Journal: News & Comment

This is " August 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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:42:00 PM:

Everything to everybody

Rick Schaut on whether Microsoft Word is too smart for its own good:

I've read quite a few rants about Word, and a vast majority of the rants end with something like, "Why can't Word be like [fill in the blank]?" The problem is that the filled-in blank spans the gamut from WordPerfect to nroff and vi.

On another topic, here's an interesting article about designing sounds.


Monday, August 30, 2004 - newest items first
# 9:47:00 AM:

PNE hangover

PNE 2004 photo essayYesterday, my wife, two daughters (ages four and six), and I went to the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition), Vancouver's annual two-week end-of-summer fair. We arrived in the early afternoon; never left Playland (the ride area); ate nothing but hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, mini-donuts, and cotton candy; and closed the place out at 12:30 a.m. the next morning.


Sunday, August 29, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:42:00 PM:

Stand and deliver

I've added a link to a fine article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about delivering an effective lecture, to my page of links about PowerPoint and presentations. Thanks to SvN for the link.


Saturday, August 28, 2004 - newest items first
# 2:32:00 PM:

Vancouver's newest Mac store

The Mac Market buys and sells used Macs and their accessories. Looks neat.


Friday, August 27, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:35:00 AM:

Spruced up

I've modified two of my earlier journal entries from this month:


Thursday, August 26, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:38:00 PM:

Tricks of the trade

"Piano Salesman: If you see a potential customer eyeing a piano, estimate their age and calculate what year it was when they were 18 years old. Play a big hit from that year on the piano they're looking at. With a lot of preparation and a little luck, you might play the exact song they were listening to when they lost their virginity, got married, or drove their first car. The emotional resonance will overcome sales resistance and even open their wallets to a more expensive piano."


# 2:30:00 PM:

Corporate weblogging

Darren Barefoot pointed to a recent republishing of the "Corporate Weblog Manifesto" by Robert Scoble. The new version is in PDF only, so I decided to covert it to XHTML 1.0 Strict, just for fun. (Actually, it was because I thought the PDF was the only version, until I found Scoble's February 2003 original on his website.)

Some good stuff in Scoble's list, even if I disagree with some of it. As Barefoot notes, #18 ("Link to your competitors and say nice things about them") is the hardest to do for many companies. I'd guess that the second hardest is #8 ("If you screw up, acknowledge it. Fast."), followed by #15 ("Never lie") and #1 ("Tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth.")—which are subtly different. Commendably, Scoble almost meets his own point #4 ("Make sure you support the latest software/web/human standards").

UPDATE: Here's a good example for "don't lie"/"tell the truth." Quick summary: Deneba's Canvas 3.5 Mac drawing program (very old—current is version 9, but some old files don't work right in it) will expire on 31 August 2004. The new owner of Deneba claimed it was a hexadecimal date-counting bug, but clever Mac users delved into the program and found, (a) the hex bug would have expired the program in 1972, before the Mac existed, and (b) the expiry date was deliberate, although perhaps a programmer's undocumented hack rather than company policy.


Wednesday, August 25, 2004 - newest items first
# 8:37:00 PM:

How to freak yourself out

Following up on a motorcycle photo essay (from last year) about a trip to the Chernobyl wasteland, here's an interview with one of the only survivors from within the reactor building.

"No nukes" indeed.


Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:04:00 PM:

50 paces

I've posted a new photo essay, showing what it looks like if I take a picture every 50 steps on my way to work. There's also a movie combining all the images.


# 12:21:00 PM:

For sale: Ampeg G-410 bass/guitar combo amp (circa 1974)

G-410 Front View

I'm asking $350 Canadian for a very large Ampeg G-410 bass/guitar combo amplifier. I've posted a page with details and photos.

This model was originally built around 1974 as a giant combo amp for guitar, with four 10-inch speakers. Sometime in the past 30 years, though, someone pulled out those little speakers in my amp and replaced them with a single large Radio Shack Realistic speaker, converting the rig into a bass amplifier.

You'd best be in Greater Vancouver somewhere, because shipping this monster would be ridiculous.


Monday, August 23, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:20:00 AM:

More about search, articles, and usefulness

Not long ago I wrote about why the best way to bring search traffic to your website is simply to build a good site in the first place. That was a followup to my earlier article on what a website is for (summary: the people who visit it).

