Web log

Life-cycle of computers


My Pentium 4, which has been powered up almost continuously since the fall of 2002, finally died last week. It went from running perfectly to totally dead in a moment. The DVD drive and fans spin on power-up, but there are no beeps from the BIOS, and no signs of life whatsoever. I have had my money's worth, and it is definitely not cost-effective to repair it. RIP...

I bought a refurbished Lenovo M-series from "The Trailing Edge" for $199 as a replacement. It comes complete with a valid Windows 7 license on a 500GB disk. I took out the disk and replaced it with a spare I had on hand, and installed Ubuntu. It runs fine as a backup machine, and I had no trouble at all getting it configured. The CPU is an AMD A6-5400; the first AMD cpu I have had. Performance on single-thread benchmarks is not far behind the Intel i5 quad 4 I use as my main desktop.

I tried once again to get used to the Unity desktop that is the default for Ubuntu, but after trying for a few days I decided I really couldn't stand it, and switched it to Cinnamon.

I also have a Toshiba Satellite that I got recently from a friend, which is now running Linux-Lite. I put in a small solid-state disk, and it improved the performance considerably. I have needed a modest laptop for some time to make the occasional presentation, and this will do the job well. Linux-Lite is an excellent distribution for lower-powered machines, and it makes this laptop highly useable. I tried it with Ubuntu/Unity, but it was a little too sluggish to be enjoyable.

Black chipmunk - a regular visitor


We see the chipmunk almost every day on our deck, and he has become quite tame. It was easy to get the videos below with my cellphone, which has the great advantage that it is always in my pocket - unlike a regular camera, which is rarely where one needs it.
Taking seeds from my slippers
Hiding in a hole in the lawn

Melanistic Eastern Chipmunk?


At first I thought it was a baby squirrel, when I first caught a glimpse of it a few weeks ago. But it hasn't grown noticeably, and it behaves exactly like a chipmunk, and is the same size. Melanistic (black) chipmunks are very rare, and I am always reluctant to believe that anything I see is very uncommon, as it often turns out to be unwarrented optimism. Here is the chipmunk, and here is a normal squirrel.
The boards on the deck are 3.5 inches wide.

Coyote or Fox?


The raccoon still comes by most days in the early morning to look for grubs, but they have all metamorphosed into June bugs by now, and he/she doesn't do any digging. The other night he was interrupted by another animal that looked as if it were about to attack, and they were both out of camera range within a few seconds. The majority opinion says it is a coyote, but others think it is a fox.

Pictures here and here.

The lawn has recovered after professional reseeding, but we are now back in the middle of a drought, and it is looking very brown again.

Damaged lawn


Our lawn has been severely damaged by grubs under the surface, which have eaten the roots off the grass. The grubs are probably June Bug larvae, and it is very easy to find them in large numbers. Hopefully they will become adults soon - ready to lay a new crop for next year.

The problem is made even worse by an animal that comes by at night and digs for the grubs. Neighbours suggested that skunks were to blame, so I set up a web camara with infra-red illumination, and had it take a picture every ten seconds.

It turned out to be a raccoon; it seems to come by at about 3 am each day. The expected bill for repair from the lawn service is mind-boggling, and the lawn will require lots of watering, which I am not keen to do as we are not connected to town water, but have to rely on our well. Here is the raccoon.

Back Lawn in bad shape
Front lawn even worse

Things falling apart


Two things went wrong on the same day. First, we have a flagpole and flag outside the house, and a neighbour emailed to say that the flag was now in the bushes after a windy night. So it was, and the problem was that the pulley at the top of the pole had worn through and finally broken. It wasn't easy to fix. The pole is about 20 feet high, and is far too weak to lean a ladder against it even if I had one. The pole is in sections and could in theory be taken down - but the sections have rusted together, and I could not separate them. With luck and patience I was able to put a new pulley on top using a long aluminum extension pole, while standing on a stepladder. Not easy with cold hands and enough wind to move things around all the time.

