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: March 2005," 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.
The Nintendo family of characters still holds great appeal for me, nearly 25 years after Donkey Kong and Mario first appeared in the arcade.
They are, in a way, as important a group of fictional characters as Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or anything in Tolkien or Star Wars, even if they have little depth. How many hours have I, my friends, my family, and now my kids spent with them in their various adventures?
We've watched them grow, seen new characters come and old ones go. There was even a really crappy movie no one (including me) saw.
My band has been playing every Thursday at the Central City Brewing Company in Surrey, B.C. since late February, and it's been going well—last week's show, coming before the Easter weekend, was particulary busy and fun. This upcoming weekend, March 31, April 1 and 2, we're there the whole weekend, starting around 9:00 p.m. each night.
While we're unlikely to play any Crowded House songs (although anything's possible), I'll be silently dedicating the weekend to Paul Hester, that band's drummer, who appears on my top drummers list. Hester, who had apparently long fought clinical depression—but who seemed to have been in good spirits recently—committed suicide earlier this week in a suburban Melbourne park after talking a walk with his dogs. Mine will be a small tribute among many.
Don't worry, though: The Neurotics will be as silly and wacky as ever. That was the way Hester always played too.
Suw Charman explains how to learn the grammar of a new language more easily. Personally, I haven't learned any sort of new language since I dabbled in Latin and Russian in high school. (No, HTML doesn't count.)
Today, I'm reasonably hopeless in anything other than English—even French, which I studied for years, or German and Finnish, which members of my family speak yet I never really caught on to.
As a sign of the recovering economy and its own success, my employer, Navarik Corp., is hiring, and today we started adding job postings to the company website.
Perhaps you're interested in maritime shipping, web-based software and services, and open data formats and standards. Maybe you live in Vancouver, or want to move here (and who doesn't?). If you have solid qualifications and motivation, check out Navarik's listings or subscribe to the jobs RSS feed—maybe you'll find something worth applying for.
Jason Kottke also points out that Doogie Howser, M.D. was one of the first bloggers, and that Captain Kirk pre-dated him (although, since he was supposed to be hundreds of years in the future, maybe not) as a podcaster. Oh, and he links to a make-your-own cheap screenprint T-shirt tutorial too.
Randy, whom I've known for many years, and worked with for the past few, is out there as a fashionable, hip, with-it guy who runs a dance troupe. Meeting him on the street, you wouldn't think of calling him a geek.
But anyone who, when talking about his new laptop, writes "i love the fact that you can just fire up the terminal window and SSH into wherever you want and have command line access" obviously has some geek left in him.
As my wife says, the world has become "Revenge of the Nerds." Although you're probably even cooler if you're a nerd with nice clothes.
Harking back to my marine biology degree this weekend, I wanted some desktop wallpaper files of undersea photography. A basic Google search yields a lot of crappy sites for that, so after some searching, here are some nice ones. And these (particularly the zoanthids and jewel anemones) are also lovely.
In general, if you're looking for desktop wallpaper, I recommend MacDesktops (if you hunt, you can find some of my work—and the files work just fine on Macs, Windows, and Linux computers) and Interfacelift.
Last night the band played our usual Invasion Thursday in Surrey, B.C., but since it was the day before Good Friday, the usually fairly empty Thursday-night crowd was instead a packed house. They were pretty crazy—and so were we.
The playing was no easier than ever (it's always hard, but enjoyable, work), but the time flew by, and I left at 1:40 a.m. energized rather than depleted. The crowd makes all the difference.
Today, at home, we had a different sort of crowd. Kerry KLove and Jeff came over for dinner, but for the first time we were two couples having dinner with no kids around—their son and our daughters were all at their respective grandparents' for the night. We ate and talked, then the girls played The Sims while we guys jammed on organ and guitar in the living room for awhile. Finally, we all watched What Not to Wear, then said good night for the evening.
Yup. We're pretty exciting. No tantrums from anyone.