Web usability guy Jakob Nielsen reinforces the point from another direction today, by writing that one of the best ways to sell a product online (if that's what you do) is to write useful articles about it. Just don't forget to tell people that you sell it too, and to cross-reference to and from any other appropriate places your visitors might look for information.

Here's something even neater. Dean Eckles at Stanford University suggests that:

Since Google is so incredibly popular [...] the system that Google has chosen, or that is Google, has influenced many decisions about how to use language on the web [while] global language use online—and Google's choices about what to draw from that use—can affect how we use language in the rest of our lives...


# 8:34:00 AM:


When you have a young family, a new vehicle doesn't stay that way for long. Already, our Toyota doesn't smell like a new car anymore—the results of a chocolate milk spill in the back seat. That required me to take the seat right out and wash it, so that the interior now smells like Febreze (although, thankfully, the rotten-milk smell is fading rapidly now).

The floor mats have also accumulated their share of dirt and crumbs, the paint job and hubcaps have a few minor road dings, and the dashboard is dusty. On the plus side, the car now feels fully like ours. We call it the "Black Cat."


Sunday, August 22, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:04:00 AM:

Who's that guy again?

One advantage of being in a band where everyone wears wigs and has a fake British accent is that there's no need for a consistent lineup of musicians: once people are in costume, each is just one of the Neurotics.

In the more than ten years we've been running this band, which has always had at most four members at a show, there have been more than 20 people who have filled those roles. (Three months ago, we actually had two different versions of the Neurotics play on the same night, one in Whistler and one in downtown Vancouver. We split the regular group lineup in two and brought in fill-in musicians for the rest.)

Last night was another example. Friday, while my wife and I were still downtown celebrating our anniversary, I got a call from Sebastien, our guitarist (a.k.a. "Dirty Neurotic"), saying that our agent had a well-paying show for us at a wedding reception on Saturday—the next day. The client had asked for us by name.

After phoning around, we found out that our regular second guitarist (Adam, a.k.a. "Woody") and bass player (Doug, a.k.a. "Swingy") were already doing other shows. Over the next several hours, we rounded up Mark ("Bumpy"), who usually plays guitar and keyboard but who can do bass in a pinch, and Myk, a fine guitarist and singer whom we'd never worked with before. We christened him "Randy Neurotic."

Saturday morning this untested lineup met at Mark's apartment to run through song arrangements for a couple of hours. By 4:00 pm we were setting up gear at the venue, the Eagle Harbour Yacht Club in West Vancouver. By 8:00 we were onstage, and at midnight we'd played three sets of music and had a fine dinner. The celebrants had a great time, and so did we.

However, that kind of instant lineup would have been impossible for us a decade ago. It takes years of experience to be able to pull off a last-minute show, especially when playing some songs several of us had never played together (or, for some of us, even heard of) before. Our playing was sometimes sloppy, but part of putting on a good show is playing through the mistakes so no one in the audience even notices.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:53:00 PM:

A wife knows her gadget boy

In the two years and a bit since I bought my first digital camera, it has been dropped, the rechargeable batteries have started failing, and I've noticed its many flaws. It was getting time for a new one.

There were two choices: a similar small point-and-shoot model like the Konica KD-300Z I have already, or a much more expensive and capable digital SLR (DSLR) like the Nikon D70, used by professionals such as Alastair.

My wife made the choice even simpler by going out and buying me a new point-and-shoot for our ninth anniversary, which is Thursday. The camera is a basic Kodak EasyShare CX7330, a new model this summer. Like my old Konica, it is a 3-megapixel, 3X optical zoom model, which is about all anyone needs for snapshots. But it uses more normal AA batteries (nickel-metal-hydride rechargeables are cheap, and in a pinch I can use regular lithium or alkaline AAs), and so should have a longer life.

Plus we're avoiding putting expensive gadgets in our kids' hands after too many "butterfingers" episodes.

The EasyShare has a fine little lens and takes very good photos, with excellent automatic white balance. It has a good movie mode, with sound, and movie length limited only by the size of the memory card. Though it's a bit larger than the Konica, it fits in the little camera bag I have just fine. There are almost no manual controls, but that's okay. It's easy to use, and it works. Snap snap.


Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:14:00 PM:

Alternate view

If for some reason the design of this page bugs you, but you still want to read it, check out Urban Vancouver's nicely formatted version of my RSS feed. You can also keep up with a whole bunch of other Vancouver blogs the same way—although some seem to be from the future (ooh, spooky).

Another viewing option is my Blogger user profile, but that only shows the first part of each journal entry, not the whole thing.

UPDATE: Richard from Urban Vancouver pointed out to me that the "other Vancouver blogs" link I had above actually lists a whole bunch of Vancouver material, in addition to just blogs. For Vancouver weblogs alone, he gave me this other link, which I've also added to my sidebar as the Vancouver Blog Aggregator. Hey, that wouldn't be a bad name for a band!


Monday, August 16, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:48:00 PM:

Horsepower's not everything

When we bought our new eMac a few months ago, I tried to justify why we didn't go for a more top-of-the-line Power Mac G5. Looks like I wasn't the only one to think that way: here's the eMac vs. a dual-processor Power Mac G5 shootout. The gist? Unless you're doing something that actually needs all that horsepower in your day-to-day tasks, like video editing, scientific computing, or other computationally rigorous things, then you might not even notice that an eMac doesn't have the extra oomph.

I've certainly been happy so far. Then again, given the eMac's closed-up design, I'm likely to have to replace it sooner than if I'd bought a G5. But I'll push it as long as it can go anyway.


# 9:35:00 AM:

Most untranslatable words

Jason Kottke points to a page that claims ilunga to be the most untranslatable word in the world. It is from a Bantu dialect, and means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time."

That is pretty good. I also like #3, radioukacz, which is Polish for "a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain."

However, there are other words on the list that puzzle me. I would think that a difficult-to-translate word is one that requires far too many words to convey in another language (ilunga and radioukacz certainly fit). But words like shlimazl (Yiddish, "chronically unlucky person"), naa (local Japanese dialect, basically meaning "yeah" or "right" as far as I can tell), and gezellig (Dutch for "cosy") seem to translate okay, although perhaps some nuances get lost.

But think of words we have absorbed into English because there is no equivalent in our language. I'm thinking of:

  • Schadenfreude - from German, pleasure taken in the misfortunes of others.

  • Karaoke - Japanese, singing to pre-recorded backing tracks of popular songs that have had their lead vocals removed.

  • Ennui - French for a certain variety of listless boredom.

Two other words I like, but which aren't as widely known, are:

  • Sisu - a Finnish word that means, roughly, inner strength, perseverance in the face of adversity, and a strong work ethic. It's an appropriate word to come from a cold northern country, fractured by thousands of lakes, and long under threat of being overwhelmed, linguistically and otherwise, by more powerful neighbours.

  • Skookum - a Chinook jargon word that has come into general use in my region of the world, British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. It has a range of positive meanings, from "'good,' to 'strong,' 'powerful,' 'ultimate' and 'first rate.' Something can be skookum meaning 'cool' or skookum can be 'tough.' A skookum burger is a big hamburger, but when your Mom's food is skookum, it's delicious. [...] When you're skookum, you've got a purpose and you're on solid ground."

Most people who've learned English in this part of the world would understand if you said something was skookum, but those from elsewhere would be puzzled. But now you know too.

UPDATE (December 8, 2004): The definition of skookum above, from the site of Skookum Tools, was apparently written by its founder, Robert McDonald. It's still the best description of the word that I've seen.


Sunday, August 15, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:01:00 PM:

New things at the end

So often we learn things about people only after they're dead. Did you know, for instance, that Julia Child worked for the CIA (actually its precursor, the OSS) before she learned to cook? I sure didn't.

UPDATE: Ken at the office discovered that during World War II she helped develop a shark repellent that prevented the fish from bumping into and detonating underwater explosives that were meant for German U-Boats. So, in short, Julia Child spent her early career keeping sharks from blowing themselves up.


Friday, August 13, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:44:00 AM:

Meanwhile, out on the asphalt...

I haven't been to the Abbotsford Airshow in nearly thirty years, but today I'm packing up for a trip out to the Fraser Valley with the band, where we will play for a VIP beer garden after the close of the day's events. We have another performance tomorrow night.

