Journal: News & Comment

If the dates below look too old, you're probably in the archive (where you can also browse my journal entries). Try the home page for the newest stuff.

Saturday, February 07, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 10:17:02 PM:

Thanks, P.I.!

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

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

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

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

[Top of page]# 7:38:50 PM:

Get yer loop on

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

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

[Top of page]# 9:38:22 AM:

We were all newbies once

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

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

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

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

[Top of page]# 8:41:22 AM:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 06, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 9:10:48 PM:

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 05, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 8:05:34 PM:

Penmachine comments and Atom feed now online

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 04, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 4:44:41 PM:

I love a pithy summary

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

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

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

[Top of page]# 12:35:20 PM:

Blogger hazards

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

Here's what happened:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 03, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 10:41:36 PM:

A dirty little secret about Mac OS X

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 02, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 7:50:56 AM:

What is youth?

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

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

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

Sunday, February 01, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 7:18:43 PM:

Music for kids

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

Saturday, January 31, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 9:23:54 AM:

Birdie irony

Here are some words of wisdom from Craig Northey:

"Have you heard about this show American Idol? They turn on a karaoke machine and play Phil Collins and Michael Bolton songs and little le Chateau shoppers pretend to be 'in the moment.' Its sort of like Anson Williams as Potsie Webber singing 'Hound Dog' on 'Happy Days' only more late 90's."

"Wait til you hear what I think of that bad man Saddam Hussein. I hope they catch him one day. That would make for great TV as well! I think they should humiliate him just like they do with the auditions on American Idol. They should get that Simon guy to tell him that he looks weird and that moustaches are out of style. That will teach him. CNN Idol."

"Car heater warm. That is its own claustrophobic type of warmth. It doesn't have the longer throw of house warmth. It comes on faster and leaves even more quickly."

"Four budgies died for my sense of irony."

Friday, January 30, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 1:12:46 PM:

Font-o-licious

This morning I read Splorp's link to a list of alternative web font choices from Jeff Croft. I liked what I saw, so I took his advice. Now, if you have the proper fonts on your machine, you might see headlines in one of these:

Myriad Bold

Gill Sans Bold

If not, you'll see one of the plain old options:

Arial Bold

Helvetica Bold

Let me know if you find what you see annoying. (By the way, Myriad Bold has always been the font in the penmachine.com logo.)

Thursday, January 29, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 6:00:29 PM:

Missing musical manuals, mastering MIDI, and making marvelous (i)mages

David Pogue's Missing Manuals site now has a free download of the iLife '04 Mini Manual (1.5 MB PDF), which covers Apple's newest suite of iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and GarageBand.

The link comes from MacJams, which made a name for itself with its piano keyboards for GarageBand shootout, and has all sorts of good musical information for Mac-heads. This week, there is an overview of MIDI (the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard), which is how modern keyboards, samplers, synths, and computers communicate with one another.

For the non-musically inclined, O'Reilly Network has two good articles on the ideal workflow for digital photography (via Mac Net Journal).

[Top of page]# 8:27:49 AM:

It's got personality

People compliment me on this website. "Great site!" they say (and here's the important bit...). "Lots of interesting stuff there."

This site isn't much to look at, because I have no real design skill. It's not even all that easy to navigate, because most of the material has just accreted over the past seven years. But, as my visitors say, there's lots of interesting stuff—as well as a fair share of boring stuff. Lots of stuff, anyway, and lots of links to other stuff in other places. The Web is about stuff, and about links: about the content of websites.

A site's appearance is important, sure, but primarily as a way to frame the text, and maybe sometimes the photos and sound and movies. But most of the time it's text. That's what Google cares about, even when it's helping you search for images (you don't draw your search terms, after all). That's what you care about when you search for a writer and editor in Canada or information about the Aerolatte milk foamer or Ikea's Jerker desk and end up here.

Gerry McGovern has written a piece on why ad agencies generally design terrible websites (via D. Keith Robertson, who was via Tom Coates), and identifies it as a look-vs.-content problem:

What was the first e-commerce success story? Books. People who buy books like to read. Why do people go to a car website? To find out what sort of safety rating the car has. To find out if there are any deals going. (People are cheap on the Web.) Last night, my 12-year-old son went to a James Bond website. He wasn't looking for film clips. He was looking for a list of all the James Bond films.

