Journal: News & Comment

This is " February 2004," 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.

Sunday, February 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:00:00 PM:

Music and movies

My favourite quote from all the Oscar blogs tonight is from Andy Ihnatko:

Good Lord. Sting, Elvis Costello, and now Annie Lennox [for Best Song]. All the Angry Young Performers of my youth are now officially no danger to anyone (though I wisely believe that Costello is always about four steps away from biting somebody).

Further, the nominated songs that aren't from Angry Young Early '80s Rock Stars are performed by Canadians (for A Mighty Wind and The Triplets of Belleville). Or, perhaps, do Eugene Levy's and Catherine O'Hara's early '80s days in SCTV count as angry?


# 8:53:00 AM:

Good web design and writing advice

Two useful links from Miraz Jordan:


Saturday, February 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:04:00 PM:

Play that fuguey music, white girl

Is quality music really timeless? I think so.

My youngest daughter, who is four, likes to put on music and dance around the living room. Her favourite song? Nothing by Barney, or the Wiggles, or Charlotte Diamond. Given the choice, she'll set up Rondo Alla Turca, the final three-minute movement of Mozart's Sonata No. 11 in A major, written in 1783. It's the seventh demo setting on our Korg digital piano, and she now knows by heart the key combinations to start it.

Both she and her sister like other demo tracks on the piano as well, but the ones they prefer are by Mendelssohn, Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. They don't mind Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" (from 1902) either. But most of the remaining tracks, which are anonymous demos written specifically for the Korg piano, don't do much for them—or for me. So maybe well-written music transcends age and era.

Then again, both kids do like a particularly cheesy electric piano demo track that sounds like a watered-down TV theme from the late '80s. So I could be wrong.


Friday, February 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:58:00 PM:

Is there hope for word processors?

Microsoft's Rick Schaut reveals why Word 6 for Mac was a crappy piece of software back in 1995—one he helped put together.

Ever since Word became the worldwide de facto standard for word processors in the 1990s, everybody has tried to do everything with it, including memos, letters, manuals, books, layout, collaboration, outlining, even e-mail.

And that's the problem with what Word has become, for both Windows and Mac. It tries to be everything to everybody. It has to. Sure, others (and even Microsoft) have tried simplified or more specialized word processors, whether with MS Works, AppleWorks, Nisus Writer, Mariner Write, or any number of other long-gone alternatives. But people buy (or pirate) Word, because that's what everyone else uses.

I'm an editor and technical writer, and I use Word's updateable fields, bookmarks, tables, auto-generation of tables of contents, styles, spell checking, track changes (grudgingly, but it does work), and even HTML import all the time. I never use the grammar checker, Word Art, outliner, indexer, hyperlinks, HTML export (ugh), VBA, or the Office Assistant. I turn off nearly every automatic feature there is, from conversion of hyphens to appropriate dashes, to AutoCorrect and AutoFormat. But I let Word automatically make curly quotes.

There are some bugs and design problems that have long annoyed me, but which have not changed since version 6.0 or before because other features have taken precedence. Different people—and even different editors and technical writers—would have a different matrix of features they use or don't use, and bugs or design issues they'd highlight. I'd gladly give up translucent charts in Excel if I could save files with more than 31 characters in their names in Word. Others would not.

Word 5.1a, from 1992, with the addition of inline spell checking (the squiggly red underlines) would cover almost everything I really need to do. Yet I could never expect anyone to produce a program like that, because too many other people need different things. Word 6 was one of the earliest, and the most drastic, results of trying to keep up with the endless demands of feature creep.

Word v. X is a nice program. It does lots of stuff. But for all its improvements over version 6, it lacks much of the elegance of Word 5. And you know what? Mac OS X, for all its lovely lickability and stability, lacks some of the elegance (oh-so-especially in the Finder) of Mac System 7. Maybe those sorts of tradeoffs aren't necessary in theory, but they seem to be the pragmatic reality for Microsoft and Apple.

Oh, and if anyone wants to see what happens when someone plays an April Fool's joke that Microsoft is porting Word 5 to Mac OS X, check out TidBITS's Word 5.1 for Mac OS X from April 1 last year. (The beginning of the same issue touted "VisiCalc for Mac OS X" as one of its sponsors.) The Word joke started a good discussion.

It says something—about Word, about word processors in general, and about the rise of the Internet—that I do most of my writing in BBEdit or Microsoft's own Entourage e-mail client today.

That's not stopping me from taking money to give a seminar about Word's editing features on May 15, though. (Yes, that's a shameless plug.) And the demand is there: the class is already half full, and it's more than two months away.


# 11:08:00 AM:

We're in a handbasket, but where is it going?

There are good economic arguments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making other improvements to our effects on the environment, but until today I hadn't read about military ones:

The [leaked Pentagon] document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.

Will that be enough to convince governments—and us, the people who elect them—that we need to get the ball rolling? Maybe not. In a few decades, or maybe sooner, we'll find out how things have gone. By then, of course, it will likely be too late to change anything.


Thursday, February 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:11:00 PM:


Dave Shea has set up his iBook better to avoid neck and wrist strain. After an abortive attempt to use a different input device, he chose an Apple Pro Keyboard to go along with it—which also happens to be my favourite. (Unfortunately, Apple no longer ships the original Pro Keyboard with most new Macs, replacing it with a decent but not quite as nice version that doesn't lie as flat.)

I learned my lesson about proper computer ergonomics nearly three years ago, when I injured myself working on an intensive three-day freelance editing project. Ever since, I have had to be careful about how I position my workspace.