The second problem was the "nearly new" garage door - actually seven years old to my surprise on looking at the receipt - that broke a cable and sagged badly to one side. The bottom of the cable has been corroded by salt used on the driveway. I know enough to get professional help on this one - the springs can be deadly. Hopefully the repair people will call back tomorrow. The car can stay in the driveway for a few nights - I just hope it doesn't snow again.

Update next day - it did snow overnight!

Power outage


We had an unexpected power outage last night at 8:35 pm, when the outside temperature was about -28 C. This was the first real test of my battery-backup system, and I was pleased that my main computer remained running with no problem. It was shut down automatically after five more minutes, to make sure this happened well before the battery ran out of power. There was an unexpected side-effect; the wireless modem from Rogers continued to run for well over an hour, and gave me internet access from my Nexus 10 tablet as well as my phone. This was very helpful for finding out what was happening, and the "Carleton Place Social Scene" page on Facebook was quite informative. See - Facebook does have some actual value.

I was able to find out that power would be back up by 11:45, so it did not seem worth going out in the extreme cold to start the generator. In fact, power was restored by 10:30, well ahead of schedule, so lots of kudos to the maintenance crew who had to work in dreadful conditions.

We have a gas fireplace, so we could keep the den, living room and kitchen at a comfortable temperature. We made plans to sleep on the sofas if power was not restored by about midnight, but we didn't have to do so.

Lessons learned? We are quite well equipped for short outages at least, and for longer ones it would depend on finding a gas station nearby where we could buy gas for the generator. We also had to stumble around in the dark to get flashlights; luckily I knew exactly where one of them was. Emergency lighting would be a good idea, if it can be done at a reasonable cost.

Try Windows 10 at no cost, legally


You can try Windows 10, and also 8.1, Vista and Windows 7, at no cost, by downloading virtual machine images from http://dev.modern.ie/tools/vms/linux/. They are fully functional, but are limited to 90 days of use, at which time you have to re-install them.

To use them, you first have to download and install the Oracle product "VirtualBox". There are versions for Windows, Mac and Linux machines. VirtualBox provides a full emulation of a standard PC, in which you can run almost all other PC operating systems, including versions of Windows, most Linux distributions, and BSD systens such as FreeBSD and PC-BSD. You can get VirtualBox from https://www.virtualbox.org/

The downloaded virtual machines from Microsoft are supplied as ZIP files, which must be unzipped to make a '.OVA' file, which can be imported into VirtualBox in just a few keystrokes. It is not clear why they bother to compress them, because the compressed files are almost exactly the same size as the uncompressed version.

Provided you have a CPU with the hardware virtualization option (Intel i3, i5 and i7 all qualify, as do most recent AMD chips), you will find performance is nearly as good as running in non-emulated mode. Make sure this feature is turned on in the BIOS settings. On my i5, Windows 10 boots in just a few seconds in emulated mode, and runs well.

Screenshot of start menu here.
Viewing this blog in the Edge browser here.
Carleton Place weather

$140 programming error


It has been too long since I wrote on this blog; mainly due to being distracted by Facebook as an alternative. Facebook is getting steadily ruined by advertising, however.

I made a beginner-grade programming error last week. I have all my photos in a directory "Photos", and smaller copies in another directory ".photos". I keep them in step, and there is a small script that deletes any of the small images that doesn't have a corresponding original.

Recently, I decided there was no point in keeping the small copies; this machine is fast enough to resize pictures on demand. So I deleted the ".photos" directory and all its contents.

The first sign of trouble was Firefox resetting itself to the defaults, with all my bookmarks and stored passwords gone. The second sign, a few moments later, was all the icons disappearing from the desktop. I checked the primary disk, and found that all the files had disappeared from my home directory, but that the directory structure, and the operating system, were intact. Here I made the big assumption; I assumed that the disk, a Kingston 120GB SSD, had failed. So I went out and bought a new 240 GB Samsung SSD, for $140. I reinstalled everything, and the machine seemed fine.

