September 29, 2009

Time to Put the Fax Machine Out to Pasture?

I stayed out of the last "do I still need a fax" discussion on the Editors' Association of Canada mailing list, but recent events are prompting me to comment.

We've used fax machines extensively in our work for around two decades. The amount of work that arrives by fax has tapered off over the last year or two, but the machine is still connected, still on.

When a fax arrives, there's a "distinctive ring," and since the machine was in my wife's office, if she wasn't home, I'd jump like Pavlov's proverbial pup every time I heard that signal. It occurred to me just now that when I hear that signal these days, I usually ignore it. Why? My initial reaction to this self-question was because we're getting way more spam faxes.

Upon further thought, I realize that, no, not really. We're not getting more spam faxes, we're just getting a tenth of the business-related faxes that we used to receive, but we're still getting about the same number of spam faxes.

Yet the result is the same: the signal-to-noise ratio of this particular communication medium has fallen to the point that I've lost the signal in the noise a few times in the last couple of days. I've ignored the distinctive ring until I happen to be passing by the machine on some other perambulation, only to find that -- Yikes -- there's actually a fax from a client and confirmation about something is needed ASAP.

The fax machine is crying wolf much too often. Perhaps it needs to be put down - or only turned on when a client specifically needs to fax me something. Or, perhaps, go completely digital with an online fax service.

P.S. Dear clients, if perchance, you somehow interpreted that last metaphor to mean that I consider you to be sheep, please be assured that was not my intent!

UPDATE: As I was writing this post, what did I hear but the distinctive ring. Not once, but twice. I have retrieved those faxes, and the first asked if I wanted to book a dinner cruise, and the second told me that "We can market your business at LESS THAN 1 cent per fax. Fax 100,000 businesses in the Lower Mainland for only $799." I kid you not.

Posted by Paul at 12:07 PM

September 18, 2009

The Big Notebook Computer Debate

There's been a debate on the Editors' Association of Canada mail list recently about what notebook computers people recommend.

As you can imagine, the thread has run wild. I love A. I hate A. I had a great B. What?! No end of trouble with B.

Do I dare get into the PC vs Mac minefield?

Some thoughts:

I suspect you deal with outliers when you ask people for recommendations. I think people tend to remember, and gravitate toward, their best and worst experiences, and the best and worst things that their peers have told them.

I lean toward doing some initial research with PC Magazine, and other trusted industry publications, because the reviews/results tend to jibe with what my friends and associates talk about. PC Mag rates some Dells great, some lousy. It rates some HPs great, some lousy. It rates some IBM/Lenovos wonderful, some weird. And though it's a Wintel-centric publication, it rates some Macs fantastic, some lacking.

And there are personal-preference intangibles such as keyboard feel -- I happen to love IBM/Lenovo notebook keyboards because to me they best replicate the full-size, full key-travel, clicky IBM keyboards of yore. I dislike "chiclet" keyboards, and soft keyboards, but some love them.

So be it.

And appearance -- I think the plastic white Mac notebooks are ugly, and like my matte black, businesslike IBM. But that's my personal perception. I think Macbook Pros look cool, though I've never had one.

So I think that people should check Consumer Reports, PC Mag reviews and surveys, and on that basis dump the worst-performing/reviewed 20% of all the available notebooks out there, and then go out and try a dozen or more machines in real life. Use them. For more than a minute or two.

And then decide what you want to interact with every day, what feels right, what moves YOU. You're going to be spending hundreds of hours with this hardware.

If you love it, and it lasts 18 months, you'll still remember loving it. You'll excuse its early failing -- because you loved that hunk of circuits and plastic.

If you're uncomfortable with it, and it lasts five years, you'll still give it at best grudging respect.

Happy Hunting, Paul.

Posted by Paul at 10:33 PM

September 12, 2009

Burnaby Artists Studio Tour, Deer Lake Ramble

My wife Yumi and I spent a couple of hours today visiting Burnaby artists in their homes and studios on the Studio Tour 2009.

We started with James Koll, who lives nearby. We've bought a couple of his watercolours and a print, and he's becoming one of our favourite local artists for his lifelike renditions of landscapes. After visiting James, we hit a few other artists, and then ended up at the Shadbolt Centre at Deer Lake. After checking out the displays at the various galleries in the area, we took a slow ramble along the boardwalk at Deer Lake, where I enjoyed taking photos of the wildlife.

