Recently in Technology and Media Category

Never mind what I've written here recently. These three pieces are far more fascinating, so read them first:

  • Neal Stephenson (via Kottke) reveals why we're still using rockets to send things into space, when more efficient ways could be developed. (Quick summary: blame Hitler.)

  • John Baez (also via Kottke) discusses four great and important catastrophes in the history of the Earth: the formation of the Moon by a collision with another planet 4.53 billion years ago; the Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth's surface, probably because of gravitational interactions between Jupiter and Saturn between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago; the poisoning of our atmosphere by oxygen after plants evolved photosynthesis 2.5 billion years ago; and the "snowball Earth" global glaciation 850 million years ago.

  • Pioneering podcaster Doug Kaye visited Egypt as a tourist and just got back: somehow he and his wife just threaded the needle of having a completely uneventful Egyptian vacation and being embroiled in the current political turmoil. They witnessed quite a bit, without being in danger themselves. It's quite a story.

Back in October I mentioned two of my favourite podcasts, which I listen to every time there's a new episode. Now there's another.

CBC's "Age of Persuasion" is in its second season as a radio program, but only this year is it also available as an official podcast. (If you hunt around, there were some rogue ways to get subscribe to it podcast-style last year.) It's Terry O'Reilly's excellent documentary series about marketing and advertising.

It's interesting enough that even my 12-year-old daughter listened to it whenever she could last year—which is something to say about a show on advertising. I recommend you give it a try too.

If you'd like some other stuff to listen to, last week we released our first episode of Inside Home Recording for 2011, my co-host Dave Chick appeared on the now-annual audio recording podcaster roundtable, and I was also guest co-cost on the Canadian Podcast Buffet with Bob Goyetche and Mark Blevis.

Millennium FalconEarlier this month I mentioned my childhood obsession with Star Wars (an epidemic among us pre-teens at the turn of the '80s), and the fabulous Millennium Falcon book one of my daughters bought me for Christmas this year. Flipping through that book reminded me that the Falcon remains my favourite fictional spaceship of all time.

A big part of that is how real the Star Wars movies made it. Not only did it fly through space in special effects shots, but there was a full-size version built for the movie soundstages, plus the interior and cockpit sets. Movie viewers got a sense of the size and arrangement of the ship. One of the key innovations in Star Wars was also how lived-in the worlds and the hardware looked, none more so than the Falcon: there are blast marks and missing panels on the outside, and scuffs and dirt around the interior. The shape is also asymmetrical and strange, yet somehow right, both messily off-kilter and sleek at the same time.

Perhaps most importantly, the Falcon is just the right size and design for an imaginative kid to dream about. Star Trek's USS Enterprise is fantastic too, but it's huge, like the Navy ships it's named after—or an ocean liner. Big, quiet, efficient, run by a crew of hundreds. (Same problem with a Star Destroyer.) Smaller vessels like the X-wing fighter or Cylon raider are too cramped: just a cockpit and nowhere else for a pilot to go.

But the Falcon is like a motor home crossed with a Ferrari. It's beat up, but hot-rodded too. There's room inside to sit at the controls, and sleep, and eat, and stash cargo—it's a working ship with the proper facilities. (The movies never show a bathroom, but you know it's there. Probably a beer fridge too.) There's space to hang out with your friends, and space to be alone. My nerdy young self could imagine a long cross-Galaxy hyperspace voyage, like a desert road trip here on Earth. With just Han Solo and Chewbacca on board, Chewie would take his turn at the controls, and maybe I—ahem, I mean Han—would walk back into the hull, climb up the ladder to one of the gun turrets, sit in the perpendicular gravity of the gunner's chair, and watch the stars whiz by overhead.

I had my own version of the Millennium Falcon in our basement, which I wrote about a year ago. It's a tribute to that ship's appeal that we could reproduce it satisfactorily with a ping pong table and some big cardboard boxes.

The Eagle Transporter from Space: 1999 is a close second on my list of favourite spacecraft for similar reasons: it's a sort of spacefaring Winnebago too, a no-nonsense, utilitarian ship. The Eagle is not quite as cool as the Falcon, though, because it's just as much a lumpy utility vehicle as it looks. There were dozens of transporters at Moonbase Alpha, but only one Falcon anywhere in the Galactic Empire. And there are no hot-rod secrets under the Eagle's hood—plus no hyperdrive or giant furry co-pilot either, of course.

Back in 2007 and 2008, my then–co-host Paul and I at Inside Home Recording (IHR) regularly appeared on Leo Laporte's Lab With Leo TV show, made here in Vancouver. My final couple of 2008 segments are now available online, and are still useful:

The Lab #187 had me talking with Leo about MIDI drums, featuring a Yamaha DTXpress electronic kit I borrowed from a couple of friends:

Episode #190 focused instead on different types of headphones for use in the studio and with iPods and other devices, including in-ear monitors from Etymotic and Shure, open-back headphones from Sennheiser and AKG, and closed-back reference monitors from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Ultrasone:

More info at the IHR site...