Next day I downloaded some pictures from my camera, and the same thing happened. It obviously wasn't disk failure again. After some thought, I found the script that cleaned up the ".photos" directory had a serious bug.

Here is the offending script:


# Remove all files in .photos/Albums which to not appear in Photos/Albums
# Specify "-x" to actually delete the orphaned files in .photos

## DEADLY if .photos not present!

cd /home/mike/.photos/Albums
list=$(find . -type f)
for f in $list
  if [ ! -f /home/mike/Photos/Albums/$f ]
    echo $f
    if [ "$1" == "-x" ]
      rm $f
The problem occurs if ".photos" is not present, and the "cd" command fails silently. It proceeds to delete every file in the directory from which it is called; in my case the home directory.

Moral - check error codes more carefully!

Google Chromecast


I bought a Google Chromecast, for $39. It is a new gadget that looks like a big memory stick, and which plugs into an HDMI socket on the TV. You can then use a phone or tablet to show video material, from sources such as Youtube and Netflix, and have it display on the TV. Amazingly, it doesn't work with my Google Nexus 10 tablet. Driving it from the desktop computer upstairs is useless, and even then the sound does not come through the Bose sound system. It will have to be returned. Disappointing. Just plugging the tablet into the TV works far better.

The idea is great, and there will be more devices like this on the market soon. Amazon has just marketed a gadget that provides gaming facilities as well.

The return policy is excellent. You print out a mailing label for the return, and take it to the post office. Postage is covered, and they emailed to say my Visa account had been credited an hour after I mailed it. I am sure it is still physically in the Carleton Place post office.

Maytag, RIP


Our oven died again with the same fault, so we bought a new Whirlpool stove. Fantastic service from Corbeil Appliances (next to IKEA on Greenbank Road), with next-day delivery from Montreal. No more half-baked Maytag meals.

Maytag does it wrong


My dissatisfaction with Maytag products was given another boost recently. The oven on our Maytag "Performa" stove stopped heating in the middle of cooking a pizza, which we had to finish off in the microwave. Not good eating. I suspected either the thermostat or the clock/control board, and decided to take the gamble of ordering a new thermostat, for $50. To my amazement, it was delivered next day. I installed it, and it worked - once. Then it failed again the same way - heating up to about 200F, and then getting stuck. I then removed and replaced all the sockets on the control board. It began working again, and so far has not failed to work properly; but we are not sure we trust it yet. New control boards are more than $300, so I shan't be replacing that - it would be time for a new stove. Excellent service from PartSelect.ca.

Touching the Stanley Cup!


About a month ago, I was invited to a meeting at the Carleton Place Hospital. They had advertised a 'special surprise', and were very cagey about what it was. It turned out to be an opportunity to be photographed in the presence of the famed Stanley Cup, and we were actually allowed to touch it - but not to lift it up or otherwise move it.

Apparently the cup is very well guarded, with two full-time employees who take responsibility for it. I suggested to a friend that he should distract the guard and I should run off with it, but these plans came to naught. Maybe next time. (For the benefit of CSIS - a joke...)

The Stanley Cup

Garmin and TomTom GPS devices


I have had a Garmin GPS device in my car for several years now, and have come to rely on it more and more. The cost of upgrading the maps is so high that it seemed better to buy a new unit, which comes with lifetime maps. (Whose lifetime, one wonders?)

For the sake of change, I bought a TomTom device. A friend has one of these, and has always found it satisfactory. I didn't. Among the main problems are that it doesn't turn itself off automatically when the car ignition is turned off. The maps seemed much less detailed, and I couldn't find a way to make the display turn in the direction in which I was driving; it always pointed north. And it didn't show me the obvious quick way from our house to the highway to Ottawa.

So I returned it and bought a Garmin 55LM in its place. It seems much better in every way to me.

Kudos to Staples. I lost the receipt for the TomTom, and worried that there might be a problem in returning it. But they looked up the debit card transaction on their computer, and gave me full credit. Excellent service.