[...]

In many ways, the products that sell best through traditional advertising don't do well on the Web. My kids love Coca Cola. They have never once visited the Coca Cola website. Why on earth would they? To find out what "the real thing" actually means?

The best websites are ones people come back to. A beautiful website that isn't usable and interesting may be lovely, but lovely doesn't last. Even if a site redesigned itself every day, and every day was a new and beautiful and spectacular new look, few people (and probably no one who wasn't a designer themselves) would hang around for more than a minute or two to admire its fresh loveliness. But the ugliest weblogs using the most boring default design templates can be fascinating for hours on end.

So to frame it in an old teenage cliché, a good website is less like a fantasy prom queen cheerleader underwear model (or class hunk football captain movie star) than it's like a real woman (or man) who's got personality. Sure, people (and sites) with personality can be beautiful, but the key is that a good one is worth knowing for the long term, has interesting stories to tell, and will improve with age. Even if the looks go away.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004 - newest items first
[Top of page]# 10:18:29 PM:

Splendid

Jeremy Hedley's Antipixel may have the best "about" page of any weblog. All it lacks is a photo.

Then again, there is Dean Allen's page.

[Top of page]# 1:23:12 PM:

Profit and "shareholder value" do not make a company

A link from Jason Kottke turns up this quote from the book Disclosing New Worlds:

A business develops an identity by providing a product or a service to people. To do that it needs capital, and it needs to make a profit, but no more than it needs to have competent employees or customers or any other thing that enables production to take place. None of this is the goal of the activity.

On a similar note, this past weekend's National Post newspaper had an excellent article by John Kay called "The Best Way to Get From A to Z" (Saturday, January 24, 2004, section RB1). It's only available in print or in the for-pay electronic edition, so here are some relevant quotes:

Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.

Case study, ICI:

For most of the 20th century, ICI was Britain's largest and most successful manufacturing company. In 1987, ICI described its business purpose thus: "ICI aims to be the world's leading chemical company, serving customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science." [...]

[In 1991, ownership changes led to a] new mission statement: "Our objective is to maximize value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base." [...] The company translated this into an operational strategy by disposing of [its] interests in bulk chemicals to acquire a niche group of specialty businesses. [...]

The outcome was not successful in any terms, including those of creating shareholder value. The share price peaked in 1998, soon after the new strategy was announced. The decline since then has been relentless. The transition from industrial giant to mid-cap corporation took only 12 years.

Case study, Boeing:

Bill Allen [Boeing's CEO from 1945 to 1968] said that... "The greatest pleasure life has to offer is the satisfaction that flows from participating in a difficult and constructive undertaking." [...]

...following the acquisition of its principal U.S. rival, McDonnell Douglas, in 1997 [new CEO Phil Condit told Business Week that] the company's previous preoccupation with meeting "technological challenges of supreme magnitude" [...] would have to change. "We are going into a value-based environment where unit cost, return on investment and shareholder return are the measures by which you'll be judged." [...]

So Boeing's civil order book today lags that of Airbus, a European consortium whose aims were not initially commercial. [...] The company got too close to the Pentagon and faced allegations of corruption. [...] Boeing stock, US$48 when Condit took over, rose to US$70 as he affirmed the commitment to shareholder value; by the time of his enforced resignation in December 2003, it had fallen to US$38.

To sum up:

The most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented. ICI and Boeing illustrate how a greater focus on shareholder returns was self-defeating in its own narrow terms. [...]

Unhappy businesses resemble one another; each successful company is successful in its own way. Business achievement depends on doing things that others cannot do and still find difficult to do even after others have seen the benefits they bring to the imitators. [...]

The great corporations of the modern world were not built by people whose overriding interest was wealth, profit, or shareholder value. To paraphrase [John Stuart] Mill: Their focus was on business followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they found profit by the way.

[Top of page]# 9:13:48 AM:

Huh-huh, a-huh-huh

Leesa sent me a list of not-half-bad musician jokes. I added a couple of my own to the bottom, dredged up from my memory of the back page of Musician magazine some years ago:

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