Still a great little car

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Mazda3 front endIt's now been more than six months since my wife Air replaced our Toyota Echo with a much jazzier Mazda3 GT sedan. As it should be, the Mazda is a better car in every respect. (The best thing? Heated seats.)

Back in the '70s, the first Mazda I remember noticing was the GLC, known as the Familia in most of the world. The Mazda3 is a direct descendant of the GLC—through other names such as 323 and Protegé. "GLC" itself supposedly stood for "Great Little Car," and the Mazda3 remains that.

The driving position in the Mazda is much sportier than in any of the other cars we looked at, such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. For similar sporty reasons, it's also more difficult to see out the back and side windows than from our Ford Focus station wagon—it's like a cockpit in the Mazda, especially with the aggressive red-and-blue lighting of the instruments.

I also have yet to find anyone else who owns a Mazda3—which turns out to be many people we know—who dislikes it at all. It's not just a great little car, it's a car that seems to inspire loyalty. Our Toyota never really did that, even though we bought it on my birthday in 2004. True, it was a bottom-of-the-line model, but the Echo was simply a car, nothing more.

The Mazda has more personality than that. It's not a true sports car, but it's as close as anything we've ever owned. And it's fun getting it up to speed on a winding road (something we don't get a chance to do very often). But our Echo, the Focus, the Ford Escorts we owned before those, and my old AMC Hornet, Ford Fairmont, and Mercury station wagons never even prompted us to try.

Lennon and McCartneyWhenever I talk to one of my therapists or counsellors about my cancer and impending death, I mention how I can't predict what will make me cry, though it happens most often when I'm alone. I don't cry as regularly as you might expect, maybe because I've been thinking about it all for several years now. And the things that set me off are usually unpredictable and weird.

Like Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live last week. At first, when he played slightly-wobbly versions of "Jet" and "Band on the Run," I wondered why he was the musical guest at the moment: most guests only play two songs, he wasn't plugging a new album, and if he were promoting the Beatles on iTunes, I figured, you know, he'd do some Beatles tunes.

But then he turned up for a third performance, and from the first quiet acoustic guitar chords, I knew why he was there on the stage in New York City, and my eyes watered up. The song was "A Day in the Life," and he was playing it 30 years to the week after its primary composer, his long-dead childhood friend John Lennon, was shot not far away. Those two were the greatest songwriting team of the 20th century, the song one of their most spectacular collaborations (John wrote the beginning and the end, Paul the middle), from Sgt. Pepper, their most groundbreaking album.

When McCartney and his band turned it into an audience-singalong medley with one of Lennon's most lasting anthems, "Give Peace a Chance," I completely lost it, bawling (once again) by myself on the couch. Now, he said nothing about Lennon, neither before nor after the performance, nor later when, over the end credits, he performed a fourth number, his own Beatles classic "Get Back." But those few minutes of McCartney playing Lennon were the best tribute to the 30th anniversary of John's death that I saw.

On the actual anniversary, December 8, I was interviewed briefly by reporter Ian Hanomansing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The National" TV news, about Lennon's day-to-day influence on my life as a musician, listener—and father of Beatles-fan daughters who were born decades after the band broke up. (I was less than a year old then myself, and 11 when Lennon died.)

In part of the interview that didn't make it to air, I told Ian that from what I knew, John Lennon was a complicated character, not a simple emblem of peace and love, but an acerbic personality whose personal relationships were often fraught, whose life was often not happy, and who frequently contradicted himself, consciously or unconsciously. No doubt Paul McCartney knew that better than anyone, but last weekend, he didn't try to sum it up by talking about John Lennon. He let the man's music speak instead, and that's as classy a tribute as you can get.

Ferrari F40A few months ago the Badger turned me on to the long-running British automative TV program Top Gear. As everybody in the world except me seemed to know already, the show is a fantastic combination of pure car porn and wry English humour, quite unlike typical bone-dry, boring car shows on television.

One thing puzzles me, however. All three members of the team that presents the series—like petrol-heads everywhere, it seems—really like the noise that fast cars make, the louder and more obnoxious the better. Through Top Gear I discovered that many modern high-end sports cars have a "Sport" mode. At the push of a button, useful things happen: the suspension stiffens, automatic traction control is reduced for more feel and direct control of the vehicle, the transmission becomes more aggressive—all sorts of useful things for someone throwing a car around a track or a fast racing road.