# 9:36:00 AM:

Listen to the man

If anyone can give good advice about writing fiction, it's Elmore Leonard (via Jason Kottke). Much applies to any writing, especially:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Bad writing tries to be clever. Good writing is, on average, invisible.

By the way, if you ever wondered what happened to Steve Burns from Blue's Clues, read this Paul Ford interview and discover how his image was re-invented by conscious manipulation of the media.


# 1:11:00 AM:

Kids today

Dori pointed me to this thoughtful posting from Kathy Sierra about how North Americans who've come into high school in the last couple of years think about computer technology. Hint: it's mostly just there, and of course they know how to use it:

...these kids would never call themselves (or one another) "geeks". I look at one and say, "Wow, that kid is really into computers", and they smirk and say (sarcastically), "That's as lame as saying someone is really into cell phones" or "Wow, that kid is really into VCRs!"


Wednesday, February 25, 2004 - newest items first
# 3:04:00 PM:

Women, men, and networking

Halley Suitt wonders whether the differences in how men and women interact with one another make our networking fundamentally different—and whether things are changing at all.

In her personal blog, she also notes that "it's hard to talk to people sometimes who are not parents. I don't mean to be rude, but being a parent teaches you a lot of things that non-parents will never grasp. You learn levels of forgiveness, patience and complete degradation most people without children never get to experience." She gives a good example.

My example is shorter, and is cribbed from Vicki Iovine: you're a different person if you've never caught someone else's vomit in your bare hands. At a public swimming pool.


Tuesday, February 24, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:39:00 AM:

On the five

Most popular songs follow a straight beat. In musical terminology, what I mean is that almost all rock 'n' roll, R&B, hip-hop, country, adult contemporary, and even popular jazz tunes are in an even time signature: four or eight beats to the bar, so you can count "one two three four" steadily through the song.

Of the miniority of songs in odd time signatures, the huge majority are in 3/4, or "waltz" time ("one two three, one two three"). John Lennon was sometimes fond of waltz time when writing for the Beatles, for instance, with songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away."

Very rare are the pop hits that are in truly strange time signatures. The most famous are probably Pink Floyd's "Money" (7/4) and Dave Brubeck's jazz monster hit "Take Five" (5/4). Some big acts made a point of using odd time regularly, including Soundgarden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis. (Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" was a strange hit for them because it wasn't in odd time.)

The most recent song in an odd time signature to top the charts is "Hey Ya!" by OutKast. Depending on how you count it, the song either goes through two bars of 8/8 time before turning through one bar of 6/8, or does five bars of 4/4 and then a bar of 2/4—or is in 22/8 (or 11/4) time. Funny thing is, you never notice it unless you're trying to count out the bars, which is the mark of genius songwriting.

I'd welcome any notes about other well-known songs in strange time signatures. I'm sure I've forgotten quite a few.


Sunday, February 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:34:00 AM:

Get down in India

While I was unloading the car just now from our band gig tonight, I tuned iTunes to the Fistful of Soundtracks Internet radio station on Live365. There, I heard the most wondrous song—for the second time this week.

It's Mohammed Rafi's "Jaan Pehechaan Ho," originally from the 1965 Bollywood movie Gumnaam, but which apparently scored the opening sequence of the more recent film Ghost World. Normally I would never link to a website named after someone's cat (let alone a dead one), but this one has a perfect description of the song, which:

...sounds like a surf instrumental crossed with a James Bond theme song and the horns from a James Brown song with amazing Hindi vocals on top.

It has the sort of cross-cultural mishmash sound as Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca"—but considerably better. Salon called "Jaan Pehechaan Ho" 2001's "Best Foreign-Language Frug Freakout to Appear on a Movie Soundtrack."

Rafi died decades ago, but of course there is a website dedicated to him and the 26,000 other songs he also recorded during his career.


Saturday, February 21, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:59:00 PM:

Little and big

Which vehicle is safer: a Porsche sports car or a huge Chevrolet SUV? The answer is not what you might expect:

[Small, nimble cars] are safe because they make their drivers feel unsafe. SUVs are unsafe because they make their drivers feel safe. That feeling of safety isn't the solution; it's the problem.

Link via PhilG.


# 10:13:00 AM:

Signal and noise

I find it annoying that so many articles at PC Magazine and other ZDNet/C|NET sites (not to mention other sites around the Web) start with a "summary" page, from which you have to click something else to read the full article.

Here's an example: an article about the Sierra Wireless Voq smartphone. It gives you some specs and the first chunk of the first paragraph, and then you have to click through to the actual article. If you want something you can print that doesn't include all the ads, you have to click yet again.

Now, in this case, the actual article is 4,215 characters long—about 4 KB, including title and byline. The picture of the phone is 7.8 KB. So, 12 KB total for article and photo. How much stuff did my computer have to download to get to that printable version? Something like 1 MB overall, once all three pages (the first two of roughly 300 KB and the "stripped down" one of some 100 KB, plus ads)—with all their associated stylesheets, graphics, and ads—have come down to my browser.

So, the ratio of useful text and graphics to presentation, markup, and advertising is 1:86. In other words, only 1.2% of the bandwidth used by those pages (though more of the visual space, I admit) is actually what I want to look at. Even if I'm generous and take both the basic HTML code and the large stylesheet for the articles as useful, we're still looking at only 54 KB of real quality content—5.2% signal to 94.8% noise.

