old, and the other three are somewhere in between.
- Once a month, I burn the entire contents of my hard drive onto CD-Rs (good gold ones, not the cheapies). The newest such backup sits on a shelf near the computer for easy access. Older ones are on a spindle in my office, again 15 km away. And whenever I find there's extra room on another CD-R I'm going to create -- to archive system updates and shareware, for example -- I add some documents for backup too.
I'm not like this in real life, I warn you. Sure, like the rest of my family, I'm a bit of a pack rat, but I don't always pay my bills on time. My laundry piles up. I procrastinate about many things (such as writing this article, five months after my last one). But I back up every day.
Biting Big, Biting Small, Biting Them All
The wisdom of my current obsessive approach to backups became obvious when I talked to my cousin's boyfriend this last Canada Day. He'd just had a hard drive expire, taking seven years of accounting records with it.
And you guessed it: no backup. The estimate from a data recovery firm was several thousand dollars -- in U.S. funds. If they could get the data back, that is.
And it's not just small-time operators like me and my acquaintances who have to learn the hard way. Earlier this year, the massive telecommunications company Verizon lost thousands of customers' voice mail archives. No backup, apparently.
Are Computer Makers Negligent?
So it's sadly no surprise that unless they're selling you a fairly high-end server, computer and operating system manufacturers, including Apple (who should really be ahead of the game here) don't make it easy to reliably back up your system out of the box. Yeah, they'll chuck in a DVD drive and a free movie, but how about a tape drive or CD-R drive and a Backup Configuration Assistant that runs the first time you fire up the machine?
Palm, for one, has the right idea. Every time I HotSync my PalmPilot (vintage 1997), it backs up almost everything to my desktop Mac. If I lose, destroy, or accidentally wipe out the handheld, I can still get at the data on it. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this article on it, and one benefit is that I have three copies (one on the Palm, and one each on my home and office Macs) at any time.
The Backup Obsessive's Toolkit
Have I convinced you? Are you a born-again backup obsessive yet? If so, here's a list of some good backup resources to get you started.
- Dantz Retrospect and Retrospect Express - The standards for backup on the Mac. Retro Express won't back up multiple machines, won't work with networked drives, and doesn't support tape backup, but it's much cheaper and does work with all sorts of removable media, CD-Rs, and even with FTP. The full Retrospect will back up almost anything (including Windows PCs) to almost anything. There is other software out there too, including Backup Mastery.
- Adaptec Toast - The venerable CD-R/RW burning software can also help you do incremental backups to CD, if you read the instructions carefully. Retrospect Express makes it easier, however, but if you have Toast already you can give it a shot.
- Apple's iDisk - In a pinch, users of Mac OS X (or people with earlier Mac OSs and some ingenuity) can have 20 MB of free [well, not anymore in 2002, but it's 100 MB with a subscription - Derek] network drive space on which to store documents or other not-too-huge backups. Of course, a fast Internet connection like ADSL or a cable modem will help make your iDisk more useful. And make sure not to put your backups somewhere everyone on the Net can see them, like the Sites folder!
- Backed Up Today? - A great series in the great and long-running Mac newsletter TidBITS. Read the series and accompanying TidBITS-Talk discussions on strategies, media, cost, and backing up on the Internet. Then subscribe to TidBITS and read it every week. It will make your Mac experience better. Thank me later.
- The Tao of Backup - Funny and truthful, probably more of either than my article here.
- PowerOn Rewind - It's not really a backup in the proper sense, since it uses your existing hard drive, but this brand new product, awarded a Best of Show at Macworld Expo 2000 NY, is just too cool not to mention. Like Adaptec's similar GoBack for PCs, it uses a portion of your hard disk as "undo" space, so if you screw up a document (or your OS), you can go back to where you were yesterday or even a few days ago. I haven't used it, but it's worth looking at as an addition to a proper backup strategy.
(And if you're not convinced, come back to this page once you've experienced the Sinking Stomach of Doom. But don't bother with a browser bookmark -- that will be gone when you need it, along with everything else. Try a scrap of paper.)
Thursday, October 10, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:48:00 PM:
John Udell notes that it's harder to find stuff on your own computer than on the Web. How many times, I wonder, have I re-downloaded something rather than searching my backup CDs?
Craig Northey is a guitar player -- a good one -- but at the half-time show at a football game in Toronto recently, he played saxophone with the Colin James Band. Except he didn't. He doesn't know how to play saxophone. Read the story. It'll make more sense.
Wednesday, October 09, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:59:00 PM:
In a rush to pack the kids into the car this morning for a trip to the pumpkin patch, I left two CDs on the roof. I didn't realize that until we were well on the way, so when I got home several hours later, I found them, scraped, scratched, rained on, cases destroyed, on the street near our house. They were unplayable.
By then, I'd also discovered that, in the process of trying to restore the default settings on my digital camera while keeping half an eye on my oldest daughter, I instead erased the memory card, and all photos of the pumpkin patch. (If I'm willing to pay for it, there is software to extract the erased files. Cleverly, the demo version shows you little thumbnails of the pictures, but will neither display large ones nor save anything to disk.)