"Sport" mode also does something else, though: it opens some valves to make the car's muffler less effective, so the car is noisier on purpose. I've never understood that. When a pack of Harley riders drives by with their brapping V-Twin engines, it doesn't sound macho and cool to me: it sounds like they're all drastically amplifying their farts. When a lowered tuner car or a Lamborghini or a big American V8 muscle car revs its "look at me" growl and then takes off into the distance, here's how it sounds to me:

Asshoooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]

Like any guy, I appreciate a beautiful, fast car with good performance. I'd love the chance to drive a Ferrari or an Aston Martin or a similar rocket—though I'd probably need some lessons, since I've never owned a vehicle that powerful or potentially dangerous. (I saw my first modern Aston Martin in a mall display downtown a couple of years ago, and yes, even with the engine off it was quite drool-worthy in person.) But I'm of the mind that a car that could blow past everyone else in subtle near-silence would be way cooler than a belching, revving monster. If you're going to show off a vehicle, show what it does, not what kind of foul sound it can make.

New rule for science journalism
Argh. Once again, the biggest science story of the week is a bit of a mess. NASA didn't help by teasing everyone with its advance press release/PR stunt about an "astrobiology discovery." The news was nothing of the sort. Rather, scientists have found some very weird life—on Earth.

The real story is fascinating, if you're into biology. Bacteria that appear to be able to substitute arsenic in place of phosphorus in the very structure of their DNA (and other bioactive molecules)—that's extremely cool. It shows how innovative natural selection can be, because as PZ Myers points out, the reason arsenic is usually lethal to living things is precisely because it's chemically so similar to phosphorus (and nitrogen). Usually, however, it screws up biochemical processes that it gets mixed into. These newly-discovered bacteria from salty, alkaline Mono Lake in California have managed to co-opt arsenic instead of being killed by it.

UPDATE December 7, 2010: Actually, maybe they haven't done so after all, and this whole ruckus has been a complete waste of time. Here, read some more.

But the publicity and news coverage remind me of the hoopla over Ida and Ardi, the fossil primate discoveries touted last year. Again, cool science, but woefully misrepresented to the public in its importance and meaning. The connection between the GFAJ-1 bacteria from Mono Lake and potential extraterrestrial life (which, I remind you, no one has yet found any evidence of) is so tenuous it's almost nonexistent: these critters tell us that it's possible for life to use a slightly different chemistry.

But we're not talking about life based on silicon instead of carbon. This is a less fundamental difference. The bacteria in question still use DNA. In the wild, in Mono Lake, they still use phosphorus, and indeed they're healthiest when they do. But in the lab, they can be coaxed into using arsenic instead, rather than simply dying in messy heaps like the rest of us earth beings would. Those are the basics.

I guess it makes sense, in a way, for NASA to hype up the story. A press release titled "Biologists discover life can use slightly different chemistry" wouldn't bring out CNN, but hype also has its risks:

Arsenic-based life

The problem is that hype can lull us into a cry-wolf syndrome. If people hear about an amazing set of "missing links!!!" (but oh, they aren't) and "signs of extraterrestrial life!!!" (but oh, they're terrestrial), are we going to take it seriously when scientists say, for instance, "Hey, global climate change looks like it's going to be a big problem"?

Many policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere are already too ignorant about important scientific issues today, even about such essential ideas as how petroleum forms, the reality of evolution, or the usefulness of paying for basic research. Bait-and-switch tactics with scientific announcements surely don't help.

CBC logoThe last time I was on the radio with CBC's Stephen Quinn, in November 2008, I already knew that my cancer treatments weren't really shrinking my tumours, but I still had many other options to try. I was basically optimistic that I'd live a few years more yet. And I was right. Here I am.

But what prompted Stephen to come to my house and interview me again yesterday is that I no longer have a few years. I probably don't even have a couple. As he put it, I'm not blogging about living with cancer anymore; I'm writing about dying of it. So he and I chatted for about 40 minutes, and he edited that down into a much shorter piece that was broadcast this morning on "The Early Edition," CBC Radio One's very popular Vancouver morning drive-time radio show. Our dog Lucy made a brief guest appearance.

If you missed it (I did—it was 6:15 a.m.!), I've posted audio files for you to hear: the edited interview (3.7 MB MP3 file, about 7 and a half minutes long) that went out today, and the full unedited version (18.4 MB MP3 file, almost 40 minutes) that includes more than half an hour of extra material. The music you hear at the beginning of the broadcast edit is my instrumental mix of my song "You're the Big Sky" (grab the 4.5 MP3 file if you like) from 2006.

Both versions of the interview are © 2010 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Cars used to be crap

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Waiting in the carContinuing my anniversary theme, our Ford Focus station wagon left its factory almost 10 years ago. Many drivers don't notice it, but our Focus is a sign of how all cars have become way, way better in recent years, in pretty much every respect.