Rogers Digital Video Recorder


For several years we have rented a DVR from Rogers, and enjoyed the ability to record programs and play them back later. I commented on this in my blog in 2005, and realise I have been paying $25 a month to rent a gadget I can buy for $500; a total of $2,400. Not good economics.

So when the DVR died of old age a couple of months ago, we decided to buy one. It comes with a two year warranty, so if it dies even shortly after two years we will at least break even. With any luck it will last three or more years.

You would expect that a new recorder would be much improved. It isn't. The new one is infuriatingly slow, and it takes six button presses and several seconds to delete an unwanted program. Since I foolishly let it record over 35 copies of "Love it or List it", most of which are duplicates of one another, there is an annoying amount of work to be done to get rid of them again. I am very unimpressed, and much preferred the old one.

Free copies of Windows 7 and Windows 8


I was surprised to learn that Microsoft has made free versions of its operating systems, from XP to Windows 8.1 Preview, available for limited use at no charge. They are supplied as "appliances" - virtual machine images that can be run in products such as Oracle's VirtualBox. They do not permit production use, and they expire after 90 days. (They agree that it is fine to load a fresh copy after the expiry date).

I downloaded the Windows 8.1 Preview and Windows 7, and tried them out. This is on an i5 quad core machine with 4 megabytes of memory. They both worked with minimal trouble, and performance was perfectly adequate for experimentation.

Windows 8 is horrible. It seems to be completely dumbed down, and thoroughly annoying to use. I would be furious if I had to buy a new laptop and was stuck with using it. The only glitch in using it was getting a network connection through the host, which required changing a single parameter in the VirtualBox configuration. It ran at full resolution (1920*1080) with no problem at all. I felt quite lost with the new interface, and felt in need of a copy of "Windows 8 for Ancient Pensioners" for the first few minutes. Even with a couple of hours experience it continued to seem obscure and difficult to fathom.

Windows 7 was much more familiar, and very similar to XP. The only hitch was the screen resolution, which had to be adjusted to 1920*1080. I have only used it for a few minutes so far. I was amused that the default home page of http://bing.com does not work; I had to change it to http://www.bing.com. This seems to apply to all URLS.

Downloads at http://www.modern.ie/en-us/virtualization-tools

Rebuilding the Inukshuk


We have an inukshuk in front of our house, left by the previous owner. It has slowly sagged over the seven years we have lived here, despite one or two attempts to straighten it up with a hydraulic jack. So I decided it was time to take it down, set the base in concrete, and re-assemble it.

We have a photo of the house taken after we had agreed to buy it, but before we took possession. It shows just a heap of rocks; the former owner had been kind enough to rebuild it before we moved in.

I did some estimates of the weights of the rocks, and realised it would not be all that easy. The big rock in the middle is about 160kg, and the two flat rocks about 100 kg each. I bought a trailer-winch from Canadian Tire that is capable of a 400 kg pull, some aviation wire, and assorted pieces of wood. It wasn't too hard to build a frame with the winch at the top, and remove the heavy rocks one by one.

I then dug down around the supporting rocks, and set them upright again as they should be; put in a plastic liner, and filled the base with 60 kg of concrete. I let it set for 48 hours.

Today, I managed to finish the job. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but went without any real difficulty; the hardest part was to move the frame sideways while carrying the heavy load.

Let's hope this is the last time I have to do this.

Pictures here

Black and Decker strikes again


In October 2008 I commented on problems with Black and Decker batteries and their chargers, and the high replacement cost. I gave up on the battery-powered weed-whacker, and bought a gasoline-powered one instead. I kept the remaining battery on permanent charge, and use it occasionally for the drill.

Yesterday, the drill emitted a cloud of smoke and made an unpleasant burning smell. It is dead, and has been consigned to the garbage. Amazingly, I still have a good battery, and may try the weed-whacker again; it does not make my hands shake after a few minutes the way the gas-powered one does.