On the way home, we ended up raiding an ATM and going back to James Koll's to buy another watercolour -- "Still Creek Near the Lake." We volunteer as streamkeepers in Burnaby, so we have a close connection to the scenes Koll paints of waterways and parks around the city.

Here are few photos from today's walk:

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The lawn below the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby

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Lilly pads in Deer Lake

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Mallard framed by trees

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A frog soaking up the sun

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Great Blue Heron

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Whack! The heron strikes

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Success - a fish to swallow

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No time to digest, on the hunt again

Posted by Paul at 07:05 PM

September 10, 2009

Vile Obama, Stalin Bumper Sticker

I heard today that there's a bumper sticker in the US that goes:

"If It Sounds Like Marx, And Acts Like Stalin, It's Probably Obama."

If you Google that, you'll find plenty more of its ilk.

Last time I checked, Obama wasn't mass-murdering millions of his own citizens, and those of other nations and ethnic groups. I'll never understand why references to Hitler are immediately jumped on but somehow Uncle Joe is fine. Must be the bigger belly and bushier moustache. You want to start comparing blood on a dictator's hands and Joe would likely pull ahead of Adolf... 

If this is political discourse, yikes!

Shame.

I'm all for free speech, but this is sheer propaganda that twists history and tramples the memories of all those murdered by the Soviet state.

Posted by Paul at 05:12 PM

September 08, 2009

PowerPoint Peeves

People should be licensed to use PowerPoint, and each copy should be registered as a dangerous weapon.

There should be a three-strike rule: if you hit the wrong button three times (going back when you meant to go forward, or minimizing the display, or whatever user-caused technical glitch), sorry, but your presentation is over.

If you ever say, "You can't really see this but. . ." your presentation is over. If we can't see it, why is it in the slide show?

If you ever read an entire slide word for word, your presentation is over. Well, OK, maybe it's an important quotation - but dang it, if you read three slides in a row verbatim. . .

If you have green text on a purple background, or vice versa, your presentation isn't even starting!

I could go on, but the boil is gone and I'm down to a simmer.

Posted by Paul at 08:15 PM

September 07, 2009

Plethora of Petals, Plants at New Westminster Quay

The boardwalk along the Fraser River in New Westminster has an amazing collection of flowers and plants. I spent a couple of hours blissfully lost in photographing the array on a lazy Labour Day. Here's a photographic ode to the end of summer:

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All shots hand-held with Nikon D300 and AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm VR ED zoom at ISOs ranging between 200-400. The camera was on the "Vivid" setting. Not sure how that happened, I usually have it set on "Standard," but for the most part it worked well, with only a few shots badly over-saturated. These are all from Large/Fine JPEG files. I have the raw NEF files as well, but have yet to try playing with post-processing them.

Posted by Paul at 04:12 PM

September 06, 2009

Chris Isaak at the PNE

It was a great show yesterday. Isaak is a consummate performer with great original tunes and crowd-pleasing chatter.

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Concert shots were hand-held at ISO 3200 with my Nikon D300, with the 18-200 VR lens.

Posted by Paul at 09:08 PM

First Foray to Vancouver’s PNE

Yumi and I went to the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver for the first time since we moved to the lower mainland of BC some ten years ago. I'm not a great fan of crowds, lines, and waiting in transit, but we decided to go for it, and were happy we did. Transit was excellent - we took the Skytrain from Edmonds to 29th Ave., and then transferred to the express PNE bus. The connections were flawless and smooth. I was impressed. The PNE itself was not that crowded on a cloudy afternoon and evening with a threat of rain, and we had a great time.

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Paul with the Global TV "anchor desk"

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And Yumi with the Global gang

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Yumi petting an RCMP horse

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Gorgeous animals!

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A rider lays out his gear.

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The RCMP Musical Ride

I hadn't seen a Musical Ride performance live in decades, and it was breathtaking.

Unfortunately, the lights in the stadium had a horrible colour cast, which I left unadjusted in these photos to show how bad it was. Human vision usually compensates for such shifts, but when the riders first rode in, Yumi gasped and said, "They all look orange." Yep.

