I've put together 14 high-quality original podsafe instrumental tunes from my Penmachine Podcast into a CD album you can buy. It also includes a bonus data DVD with a bunch of cool stuff that isn't on this website. Find out more...
This is "Penmachine.com: July 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.
NOTE: I'll be putting notes from my panel appearance at, and other stuff about, the Northern Voice blogging conference onto a page you can find at penmachine.com/voice. Right now that URL links to an older post of mine, but I will update it after the conference itself.
There's something to be said for meeting people face-to-face. Northern Voice is the Vancouver blogging conference originally suggested by Darren Barefoot. It will take place downtown at UBC Robson Square on Saturday, February 19, 2005.
I'm thinking of trying to be a speaker. I've frequently been asked to give talks about websites, weblogs, and various other technology topics for classes and seminars at Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, and Douglas College, and for the Editors' Association of Canada. Some people might find the things I've learned in nearly eight years of web work and four years of blogging useful. So I submitted this as an abstract:
Useful and usable websites: how blogging fits in
People who build websites have all sorts of different goals, including selling stuff, building an audience, venting emotion, learning, keeping records, practising their writing, creating a portfolio, educating others, and having fun. Yet no website is much use without an audience, whether large or small.
How do you attract and audience, and how do you keep them around? I will argue that, whatever its creator's goal, any decent website has to be built for its visitors, and to do that it has to be both:
Useful, so that it lets people do something or find something out.
Usable, so that they have as easy a time as possible in the process.
I'll explain how weblogs and related technologies (including wikis and syndication) make creating usable and useful sites easier. I'll also reveal why so many people come to my site looking for information about Aeron chairs and Aerolatte milk foamers—and why I don't mind.
Northern Voice also asked for other ideas and comments, so I pointed them to a post about three quick questions to tell if a conference is any good, and made the following suggestions:
The venue needs free Wi-Fi, of course, and should encourage live blogging of the conference, as well as the use of such tools as wikis and SubEthaEdit (Hydra) for collaborative discussions during and between sessions. If some of that stuff can be projected onstage, or monitored by someone up there, during sessions to help add to the discussions, so much the better.
If you're interested in weblogs and other new aspects of building websites, I'd encourage you to attend the conference. It will be cheap—only about $30 (or less). How can you go wrong?
Here's an online quiz (via Buzzworthy) which asks you to identify various sample e-mail messages, shown in your web browser, as either legitimate or attempted frauds. (The quiz is perfectly safe to take—it never asks for personal information.)
I managed to get 9 out of 10 right, and the one I got wrong I was suspicious about. I did have to View > Source on several of them to be sure of my hunch. In any case, I wouldn't click on links in any of these e-mails if I received them for real. When personal information and credit card details are involved, I always type the known address of the appropriate service into my browser manually.
Fraudsters are getting more sophisticated, and that's a pain.
On a lighter note, here is an alphabetical listing of sound effects by MAD magazine cartoonist Don Martin, with their context.
Before I begin, and for no reason related to this post at all, I'd just like to say that Doug Bowman has provided a butt-kicking example of why modern standards-based web design is a good idea.
Okay. On to business. I appreciate detailed review articles. The iPodlounge goes beyond that this week, with new user and power user versions of its review of Apple's new fourth-generation iPod music player.
The new user article isn't a condensed or dumbed-down version of the power user one—it's an entirely separate, equally long piece, tailored for a difference audience. The first article reviews the new iPods from the perspective of someone who does not yet own a digital music player, or at least not an iPod yet; the second from the point of view of someone who already has an iPod and wonders what's new, and whether an upgrade is worthwhile.
If you're in the market for an iPod (which I only am in dreamland, so far), read both articles, and the iPod history summary too—it is remarkably comprehensive, including side-by-side diagrams showing how the iPod models have changed over three years, sales graphs, and even photos of how the packaging and included accessores have evolved.
Finish up with the iPod mini new user and power user reviews, and you're about as informed as you can be about Apple's iPod product line without having held one of the devices in your hand.
In the past few weeks my old PowerBook wireless networking article has become mysteriously more popular, and a number of people have e-mailed me with questions about the topic. I've been busy enough not to be able to answer them, so I apologize for that. I will get to your questions eventually—they also highlight that I should update the article to reflect how things have changed in the past year or so.