Compare that to a weblog like my home page. I have about 22 KB of core content there right now, counting only the actual journal postings and none of the graphics, links, or other information. The overall page is something like 200 KB all told. You get everything on the first page, with no need to click through to the full articles. The ratio here is 1:9 signal to noise, or 11% useful content. If you count my HTML and stylesheet too, that's about 67 KB, or 33.5% useful (vs. 66.5% non-useful).

So it's little surprise that, from a pure information-density perspective, I generally find weblogs a more useful source of informative reading than ZDNet.

Of course, I have played fast and loose with the statistics here, and the Voq piece is a short article, but it's pretty clear regardless that the vast majority of stuff on many "big site" web pages is not actually what people are there to read.


Thursday, February 19, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:00:00 AM:

By a truck

Last summer I showed you all you need to know about web design. Now here is all you need to know about writing.

Link via J-Walk.


Wednesday, February 18, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:11:00 PM:

Do things, don't buy stuff

Modern research concludes that people get more satisfaction from spending money on experiences than on stuff. In other words, in the long term it is wiser to spend money on a nice vacation than on a new TV, because the vacation is better for you.

So, I guess I should save up for a trip rather than a new computer. Hmm.


# 11:29:00 AM:

Winding and twirling

Every summer from the year I turned eight until I turned thirteen, my parents and I went to San Diego for a month, staying at a condo owned by one of my mom's friends. I've also returned there several times since, so that city is the one I feel most comfortable in after Vancouver.

One place in San Diego I like is the downtown mall Horton Plaza. Tom Coates hates it because of its confusing layout and chaotic colour schemes, but those are the same reasons I like it. Here in Vancouver we have a few (not many) malls that, while vastly different, follow a similar and somewhat hateful "confuse the customer" architecture, but somehow they don't work, because they are also entirely indoors and have the dark terra-cotta tiles of mid-'70s mall design. While at Horton Plaza I always felt pleasantly lost, at the local malls I just wanted to get out.

One neat thing about Horton Plaza is that the parking lot levels are not numbered, but identified by fruits—"I'm on the Lemon level," you remember. The mall is also where I first saw Aliens in 1986, and where I accidentally spilled gravy on my wife's new shirt during our honeymoon in 1995. Ah, the memories.


Tuesday, February 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:36:00 PM:

One more headphone album

I've rounded out my list of top ten headphone albums and posted it as its own article in my series, instead of as a journal entry.


Monday, February 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:43:00 PM:

Web services as 7-Eleven, the Semantic Web as college, plus a bonus

Most of the topics on my old friend Dave Orchard's weblog are technically way above my head, but his recent post about solving tactical problems when discussing web services and the Semantic Web is enlightening.

What the heck is the Semantic Web? It's the idea of Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web back in 1989, and is, as I understand it, the concept of making the Web smart enough to understand itself. Berners-Lee calls it "an extension of the current Web in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation."

Web services, on the other hand, are more pragmatic. They are software applications that communicate with one another using web standards. Simple examples include many of the things you see on my site: the link list (which comes from BlogRolling), the comments feature (from HaloScan), these entries themselves (via Blogger), and my site search (through Atomz). I could (in theory) have written or installed my own software to provide those services, but instead I chose to use them via the Web. So this page is an agglomeration of content served up from various different places around the Web, each service acting as a component of my site.

There aren't so many examples for the Sematic Web, because it is so over-arching—and, so far, incomplete. But there are arguments between people working on the Semantic Web and in web services ("SW" and "WS," just to make things confusing) about which approach is best for solving particular kinds of problems. Dave explains very effectively why that is, using a fine analogy:

Imagine a father and a teenage son talking about the son getting some gas money. The dad says "Son, you gotta get a job to get gas money". The son says "ok, I don't really have any skills so I'll just apply at 7-11 and I'll skip college". The dad says, "Son, getting a job at 7-11 isn't the solution. Sure it solves your short-term problem but that doesn't get you any long term benefits like more rewarding work and a bigger salary. You should go to college". To which the son says, "sure Dad, that all sounds good and I'll think about the college thing. But I just want to get some gas money so I can take my girlfriend out on a date".

You see the problem? There's a short-term solution and a potential long-term solution. To solve a pressing need now, the advice is buy into a whole big framework of college. And the son also has heard lots of stories of people who went to university, got a degree, and then still didn't get jobs. So they stayed on at university and got a Masters degree. And still didn't get a job. There's no guarantee that college will get the long-term results.

The way that I figure it, is the dad needs to play his cards a bit better.

Incidentally, I discovered while searching for links just now that you can ask Google for definitions. Try something like define:groovy or define:frontal lobe to see what I mean. What kinds of results you get depend on whether you use a space (which is a bit obscure, I think), and I'm not sure how Google decides if something is a definition, but it's neat nevertheless.


# 4:25:00 PM:

New destinations

Richard Florida, originator of the idea of the creative class, identifies what he sees as a deepening problem in the United States—a loss of creative resources (link via Backup Brain), because of foreign, trade, and immigration policies that are actively hostile to them:

...the bigger problem isn't that Americans are going elsewhere. It's that for the first time in modern memory, top scientists and intellectuals from elsewhere are choosing not to come here. We are so used to thinking that the world's leading creative minds, like the world's best basketball and baseball players, always want to come to the States, while our people go overseas only if they are second-rate or washed up, that it's hard to imagine it could ever be otherwise. [...]

"We can't hold scientific meetings here [in the United States] anymore because foreign scientists can't get visas," a top oceanographer at the University of California at San Diego recently told me. The same is true of graduate students, the people who do the legwork of scientific research and are the source of many powerful ideas. [...]