This afternoon, I nearly left my bag, with the same $500 digital camera in it, at a coffee shop, but I caught myself just in time.
The kids are now staying with their grandparents an hour's drive away, my wife and I went out for dinner, and afterwards we visited the mall. I replaced the CDs. I feel better now.
Monday, October 07, 2002 - newest items first
# 9:29:00 AM:
Bill Dobie links to a discussion of how record companies let Napster die instead of trying to use it to make money. Jason Kottke, in examining the myriad limitations of current file-sharing software, imagines a list of things Napster (or its not-exclusively-MP3 cousins like Kazaa) could have done:
- Download the rest of the songs from current track's album.
- Download the top 20 Billboard singles as a collection or separately.
- Download new tracks by artists I've downloaded before.
- A list of Amazon's best sellers, with each track downloadable.
- The top 10 movies in America in digital format.
- Links to the applications Adobe makes.
- A list of the titles on the New York Times Bestseller List, downloadable as audiobooks in MP3 format.
- For files not currently available, a wish list that downloads items as soon as they are.
- One-click downloads, just like Amazon's one-click shopping.
Kottke uses the list as features programs would have if they were really properly designed for stealing. But what if there was a payment mechanism built in? A survey during Napster's heyday indicated that people would have been willing to pay between $5 and $20 a month for the very basic (but successful) service even as it existed then -- potentially bringing in more money than the current CD industry by getting more money on average from music buyers. I'd gladly pay more than that for something with the features listed above -- and how about cover art, exclusive deals on T-shirts and other merchandise, tour information and discounts, and so on?
Had the recording industry worked to make that happen -- technically, it was possible then and still is -- they would have had a huge head start on the "bootleg" peer-to-peer community, which still hasn't created file-sharing software that's actually any good at finding files. But they sued instead, and "won." Yet they haven't really made any moves to find a new business model, even though the old one is still doomed to die eventually.
The music and movie industries could have kicked other peer-to-peer systems' butts in the marketplace, and made more money too. Too bad they didn't try.
Sunday, October 06, 2002 - newest items first
# 9:59:00 PM:
And how do you decide?
The paper wrapper on the firelogs we've been using since the weather turned cool includes the following warning: CAUTION: RISK OF FIRE.
In talking about Peter Gabriel's new album, Up, I was going to write that it has the first album cover on which his face doesn't actually appear since twenty years ago -- but then I looked at the cover again, and there he is, at an angle in the murky background. There but not there, with amorphous water drops spinning between him and us. (He may have been there on the Security cover in 1982 too -- it's hard to tell what any of that stuff is.)
The new album (his seventh full studio project, and first in a decade) has more in common with Security, which was the first record to turn me on to Gabriel's talents. He was making electronic instruments and processed drum loops sound organic (and creepy) long before Massive Attack or the Chemical Brothers were out of grade school, and on Up, as on several tracks from Security, he takes his time for full effect.
You don't always know it, but Tony Levin's growling, feline bass, David Rhodes's guitar-that-is-not-guitar, and Manu Katché's sophisticated drums are there, as they have been for years and years -- Levin, for one, has played on Gabriel's albums since the first one in 1976. Every song but the final one ("The Drop," a lonely piano ballad) is at least six minutes long. Most have several movements, starting and ending quietly, but rocking out, grooving funk, or simply spewing frightening sheets of noise in between. The opener, "Darkness" (nearly seven minutes start to finish), starts with subtle, throbbing globbets of sound. I turned up my speakers to hear better, then had my ears blown off by the weird, scary, metallic shriek and thunderstorm drums that come in soon after. The title is spot on.
Most of the album is less blatant than that, but it's far from a pop project. You won't understand it at all by paging through the first 15 or 30 seconds of each song. "Growing Up," for instance, has a propulsive rhythm, but you don't hear it until more than a minute in, after a mournful cello-backed intro. On my first listen, I found Up dull and slow, but subsequent tries have brought out all the strange and lovely stuff going on. Put on your headphones and turn down the lights, but not too far. You might get freaked out.
There's no "Sledgehammer" or "Solsbury Hill" hit here, nor even a "Shock the Monkey" or "Games Without Frontiers." The first single, "The Barry Williams Show," is most like "Big Time" from So, lyrically and musically, but it's far from the strongest piece on Up. I don't know what that is yet. But I'll be listening a lot to find it, because Up is starting to dig into my brain, which is an enjoyably disturbing image, like so many Peter Gabriel has conjured up over the years.
Saturday, October 05, 2002 - newest items first
# 8:45:00 PM:
The first digital watch I ever saw was on someone else's arm in a crowd, during a trip with my parents to Seattle sometime in the mid-1970s. Unlike every digital watch manufactured today, it used light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead of a liquid crystal display (LCD), and the owner had to push a button to get it to light up and tell the time -- to save on batteries. In 1974, my dad also bought one of the first full-featured scientific calculators, a brick from Texas Instruments that also used LEDs and had a big power adapter to plug into the wall when you weren't using a 9 V battery to power it. I think it cost about $225 at the time.