Over at 37signals' excellent Signal vs. Noise weblog, there are some interesting pictures, and an even more interesting comments discussion, about famous modernist architect Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. I chimed in:
Looking at the photos, and entirely aside from any materials/heating-cooling/drainage problems [identified by others], and even aside from the exposed all-glass feeling—well, what would the house look like if someone actually lived there? I mean lived there, with, say, three kids and a dog. And toys. And mess. And laundry.
I look around my lived-in house—the wires around the back of my eMac, the notice boards with stuff all over them, the Kleenex boxes, the bed that needs making, the empty water bottles and pop cans, the mishmash of furniture we've accumulated over the years, the bangs and scrapes from moving things around a kids running about. How would that make the Mies house look? Horrible. (Imagine a toddler with a tricycle and those glass walls. Ksssh!)
It reminds me of interior design magazines with kitchen cupboards that have glass doors. Looks great if your stuff is neat-freak organized. But it wouldn't with any cupboards I know in the real world.
There's a reason houses have been built the way they generally are for a long time, and why modernist ones (especially extreme versions like Mies's) aren't more widespread, even though the movement itself is decades old. Houses take a beating, and we change what we do with them all the time, as we and our families come and go and grow up. The Mies house is a neat idea, but as a "machine for living," it looks more like a "machine for living machines." Nice for inspiration, but what you make of that inspiration would need to be different.
Vancouver has a number of modernist/international masterpiece buildings, from houses in West Vancouver to Arthur Erickson's Simon Fraser University, Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver Courthouse, and UBC Koerner Library.
They are beautiful structures, but as another commenter wrote, "a number of modern [buildings] have technical problems, but the movement had an ethos of pushing into using new materials, and the materials themselves have to catch up eventually." Great, but it doesn't help those using the structures while materials catch up. For example, SFU, which was an astoundingly ambitious project in the mid-'60s, used concrete in ways it hadn't been before—but today it has stalactites, like a cave, from where the rain has leaked through. Not much fun for the university's students, faculty, and maintenance staff, especially nearly 40 years later.
I'm sure my architect and design-aficionado friends have much more informed critiques, but it seems to me that Mies's Farnsworth house, like other masterpieces, is a great piece of art. It's just not much of a house.
Sometime in the past couple of years, I started wearing my shirts untucked more often than tucked into my pants. Sure, at the wedding I attended on Friday, I tucked in my shirt, as I do whenever I don a tie, but in most other circumstances, whether my shirt is a T, polo, or collared long-sleeved number, it hides my belt buckle.
You could attribute that to a growing belly, but my weight and midriff haven't changed significantly in at least seven years, since I began regular formal weigh-ins at the diabetes clinic I attend. Somehow, looking around, I figured out that most guys aren't tucking in their shirts anymore, and I followed suit. The fashion trend means that, as the New York Times puts it:
Men wearing khakis or suits or jeans and with their broadcloth shirts tucked in look boring or worse [...] They look like the late Tony Randall, natty but distinctly of another time. [...] They look as if their parents had laid out their clothes. And in a sense, they have. On the road to adulthood, there are many concessions to the loss of boyhood's joyous dishevelment. Tucking in shirttails is an early and crucial one.
I do think that untucking a traditional long-tailed dress shirt is a bit gauche, but most modern styles have either shorter shirttails or a flat bottom designed to hang out, so it's not much of a problem. Oddly, the place I'm most likely to tuck in my shirt is when I'm playing in my rock-n-roll band (also the main motivation for my buying a new suit recently), which says something in itself.
A few weeks ago, my work colleague Noel asked to borrow my copy of Steve Krug's excellent web usability book Don't Make Me Think!. (If you're involved with website design and development at all and you haven't read it, go do that.)
When I received my copy as a gift from Fazal Majid earlier this year, I read it eagerly and put it on a shelf in the living room for easy access later. Yet somehow when I searched for it to lend to Noel, I couldn't find it there. So I looked on other shelves in the living room, in the den, in the bedroom, and in my office downstairs. No luck. I thought the kids had stashed it somewhere.
This morning I was sitting on the couch, dazed and half-awake, drinking my first coffee (my wife and I attended a nighttime wedding yesterday). Not really thinking clearly, I absent-mindedly skimmed the bookshelf with my eyes, not looking at or for anything. And there was the book, on the same bookshelf I had first looked at. It's a thin book, and I had gone right by it in my previous searches.