This year is the tenth year that my wife and I have taken our taxes to the same accountant, Benjamin Cheng. This year we managed to plan it so that we take our forms to him during Spring Break—so there is no school (or work for my wife)—in order to avoid how hectic it was for last year's appointment.
This is the first time since the 2000 tax year that I've actually had a steady, salaried job to report, in addition to freelance writing, editing, and musical work. The stability has been nice.
I expect there will again be kids playing with their voices in Benjamin's electric fan, then Dairy Queen afterwards. It's become a tradition.
Since his listing seems to have almost entirely disappeared from the Internet, and so I can find it again next year, he's at:
Benjamin Cheng, Chartered Accountant
#201-4968 Victoria Drive
Wednesday, March 23, 2005 - newest items first # 8:12:00 AM:
Every couple of weeks, Brad Gibson in Hamilton, Ontario releases an online radio MP3 file (a podcast) that he calles a Bradcast. This week's Bradcast 5 includes, as one of its bits of incidental music, a chunk of my tune Cold Cloth and an Ice Pack, which I posted last September.
The podcast itself is a tech show that focuses on podcasting itself and on Linux this week (yes, it's a young medium), so go check it out (direct link - 16 MB MP3 file).
A few people at work got new PowerBooks to replace their old Windows PCs this week. (The reasons they got Macs are various, but they boil down to, (a) they're harder to screw up or get infested with malware, and (b) the boss likes Macs.)
Anyway, I gave a little introductory seminar for new Mac users, and as part of it, posted to our intranet a list of some useful free/shareware software and other resources for Macs. So I may as well post it here too.
My wife and I stayed at a hotel downtown last night, as a nice "tourists in our own town" getaway from the house we have to clean and the kids who like to wake us up before 7 a.m., even during Spring Break.
We did not stay at the Hotel Vancouver, but we could see it in its full monolithic grandeur from the window of our room in the Sutton Place Hotel a couple of blocks away. We also had some drinks in the Hotel Vancouver lobby before dinner yesterday. It is a smart and mysterious place.
By smart, I mean that there are some nice touches to its services. I have stayed there, and have worked there quite a number of times with the band, but a recent addition to the hotel is this clever thing:
It's a Thomas the Tank Engine play train (no it doesn't move), which is right next to the front desk of the hotel. So when there's a big lineup, any kids in your party can play instead of getting deathly bored. Smart.
Now, on to the mysterious. The Roof (also known as the Panorama Roof) was, until the late 1980s, a legendary restaurant in the city (bandleader Dal Richards, who's still gigging—he does weekends at the casino where I was earlier this month, among other locales—played there five nights a week from 1940 until 1965). It hasn't been renovated in probably 25 years, and has seen better days, since it's now only booked for meetings and conventions (including one of the shows I played), with the main restaurant now on the ground floor.
The Panorama Roof has the large arched windows. The elevator stops there. But notice that there are five more floors above that, extending right up into the copper roof of the hotel.
Four months without a new song? Jeez. I kept meaning to start work on another basic track that Simon sent me, but I was too busy and procrastinated. So last night I plugged my Strat into the SansAmp GT2 amp simulator, then into the eMac, and let 'er rip.
"Hotcake Syrup" was the result. It's a sugary, head-boppin' combination of British overdrive guitar, three drum tracks, Clavinet, SVT-style bass, and a hint of bleepy synth-percussion goodness. Yum.
The Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam is a nice place: green, livable, and pretty. Except for one part, which is probably the ugliest section of the entire Lower Mainland.
That statement shouldn't offend anyone—except perhaps the urban planners who let it happen—because it's not a neighbourhood, and as far as I know no one lives there. It's a stretch of big-box strip mall centred on a wedge of land between the Trans-Canada Highway and the Lougheed Highway, and stretching south to the Fraser River. It's home to Ikea, Toys 'R' Us, Future Shop, Crash Crawly's, car dealerships, a bunch of decent roadside restaurants, the Greyhound bus station, and an abandoned transit loop.