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Experimenting with a very low ISO and low shutter speed to blur the riders circling the two in the center.

Posted by Paul at 08:25 PM

September 05, 2009

Blog Mentioned in Burnaby Now

Thanks to Julie Maclellan who mentioned me in her Burnaby Now column this weekend. She called me a "streamkeeper, environmental advocate and blogger about all sorts of interesting things." The pressure is on now!

Posted by Paul at 11:49 AM

September 04, 2009

How to Change a College to a University

Too funny to pass up.

Er, don't we have a bunch of new universities in BC?

Posted by Paul at 10:47 PM

Watching Cat’s Brain Work

Like many of us, especially those who have pets, I'm a sucker for anthropomorphizing, or attributing human characteristics to animals. Occasionally you feel a tingle of excitement at watching an animal's mind work, and you think you understand what's happening. On the one hand these flashes of empathy, that feeling of seeing something through another animal's eyes, provide a sense of wonder and mutual understanding, but on the other hand they may often be projections that stem from our species' never-satiated desire to consider ourselves the all-understanding pinnacle of development on Mother Nature's totem pole. Yet it's still a thrill when it happens.

Heck, sometimes it's a thrill when it happens between humans, but I digress.

I could swear I followed Choco the cat's train of thought for several seconds the other day, and it was fascinating to watch because she exhibited a form of reasoning that we can relate to. My wife and I were sitting in the living room watching TV and Choco was curled up on the carpet. Suddenly there was a bang upstairs as the wind blew a door shut.

Naturally Choco jumped, but what followed was more interesting. She looked at my wife, she looked at me. . . and then her eyes widened, her ears flattened, and her body assumed the classic Halloween cat "fight or flight" pose, muscles tensed and back arched. To my mind it was clear that she'd counted heads and reached the conclusion that if we were both with her, the noise must be an intruder.

Yeah, yeah, cats are said to have the intellectual capability of a two or three-year-old human, so what's so amazing about this? I dunno. It just felt cool to get into Choco's mind, and empathize with that primeval, horror-movie reaction of "if we're all here, what was that?!"

Posted by Paul at 10:45 AM

September 03, 2009

Wee Bit of Communication Goes a Long Way

It's not knowing that bugs me. In this case, not knowing why the plumber is not here when it's nearly 10:30 and he said he'd be here at 8:30. What makes this even worse today is that he was here - I saw him pull up at 8:20 so I ran downstairs to open the utility room and turn on the lights - and then he disappeared without ringing the doorbell. Huh?

He's been here twice before to work on the same problem - sand in the lines that keeps clogging up our pressure control valve - so I know he's a nice guy and does good work. The recurring problem is not his fault, and this time around he's adding a filter to our line to try to prevent it from happening again. We do have water, albeit at very low pressure, so perhaps he was called away on an emergency and figured we could wait.

I am willing to wait, but a 30-second phone call to let me know what's going on would be nice, and would instantly dispel my growing irritation. I hate to call him because I feel like I'm nagging.

I work from home, but I have errands to run, meetings to go to, a much-needed workout I'd like to squeeze in to my day -- and I'm stuck here. Not knowing.

So please, tradespeople, take those 30 seconds to let your customers know if your schedule changes. We can understand emergencies, we can understand traffic, we can understand a delay in sourcing a part. It's not knowing that weighs on the relationship.

Any business that takes the time to communicate, to keep its customers informed, will keep them happy.

Ah, a knock on the door. At last.

Posted by Paul at 10:37 AM

September 02, 2009

Why No Comments?

Recently I've been asked why people cannot comment on this blog. The answer is mostly sloth and comfort with the status quo. When I began this blog many years ago, I had comments enabled, and was soon hit with comment spam. The easiest solution back then was to shut off commenting, and that's what I did. Software evolved, making it easier to set up comment registration, bot detection, white/black lists, etc., but I was loath to to tinker with a stable setup and have not gotten around to upgrading my blog software.

When I do think about upgrading now, I run into other questions - since my Movable Type installation is several generations behind, it appears it may no longer be that simple to upgrade. I'd have to go through several iterations through the series to do it safely. Then there's the nagging thought that if I have to go to (what I perceive as) all that trouble, why not try, say, WordPress? But then I'd be upgrading between systems.