Despite being a decade old, and being parked outside that whole time, our 2001 Focus SE Wagon has no rust. We've maintained it, and it has needed some repairs, but overall it runs well. The interior's in good shape. With its cavernous cargo compartment, it remains our go-to car when we need to move stuff, even if I'm not schlepping a whole band's instruments and PA gear anymore. I just put some snow tires on it for the winter, since we still use it for most family trips where we need to bring a decent amount of luggage.

My first car, by contrast, was a beige, late-'70s AMC Hornet, which I inherited from my grandmother. It was also a station wagon, a model AMC called the "Sportabout." My Oma didn't drive—the wagon had been my step-grandfather's car before he died in 1981. By the time I took it over in the mid-'80s, the Hornet was the same age as our Focus is now, but it was piece of junk. The body was rusted through in several places, the driver's-side seat springs had collapsed (to be fair, my Opa was a big guy, but still), the windows leaked, the suspension creaked, the engine dripped oil, and at intersections, I often had to put it in neutral and goose the accelerator to keep the car from stalling.

While the Hornet had a 3.8 L inline six-cylinder engine, that motor only produced about 130 horsepower, and the car wasn't light, so it drove like what could best be described as a tubby land yacht. The Focus is a smaller, lighter vehicle, with a 2.0 L four-cylinder motor that produces the same 130 hp, so it's a lot peppier, and has a firmer, European-style suspension, so it's more fun to drive too. My wife Air's brand new Mazda3 sedan, with its 167 hp 2.5 L engine, is a step beyond that still.

I'm not sure exactly when consumer automobiles made the transition into this new generation of better-built, longer-lasting, more reliable vehicles. I'm guessing it occurred mostly in the 1980s, when Japanese and European manufacturers pushed their North American competitors to improve by outselling them with much better cars—and when onboard computers, electronic fuel injection, and other innovations allowed vehicles to diagnose and adjust things automatically that formerly required human intervention. (When we drove into the mountains in the 1970s, my dad used to adjust the engine timing under the hood for the thinner air. No one has to do that now.)

After a decade, that old Hornet was already a beater, and it didn't last much longer. (I was a young driver too, so I didn't treat it especially well, but it did get me to high school and university.) I drove a couple of other hand-me-downs from my parents—a Ford Fairmont sedan and a big Mercury Marquis V8 wagon, both also old-school designs—before eventually discovering what a modern car was like in my wife's two-door 1992 Ford Escort sedan. That was a fine little machine, but it was also too little—when our second daughter was due, we traded it for a similar 1999 Escort wagon, with four doors and storage in the back.

We might still have that Escort if it hadn't been rear-ended and totaled at a red light by a Mercedes in the summer of 2001. The safety systems did their job: my wife and kids were all inside when it happened, and their injuries were pretty mild considering the severity of the crash. The cargo compartment looked like it had been punched in by a giant fist, spraying glass throughout the cabin. Our insurance replaced the car, but by then the Escort had been discontinued, replaced by the Focus. The one we have now was the last wagon we could track down in the city at the end of that model year.

Oddly, Ford no longer sells a Focus wagon (or even a hatchback) in North America, so if we needed to replace it, we'd have to buy from someone else. That's a pity, because I see a lot of them on the road. It's obviously a useful design for many people besides us, and the completely new 2012 wagon looks great—but won't be available on this side of the Atlantic.

Big Bang's blog

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Magellanic Clouds and Gum Nebula with Zeiss Distagon 21mmF2.8 May 2010 Light VersionIf you like the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, you might wonder how much of the science referred to on the show is realistic. David Saltzberg is the program's science advisor, and he has a blog about that very subject, called The Big Blog Theory.

Saltzberg consulted Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, about the latest post, listing the nearest stars to our solar system. Since I met Phil a couple of summers ago, I guess I'm only a couple of degrees of separation from the cast of the show (and the MythBusters too!).

The end of Mad Men season 4

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Two thoughts for the Mad Men fans out there about tonight's season finale:

  • Dr. Faye was right way back, about Don being a type, who would be remarried within a year.
  • Megan's French sounded like it was from France, not Montreal. Was that on purpose? Jessica Paré, the actress who plays her, is actually Québecois, so perhaps it was. Or maybe my ear for French accents is worse than it used to be.

Yes, count me in with the people who were hoping the marriage proposal was a dream sequence. But it remains true that you can't predict where this show is going, even week to week.

Given how long it's likely to be until season 5 starts (next summer), I hope I'm still alive to see it!