It's busy: thousands of Greater Vancouver residents drive through it every day, on the way into the city or out into the rest of Coquitlam, Surrey, Maple Ridge, Port Moody, and elsewhere. That's part of the problem, because it's dominated by two multi-lane commuter roads on either side—day and night, almost the only audible sound is the roar of traffic. What's left is a series of short asphalt connectors, fenced-in streambeds, weedy concrete medians, and parking lots. Since the area is built over alluvial soil, many of the roads, lots, and driveways undulate where they are settling unevenly. There are few sidewalks, and nearly no one walks them.
As a bonus, those of us who grew up in the area know that most of the big-box stores (though not Ikea) that run along United Boulevard, south of the Trans-Canada, sit on land that until the early 1990s was a city dump.
Does anyone have a nominee to beat my Ugliest Part of Greater Vancouver?
We're planning to let her stay up with us to watch What Not to Wear, but only if she can stay quiet enough for her younger sister to fall asleep. She was having such a hard time that she held her breath to force herself to stop talking.
She soon realized that wasn't going to work, and that simple willpower would have to do.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - newest items first # 9:51:00 PM:
The last time the 747 named Emperor Kanishka flew was as Air India Flight 182 in June 1985, a week before I turned 16. On the 23rd of that month, a bomb planted by militant Sikh terrorists on a CP Air jet in my city of Vancouver, and transferred to the Kanishka in Toronto, exploded, destroying the plane in the air off the coast of Ireland, and killing more than 300 people—most Canadians. (Two Japanese baggage handlers also died when another bomb sent at the same time exploded prematurely before it was loaded on an Air India flight in Tokyo.) For more than 15 years, until September 2001, that day remained the deadliest act of aviation terrorism in history.
Vancouver grew a lot in the last 20 years, and in some ways the city is hard to recognize. But Air India has cast a shadow over us the whole time. I was a grade 11 student when the bombs detonated. Since then, I have graduated from high school and university, spent nearly two years as full-time musician, gotten married, and raised two daughters, all the time knowing that somewhere in the area, the conspirators still walked free. Vancouver's Sikh and Hindu communities have grown too, and seen their conflicts and celebrations, new crimes and milestones—and they have kept a wary eye on each other and on factions within themselves. The families of those who died that day have waited, and waited.
Some of those suspected of being involved with the bombing, and those who might have testified against them, died in the interim. Police in India killed Talwinder Singh Parmar, the apparent mastermind, in 1992. A still-unknown gunman killed potential prosecution witness Tara Singh Hayer in 1998, a decade after a previous attempt on his life failed, but left him paralyzed. Others fled the country. In 1991, Inderjit Singh Reyat went to jail for building the bomb that went to Japan; his sentence was later slightly extended when he admitted providing parts for the Kanishka bomb—though he claimed in both cases that he did not know what the bombs were to be used for.
In 2000, police in Vancouver arrested several men in connection with the Air India attack. Two of them, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, remained in jail, charged with the murders for their supposed part in the plot—until today, when they were acquitted and set free.
My instinct is to be outraged, but as the trial plodded on over the past two years, I suspected this outcome—because, in the end, even if Malik and Bagri were involved, the evidence wasn't there to prove it. And the judge said so definitively: "Justice is not achieved [...] if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard." (My emphasis.)
Terrorism on this scale, and from this source, was new to Canada in 1985. Before then, it seems that police and spy agencies ignored what they apparently thought was an internal conflict among people from India or of Indian descent, of little consequence to other Canadians. After the bombing, people working for law enforcement made serious mistakes: erased surveillance tapes, botched stakeouts, failed to communicate effectively. And as I said, people were killed, ran away, or died of natural causes—20 years is a long time. At trial, witnesses were evasive, not credible, or (in the case of Reyat in court) absurdly forgetful.
Despite the outrage and helplessness, we can take some encouragement from the verdicts. Even in such a charged case, prosecutors in Canada still needed evidence to keep Malik and Bagri in prison. They lacked enough of it, so they failed to convict the two men. In India, police chose a different route for Parmar. It seems likely that they tortured and then killed him in custody, although they reported that he died in a gun battle. Many think he got what he deserved.
But he never had a trial, and we may never know for sure.