Good think I'm not a private detective or anything.
Those, like me, who've been around a number of political or business organizations are oftencynical about mission statements. Properly constructed, though, they can help focus the people in an organization on what they're really there for.
For two days this week, a small group from the company I work for gathered to articulate what we do, what we want to be, and what principles we'll use (or have been using, without specifying them) to get there. In abstract, it might seem like an arm-wavy waste of time—why talk about what we do instead of actually doing it?
But in any organization, you should be able to say, succinctly, what it is you do, and what your organization is, or is trying to be. If not, when it comes time to make a difficult decision, you don't have a point of reference. A decade ago, I was involved in developing the mission statement of the student society at the University of B.C., where we went through a long, complex, involved, and expensive process to write few enough words that they fit on a short web page today. And those words ("To improve the quality of the educational, social, and personal lives of the students of UBC") are the core of what the society does, and (just as important) what it has always done, even when people didn't say it explicitly. Look at these other good examples:
"Become the company most known for changing the worldwide poor-quality image of Japanese products" (Sony, 1950)
"We are going to democratize the automobile" (Ford, 1909)
"To be the defining technology company of the 21st century" (Red Hat Linux, current)
"This nation should dedicate itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" (U.S. space program, 1960)
Often, people do know the principles, mission, and long-term vision of an organization, or at least think they do, but unless they're written down for reference, the various interpretations can conflict or be ignored when it really counts. The articulation and writing down were what we were trying to do this week. The hardest part is not so much the writing, but the editing: removing words, whittling down sheets and sheets of paper to a single sentence in which every word means something essential. Words are important, and it takes a lot of work to craft them. (I guess that's why I got into this writing and editing business.)
What's interesting is that several of the people I'm working with at Navarik are the same people who worked together at UBC to draft the student society mission statement in the early '90s. We saw how important it was then, and again now. I hope what we produce will still be valid and inspiring in a decade or two.
A few weeks ago we saw the weirdest rainbow above our house. Our oldest daughter spotted it first, saying "hey, it's a rainbow shaped like a Y!" Theoretically, I suppose, it wasn't a rainbow, but an ice halo—or a series of halos and sundogs, to be precise—fairly high in the atmosphere. Take a look:
I took the photo looking up, facing west as the sun approached the horizon in the evening, in the first week of July. In the upper right of the image you can see two halos in tangential contact with one another, with bending sideways Y shapes where they separate. Below them is a flowing, wave-like halo.
There were other visual artifacts in the sky that I didn't capture on the camera. Although these sorts of multiple halos are reasonably common, I'd never seen anything like them before. The layers of clouds that caused them were quite complex and beautiful too.
P.S. The photo of my unrepeatable holiday moment did turn out after all.
"I wanted to see if I could come up with a way to use additional samples. Please note, I think the samples that come with GarageBand are generally pretty good to very good, but I'm always looking to make a cool toy even cooler. After looking around a little, here's what I came up with."
"Page 2 of the Apollo 11 section now includes that mission's film magazine 'S' in its entirety, representing all photographs taken during the historic first moonwalk on July 20, 1969. Images identified with the prefix AS11-40 are now seen for the first time in their clearest and most accurate presentation to date."
"The Napster comparison is ludicrous for some obvious reasons, including the fact that an actual book is not a digitized song, and that if I'm holding a specific book you are not holding the same copy."
"We need to start thinking about software in a way more like how we think about building bridges, dams, and sewers. What we build must last for generations without total rebuilding. This requires new thinking and new ways of organizing development. This is especially important for governments of all sizes as well as for established, ongoing businesses and institutions."
"A lot of nonsense is talked about 'proper' English being a means of endorsing the existing social status quo. My feeling is that the opposite is true. If you encourage people to write the way they talk, class divisions are ultimately reinforced, even exacerbated."
"Why did Microsoft stop developing Internet Explorer? Why would a company so vocal about innovation cease work on perhaps the most used application in the world, and for nearly three years?"
Yesterday, I picked up an M-Audio Keystation 49e MIDI keyboard controller, and that finally let me easily use Apple's GarageBand software on my eMac. "Pocketbook" (part of my new demos page) was the first thing I created, and only took a couple of hours of fiddling with GarageBand to produce. [Read more...]