For most people in Vancouver, the Airshow brings to mind three things: incredibly loud planes, searing heat, and smelly portable bathrooms. That's about all I remember from the '70s. We'll see if the show lives up to my memories.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004 - newest items first
# 6:28:00 PM:

Aerial photos of B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan

It's been a while since I've flown anywhere, but a couple of days ago I traveled from Vancouver to Saskatoon by plane, in glorious summer weather. As I did a couple of years ago, I took photos during the flight. I've created a page of them in chronological order. Some of them have a strange colour cast because I compensated for the blue haze in the original pictures, and preferred detail over colour accuracy.

I also added an extra little page about the Hope Slide, since I got a couple of good photos (in 3D!) of it.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004 - newest items first
# 5:53:00 PM:

Save your wireless money

Some hotels provide free high-speed (or sometimes even wireless) Internet, but a fair number still don't. One example is the hotel in Saskatoon where I'm staying for a night. It's a nice place, but they charge a fee for Internet access.

I'm traveling with a colleague who has a room across the hall. Normally, if we both wanted to get our laptops online, we'd each have to pay. But instead, he paid for Internet in his room, then went to his Mac OS X System Preferences and chose Sharing > Internet. He set up to share his wired Ethernet Internet connection via his built-in AirPort wireless card. I used my ancient wireless PowerBook and found his new network instantly.

Reception isn't so great with both our doors closed, but now we have two-for-one Internet, and mine is wireless to boot. In theory, anyone in the nearby rooms (and possibly adjacent floors) would also be able to share the connection. Not so great for the hotel's revenue, but good for us.

Incidentally, an AirPort Express unit or something similar would do the same job and make us both wireless.

All the more reason to make free wireless part of the room rate, I say.


# 12:23:00 AM:

Groove on II: "Deep Cycle Discharge"

The second demo song I've posted here, available for free downloading and file-sharing a few weeks after the first, is "Deep Cycle Discharge," a little techno number written and performed by my friend Simon James, as well as produced and mixed by me. Enjoy.


Monday, August 09, 2004 - newest items first
# 1:50:00 PM:

Boosting your search ranking: it's no trick

Now that it has scrolled off the front page of my site, the full version of this article now appears in my essays section. I have also expanded it to address some reader feedback.

Yesterday someone I've done some work for asked me for help getting better search results for his company. He was concerned that typing in the name of his company to Google brought the firm up only on page two, somewhat behind links from newspapers to his site, and links from other sites talking about his site.

He wanted to get a page 1 (or #1) result for his website for that search, and also asked if I could help getting a page 1 result for a more generic phrase that forms part of his company's name. Among my other ramblings about web design and search results, I've already written about why search engine optimization isn't too useful on the modern Web, but my longer response here might be helpful too, so I'm posting an edited version.

I won't name the company in question, since that wouldn't be polite, so I'll call it "Great Plains Logistics" as a pseudonym, and pretend that you, my reader, are the one contacting me...

[Read more]


# 11:04:00 AM:

Oh yeeaaaaah!

CBC Radio is trying the impossible task of defining 50 essential music tracks from the 20th century, five per decade. They're doing a pretty decent job, but while I am a child of the '80s, I play in a band that focuses on the '60s, so I know that decade's popular music pretty well.

Now, the list the panel has assembled is pretty good—"In My Life" by the Beatles, "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds, "My Girl" by the Temptations, "Stop! In the Name of Love" by the Supremes, and "Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf. Especially since the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" was voted off the final short list, I suspect that when the public votes come in, the Beatles will completely crush the others, just as Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" ran away with the '50s title.

Still, I was disappointed that neither "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen nor "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks was even nominated. Both are elemental, thrashy guitar-stomp hits, and are among the first things any garage band learns.

They are easy to figure out, but nearly impossible to play right (and oh, I've tried), because to do that you have to emulate young musicians who play sloppily and make mistakes, yet somehow create magic in the process. You have to stumble over the transition to the last verse of "Louie Louie," as the Kingsmen did, or play the guitar solo in "You Really Got Me" like Dave Davies, as if your fingers might slip off the fretboard and ruin it at any moment.