This is the first time it's happened, but I'm sure it won't be the last: my wife called me on the phone and told me something, and I said, "Oh yeah, I read that on your blog already."
Today also marks the first day I tried cycling to work this year. Unfortunately, my rear shifter wasn't working and I was permanently stuck in the lowest gear there, although I still had control over my front three chainrings. I had to give up part way and park my bike at the SkyTrain station. It was just too frustrating spinning my legs at too slow a maximum speed.
It's almost all uphill on the way home from the station, though, so the low-gear method should work okay then.
All week I've been burning the candle at both ends: by day, taking care of the kids and preparing for a workshop I was to teach, and by night, playing four-hour shows at a casino with my band.
Yesterday it came to a head, when I ran the seminar all day (11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., plus prep and tear-down time before and after), then played the final show of the week—one of our best performances in a long time, I think—at the casino, followed by packing up our instruments and driving them home. I got to bed at 3:00 in the morning.
Then, since the kids were staying with my parents, I slept till 2:00 p.m., something I haven't done in at least 10 years. (My wife, who had come to see the show—and looked fabulous, by the way—managed to get up at 11:30.) Now, a couple of hours later, as it approaches dinner time, I feel significantly hung over, even though I had nothing but water, coffee, and Diet Coke to drink last night. Tomorrow it's back to the day job, which will be a relief. While I took vacation from that job this week to do all the other stuff, it's generally a much saner experience.
Whatever your opinions about Microsoft, you have to acknowledge that the company's typography division has generally done a great job with its fonts for reading onscreen—and the ClearType technology for displaying them on LCD monitors. Microsoft's upcoming fonts for its "Longhorn" operating system are no exception.
The new typefaces are called Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Consolas, Constantia, and Corbel (so that they sort close together in font menus), and follow up on the now ubiquitous set that includes Georgia, Verdana, and Trebuchet, widely used on websites, including this one (as well as the dreaded Comic Sans).
As a font amateur, I find the way typographers describe fonts funny, the same way I find wine connoiseurs' desciptions of wines: "I would describe Corbel's personality as crisp and refreshing." "The italic isn't fussy and the numerals are strong and sophisticated." But it's good to see Consolas, a fixed-width font that isn't related to Courier.
Pity that Mac users might never see these fonts, and that even the Windows-using world apparently won't get them until Longhorn ships, which is in about, oh, a gazillion years.
Does Microsoft Word seem like a lumbering, incoherent mess of a program sometimes?
Well, okay, it is, but if you'd like some clarity about how it works and why it behaves the way it does—because most of us have to use it at one time or another—I'm running a full-day seminar about Word this Saturday (March 12) from 11:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. at SFU Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver. It costs $145 Cdn, with a 33% discount for members of the Editors' Association of Canada. You can register online.
The workshop will include lecture and lab components, and lots of Q&A. In fact, if you have stuff you'd like me to cover about Word, whether you're attending or not, leave a question in the comments and I'll see what I can come up with.
I've been in the same band, on and off, for nearly 12 years now, and we've played a lot of shows. But before tonight I'd never played in a casino, as we're doing all this week, right through to Saturday night.
Lulu's is a small (125 seat) show lounge at one end of the massive River Rock Casino, just across the Oak Street Bridge from Vancouver in its southern suburb of Richmond (near dead centre in this photo, on the peninsula between the three bridges). It is very professional, with a good stage, plenty of lighting, excellent equipment (and Mike, a good sound engineer), nice tables and chairs, and a large bar. We had great fun at the show, even on a quiet Tuesday night. It should be quite a blast by the weekend.
Yet that weird casino vibe is still there. Parking is free in the huge, security-patrolled, multi-level parkade next door. The ceilings and walls are dotted with hundreds of domed video cameras, augmented by dozens of beefy security staff regularly pacing the floor or standing ominously in strategic locations. There are no clocks. Photography is prohibited inside. Most of the floor is taken up by bank upon bank of bleeping, flashing slot machines. I had a good time onstage, but it just doesn't seem like the kind of place I'd go to have fun if I weren't working there.