On several occasions recently, I have listened to albums in stores, liked them, and then left without making a purchase. Specific examples include Joss Stone's The Soul Sessions, Norah Jones's Feels Like Home, and the Chemical Brothers' Singles '93–'03.
The reason I didn't buy them is simple: the discs are copy controlled. While they're supposed to play on most CD players and computers, they're intended to prevent conversion to MP3 and sharing over file-trading networks. They're not even CDs, by the strict definition, and I can't rely on being able to turn the albums into digital files that I can listen to on the various devices I'd like to use—MP3 players, computers, MP3-playing car stereos, and so on. Even though I would be perfectly entitled to do so under the law.
I like digital music files. They let me rediscover the music I have in new ways. As Salon's Andrew Leonard writes (subscription or daypass required for full access):
Thanks to computers and the Internet, I am now a better, happier and more productive consumer of music than I have ever been. I am exposed to more new music, I listen to more old music, and I purchase more of all kinds of music. I've spent more money buying music this year than in any of the previous 10 years.
The music industry hates this. By their every indication, record executives appear to be unhappy that I am more engaged with popular music. They are busy cooking up half-baked copy protection schemes that will prevent me from ripping my own newly purchased CDs. They are pushing legislation intended to criminalize all kinds of behavior and technology. Rather than make it easier for me to spend money, they would rather I return to the neolithic times when if I heard a song on the radio I liked, I would have to trudge to the record store and spend $18 on bloated filler. Why am I not excited?
Never mind that the original discs might have given me better sound quality, plus artwork and credits and lyrics and such—I'm now more likely to get lower-quality MP3s from friends or over the Net if I want some of those tracks. Joss Stone, Norah Jones, the Chemical Brothers, and their respective record companies and representatives could have had my money by now. But because they treat me like a thief, they don't have my money, and they're unlikely to get it. Does that sound like a good business model?
In his 1977 Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall, Woody Allen includes a scene where he and Diane Keaton break down laughing while trying to cook a live lobster. The lobster escapes, running across the floor. It's a key moment in the characters' romance. Later, after they have broken up, Allen's character tries to re-create the incident with another girlfriend, and it falls flat—because it's a different time, and you can't make a spontenous thing happen again.
Life is full of such unrepeatable moments. Last week, for instance, my family and I went on a holiday to Cannon Beach, in Oregon—the reason for my e-mail and web hiatus. One evening, just as the sun was setting, the oldest of my two daughters and I went to the beach as the sun set, around 9 at night. During the day, people had built sandcastles, and one had been reduced by the rising tide to a wet lump of sand, slightly higher than the surrounding beach. My daughter leaped on it and danced, as she likes to do, while the surf crashed behind her, the waves just missing swamping her perch as they slid up the beach.
In a few minutes, the coloured sky reflected off the wet sand and waves against which she was silhouetted, and people set off fireworks on the beach behind us. The fine weather in early July, the remains of a sandcastle in just the spot to be almost (but not quite) overrun by waves at the very moment of sunset, our presence in that spot and luck in finding it, and most particularly my daughter's being six years old and wanting me to come to the beach with her—none of those things will ever happen together again.
The photo doesn't quite capture it, but you get the idea. I won't forget that evening, and I hope my daughter doesn't either. We'll have other moments together, but those ones are pleasantly, wonderfully gone.
It's summer in Vancouver. Time to go outside, go swimming with the kids, hang out away from the computer. I am not burning out. But I'm also not reading or writing e-mail, or posting anything here, for about a week. Mmm, summer:
I encourage you to take some sort of similar break, if not this week, then sometime this summer. (If your summer is in six months, do it then.)
I'm pretty far along, so somehow I doubt it, but you never know.
Yesterday I turned 35. I'm now out of that "19-to-34" age bracket and into the "35-to-49" cohort instead. To celebrate (well, not really—we were planning it before but it worked out to happen on my birthday), we went and bought a second car, to supplement our station wagon.
We needed a commuter-runabout car, so we chose a black 2004 Toyota Echo sedan, which is among the most fuel efficient vehicles available that isn't a gas-electric hybrid. The car is basic, but has lots of storage pockets, a huge trunk, plenty of head and body room for occupants, and a swanky four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo that even plays MP3 discs. (I've alread set up a couple of ten-hour playlists of electronica and Beatles tracks.) Like other Toyotas, it also has a reputation for reliability.