Sure, LEDs are still common for the displays on stereo components and as blinkie lights on modems, but you might think they're passé for anything else. Yet they are swiftly coming up as a possible replacement for traditional incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs. The first to appear widely in public are as traffic signals and taillights on buses and trucks, because they last longer than old-style incandescent bulbs. Now you can buy LED flashlights (including a very cool model that needs no batteries -- you just shake it), and household lighting isn't too far away.
Some speculate that recent changes to Google's search algorithms are the beginning of the end of its supremacy as a search engine. Personally, I don't think Google's staff is going to let that happen, but for now, alternatives like All the Web and Teoma are worth checking out.
Friday, October 04, 2002 - newest items first
# 4:44:00 PM:
Mass amateurization is the web's normal pattern. Travelocity doesn't make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.
[...] Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price. Prior to the web, people paid for most of the words they read. Now, for a large and growing number of us, most of the words we read cost us nothing.
[...] Rather than spawning a million micro-publishing empires, weblogs are becoming a vast and diffuse cocktail party, where most address not "the masses" but a small circle of readers, usually friends and colleagues.
He notes that those who do make money from weblogs do so indirectly. Like me, I guess.
Designing things people use -- from teapots to aircraft to Web sites -- is no easy thing. Some objects are designed only for some kind of practicality, and are consequently ugly. Think of a car's brake drum, or an intravenous drip bag, or a traditional carbon-paper airline ticket. Others are designed purely for aesthetics, and are either hard to use or actively (and attractively) useless: windchimes, tongue piercings, and lava lamps, for instance.
True beauty comes where the two meet, when, as Donald Norman writes, "attractive things work better."
Thursday, October 03, 2002 - newest items first
# 11:02:00 PM:
I bought a new computer desk a few days ago because my old one was covered in too much junk. Although it's also from Ikea, I've had the old white melamine desk for almost twenty years, and it wasn't designed for all the devices, wires, disks, and papers I had stacked on it.
The new one is, and everything looks rather neat now, enough that I enjoy being in my office/music room again. The workstation itself took only about an hour to set up (with help from my two year old daughter). Getting all the computer stuff arranged and hooked together took a fair bit longer.
Underneath part of the old desk, I also discovered a remnant of double-sided tape, which used to hold up the external "microcoupler" for the first modem my family ever owned, a 300 baud Hayes Micromodem II purchased in 1983 for about $500. With that modem, I made my first connections to bulletin board systems (BBSs), where I met some friends I still have today. Through high school, university, work, and marriage, the old white desk sat under every subsequent computer I owned, from an Apple II to my current Power Mac, as well as many, many cups of coffee and other beverages.
Now it looks like my dad will take the old desk to prop up some of his computers, replacing a desk even older and more decrepit. I knew it would go to a good home.
The new one was an anniversary present from my wife (our anniversary was in August, but I just got around to the purchase). So, to her: thank you -- yes, for the desk, but more for everything else in our lives together.
If you're in Canada and are looking to get a half-decent 4-megapixel digicam (to replace your aging 640x480 model from four years ago, for instance), this deal (available until October 15) from Staples looks pretty good. It's an HP PhotoSmart 812 with docking cradle for $600, which is way cheaper than most other 4 MP cams. The comparable Kodak DX4900, for instance, is $650 without the cradle.
Here's a comparison of the two models. Neither of them is anything particularly special, but they're decent quality and easy to use.
I spend part of my week as an editor and writer, another part of it as a drummer, and most of it taking care of my two kids and hanging out with them and my wife when she gets home from work. Sometimes I feel like this guy.
Wednesday, October 02, 2002 - newest items first
# 1:32:00 PM:
Joshua Fineberg is talking about classical music, but these are wise words for any kind of art:
Art is not about giving people what they want. It's about giving them something they don't know they want. It's about submitting to someone else's vision. This is hardly ever discussed these days. [...]
In almost any era, the sheer mass of bad or mediocre work tends to dwarf the good or great works. This can lead us to assume that the past was somehow better, since we kept only the best parts and threw out the crap. I would venture to say that there have probably been more masterpieces created during the past 20 years than there were in the last 20 years of the 19th century (an easy bet, since the population is so much bigger now). We just haven't finished sorting the gems from the garbage yet. [...]
This was why culture became an undemocratic realm in the first place, and why attempts to democratize it may bear unwanted side effects. To find great art, we need people who are able and willing to go through those 10 million paintings on the off-chance of finding one masterpiece.
Tuesday, October 01, 2002 - newest items first
# 9:51:00 PM:
P.S. Here's a good piece on why e-mail newsletters are still cool.
Now I have two problems: what to do with the old desk, and when to find time to assemble the new one. Before the kids were born, I would have unpacked the big flat box last night and had the thing put together. Now, I'm too tired, and scheduling around the children is a challenge. It'll get done in a day or two. Maybe.
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