Then again, I don't even buy lottery tickets, so I'm obviously not in the casino target market at all.
I've had an iPod shuffle for a few weeks now (and managed to track down another to give to my wife), so the initial gee-whiz has worn off.
Still, I find little to complain about, and many subtle details to admire. One of my favourite improvements over my old RCA MP3 player is that the iPod shuffle pretty much always remembers where I am. If I'm in the middle of listening to a 45-minute transcript of a speech and I shut the shuffle off, when I turn it back on and press Play, I'm right back where I left off. The RCA would start over at the beginning of the talk, requiring some incredibly annoying fast-forwarding.
So, from the small list of music-playing annoyances (aside from those involved with using the iPod shuffle as a flash drive on Macs), here are my top three suggestions for how Apple could improve the next version of this player:
Make the slider button textured. The iPod shuffle is smooth and slick. And not just in the sense of "cool"—I mean physically in your hand. It has very few bumps or protuberances, and the surface has as mirror-like a sheen as you can get from white plastic. That's generally fine, and makes it look like an iPod. But the slider switch on the back that turns the power on and changes the iPod's play mode can actually be physically slippery. If people use it when jogging or working out, as Apple suggests, and they sweat, as most of us do, that switch can actually be difficult or impossible to slide accurately.
The solution: Give the switch some texture, some bumps or ridges, so that you can move it with a damp or gloved finger. In the meantime, I've improvised my own by sticking a tiny pad of Velcro (the non-hooked side, and white, of course) on the switch.
Tell me why my iPod shuffle is syncing so slowly or isn't charging. The only way to charge an iPod shuffle is through its USB connector, and how fast you load songs from your computer depends on what kind of USB port you're using: the older, slower USB 1.1 or the newer, much faster USB 2.0. (The FireWire connector for other types of iPods doesn't generally have these problems, especially with speed.)
That sounds simple at first, but it isn't. USB ports all the look the same. In general, if you plug your iPod shuffle straight into your computer, it gets power, but if you plug it into a USB hub, that hub might or might not provide power, depending on whether it has its own power supply. (The iPod shuffle's lights tell you if it's charging, but if your computer or hub is under your desk, you might not be able to see them.) And sync speed gets even trickier, since USB ports don't physically indicate their speed, and having slower USB 1.1 devices sharing a single USB 2.0 bus or plug can slow them all down to USB 1.1 speeds, slowing down sync times by an order of magnitude.
The solution: Apple's built-in System Profiler application (see my screenshot here) garners lots of information about the USB port your iPod shuffle is connected to, including its speed (up to 12 megabits per second for USB 1.1, up to 480 Mbps for USB 2.0—theoretically) and power (500 mA if powered, 100 mA if not). iTunes should be able to grab that information and display it in simplified form ("iPod [is|is not] charging," "iPod will sync at [high|low] speed") when you're looking at your iPod song list, so you know what's going on without having to look at the iPod's status lights or wonder whether songs are being transferred quickly or slowly.
Make Sound Check work. iTunes has a nice Sound Check feature that tries to level out the volume of song files you play (without changing the files themselves), so one song isn't drastically louder than another. As far as I know, Sound Check works on other iPods too, but not on my iPod shuffle. It would be nice if it did, especially when I have a quiet track cranked up, then the next one blows my ears off. I have enough hearing damage from my career as a drummer already.
Yes, I've already sent the first suggestion to Apple, and the second and third ones are going today.
I'll be running another workshop about editing with Microsoft Word all day (11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.) next Saturday, March 12, 2005, at Simon Fraser University's Harbour Centre campus in downtown Vancouver.
You can find out more and register online at the Editors' Association of Canada Workshops page. EAC members get in cheaper. In the meantime, I've posted some recycled links from my last session:
My wife managed to dig out her 1984 "Seven and the Ragged Tiger" Duran Duran tour T-shirt before heading down to find cheap scalped tickets after doors to the band's concert tonight had just opened. But it's not 1984 anymore, of course: she reports that everyone in the audience is over 30, and most were talking to their friends elsewhere in the stands on cell phones—or, like she was, telecasting snippets of the show to people like me at home. And she can drink in the stands, legally.