Until I get a replacement drill, I will carry on using the mains-powered metal-cased Black and Decker drill I bought in 1968. It doesn't mind hard work. I turn it off and wait for a while if it gets too hot to hold, and it cools down just fine. They don't make them like that any more.

The same day, our six-year-old ceiling fan seems to have died. It was a good-quality model at a fairly high price, and is very difficult to replace.

Disk failure and re-installation


After 18 months, my main computer refused to re-boot. It turned out to be the 500 GB Western Digital (blue) drive, which still had all its data intact, but was not detected at boot time by the (very annoying) UEFI Bios chip. I bought a new disk, and did a complete re-install, upgrading to the latest copy of Linux Mint, with the Cinnamon desktop manager.

After a few mis-steps, I grew to like it. The workspace management is more flexible, and seems well designed. The whole interface is quite attractive in appearance, and the machine feels quite a bit faster. I was able to copy all my data across from the old disk, and within about a day everything is working as it should. (I have at least one other full backup, and so was not at all worried about loss of data).

I will try a full re-install on the old disk one day soon. I tried using 'testdisk' to reset the MBR, but it didn't help.

I have tried the new Ubuntu Unity desktop manager, and hate it. They seem to have taken several steps backwards in useability to make it look more like a phone. Nuts, in my opinion.

I have USB 3.0 disk caddy that enables me to change SATA disks very quickly.

Almonte Water Treatment Plant


The town of Almonte built a new water treatment plant during the last two or three years. Previously, they used a number of sewage lagoons, which seemed very primitive and smelled awful in the summer, but attracted lots of birds and bird-watchers.

They opened the plant for tours today, and took the time to give visitors a detailed explanation and leisurely tour. I was fascinated, and took a good number of photos - you can see them here

A fun moment was when a woman asked her two teenage sons to stand together and be photographed. They didn't look all that happy about it, and were much less happy when she pointed out they were standing under a pipe labelled "SCUM".

The lagoons are to be filled in and used for overflow storage for a few days after a heavy storm or snow-melt in the spring. The smell will be gone - a great improvement.

I was impressed by the cleanliness and robust layout of all the equipment, and the very detailed labelling and attention to safety. One photo shows the emergency shower - not at all private, but if you need it, you probably don't care all that much.

The plant is almost entirely automated. There is one full-time employee on site during working hours, and emergency call-outs if the equipment fails.

Google Nexus 10


I now have one of the new Google Nexus 10 tablets. They are not in the stores yet, in Canada at any rate, so I ordered one online. It arrived after about two weeks; UPS left it on the front doorstep without even bothering to ring the bell. I wonder how many items get stolen.

The Nexus 10 is similar to an iPad, but runs the Android operating system, which is a version of Linux heavily modified by Google. Screen resolution is a little better than the iPad, at 2560*1600. (The iPad is 2048*1536, so there is not very much difference).

Here is one review of the product.

So far, I am very pleased with it. It took a little time to get used to the way tabs work with both browsers (Chrome and Firefox). With Chrome, there doesn't seem to be any way to delete cookies. Neither allows selective deletion of cookies as far as I can tell.

The email application works very well, and is convenient to use - better that the version I use on my desktop in fact.

It has connected to every WiFi router I have tried so far with no trouble at all. It will completely replace my eeePC laptop for traveling.

The two cameras work very well. I had no trouble getting a Skype session to work properly, and it was much easier than on my desktop.

I downloaded a few less-well-known applications from Google's PlayStore, which is very similar to Apple's App Store (Apple has tried to trademake the name, of course). I tried the GnuCash accounting package - it is basically useless and incompatible with the desktop version, and they ought not to call it GnuCash. The VNC application for remote viewing of my desktop works well. An SSH client is also available, but is tricky to use, and needs more design effort.

I find it quite disconcerting for the file system to be almost invisible. I installed a file manager application, which helps a bit. I have the feeling that I don't really know what is going on in 'my' computer, and I would prefer much more openness. I don't have the courage to 'root' it yet and gain full control, as that would void the warranty.