Thanks, Mac Station

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Apple Store Bellevue: not open all nightI tend to keep my computers running for a long time. Four and a half years ago, I bought my workhorse MacBook, soon after the model was first introduced. It has had its problems, but it has kept me entertained and productive, and still works with all the latest software, even if the hardware is showing its age. It, and my wife's matching black MacBook, are still the newest computers (not counting iPhones and the iPad) in our house.

For some months now, however, the power button on my computer has been flaky, sometimes working and sometimes not. That was fine as long as I never shut the computer down—always either letting it sleep or restarting it when necessary. Then I let the battery run down last week, and the MacBook shut itself off. And although everything else seemed fine, without a working power switch, there was no way to switch it on again, and thus to do anything with it. The MacBook was a brick. (Of course I have backups, so I wasn't worried about my data.)

After trying my usual voodoo tricks (which failed), I had to take it into the shop. Although the Apple Stores in Greater Vancouver are convenient, I like to give independent retailers a chance when I can—and as luck has it, Mac Station in Burnaby is the nearest Apple-authorized repair centre anyway. I had them take a look, and asked them to let me know what it would cost to fix.

The answer? Nothing! Even though my MacBook is well over a year past even its extended AppleCare warranty period, apparently there's some sort of secret Apple warranty for the top case—the part of the laptop housing that surrounds the keyboard, and includes the power button. My top case was showing cracks, so Mac Station ordered a new one, and it corrected the problem. Better yet, Apple covered the cost.

So, thanks Apple, and thanks Mac Station, for keeping my MacBook soldiering on for some time yet.

Happy Valentine's DayIt's both the 25th anniversary of the video game Super Mario Bros. and the 10th anniversary of the first public release of Apple's Mac OS X operating system. These are nerdy occasions, to be sure, but also significant ones for a large number of people (at least in the developed world).

Mario and his bizarre clan of mushroom-eating, head-stomping, turtle-shell–throwing game cohorts were the first—and are still the most famous—characters to emerge into popular culture from the world of video games. (I don't count the Space Invaders as "characters.") Millions of us have deep, muscle-memory childhood associations with Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Donkey Kong and his primate family, Toad, Boo, Wario, and even the anonymous goombas and tortoises, green pipes and coin blocks, and endless fields of pixelated bricks and banana barrels we traversed for hours with our numb thumbs.

For most, Mac OS X lies more in the background. No, it wasn't the true revolution that the original Mac OS had been 16 years earlier, in 1984. But when the Mac OS X Public Beta emerged with its shocking, "lickable" 3D Aqua appearance and modern technical infrastructure in 2000, it promised that Apple would remain relevant in the world of computing—that there would still be something to compete with PCs running Windows, and present different ideas about how we would interact with the machines that have come to dominate our lives.

Up in our closet, my family has an old Super Nintendo Entertainment System box with its controllers. We also have a Nintendo 64 and GameCube stowed away, while the Wii sits next to our big LCD television in the living room and we use it all the time. Our kids' piano teacher has the original Nintendo Entertainment System hooked up in her studio, and our daughters sometimes play the 1985 Super Mario Bros. game cartridge on it to kill time, or via download on our Wii at home. It's still fun, as it was when I first tried it at age 16, and as are its many successor games. They are as much a part of what we share across generations in this house as fairy tales, Looney Tunes, nursery rhymes, the Wizard of Oz, Sesame Street, or the Beatles.

Totally aside from desktop or laptop computing, anyone who carries a modern mobile phone, including my wife and I with our iPhones and our daughters with their Palm Pre handsets, is living with the legacy of Mac OS X. iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches run a version of OS X (now called iOS) directly. But every other iPhone-inspired device, from the Pre to the latest BlackBerry to any Android handset, includes design elements, interaction cues, technical requirements, and user expectations set, in part, by Apple's decisions about how to build Mac OS X a decade ago. (Interestingly, Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 seems to be trying something a little different.)

Mac OS X isn't the only influence, of course, but the screen of a freshly booted Windows 7 computer, Samsung Galaxy, iMac, Android phone, or Palm Pre looks more like that lickable, colourful, three-dimensional Aqua desktop from the Public Beta than it does the main screen on Windows 2000 or ME, a PalmPilot, Mac OS 9, an old BlackBerry or Nokia or Motorola phone, or OS/2.

A world where our viewscreens lacked heat-seeking red tortoise shells or pulsating, drop-shadowed buttons would probably still work just fine, but it would be a different one in many subtle ways.

When taking offence is a weakness

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What dismays me most about the circus show of news in the U.S. these past couple of weeks, with the Beckapalooza and the hoo-ha over the Manhattan Islamic Center/"Ground Zero Mosque" and the planned Burning of the Qu'ran, is how little the various parties involved seem to think of their belief systems.