Yahoo! is making waves about its tenth anniversary this year, including posting a copy of its home page from early 1995. Of course, someone found an even earlier version and posted that online too.
Ten years ago, when Yahoo! was getting started, I was playing a three-week residency with my band at a hotel in Terrace, B.C., where there was no Internet access to while away the time. We spent much of our many free daytime hours in our rooms, where the diversions included watching hours of Discovery Channel, among other things. I can't believe I'm still in the same bloody band.
Just a reminder that tonight I rock with the band at Surrey's Central City Brewing Company again, as we do each week.
Next week (March 10), however, our place will be taken by the Retrosonics, while the rest of us spend the entire five-day period from Tuesday March 8 through Saturday March 12 playing at Lulu's Lounge at the River Rock Casino in Richmond, B.C. It's apparently a nice venue—according to my daughters' piano teacher, who has been there a number of times.
Hope to see you at the brewing company or the casino, baby!
British Columbia is holding a provincial election on May 17. On the ballot is a referendum about the Single Transferable Vote, a new method of choosing and electing candidates proposed to help reduce the skew of our current "first past the post system." STV for BC tells you why that's a good idea, even if the implementation is rather complex.
Web designers have to test their work on a variety of computer platforms, browsers, and screen sizes. That can get annoying. While there are many clever ways to set up browser windows for different standard screen dimensions (such as the Web Developer Toolbar for Firefox and Mozilla, which has all sorts of other cool tricks—go download it if you don't have it yet), one of the simplest is just to set yourself up with desktop wallpaper that shows what the different sizes are. Then you just drag your windows into place and resize them until they fit the lines on the wallpaper.
Plenty of people have made that kind of wallpaper before, but when I had trouble finding their work today at the office, I whipped together three quick wallpaper images, and you're welcome to use them. Just right-click or control-click on the one you want and save it to your computer (or click to display one, then choose File > Save As...):
Then do whatever you need to do to set it as your desktop background. They're simply overlays on the standard Mac OS X 10.3 Aqua Blue wallpaper, but they'll work on Mac, Windows, or Linux/Unix X Windows (GNOME or KDE) desktops. It's best if you use the one that matches your screen resolution. If your screen's dimensions differ from the size you choose, you'll need to set the wallpaper to Tile or Center (not Fill Screen or Stretch to Fill Screen), to make sure that it isn't stretched or squashed—otherwise the dimensions will be wrong.
NOTE: Now, before you complain, I know that I didn't create them at all possible useful sizes, or include all resolutions. If you have a new iMac or PowerBook or other display with a wide-aspect screen, for instance, you should choose the one that best fits the height of your screen and set it to Tile or Center. This was a quick and dirty task that took me all of 10 minutes, so treat it as such.
Oh, and if none of this makes any sense, you probably have better things to do with your life than worry about browser window sizes, and you don't need the wallpaper at all.
I missed this while I was in Victoria over the weekend, but computer interface pioneer Jef Raskin died. He had long been a controversial figure in the industry—while he founded Apple's Macintosh project when working at the company in the late '70s and early '80s, his input into the eventual design (after he left Apple in 1982, two years before the Mac's public release) has been a subject of much dispute (see 1, 2, 3), and a bit of parody as well (4, 5).
He always claimed that he worked tirelessly on improving human-computer interaction, but if you tried some of his subsequent work, from the Canon Cat to the Humane Interface (a.k.a. "Archy"), you might find them clever and interesting—but they're not easy to figure out. For me, none of his later ideas has the eureka feeling of the original Mac.
Raskin wanted the Mac to be an easy-to-use, appliance-like tool for everyone. The high-level concept persisted, even if the eventual implementation was different, perhaps better, and definitely more expensive. So, regardless of the details, we owe Raskin thanks for thinking of us regular people, and helping take us away from pure command-line interfaces into something that allowed pointing, clicking, and dragging—and thus PageMaker, Photoshop, and the Web (of course).