February 2005

Out of hibernation

The snakes are now out of hibernation and back in their cages. Another of the baby corn snakes didn’t make it, so we’re down to one, which at least ate a few times before we cooled it down. Lilith was very happy to see us again (see previous entry); the gopher snakes were more phlegmatic. Looks like Trouser is already quite active; Pretzel will no doubt be pounced on shortly.

In the zone

Today I finally managed to write a 2,400-word draft of an article on raising baby garter snakes, which if all goes well will end up in The Garter Snake, the EGSA’s newsletter.

It’s been a while since I’ve written something for print rather than the web. In fact, it’s been nearly three years since I wrote anything other than a book review for the reptile hobby press. It felt good. Writing was comfortable: I had no trouble getting back into the zone and maintaining my focus.

Despite the total lack of pay, I don’t mind writing these articles: I adopt a fairly informal, conversational tone, compared to the stilted, ersatz-scientific discourse many hobbyists adopt. That may have something to do with my writing skills (ahem), but it reflects the fact that I’m not trying to be professional. I’m just sharing knowledge, not trying to impress.

Grammar and the prescriptive attitude

Interesting article by Bruce Byfield about prescriptivism and grammar (via Languagehat). The author goes after the notion of learning rote rules: they were arbitrarily imposed in the first place, resist the natural change that language undergoes over time, and get in the way of good writing.

My concern is that the prescriptivism he describes — whether it’s “User’s Guide,” “Users’ Guide” or “Users Guide”, for example, or whether the singular they or prepositions at the end of sentences may be used — is that it’s at a different level than where many discussions of grammar take place. This is grammarianism of a professional sort, where tech writers try to reconcile different style guides, determine house rules, and enforce consistent usage. It’s utterly familiar to me, because it was relevant to my last two jobs, but it’s utterly foreign to anyone not employed in the writing business.

Grammar in the everyday sense means getting people to straighten out their homonyms (it’s/its, their/they’re/there, etc.) and punctuate properly, so that people can understand what the hell it is they’re trying to say. I’m more concerned about issues of basic grammar — or rather, literacy — than I am about issues of style: the former needs to be taught; the latter is a subject of endless debate and revision. It’s the difference between high-school history, where the basic material is laid down, and graduate seminars, where that basic material is subject to constant challenge and reinterpretation.

Update 11:17 PM: As it turns out, the page I originally linked to plagiarized the article and has since taken it down; I’ve changed the link to reflect the original source and author. See Languagehat’s comments for details.

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New iPods are one cable short

This morning Apple announced revisions to its iPod mini and iPod photo product lines. They’re cheaper and they come with more storage: the iPod mini now comes in two capacities, 4 GB (US$199, formerly US$249) and 6 GB (US$249); the 60-GB iPod photo drops US$150 to US$449, and the 40-GB iPod photo is replaced by a cheaper, 30-GB model that’s thinner because it uses a single-platter drive, at US$349.

The iPod decontenting continues: no iPod model now ships with a dock, and the iPod photos do not come with AV cables. In fact, the new models don’t even ship with a FireWire cable, just a USB 2.0 cable. This has raised a certain amount of ire and the inevitable petition. As usual, I don’t think much of the histrionics involved when Apple does something its fanboys don’t like. They generally invoke every argument — loyalty to the Mac fanbase or nefariously abandoning the FireWire standard — except the sensible ones. In this case it comes down to economics.

Continue reading this entry »

Workflow enhancements and such


Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by how much my various tech toys actually improve my life — or in this case, my workflow. For tomorrow’s “Tech Weekly” feature (see previous entry), the Citizen wanted to use a couple of my photos, and agreed to pay me for them. Some paperwork was naturally involved.

First, I had to sign the freelancer’s agreement. Time was, I would have printed the Word file, signed it, scanned it, and either faxed it or e-mailed it as an image inserted into a Word file or as a PDF. But now I’ve got a tablet. I was able to doodle out my signature and insert it directly into the file, save it as a PDF, and e-mail it back. No printing, no scanning, no faxing, no fuss.

Then they wanted an invoice. Being new and naïve in the ways of the freelancer, I didn’t know what format an invoice took. What to do? I started searching the web. But look! Pages comes with an invoice template, from which I was able to build my own. Signed, saved to PDF, and sent.

That was painless. That’s how it’s supposed to work, folks.

Personal web projects, full-time

The shot heard around the blogosphere: Jason Kottke has quit his job to work on his web site full-time, and has started a three-week campaign to raise enough funds to do it for a year. The idea of making a living from blogging is not new, nor is a fundraising drive — Andrew Sullivan raised nearly $80,000 that way a couple of years back. What’s new is that Jason is soliciting donations, but not advertising, and his focus will be creative and personal rather than, say, journalism or commentary. It doesn’t look like it’ll be limited to blogging, either, but a return to the personal web site — which is something that I still practice around here in the non-McWetlog areas of mcwetboy.com, but is not often seen elsewhere.