Vancouver and Toronto are set to take off: Both city-regions have a higher concentration of immigrants than New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. So too are Sydney and Melbourne. As creative centers, they would rank alongside Washington, D.C. and New York City. Many of these places also offer such further inducements as spectacular waterfronts, beautiful countryside, and great outdoor life. They're safe. They're rarely at war. These cities are becoming the global equivalents of Boston or San Francisco, transforming themselves from small, obscure places to creative hotbeds that draw talent from all over [...]

Intel, Sun Microsystems, Google: All were founded or co-founded by immigrants from places like Russia, India, and Hungary. Nearly a third of all businesses founded in Silicon Valley during the 1990s were started by Chinese- or Indian-born entrepreneurs [...]

Patrons of 7-Elevens in Moberly, Mo., could pick up a Motorola cell phone designed by Chinese-born engineers in suburban Chicago for $30, or order any number of ever-lower-priced goods from Seattle-based (founded by the son of a Cuban immigrant) using ever-cheaper computers purchased at CompUSA, headquartered in Dallas. [...]

Why would talented foreigners avoid us? In part, because other countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of recruiting them. The technology bust also plays a role. There are fewer jobs for computer engineers, and even top foreign scientists who might still have their pick of great cutting-edge research positions are less likely than they were a few years ago to make millions through tech-industry partnerships.

But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a half dozen countries over the past year, I'm convinced that the biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy landscape in Washington.

These changes stand to benefit places like Canada, where I live, but that does not mean we should relish them. When America, which has for so long driven so much creativity in the world, begins (perhaps) to stagnate, it's not always possible for the rest of the world to take up the slack, and we're all likely to be poorer for it.


Sunday, February 15, 2004 - newest items first
# 2:45:00 PM:

Focus, interruption, and multitasking

Roland Tanglao (of VanEats) links to a Fast Company posting about multitasking, which then points to Monkeymagic's discussion of research on the topic, as well as an old CNN piece on the subject, which I linked to at the time.

My head is spinning enough now.


Saturday, February 14, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:06:00 PM:

The hunt vs. the answer

Whether on the Web, in a library, or out in the world, sometimes we enjoy the search for information, says Cecily K., and sometimes we just want the damn answer.


# 4:04:00 PM:

Growing up

My older daughter turned six today, and decided that she wanted to go on a birthday/Valentine's date with a younger man. That's her favourite five-year-old boyfriend—who is in her kindergarten class, was in preschool with her for two years, and who also shared swimming lesson times with her last summer. I chaperoned them to Red Robin for lunch, where they mostly sat and told each other poo-poo jokes while eating their fish and chips.

Her younger sister turned four a couple of weeks ago. Today, while the older sibling had the date, my youngest went to get ear piercings, accompanied by Mom.

You might think they're too young for these things. But I figured that the earlier their parents get used to dates and piercings, the less we'll be freaked out by them later. Plus, then maybe they'll rebel by studying really hard or something.


Friday, February 13, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:52:00 AM:

Is that what it's for?

"If you read older copyright cases, textbooks and law review articles, you find a broad consensus that copyright law was designed to encourage the growth of the public domain," writes Jessica Litman.

You'd never know it today.


Thursday, February 12, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:52:00 PM:

Top 10 search results in Google's top 10 that lead to this site—and which really shouldn't

  1. digital piano
  2. Johnny Cash finger
  3. PowerBook 1400
  4. Ikea Jerker desk
  5. photos of Vancouver
  6. printer mispick
  7. wet boots
  8. McDonald's job crew member Vancouver Canada
  9. keep out
  10. driver's handbook Canada Arabic

Another site that leads here, and which I just discovered, is Miraz Jordan's weblog. Miraz runs the MacTips site in New Zealand, and I've added him her [Sorry, Miraz! Bad assumption on my part there.] to my link list on the right side of this page.


Wednesday, February 11, 2004 - newest items first
# 5:28:00 PM:

Links for SFU "What Editors Do" students

Okay, I'll be lazy this time around: if you were (or even if you weren't) in tonight's "What Editors Do" class at Simon Fraser University's downtown campus, to which I gave a presentation, then take a look at the entry I posted here when I spoke to the same class last November.

A few additional notes, reflecting points that I made at previous sessions of this course but didn't get to today:

  • The Web is about being useful and usable, but it's also about links. When writing and editing copy, link around—not just to your own site, but outside. That's what makes the Web the Web, and sites that try to restrict visitors to material only within their own boundaries aren't very useful—or all that frequently visited, in most cases.

  • One of the reasons that the design—and especially the navigation—of web pages is only now developing some standards is because the field of web design is so young, only a decade old. Magazines and books, on the other hand, have well-established standards because they have been evolving for centuries to meet the needs of their readership and publishers. For example, you know what to expect from most magazines: the cover lists articles inside, there are ads on the first few pages, then a table of contents. There are page numbers somewhere near the top or bottom edge (and think how annoying it is when ads don't have page numbers, and you're trying to flip through a whole bunch to get to page 78). Stuff in the back sections is usually shorter, and so on. Magazine editors, designers, and publishers who flout these standards had better have a good reason, and know what they're doing. The same is starting to happen in web design, finally.