Is Christianity really under any serious (or even non-serious) threat in the U.S.A., especially from a moderate-minded president who just managed to pass a watered-down health-care bill? Are American ideals and patriotism so fragile that they cannot withstand someone constructing a building a few minutes' walk from where the Twin Towers used to stand? Is the supposed creator of the Universe so thin-skinned that it can't handle a nutbar pastor/furniture salesman destroying copies of its book?

Strong philosophies would respond to these "affronts" with minimal, if any, concern. The religious and moral landscape of the U.S. has changed often, and sometimes radically, in that country's 234 years. But its bold experiment in building a free and diverse society has survived, and flourished. Neither the Manhattan attack of 9/11 nor the building of Cordoba House near where it happened should be able to usurp that. And would Islam not be a strong and durable religion if its adherents were easily able to brush off a silly stunt in Florida by saying, "Allah is too great to be bothered with that"?

(Okay, maybe the Tea Partiers do have something to worry about, but I don't think that the country their Founding Fathers envisaged is what's endangered.)

On the other hand, if a religion or a socio-political structure can't stand up to contrary ideas or blasphemies from non-adherents, I can't see how it should demand any respect at all.

Tarya and TJ Wedding - Bride and groom 3I think Tim Bray is right about what makes the new generation of tablet computers, led by the iPad from Apple, actually useful:

A tablet is, crucially, a more shareable computer. A laptop, with its fragile hinge-ware and space-gobbling keyboard, is just not comfy to share. A tablet is easier to bring to the café, easier to hand across the table or along the sofa, easier to seize in the heat of the moment, easier to hold up in triumph, easier to set aside when you need to meet someone's eyes.

Here's how that played out for me this week, somewhat unexpectedly. I was the official photographer for my cousin's wedding last weekend. That morning, I was preparing myself to take hundreds of pictures with both my film and digital SLR cameras. But, having just picked up the digital camera kit for my iPad earlier in the week, I thought it might be useful to bring the iPad along as a quick backup device onto which I could dump the digital files from time to time during the day. (Sometimes I'm a little paranoid about backups.)

After the ceremony itself, as everyone was settled in for the buffet brunch, but before speeches began, I plugged in the adapter and my camera's SD card and got most of the photos imported onto the iPad. (The process was a little flaky: after the first few hundred, the Photos app kept quitting, and though it remembered what it had imported, it would only do a few more pictures at a time before crashing again.) I didn't get everything backed up right then, but it was enough, especially since pictures of the ceremony itself were safe.

Then, as I flipped through the photographs to check them out, I realized something: I could pass the iPad around. My cousin and her family and friends could see pictures of the wedding, in a beautiful large picture-frame style that was easy and intuitive to flick through, before the event was even half over. They loved it.

Later that evening, I'd had a chance to get home, change clothes, and import the rest of the pictures before heading over to my aunt and uncle's house for the wedding after-party. There, more people, including the groom and his mom (who was visiting from Toronto), were able to see all the pictures on the iPad, the same day I'd taken them. A few of the group portraits included the groom's extended family—who, it turns out, had never all been in a photo together before, ever. He and his mom both got teary-eyed looking at them.

A few months ago I might have brought my laptop to import photos onto during the wedding. More likely, I wouldn't have bothered. And I certainly wouldn't have passed it around, since it's more awkward, fragile, and complicated to use when viewing pictures—particularly standing around in a crowded room of people who've had a few drinks.

I'm in the process of putting the best pictures from the wedding online, and I'll give everything to my cousin and her husband on DVD too, but the immediacy and poignancy of being able to display the pictures right there, during the events of the wedding day, made the iPad well worth what my wife paid for it in June.

How Mad can you get?

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Like many others, my wife Air and I have become big fans of AMC's television series Mad Men, set in New York's hard-drinking, hard-smoking, philandering advertising industry of the early 1960s. Aside from the usual reasons to like the program (i.e. it's really good), it intrigues me because the character of Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the same age my mother was at that time—though I think my mom had a better time of it.

If you're a Mad Men enthusiast too, I recommend the post-show analysis published each week at The House Next Door Online's Mad Men Monday. Here are the followups for this season's first, second, and third episodes, for instance. For me they provide good critical thought without trying to be too clever, as reviews can often do.

So far each episode this season has been set around a holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve 1964. Will this week see us at Valentine's Day '65? In real life, that was the one right before my parents got married in April.

Not long ago I wrote about how much I like the current wry ad campaigns from Old Spice and Dos Equis. As anyone who was around the Web at all this week knows, Old Spice has now blown the doors off with its on-the-fly series of video responses to people on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and elsewhere.

What amazed me was not only that a major consumer-products company like Procter & Gamble would go for this kind of campaign, but that the team behind it would handle the process so deftly. The dozens and dozens of short videos they produced this week were consistently funny (frequently hilarious), often surrealist and bizarre, and stupendously successful in pretty much every way. Actor Isaiah Mustafa, who plays the impossibly handsome shirtless Old Spice Guy, walked the razor's edge of deadpan self-parody with the skill of Peter Sellers—and apparently often did it in one take.