If I had to choose from the two, I might give the slight edge to the Kinks. Listen to so many things that followed: the Beatles' distorted "Revolution," heavy metal in general (including Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Metallica, and every [whatever]-core band imaginable), the Sex Pistols, the Knack, Nirvana, and the Hives-Vines-Yeah Yeah Yeahs-White Stripes retro-guitar craze of today. They all just built off the template the Kinks set up, and none of them has significantly improved on that monster guitar sound. Now that's essential.

Oh, and you can learn the lyrics to "You Really Got Me" without having to look them up.


Sunday, August 08, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:33:00 PM:

Links of interest (2004-08-08):

  • Google circa 1960.

  • It's a good thing my life doesn't depend on Microsoft's software being able to generate clean HTML code.

  • "The blunt question of readers is always 'Why should I read you?'. They're asking, what power and influence do you have, what intellectual worth do you possess, what is your place in the social hierarchy? It's not impressive to answer: 'Because I am a unique and special snowflake'."

  • My earlier post about reading more non-fiction than fiction reinforces the point that people aren't becoming less literate—we're just reading less of the traditional type of made-up story.

  • "I never find that I can build any software if I don't first get some mental image in my head of the customers. Who are they? How do they look, feel, think? I call this designing by guilt because if you don't do what feels right for these customers, you feel guilty for having let them down."

  • Web bloopers, i.e. web design mistakes (examples from the book available) and GUI bloopers (an older book), with more examples.

  • A short field guide to gas-electric hybrid automobile engines.


Saturday, August 07, 2004 - newest items first
# 10:38:00 PM:

My name is Derek, and I'm a Blundoholic

This Blundstone boot thing of mine is getting out of hand. I just bought my third pair of the things in as many years.

For a normal pair of shoes, that might be fine. The thing is, my first and second pairs haven't worn out. Not even close. In fact, I was wearing the first pair when I bought the third set a couple of days ago, and when I brought the new ones home, I shone the old ones up with some of the spare wax from the latest set. Now, other than some tread wear on the 2001 models, you can't tell which ones are newer.

Mick Green in Australia offers to ship Blundstones directly from Australia for better prices than we usually get in North America, but my usual outlet had a sale on their stock, so the price worked out just as well for me. But you might want to check his site out if you want a pair.

Ayway, now I have three sets of boots, on which we've spent more than $450. On the plus side, I wear them all the time, even in summer.


Friday, August 06, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:50:00 AM:

The one thing

Many people, when creating documents on a computer, prefer using a single application to the near-exclusion of all others, even when the program isn't designed for the kind of work they're doing.

Yesterday, for instance, I received a web-page mockup constructed in an Excel spreadsheet. I also have on file:

  • Letters writen in Excel
  • Flowcharts built in PowerPoint
  • Spreadsheets and web pages made in Word
  • Organizational charts drafted in Photoshop.

Objectively, it would seem to make better sense to create those files, respectively, in a word processor (like Word, Nisus Writer, or even AppleWorks), diagramming tool (Visio or OmniGraffle), spreadsheet program (Excel or whatever) and web editor (BBEdit, Dreamweaver, or, shudder, FrontPage), or charting/drawing application (Visio or OmniGraffle again, or even Illustrator or FreeHand).

But the people providing these files seem to do everything in their preferred application. Someone who writes letters in Excel often spends all day using it for spreadsheets, and also fires it up for flowcharts, lists, even photo albums. So, when there are better tools available, why do people shoehorn one program into all these roles?

I can think of a bunch of reasons, but do you have ideas?


Thursday, August 05, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:37:00 AM:

Au revoir, Henri

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the world's great photographers. He died yesterday, age 95.


Wednesday, August 04, 2004 - newest items first
# 4:19:00 PM:

Recent website work

Pacific Basin Shipping: A few weeks ago, Hong Kong–based Pacific Basin Shipping launched a new website. It was a group effort between some of the people at PacBasin—which has just started offering shares to the public—a few of us at Navarik (the company I work for), and Jeff Croft, a talented U.S.-based designer to whom we subcontracted much of the design and layout work.