Despite these grumbles, the Nexus is a very good tool for what it is designed to do. It seems well engineered and reliable, and the battery life is excellent. I am very pleased with my selection.

Maytag again


I have grumbled about Maytag appliances before. It is just five years since our lower oven element burned out. Two days ago, the same thing happened to the replacement. It looked like a fire in the bottom of the oven; quite spectacular. We had to drive all the way to the east end of Ottawa to get a replacement - and guess what? The price had gone up from $45 five years ago to $75 today. Maybe I should have bought two of them. Click here to see the damage.

World's best programmer?


Fabrice Bellard has my vote as the best programmer in the world. You can see his web page at www.bellard.org. One of his most recent creations is an emulator for a PC, written entirely in Javascript. (It is the second item on the page). It shows a minimal copy of Linux running under this emulator, entirely within the web browser. On my machine, it boots to the command line in under ten seconds. It has a copy of "Hello World" in the user's home directory, which can be modified and compiled easily. Incredibly impressive, and a powerful indicator of what can be done in Javascript. Don't miss the "technical details" at the bottom of the page for the emulator.

This project was done for fun. Much more serious is the QEMU emulator, which now forms the basis of Linux's LKM virtualization facility. His work on the digits of pi is also spectacular and ground-breaking.

There is much more about M. Bellard on Wikipedia, of course.

A bad year for baby birds


Our garden birds did not have much success this year. A robin's nest by the deck was abandoned early on. I found bits of blue eggshell nearby, so I expect it was raided by something.

We were delighted to have great crested flycatchers return to the same bird box for the third year running. But - one afternoon a flock of starlings invaded the garden and chased them away. They didn't return, and after a couple of weeks I opened up the box. All that remained was lots of nesting material, two feathers and some broken eggshell. Click here

We also had chickadees nesting, but that nest was abandoned too. I have no idea why. I opened up the box, and found lots of moss, and two brown-speckled white eggs. Click here

Medical instrument


I went for my annual check-up a few days ago. As usual, I was weighed and measured, and led into a consulting room to disrobe and wait for the doctor. As she showed me in, the nurse put on a table a pair of latex gloves, a tube of lubricant and a foot-long white plastic rod, tapered at one end and with a cylindrical object fixed on the other end.

I spent the next few minutes wondering what it was used for. None of the ideas were very encouraging. But when the doctor finished the check-up, she hadn't touched any of the equipment. I said that she was likely to scare off patients with vivid imaginations. She gave me a long look, and said "That's a hammer for testing reflexes".

Invading Robins


We were woken by a tapping noise from downstairs, and it took a few minutes to identify the culprit. It turns out there is a pair of robins who are intent on building a nest inside our kitchen. The female has spent hours flying at our windows and trying to get in. I tried blocking the view by putting up cardboard on the inside of the window. It worked - they moved on to another window, so now I have two to clean. It has been going on for nearly a week now, with no sign that they are ready to give up. Not as bad as the raccoon last year, but fairly annoying. Here is a picture of the female.

New computer


Late last year, I decided it was high time I bought a more up-to-date computer. A "Canada Computers" store opened not too far away, and seemed like a good place to buy all the parts and assemble it myself. I have never done this before, although I have frequently taken them apart and put them together again, usually with success.

So I made a list of all the parts I needed, and headed to the store. The sales youngster was very helpful and not too pushy, and then volunteered that, for an extra $49, they would assemble and test it, and give me a warranty on the whole thing. This was too good a deal to miss, and removed all sorts of worries about incompatible or non-functional components. The machine was ready to pick up the next day, and has worked flawlessly ever since.

Well - nearly flawlessly. The very first time I powered it on, our car alarm, in the garage directly below the study, went off. For a moment I thought it was the computer, and shut it down immediately. It was very loud and really made me jump! But it has never done it again - not yet.