  • Another type of web standards is also important: that dealing with the markup code that determines how web pages appear. While as a web editor you might not be intimately involved in the code behind web pages, you can advocate for standards compliance with the designers and programmers you work with. The only way anyone can rely on tomorrow's web browsers being able to view pages built today is if your pages meet the standards established by organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium. In other words, just because Internet Explorer 6 for Windows displays a page acceptably today, if the code that makes the page doesn't meet the established specifications, that doesn't mean the page will display correctly in whatever people will be using in five or ten years—not even Internet Explorer 8.

  • Avoid "file not found" when people come to your website. Plan sites so you can keep the addresses of pages alive forever—in other words, if you set up today, don't change it in six months to—at least not without redirecting the old version. To put it another way, sites should be built with thoughts of how they will grow in mind. You'd be surprised how often really old material is still useful to somebody out there, and how many obscure sites may be linking to or bookmarking you.


# 3:19:00 PM:

Whose responsibility are web standards?

After Apple released the latest version of its Safari web browser, a discussion about it on the TidBITS-Talk mailing list morphed into a conversation about websites that don't work properly in different browsers (in other words, only work reliably in Microsoft Internet Explorer for Windows).

Many people have hashed over this issue since the browser wars of the 1990s, but there is a fundamental dilemma that has not changed:

  1. The great success of the Web is built partly on browsers that are forgiving when confronted by lousy web page code. So millions of people around the world can put together web pages, and even if they aren't built properly, usually they still work, more or less.

  2. But forgiving browsers give people little incentive to make their pages comply with web standards. And each browser treats improper markup differently—sometimes differently in different versions of the same browser.

What that means is that, because it holds such a dominant share of the market, Windows IE, not the actual standards, becomes the "standard"—just as Netscape 3.0 was in its day—because the ways IE is broken are the ones most web users have to work with.

In an abstract purist's sense, it might be nice to have browsers be draconian and summarily reject invalid HTML code. But that would make most sites on the Web instantly invisible, negating the whole point. Had things been that way since 1992, I doubt the Web would have flourished as it did.

So instead it's a long, slow slog to convince web developers to make pages correctly—and to pressure Microsoft, Apple, and other browser makers to support those standards properly.


# 1:10:00 PM:

More on encouraging real tech workplace diversity

Dori Smith responded to my links to her comments about women working in technology, particularly programmers. She's a bid jaded, and rightly so, because:

I've been hearing that same song for twenty+ years now. Experience [and] history says that virtually none of the women will still be programming a few years from now.

I remain encouraged at the company I'm working at now for several reasons:

  • Some of the employees (with kids and families and lives) have had to take time off/reduce hours to deal with various matters outside work, and the company (i.e. those who run it) has been very supportive and helpful.

  • There's also a real effort to involve all staff in developing the company's compensation schemes, as well as its culture and values, to reflect the real value of people's work, knowledge, talents, and experience—what adds value to the firm, in other words—not just how gonzo they are in coding late into the night.

  • As I mentioned, more than half the programmers are female, including the person in charge of the whole team, who has also been with the company longer than anyone but the founders (who, I guess I should mention, are all male and in their mid-'30s). This firm has every interest in keeping those women (and their male counterparts) working here well into the future, and for the reasons above, I think it will adapt to employees' changing needs over time.

  • As it begins to stabilize out of its startup phase, the company is building its business proposals and project plans around reasonable working hours for staff (and particularly programmers), not the kinds of unrealistic deadlines typical of many software houses.

  • We have been discussing having the company perform community outreach in various forms, again as the business stabilizes, and mentoring younger technology professionals has been one of the ideas that has come up.

Not that this firm is some sort of employee Nirvana. It is a business, has work to do, and isn't yet quite out of that startup phase. But I think as an organization, it understands that people grow and change, and that life isn't all about work. The company president, who flew more than 120,000 miles last year and has hardly been home in months (he just flew from London to Houston, and has been in Hong Kong and Oslo as well in the past few weeks), would certainly like to tip his personal balance a bit away from "all work, all the time."

Why am I not naming this company? I will, eventually.

Tangentially related to this diversity/women in programming idea is the Joel Test, Joel Spolsky's easy 12-question yes-or-no way to figure out the quality of your software programming team. Thanks to Noel for the link.

Disclaimer (added May 2004): Okay, the company is Navarik Corp., but this site is my own, and doesn't represent the company's position on anything.


# 10:06:00 AM:

Megapixel myth

Fazal Majid has an excellent analysis of why the number of megapixels is one of the least useful measures of the quality of photos from a digital camera.

The theoretical megapixel ratings of the Hubble Space Telescope and the recent Mars landers are very low, proving Fazal's point.


Tuesday, February 10, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:44:00 PM:

Women in tech ≠ girls in tech

Dori Smith is a respected writer and authority on JavaScript, based in California, where she lives with her author husband and very smart young son. She thinks that technology companies have not yet figured out how to keep women working for them, especially as programmers. Her latest post on the subject identifies some key reasons:

If you're hiring, here's a tip: if your group is part white, part black, part asian, part indian, 1/2 female, and entirely 22 years old, your group is not diverse.


There aren't enough women in the tech biz to be role models for the youngsters now. The solution isn't to throw girls into the pit hoping that the pit will someday fill up; the solution is to work on increasing the numbers of older women (i.e., over 35) in the field, and then the role model problem solves itself.

The young company I'm currently working for is unusual in that more than half the software developers are women, but they're not yet in Dori's role-model age bracket. And those of us in the company who have kids aren't the programmers. Give it a few years, and we'll be providing some good mentors for young female coders.