There has, so far, been no cynical backlash online, which I find astonishing. I wrote myself on Twitter that I want to go buy something from Old Spice now, even if I never use it, simply to reward the group of people who made the last couple of days of my chemo recovery more pleasant with so much funny stuff.

My guess is that sales of their products will skyrocket, and deservedly so. Most interesting, they haven't changed Old Spice itself at all: Procter & Gamble still sells the classic-scent aftershave, along with a few different scents in different sorts of grooming products that they've introduced over the past couple of decades. They're still using the same whistled jingle, even.

The transformation is entirely in how they present the brand, and how we buyers have come to think of it as a result. A decidedly uncool, old-man's aftershave that none of us really thought much about has turned into The Thing That Won The Internet, mostly by making fun of itself and the style of its own macho-manly ads of 30 or 40 years ago.

Marketing and advertising people the world over have surely been standing, mouths agape, at that transformation. And wondering what on earth Old Spice will do next.

iPad impressions

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iPad and Apple Bluetooth KeyboardI've now had the iPad my wife and kids gave me for my birthday for a little under two weeks—long enough to give you some early impressions. Rather than a review or a comprehensive pros-and-cons list, I'll simply note some of the things that surprised me about this device once I actually got it in my hands:

  • Battery life. Holy cow, I've never seen a gadget like this last so long on a charge. I've repeatedly used it for hours on end, to the point where my iPhone would normally be well into the red zone near depletion, and figuring I'd need to plug the iPad in—and then noticed that the battery was still as high as 72% charge. I likely get better-than-average battery life because I don't watch a lot of movies on it, and have the Wi-Fi–only model without the extra electricity-sucking 3G modem or GPS. Still, Apple's claimed 10-hour battery life actually seems conservative, in my estimation, and I've been able to leave the iPad for several days without a charge, and still have it ready to go.

  • Typing. No matter what some might claim, the onscreen keyboard sucks for typing anything of any length, especially if it involves numbers or punctuation, and especially HTML as I like to type for this blog here, with all its angle brackets, slashes, and quotation marks. It's actually worse than the iPhone's onscreen equivalent, because the iPad's screen keys are so much bigger and thus slower for my fingers to move between. I find I'm often typing letters in the bottom row of keys by accident when I mean to hit the space bar, for instance, and I have to position my hands in an exaggerated claw-like pose (like a concert pianist) to avoid triggering mistaken keypresses with other parts of my fingers and palms. So my first accessory purchase, made today (with one of my birthday gift cards—thanks!), is not a case, but a Bluetooth keyboard, which I'm using to write this post. Aah, much better. On the plus side, however, the screen keys are nearly silent, so I can at least type short stuff if I'm awake late, and not disturb my wife sleeping beside me.

  • Safari. Apple's advertising promises all the world's websites on the iPad. Well, sort of. There's the well-publicized lack of Flash support, but I can't stand most Flash-based sites anyway, so that doesn't stress me out much. But there are other peculiar incompatibilities, such as the embedded font issue I described earlier (now partially fixed, by the way, likely by Google's font team), and a problem where pasting text into my Movable Type blog editing window doesn't work properly. Both work fine on the desktop version of Safari. There are more, but it's obvious that mobile Safari and its desktop equivalent are close cousins rather than near-identical siblings. That means web developers will have to test with Yet Another Browser (probably more than that, since I'm not sure the iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch versions of Safari behave the same either). That's kind of a pain.

  • Portrait and landscape. Until I started using the iPad, I'd forgotten how much I liked reading web pages, emails, and documents in portrait (vertical) orientation, something I did a lot with my old rotating Radius Pivot CRT monitor in the '90s and early 2000s. (The iPad has a higher screen resolution than that bulky Radius beast did, by the way.) But the ease with which you can flip the iPad around means it's easy to change from one orientation to another depending on what you're looking at or doing at any moment. There's also no wrong way: the display will reorient whichever way you twist it, even 180° upside down. Fortunately there's also a hardware orientation lock switch for when you don't want that to happen. (If someone takes an iPad to the International Space Station, they'll be using that a lot, I guess.)

  • Heat and weight. As our summer temperatures reached 30° C and higher this week, I appreciated that the iPad doesn't seem to heat up with regular use, not as much as my iPhone and certainly nothing like the baking underside of my MacBook. Again, not playing movies, running Flash, or having 3G or GPS surely helps, but so does having no hard drive, not multitasking much, and using Apple's power-efficient A4 processor. However, the iPad is also surprisingly heavy for its size. Nothing like a MacBook, but since you hold the iPad upright, rather than resting it on your lap, it can get tiring on your wrists and arms.