Some bloggers are skeptical if not outright hostile: their attitude is, who does this Kottke guy think he is, asking for $30 so he can play with his web site. Apart from working for the Man (and that Man’s name is usually Denton or Calacanis) or generating massive advertising revenues all on your lonesome doing political commentary, blogging isn’t usually seen as a job. Personal web projects even less so. A substantial portion of web opinion doesn’t like the thought of web site owners earning any income at all, whether from ads or fundraising drives, but they’ve usually got day jobs or are otherwise financially secure, and can afford their notions of financial purity.

This news is particularly relevant to me. Though not by design, I’m spending most of my time working on personal web projects. And to my surprise, some of them — The Map Room in particular — are earning revenue. Not enough to live on, but right now, with employment insurance benefits exhausted and few employment opportunities for an editor/writer in a small town who’s semi-disabled (in that I can’t physically handle manual labour or even being on my feet all day), it’s all I’ve got.

It’s getting to the point where I have to identify myself as a blogger when the media asks after my occupation; otherwise, they think I’m making my fortune breeding snakes (which, let me tell you, is much less lucrative than blogging, if you can believe it).

Jason’s aiming for one-third to one-half his former income. Right now I’m making about one-eighth my income as a reporter (which was a pretty paltry income to begin with) and one-sixteenth my income as a government drone. My goal is to increase that. Fortunately, living out here is pretty cheap and I’m not living alone, so I don’t need to generate vast sums.

My current plan, such as it is, is to keep plugging away at The Map Room while building up my other projects. Neither Ankylose This! nor Gartersnake.info get much traffic right now, but they only launched last September. Critical mass is still a way off. Eventually, they might do all right, and combined, I might earn something resembling a living.

So I have a vested interest in Jason’s success. If he can succeed, spectacularly, there’s a chance I might be able to muddle through.

If nothing else, a web populated with self-sustaining personal projects would be a very interesting place.

RIP Clie

After pulling out of the North American PDA market last year to focus on Japan, Sony has announced that it’s ending production of its Clie line of Palm OS handhelds. Between this and the handhelds coming out of PalmOne, which are increasingly cheap-looking (and cheap-feeling — have you ever held a Tungsten T5 or Zire 72?), it’s safe to say that the high end of Palm OS based PDAs is about to disappear. Looks like I’ll be hanging on to my T2 until it falls apart.


Jesus. Came back from helping Venetia with her projects for a few hours to find more than 130 comment spams, posted within the space of an hour, waiting for me on The Map Room. Removed them. Movable Type 3.12 is starting to look persuasive: you can hold comments by unregistered users for review before they’re posted. That was by far the worst comment-spam attack I’ve yet faced; I can only hope that the nofollow plan makes them give up before the killing starts.

And then came a PayPal phishing expedition that I’m ashamed to say I nearly fell for, until I realized that it was sent to my Map Room address, which was never registered to them. A look at the raw source of the message revealed that the link was phony. It’s probably safe to say that an e-mail that begins, “Your account has been randomly flagged in our system as a part of our routine security measures,” is a scam.

Spoofed e-mail tutorials from eBay and PayPal, for future reference. Learn ’em good, folks.



Now that I have an iSight, video conferencing with me is now possible. Tried it with David on Saturday morning and it worked very well. Other friends and family members who might be interested in trying this as well, take note of this post.

Even if you don’t have a camera, one-way conferencing is still an option; you just need an appropriate instant messenger account.

Mac users running Panther will want to use iChat: use your AIM screen name, if you have one, or a .Mac account. You can get a free .Mac ID by signing up for the free 60-day trial; you can keep the ID after the trial expires.

If you’re on Windows, you’ll need AIM 5.5 or higher to do videoconferencing.

My camera is also compatible with Yahoo, but it’s video only — no sound. MSN Messenger for Mac does not support video conferencing.

You can find out how to contact me if you’re resourceful enough, or know how to ask nicely.

I’ve also been using it as a barcode scanner with Delicious Library. It works reasonably well, though the mass-market paperbacks’ barcodes are generating errors. Probably a problem with the Amazon database that the software uses for book data.

A few articles on other uses for and tips for using the iSight:

Birthday, meetup

So I turned 33 last Thursday, with minimal fuss. Minimal fuss is better than artificial fuss, so I was content. My father and brother sent me DVD sets: the second volumes of Rumpole of the Bailey and Looney Tunes, respectively. Jennifer gave me Gene Wolfe’s The Knight and The Wizard, about which I’ve heard good things, and an iSight camera, more on which in a moment.