Collaborating between four different time zones was challenging. Navarik's president Bill Dobie was a key part of the process, and he was in England and Norway for much of the time. Dave Shea and I were in Vancouver. Jeff lives in Kansas. To top it off, one of the PacBasin staffers was traveling, and was in Hong Kong, New York, and a few other places in between. There were very small time windows when people in Hong Kong/New York, Vancouver, Topeka, and London/Oslo were all awake and in the office simultaneously enough to make decisions on a single day. Never mind figuring out who was where on what day. Oh, and before the site launched, I took off on a pre-arranged holiday (without any Internet access at all), and Bill returned to Vancouver.

Yet somehow the result is a standards-compliant site that is attractive and easy to use, providing a good base for more complex development for Pacific Basin the future.

Siegel Entertainment: In a very different vein, Siegel Entertainment is a booking agents for entertainment acts (including my band) here in Vancouver. Their site is far from cutting-edge, but it is a great improvement over the previous version. Why? Because until quite recently, their entire site was a massive Flash animation, which meant that Google and other search sites couldn't see it at all. So when you searched for Siegel Entertainment Vancouver, you couldn't even find their site, even though they had one.

My contribution was, first of all, to point out the problem to them a couple of summers ago. Then they contracted me to convert the appearance of their print brochure into some basic templates, give them some instructions on HTML, and provide recommendations on how to structure the site. They built the rest themselves. So while it isn't what a whizbang web designer would create, it has taken the strong step of being visible to search engines, navigable on a variety of web browsers without requiring the Macromedia Flash plugin, and capable of having individual pages bookmarked, instead of just the home page.

Search Engine Submissions: I've helped a number of sites get themselves indexed by search sites more quickly or more effectively than they otherwise might have. Those include:

Some of them have had better results than others, depending more on the content of their sites and what kind of competition they face than on my efforts. At least, I hope that's why.


# 1:04:00 PM:

No way! That band sucks, man!

I've never tried making a chart of music I like and dislike, but Darren Barefoot did. Neat.


Tuesday, August 03, 2004 - newest items first
# 11:23:00 PM:

The clanking narrative

I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction—more than I used to. And I'm not talking about blogs. I read plenty of books, but few of them are novels, probably because, as I age, I can "hear the devices clanking away" (in the words of author Richard Rodriguez, who knows what he's talking about).

Nevertheless, I remain drawn to the novels of Douglas Coupland, who is also from Vancouver. That despite his being an extreme example of "write what you know"—his characters are pretty much all young, white, and middle class; they live in the Western United States or just across the border in Canada; when they travel, they go to Vegas or Oregon or Seattle, never to Alberta or New York (forget about Japan or Madagascar); they all talk and think in some variation of semi-ironic, simile-heavy, pop-referencing Coupland-speak; their themes are sudden loss, pointless death, loneliness, running away, and vague dread, even from the afterlife; their tales often start strong and then slowly vaporize rather than coming to a strong conclusion. Clanking devices indeed.

Somehow, though, I don't care. His novels are better than his non-fiction, which (while entertaining) feels dashed-off, undisciplined, and improperly researched. In fiction, he takes advantage of those same tendencies to write with a strange propulsion, even when his characters are doing nothing but sitting and thinking. The stories are short but dense. His eye for detail evokes the true feelings of a place. Even his weakest books, such as Shampoo Planet, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Miss Wyoming, have something to say, although neither the reader nor the writer might know exactly what that is.

Hey Nostradamus!, from 2003, is an extreme example. It takes place almost entirely in North and West Vancouver, and revolves around kids in high school, and what becomes of them and their families. There are many deaths, some deserved, some uncertain, some shockingly random. It's about people who want to change themselves, but can't. Only one of the four major characters does change, and only far too late, when he's irrelevant to everyone to whom it would matter.

And yet, there at the end of the book, I nearly cried. I think it's Coupland's best written work since Microserfs a decade ago. Go read it.


Monday, August 02, 2004 - newest items first
# 12:55:00 AM:

Are countries only for war? Or are they for nothing?

There's some serious thinking going on in "Patriotism and the marshal state," an essay by Jonathon Delacour (via Tim Bray) that was inspired by John Kerry's "I'm reporting for duty" salute when he became leader of the U.S. Democratic Party a few days ago.