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


# 8:05:00 AM:

Last chance for a Willow Design case

Willow Design makes great laptop cases (as well as cases and covers for desktop computers, backpacks, and handbags), right here in my home town of Burnaby, British Columbia. Unfortunately, they've found it difficult to compete with offshore manufacturers, and are are now closing the business.

On the plus side, they're selling their remaining inventory at a big discount, so your last chance to get one of their wonderful cases is also a chance to get one at a good price.

I'm not affiliated with Willow at all, but they are a local business, and I know people who think their cases are some of the best available.


Monday, February 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:42:00 PM:

A fine how-do-you-do

According to the CBC:

[Warner Brothers'] legal department sent threatening letters to Groucho Marx at the end of the Second World War, demanding that the soon-to-be-shot picture A Night in Casablanca be renamed because the title was too similar to the 1942 movie Casablanca. Groucho wrote back, claiming that the Marx Brothers had first dibs on the word Brothers.


# 7:02:00 AM:

Twentieth century Sunday suit

So I went and bought a suit yesterday. Charcoal, 100% wool, subtle pinstripe, three-button jacket, single-pleat-front pants with cuffs. Plus an off-white Italian textured cotton dress shirt and swanky tie. $400 Cdn in the end, with taxes, which is a good deal.

The sales process was finely tuned for men's shopping styles. I wandered around for a couple of minutes before a salesperson (Rosie, whose card read Assistant Manager, and who was the only woman in the store) asked what I might need. Within three more minutes, I was trying on suits close to what I wanted, and she was telling me not "you look good" but "that fits you well." (We men aren't always sure.)

After I had decided—maybe seven minutes later—the pants were being hemmed by the in-store tailor while I waited. Then Rosie was setting out matching sets of shirts and ties, with a couple of casual sweaters thrown in to show how they looked. I had not planned to buy another shirt, and I have plenty of ties, but they were excellent combinations, unlike what I owned, so I did buy one set.

I could easily have purchased some shoes and a belt too (she asked), but I knew my budget. Yet it was like a conveyor belt, smoothly taking me from interest to purchase, without having to think too much about what fit, or what went with what. Even though I like shopping, I enjoyed that—while I suspect that many women I know, including my wife, would have hated it, and maybe even been insulted by some of it. All told, I was away from my house for about 45 minutes, including driving time.

Can you believe that such an organized store—Moore's, one of Canada's biggest menswear retail chains—does not even have a website has a website you can't easily find on Google? I had to phone to find out what time they closed on Sunday.

How very twentieth century.

UPDATE: Jennifer Ross-Tolton reveals that is the place to go. (They do indeed have hours for my store.)

Searching for Moore's the suit people finds them at the top of the list, but Moore's menswear Canada doesn't. So you have to know their slogan, or specifically not include the word "Canada." I should have tried that, I guess. Still, it's a bit odd.


Sunday, February 08, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:18:00 AM:


Like many both inside and outside the United States, I'm fascinated by the campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who seemed to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination until people actually started voting.

Here's the best analysis so far (by Clay Shirky) of why Dean only seemed a sure thing. It has much to say about how Dean's Internet-focused campaign has changed things, because it showed that such a campaign can skew out the old ways of predicting who might win a vote.


# 8:55:00 AM:

Let's back that up

I've temporarily reverted my site news feed back to the old RSS format (which stands either for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary, depending on whom you talk to), because right now many reader programs, such as the fabulous NetNewsWire, don't yet support the Atom format I recently switched to.

There is no easy way for Blogger to support both RSS and Atom, so I've stuck with the older, more widely supported format for now. Noel's solution might be a workable way to have both simultaneously, if I put some effort into it, since it can create an old-style RSS feed while Blogger continues to create the Atom feed.

If you don't care about the technicalities, all this means more of you should be able to continue reading this weblog in a feed reader instead of a web browser.

By the way, there's a surprising amount of controversy about these syndication formats.


# 8:41:00 AM:

They've been going in and out of style...

...or actually, they haven't. Forty years ago today, The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Fred Kaplan in Slate explains why that's still a big deal, even if you grew up on hip-hop:

The Beatles changed the charts forever. You can draw a line in the historical sands of popular culture at 1964. A lot of pop music that came after that point still sounds modern today. Almost all the pop music that came before that point sounds ancient.

I know it's true, because I make half my living playing in a rock 'n' roll cover band. Yeah, we play Elvis, Fats Domino, and a few more pre-Beatles acts, but when we examine the charts to come up with additional material, 1964 is the baseline.

Look at it another way: try to imagine a cover band in the '70s playing songs from the 1930s, or an act coming to my high school in 1986 and playing tunes from World War II to the kids. Ridiculous, right? Yet teenagers today still bop along to Beatles songs when we play to them.


Saturday, February 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:17:00 PM:

Thanks, P.I.!

Apparently the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Brian Chin considers me buzzworthy today.

For those new to this site, so far in 2004 these are the most popular non-weblog articles here, in order:

  1. Wireless networking for old PowerBooks
  2. Buying a digital stage piano
  3. Johnny Cash giving the finger
  4. The Ikea Jerker desk
  5. Printing from Mac OS X through a Windows 98 computer
  6. Being polite while sending e-mail
  7. Palm OS word processors
  8. My top favourite drummers
  9. Wireless office on Kitsilano beach, Vancouver
  10. Aerial photos of Vancouver

You can find some others in my article list, among my work samples, and in the archives.


# 7:38:00 PM:

Get yer loop on

MacBand looks to become a tremendous resource for tracks, sounds, and loops for Apple's GarageBand application—and most are licensed for easy re-use. Cool!