The best part, though, was getting a call from my brother, with whom I hadn’t spoken since July. So we’ve managed to put all that nonsense behind us, to my considerable relief.

Friday evening was the long-awaited MeFi Ottawa meetup (see previous entry), which 11 people made it to. Considering that hardly anyone knew anyone else, we all managed to hit it off pretty well. (Compare that to the Toronto meetup Saturday, where four people stormed out after a heated discussion.) I have photos; so does Jennifer; and so do some other people.

Back in town Saturday, to buy aquarium equipment — Jennifer’s up to something — and visit with David and Rita again. Spent yesterday resting up.

Now, for some reason, I’m a little congested. Looks like I have a phlegm ration to work through.

In defense of grammarianism

This MetaTalk thread illustrates something I’ve often noticed: people can be terribly defensive about their grammar. And their spelling, too. I’ve seen many people get very huffy when either is corrected, which puzzles me: if you know you’ve got it wrong — and many people do when they follow their misspelled word with “(sp)” — then why the surly behaviour when someone shows you the right way?

For a professional grammarian like me, this is puzzling. If you simply don’t care, then don’t care — by which I mean don’t react, either. But I think it’s because most people simply don’t like being corrected, and take grammar and spelling corrections as an implicit critique of their intelligence, viz., if you don’t know it’s from its, you’re dumb.

Well, you’re not. While I learned it’s/its in the fourth grade, it took me until university to figure out colons and semicolons. And I had to do it on the fly; I wasn’t taught. We have to learn sooner or later, and later is better than never. I don’t mind ignorance — that can be dealt with — but defiant, stubborn ignorance pisses me off. If I’m correcting your grammar, I’m trying to help you, not rub your nose in it.

Headaches, car repairs and procrastination

Some people get worried when I don’t post, so here you go.

The problem with a regular diet of powerful anti-inflammatory medications is that you don’t know what to do when you get a simple, ordinary headache. Both Jen and I have throbbing heads today, for unrelated reasons. She took ibuprofen. What am I supposed to take that would work where naproxen doesn’t?

As Jen mentioned in her blog, the car’s lights went screwy on us a bit more than a week ago: when the headlights were on, the brake lights — two of them, anyway — stayed on permanently. A bit disconcerting when driving at night, hence the pullover by Gatineau’s finest. Not the first time we’d had such trouble: we haven’t been able to use the headlights and the cruise control at the same time for months. Took the into the Mazda dealership in Hull last Wednesday to get it fixed, and, much to my relief, the bill was under $50.

In the meantime, however, I was stressing out over it. I imagined a much stiffer bill than what it turned out to be, and as a result I procrastinated calling the dealer. On the day I was meaning to do it — a week ago yesterday — I got an awful lot of work done. I was avoiding. Jen finally broke the logjam and booked it herself, and from there on it was smooth sailing.

If this means that I have a tendency to procrastinate tasks that are difficult to cope with, even to the point where I’m afraid to ask after the cost, then I am my mother’s son. This situation reminded me of my mother’s dishwasher, which broke down during my childhood. She went a decade without getting it fixed; in the end, when it came time to sell the house, a $40 repair got it back in operation. I think she imagined that it would be much more expensive, and therefore was something she couldn’t cope with; as a result, the dishes piled up and the ants made themselves welcome. I must make sure I don’t recapitulate that behaviour.

How cats file

Somebody please explain when cats learned how to file. We pull plastic springs out from under the fridge and stove, but toy mice from under the living room shelving. They’re sorting their toys as they lose them?

Suddenly sociable

The world is conspiring to end my reclusive ways. We’ve long wanted a MetaFilter get-together in the Ottawa area, but now it finally looks like it’s going to happen. The particulars are settling out more quickly than they usually do: it looks like it’ll be at Pub Italia on Friday, February 18, beginning at 7 p.m. Nearly a dozen people have expressed an interest; if they all show up, it’ll be one of the largest MeFi gatherings in a while, and that’s probably because we haven’t had one yet.

I stopped by the Pontiac Archives this afternoon to do a little digging into the local railroad history. (I’m a trained historian, I like railroads, and I thought I might be able to find grist for an article or two.) I ended up staying for the monthly executive meeting, where I was the youngest (and male-est) attendee by a long shot; I may be dragooned into volunteering for a few things, like cataloguing the map collection. As far as the Pontiac is concerned, I’ve been incommunicado for about a year; this was nearly a coming-out party for me. I’ve been a volunteer workhorse in the past — here I go again?

If nothing else, it’s probably not a bad thing if I spend less time in front of this screen.