So there you have it - sloth, happiness with the status quo, fear of the unknown - all those human frailties :-). Hm, now that I've named them, perhaps I can confront them - someday.

Posted by Paul at 01:20 PM

A Plague of Plagiarism?

There's been some discussion on the Editors' Association of Canada mailing list recently about plagiarism and how to detect it. Here are my perceptions of overall trends:

I believe there is an ongoing technological and cultural shift that is blurring the issue of plagiarism in people's minds. We have become a copycat, copying world, and the digitization of content has made it effortless to make exact copies of text, graphics/photos, audio and video. This is not by any means a new idea or concern, and I'm sure there is research on this trend, but here are a few words off the top of my head.

In my youth we learned relatively simple analog copying from LP to cassette, from TV to VCR; however, such copying took as much time to accomplish as the length of the original recording. Now everything is digital files that can be copied and transferred from medium to medium in seconds or minutes at the click of a mouse. Kids have grown up with digital audio players (iPods et al), personal video recorders (PVRs) that amass hundreds of hours of one's favourite TV programs, and computers and the 'Net.

This digitization also makes it easy to non-destructively break down files and use snippets of original works. Kids are now encouraged to do "mashups" using text, graphics, audio and video, and web designers "suck" and "scrape" data from all over the 'Net for inclusion in re-purposed or re-branded websites. It's par for the course for bloggers and Twitterers to copy and use ideas/data, though most abide by precepts of acknowledgment, including citation, mutual linking, blog rolls and the RT (reTweet) function.

When I did my MA a couple of years ago after a 20-year hiatus from the halls of higher learning, I was pleased, amazed, and finally shocked at how easy it was to "do research" by logging into the university library from the comfort of one's home computer, and copy and paste relevant bits from peer-reviewed papers in respected journals downloaded in their entirety from databases. I kept such notes and quotations in a different font to make sure they stood out on the screen as I wrote papers. A far cry from physically entering the library, combing through the card catalogs and stacks, and taking notes by hand on 3 X 5 cards!

I have encountered situations in which people have copied copyrighted and trademarked material wholesale and passed it off in their "own works" -- entire swaths of writing, not just a sentence here or there -- only to have them deny that they'd done anything wrong. Pressing the issue resulted only in anger, incredibly (to my mind) broad definitions of "fair use," or a blanket dismissal that I wasn't with it.

Now I believe there are upsides to this technological/cultural revolution. I'm a fan of open-source movements that originated in software development and are gradually encompassing photography, audio/video production, and publishing. I appreciate the benefits of "open-source learning," which entails a lot of collaborative group work in educational settings. The key here is that people who honestly contribute original work are recognized by their peers in a self-policing atmosphere of mutual respect, acknowledgment, and encouragement.

Whether or not the positive influences of such open-source concepts overcome the temptations of cut-and-paste plagiarism remains to be seen. The bottom line is not technology, despite my focus on technological developments. Technology doesn't set ethical standards, though I wonder if it can undermine them. It's the people using the technology that need to know better.

Perhaps the cookie jar of original research and artistic production has become too easy to access and copy. A strange statement coming from me, since I despise DRM (digital rights management) and censorship. But I realize that I am human, and when there are cookies easily accessible, I know I'll be tempted to gobble them up, though if I had to bake them from scratch I'd think twice about the effort. At least I know that I wouldn't pass off store-bought cookies, or the neighbour's muffins, as my own!

I see that my argument is getting mired down, and my mind is not keeping up with my fingers on the keyboard, so I'd better quit now before I get stuck. Time to get back to work. Perhaps I'll write another mini-essay extending this topic another day.

Posted by Paul at 12:39 PM

September 01, 2009

Freshwater Fish in Steep Decline: Discovery Channel

It's not just ocean populations that are crashing in number and the physical size of individual fish. Those dismayed by disappearing Pacific salmon runs and the devastated Atlantic cod fishery have more to worry about than just the "black box" of ocean conditions often blamed for plummeting fish numbers.

Researchers revisiting historical records are amazed at the former abundance of fish in freshwater lakes and rivers:

Article.

Posted by Paul at 08:14 AM