You can also get free synth sounds, drum loops, other sounds from several companies, if you don't mind revealing your e-mail address.

Now I just have to get a Mac modern enough to run the program.


# 9:38:00 AM:

We were all newbies once

Learn or log off is the message some tech-savvy people are starting to give to their friends, families, acquaintances, and co-workers, according to a recent New York Times article.

It's a pity. Everyone using the Internet or a computer was a newbie once. I admit to being frustrated by some behaviour of people I know—see yesterday's post about e-mail attachments—but, in that example, I've been sending and receiving e-mail for more than 20 years. I made plenty of mistakes back then, and far more recently too, yet when relatively few people were online, the hazards of making those errors were small, and mostly personal.

Now, with high-speed, always-on Internet connections at work and at home, a near-monoculture of Microsoft Windows and Outlook, and hundreds or thousands of idiots in far-flung places of the world writing viruses, worms, and Trojan horse programs, all it takes is a slip of judgment with an attached file and you could turn your computer into a zombie that tries to infect the machines of everyone you know.

As someone who's often a tech-support resource for others, I try to be patient, because the people I know are smart, and it's better to try to explain what the problem is than to get all huffy. But I have to admit, it's often hard.


Friday, February 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:10:00 PM:

Why sending big files and Word documents in e-mail attachments is a bad idea

I receive a few e-mail newsletters from various organizations, as part of my executive role in the Editors' Association of Canada. Two recent issues of one of those newsletters were accompanied by extremely large file attachments—this month, two Microsoft Word documents and a TIFF image that was, by itself, 2 MB in size.

I'm not sure how many people receive the newsletter in question, but even if that number is fairly small, sending such large files—or attachments of these types at all—is generally not a good idea.

I've been working with Internet e-mail since 1990, and in that time I've found that oversize attachments and improper file types cause some of the biggest problems for both senders and recipients. Here's what I wrote to the sender of this particular newsletter (after a polite introduction, of course):

  • Many anti-spam filters consider e-mail with attachments that the recipients are not expecting to be a sign of spam e-mail, and may tag or route the mail so that the recipient never even sees it.

  • Microsoft Word documents can contain macro viruses, which can cause problems with recipients' computers, especially if they use Windows. Even if your files are clean, some recipients (or their anti-virus software) may reject the mail because it includes Word files. If it is necessary to send formatted documents, Acrobat PDF files are much preferable, because they are not editable, are not subject to viruses, do not require anyone to own Word (the Acrobat Reader is free), and are usually smaller. If you must send files that can be edited by the recipients, rich text format (RTF) is better because more programs than Word can read it. If it is possible to include the appropriate text in the body of the e-mail message itself, great.

  • Some recipients may not have software that can easily read TIFF images such as the one you sent. JPEG images (.jpg or .jpeg) saved at high quality offer nearly the same reproduction, but at both much smaller file sizes and with greater compatibility to a variety of computers. Most people can even see them directly in their e-mail programs, which is not necessarily true of TIFFs.

  • Any attachments over about 200 KB in size (i.e. as little as 10% of the size of the ones you sent) can cause problems in various ways. Many people's e-mail accounts won't accept attachments much larger than a few hundred KB, or may have low mailbox quotas, so your single message may fill up their mailboxes so that further e-mails from other senders will be bounced until they clear it out. Also, anyone using a dial-up connection might have to wait as long as 15 minutes (!) for your single e-mail to download to their computers before they can read anything that came after it, which could be annoying, to say the least.

  • Sending out many e-mails with large attachments can actually cost you significant money—Internet bandwidth does incur costs, and large attachments can eat up bandwidth rather quickly when sent over and over. People receiving the messages usually have to pay too, though often they are below their bandwidth limit and never trigger additional charges.

  • In general, then, it is best to convert files you are sending via e-mail so that their combined size is less than 200 KB, and so that they are in more standardized formats. Even better would be to post the relevant files to a website (with a password if necessary), and then include links in the e-mail that people can click to view them if they wish. Then only those who wish to see the material actually download it, and they can be prepared to wait if the files must be large, such as if they are video, audio, or very high-quality images.

If you want to read up about attachments, try Adam Engst's article from four years back, "E-mail Attachment Formats Explained."


Thursday, February 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:05:00 PM:

Penmachine comments and Atom feed now online

UPDATE: I've ditched the Atom feed format for its RSS predecessor for now. Find out why.

Two changes to this site, of a geeky webloggy nature:

  1. After much pestering from some of you over the past year or so, I've finally set it up so that each of my journal entries allows comments at the bottom, courtesy of the free service from HaloScan. (It requires JavaScript, in case you care.)

  2. The XML site feed is now in Atom format.

Have fun. Comments are currently only available on the home page and the monthly archives for 2004. I'll enable retroactive comments on old posts if things work out.


Wednesday, February 04, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:44:00 PM:

I love a pithy summary

Here's what Roger Ebert has to say about different types of movies:

A children's movie is a movie at which adults are bored. A grown-up movie is a movie at which children are bored. A family movie is a movie at which, if it's good, nobody is bored.

That might not be entirely true—I doubt many children would be bored by, say, Saving Private Ryan, but they might be scared into years of recurring nightmares. Still, it's a good guideline for films you're not sure how to categorize, and which are at least safe for kids to watch.