  • Books and magazines. Its weight affects the iPad's usefulness for reading longer-form, traditionally offline material, such as books and magazines. I have an Amazon Kindle too, and while nearly any document looks much prettier on the iPad's full-colour backlit screen, the Kindle is so much lighter that it's far easier to read for extended periods. (Notice that both ebook readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad don't prop up quite the way books do either, so while they might be lighter than a thick dead-tree slab of Tolstoy, the electronic readers still require more active holding.) The iPad's great screen means that complex colour layouts—particularly magazines with lots of artwork or photography—look far better than on the Kindle. But the Kindle's low-power greyscale electronic ink display is far less strain on my eyes for reading long swaths of text, like a regular book. Still, the Kindle app for the iPad is very nice too—I'd rather browse and buy books on the iPad, then read them on the Kindle. On the iPad, Apple's iBooks app is very good for reading PDF files, and other apps such as the Zinio reader do a decent job with some mainstream magazines. The iPad certainly gives you more choices.

  • Syncing and charging. Given Apple's usual laser focus on a product's market position, I was puzzled that the iPad seems to have a mixed opinion of itself: is it an adjunct to your computer or a standalone device? It's not quite powerful or flexible enough to be someone's only computing gadget, at least not for someone who wants to do more than the most bare-bones stuff. Indeed, an iPad won't even work unless it's been synced to a computer running iTunes first, and some tasks like subscribing to new podcasts are only really possible via iTunes on the desktop. But iTunes has evolved so far beyond its original role (and name) as a way to manage music on Macs and sync it with iPods that—while it still works okay—it seems creaky and overextended as a way to interact with Apple's mobile devices today. The list of tasks for iTunes now includes Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, iTunes U courses, Books and PDFs, Apps, Ringtones, Internet Radio, and iTunes DJ and Genius playlists, as well as CD ripping, audio file conversion, and file sharing for iWork documents. But while the iPad requires iTunes for some things, you can also buy songs, videos, and apps wirelessly on it, and set up email accounts, Twitter and Facebook profiles, and so on, without plugging in. I just wish you could do all your stuff (especially syncing) without requiring a sync cable. (Microsoft's Zune supported wireless sync back in 2006, you know!) Another funny things is that, since all our Macs are pretty old in our house, none of them can provide enough power through USB to charge the iPad up—they'll keep it at its current charge level when plugged it, but actually filling the battery requires using a USB wall-plug adapter like the one the iPad comes with. (Newer Macs and some PCs can supply enough juice via their USB ports too.) So sometimes the iPad wants to be the child of a desktop computer, and sometimes it wants to be its own thing. It's like a teenager.

  • iOS 4 can't come soon enough. Having updated my iPhone to iOS 4 as soon as it became available a few weeks ago, I find that the iPad's remaining at iOS 3.2 until later this year to be frustrating. The improved multitasking and recently-used apps interface, broadened support for background audio streaming, universal email inbox, and especially folders for organizing apps are all things I miss when I fire up the iPad after using my iPhone. So in some ways, for now, the user interface on my year-old iPhone 3GS feels more modern than the brand new iPad. That should change soon enough, and I expect the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad to receive OS updates in a more coordinated manner after that, but for now the iPad is behind.

  • Bigger really is bigger, though not necessarily better. Yes, on first glance an iPad does seem simply like a bigger version of the iPod Touch and iPhone. But sometimes quantitative differences—a bigger housing and screen and more pixels in this case—really do make a qualitative difference too. An iPhone or iPod Touch feels like a pocket-sized computing device for while you're on the go (and maybe when you need to make phone calls). The iPad isn't as likely to be something you'll use waiting in line for coffee or a bus, but for lounging in front of the TV or in bed, or at a restaurant or café, or at a meeting or conference, or (in my case) out in the back yard first thing in the morning, it feels like much less of a production to bring along than a full-size laptop, and a more pleasant and immersive experience than pecking at an iPhone. It's different, and not yet mature, but it's a decidedly good experience, and does feel like the future.

How will the iPad change things? I won't predict or generalize too much, but I could see a specific scenario for our household: instead of replacing one of our aging MacBooks with another, I could see getting a desktop-bound iMac instead (which offers more power and a bigger screen for the same or less money) and using the iPad for lounging around elsewhere in the house. Maybe. We'll have to see how that really works out when the time comes.

It takes skill to create commercials that make fun of macho manly-manness, and yet appeal to both men and women at the same time. Old Spice and Dos Equis continue to do it:

You can also find out how the "I'm a Horse" Old Spice ad was made. Somehow, it's still funny all these months later too.

Oh, and happy Canada Day.