Certainly, political leaders were more honest about the warlike nature of nations a hundred years ago. I've been reading Paris 1919, Margaret Macmillan's astounding retelling of the six-month Paris Peace Conference that followed the First World War. Before the human and financial enormities of that conflict, leaders and citizens assumed that wars were what countries did. It was how they grew and gained influence. In Paris, some wanted to change that. But they didn't.

And after the 20th century, which gave us the world's greatest horrors—from the trenches of Belgium to the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Stalinism, and Rwandan machetes rusted with blood—are those of us who believe that people and their countries can go beyond war just deluding ourselves?


# 12:26:00 AM:

Is it worth optimizing your site for search engines?

People sometimes hire me to submit their sites to search engines and directories, so they can get listed there faster than by just waiting for it. But I don't do search engine optimization, i.e. changing the content of a site so it appears higher in the search results for certain terms.

That's because I've found—in more than 20 years online, 12 on the Web, and 6 using Google—that the online places that are easiest to find are the ones that people actually find useful. So the best way to get good search results is to build yourself a website that:

  1. Identifies what it is and what it's about in the page title and headings.
  2. Really talks about those things in its content.
  3. Is good at that.
  4. Gets updated regularly.

In other words, to get good search results, you have to put some serious time and effort into making a good website. That's because modern search sites, led by Google, are reputation machines: they have (more or less) made quality—and esteem in the eyes of other website builders—the measure of a site's relevance. Anil Dash puts it another way:

There's a part of me that's always felt that, if you're a professional at a certain trade, and I can come in as an amateur and do better than you, then you probably suck. [...] If this is your trade and you can't beat someone who came in at the last minute to enter a contest that's gotten the attention of nearly everyone in your field, it's time to rethink your strategy. [...] My suggestions [for good search result placement]? Write good content. Develop an audience that cares about what you're doing. Do something that's relevant to people in your field.

To summarize: "Duh."

UPDATE: In the comments, David Czepanski points to another page that makes a similar point very well.


Sunday, August 01, 2004 - newest items first
# 7:33:00 AM:

Young at 50

NOTE: I have combined this entry and others into a longer article about guitar tone.

The Fender Stratocaster guitar is 50 years old in 2004. Remarkably, it remains the world's most popular guitar despite very few changes in its design. In its time, the Strat was not as revolutionary as the Precision Bass, from which it borrowed its body shape; nor was it as primal as the Telecaster, of which it was the more refined, Space Age younger brother.

Few other pieces of technology (other than acoustic musical instruments like pianos, hollowbody guitars, cellos, and so on) have changed as little. Personal computers made in 1999 are laughably out of date. Televisions may still use picture tubes, but their cases, controls, and electronics are nothing like they were 20 years ago. Even clothing, architecture, picture frames, and baby strollers have gone through huge stylistic changes. No modern car is identical to a '56 Chevy—and the new Mini and VW Beetle merely resemble their predecessors, while being totally different vehicles in reality.

Guitars have changed since the '50s, of course, and there have been thousands of different styles over the decades, from effective and beautiful to, er, questionable. Yet Fender's supremely refined design work at the beginning, combined with the subsequent cult of vintage instruments and sounds among guitar players, means that every other electric guitar is a footnote to the Stratocaster.

Fender has tried to go beyond the Strat too. Dirty Neurotic, the guitarist in my band, played a Starcaster (made from 1976 to 1980) before it was stolen, but while it sounded great, that instrument (like many '70s designs) looks less classic than bizarre now. Today, all of Fender's mainstream models are variants of the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, and Jazz Bass, all designed more than 40 years ago. (Dirty N. has played a Strat since the theft, of course.)

I have a black 1990 Strat from Fender's budget Squier division, but to anyone but a guitar geek, it is indistinguishable from the original 1954 model, or from the ones played by Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, and John Mayer. The country guitarists who inspired and helped Leo Fender create the Stratocaster could play my guitar, or a brand new Fender model, without a second thought. And a Strat-playing skate-punk shredder who came across a '54 Strat could just as easily plug it in and go.

Leo Fender would have been puzzled, in 1954, to see people like me with the Stratocaster he knew plugged into an eMac, with all the amplifier effects and recording done digitally. But I think, after a few minutes, he would have understood.


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