# 12:35:00 PM:

Blogger hazards

An obscure series of mistakes and coincidences led me to post something incorrectly on this site last night. They reveal some potential hazards of private weblogs, such as those that are beginning to appear inside some companies, especially when someone, like me, contributes to both private blogs (such as some for people I collaborate with) and public ones (such as this site and some others I work on).

Here's what happened:

  1. I was working on a long post in a text editing program, which I planned to cut and paste into the web-based weblog editing window of a private blog.

  2. I have bookmarks for editing both my public weblog (this page) and the private weblog near one another in my browser toolbar.

  3. Even though the two blogs use different web interfaces and different publication services, they both use a big blank text form field to enter weblog content, so I didn't notice when I clicked the wrong bookmark and brought up my own site's editor instead of the private blog's.

  4. I pasted the long entry in and previewed it.

  5. I immediately noticed that it was for the wrong website, and so didn't publish it. I clicked the proper bookmark, pasted the text again into the right place, and published it where it was supposed to be—for a small collaboration group. A little mistake, but no harm done.

  6. However, I was using Apple's Safari browser. Blogger, my weblog service, only provides full web editing features for Internet Explorer on Windows and Mozilla-based browsers (Windows, Mac, Unix, or otherwise). Since Safari isn't either of those, Blogger offers instead a functional (and, in some ways, superior) "lo-fi" interface with just basic posting capabilities.

    One key feature the lo-fi interface lacks is the ability to cancel a post you have previewed if you decide you don't want to proceed. And what it doesn't tell you is that, if you don't click Publish and just back out or move on to something else, Blogger saves your post for later publication. Most of the time, that would be what you want, but—as in this case—not always.

  7. A day later, I made my next post to my weblog here. Since the lo-fi interface doesn't show you previous posts without your asking for them (just the one you're working on), I had no idea that the mistaken private post was still in Blogger's database. I wrote the new piece, previewed, saw it was fine, and published it to my site.

  8. I was in a hurry, and tired, so I didn't look at my home page after I'd published the article to check that everything was okay, as I almost always do. I just went to bed.

  9. This morning, I finally took a look at my page and was horrified to discover that the mistaken post had resurrected itself and was now published on my public site, right underneath the item I had published the night before. It had been sitting in full view for nearly eight hours (overnight, but still...).

  10. I immediately removed the post by actively deleting it in Blogger, then republishing my whole weblog, archives and all, with that article removed. Luckily, it had not been up long enough for Google or the Internet Archive to index them for all eternity.

Fortunately for me, the document was not especially sensitive, though its appearance embarrassed me as a supposed web professional. The issue highlights what could be serious breaches of confidentiality as weblogs become more common in business—especially if the business uses the same software to publish to private (intranet) and public (Internet) sites.

The lesson? Double-check that you're posting to the right place, and always examine the results once you've done so, to make sure that what you meant to happen actually did happen.


Tuesday, February 03, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:41:00 PM:

A dirty little secret about Mac OS X

For an operating system that is much less crash-prone than its predecessor, the venerable old "Classic" Mac OS, Apple's Unix-based Mac OS X can be surprisingly brittle.

I run Mac OS X pretty much exclusively on my main computer, which is, relatively speaking, pretty ancient—it was built in 1997, and is one of the oldest models of Macintosh supported to run the operating system.

Over the past year, I have reinstalled Mac OS X several times, and twice have had to reformat my boot partition and install it from scratch. Fortunately, the way Apple organizes user directories, my keeping of documents and other critical files on another partition, and my backups have meant I never lost any irreplaceable files. Still, the reasons I had to reinstall were sometimes mysterious.

On several occasions, my Mac started locking up with kernel panics for no good reason, at apparently random times. On others, the OS would refuse to let me log in, and nothing I tried would fix it, so reinstalling seemed the most efficient option. Most recently, I tried installing some software I shouldn't have. Still, on the old Mac OS, I could probably simply drag some copies of files back and things would be back to normal.

Mac OS X, on the other hand, has so many dependencies, so many thousands of files, and so many intricacies, that manually fixing a choked-up system is close to impossible. The OS also requires a surprising amount of maintenance, from repairing permissions to optimizing system prebindings to letting it run overnight so it can clean itself up. It's very fussy about RAM. So while Mac OS X may be capable of running for weeks or months or years without a reboot, if something does go wrong, it can go catastrophically wrong, and it's hard to know why.

Still, it doesn't screw up on me nearly as often as the Windows machines I use.


Monday, February 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:50:00 AM:

What is youth?

Yesterday, while watching my kids at the playground, I had a chance to talk to the father of one of my daughter's schoolmates. He told me that he is a career couselor, currently working with "youth at risk." Interestingly, as far as the Canadian government is concerned, "youth" are between 15 and 30 years old.

I'm only 34, so presumably the definition hasn't changed much since I was theoretically a "youth"—but by the time I was 30, I had two kids, had been married for nearly five years, and had been in the workforce for a decade.

More pointedly, there are several countries in which, at age 30, you are probably already in declining health, and might very well not have ten more years to live.


Sunday, February 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:18:00 PM:

Music for kids

Tom Coates points to a really good parents' guide to putting music into the lives of your kids from the BBC Parents' Music Room. Take a look at the sections on piano (what my daughter is learning), guitar (what I learned as a child), and drums (what I play now).


Journal Archive »

Template BBEdited on 29-Apr-2010

Site problems? Gripes? Angst? - e-mail
Site contents © 1997–2007 by Derek K. Miller

You may use content from this site non-commercially if you give me credit, under the terms of my Creative Commons license.

eXTReMe Tracker