The computer has an Intel i5-2500 quad-core CPU, with 4 GB of memory and a 500 GB disk. A bit under-powered for Windows, but I only run Linux these days, and it is more than enough. I don't think it has ever used any swap space. The case is by Antec, and the machine is extremely quiet, which is an improvement on my older Pentium 4.

It has the hardware virtualization feature, which was my main incentive for getting a new machine. I run VirtualBox as an emulator, and it will run other instances of Linux, or of Windows XP, at very nearly native speed.

As a backup drive, I bought a stand-alone caddy, shown here. It currently holds a second 500GB disk. The connection is the new USB 3.0 version, so the speed is perfectly adequate. These caddies are great for using several disks, and for general testing.

All in all, a successful purchase.

Google Sites


Would you like to build your own web site? An easy option is "Google Sites", one of the many features provided free by Google. Log in to Google, and you will find the option in the list of tabs, directly after "Photos".

For small sites of up to 100 megabytes, there is no charge. If you need more storage, $50 per year will buy you 500 megabytes. You can have private pages, which are only visible to people you authorize. The editing features are easy and intuitive, and it is no harder to write a web page than it is to use a word processor. You can register a domain name for a few dollars a year, or you can make use of the less-than-memorable name provided as part of the service.

I used it to build a new web site for the Carleton Place Rotary club, of which I am a member. You can see it here

House Invasion!


During the evening a few days ago, we heard noises on the roof. I went out to look, but could not see anything. A little later there was more noise, so I went out again and found a raccoon sheltering under the soffits of one of our dormer windows. I pointed my flashlight at it, and its eyes reflected brightly, showing it was looking directly at me. I got my camera, and obtained this photograph. Quite spooky.

Next day, I took a closer look at the damage. It had pushed in the soffits at four different places, and I could not be sure whether it was hiding in the attic. They are known for breaking into houses at this time of the year to find a den for the winter, in which to raise yet more raccoons.

On the advice of a friend, I called Humane Wildlife. They came out the next day to give an estimate for repairing the damage, removing any intruders, and ensuring that they could not get back in. While not cheap, it did not seem unreasonable, and we didn't think we had a lot of choice anyway. They came back a few days later to do the work. They installed heavy-duty wire mesh under all the soffits and put wire mesh boxes over the attic vents and other potential entry points. They also installed a one-way door on one of the soffits, so that a resident raccoon would be able to leave, but not get back in. (We hope they got it the right way round).

They will be back in a few weeks to remove the door. So far, we have been very pleased with the service they provided.

Smiths Falls Railway Museum


A few days ago, I visited the Railway Museum in Smiths Falls. The town is about 25 kilometres from Carleton Place, and about 75 from Ottawa, with a population of just under 9,000.

There are many exhibits, but the most unusual is the Dental Car. This provided a service for children in remote communities, and was active until about 1960. The old dentist's chair and implements bring back many long-suppressed memories. It is amazing how much dentistry has improved in fifty years.

The town also has a disused swing bridge, which has been locked in the open position for at least twenty years. The tracks to it have long since been removed, and I imagine it will stay the way it is until one day it falls into the river - and then it will have to be removed.

Here is a collection of pictures from my visit.



It was 38 degrees Celsius while driving home from Ottawa today - the hottest I have seen in 43 years in this area. Quite humid, too. By the late evening, it is still 31 degrees, there is a little wind, and we have a weather warning in effect.

We are very grateful that we had our air conditioning system replaced last year. The old one would not have been up to the job.

Birders - Watch for the Great Chested Flycatcher!


No, it isn't a typo - not mine, anyway. Read on for the explanation.

For the second year, we have great crested flycatchers nesting in a bird box in our back yard. I sent a couple of photos to Lynda Bennett, who writes a weekly bird column in the local papers. She mentioned the sighting in her next article, and they printed one of the photos. The title under the photo had the unfortunate typo, which gave rise to much amusement.

I took some video footage of one of the birds catching bugs and feeding it to the recently-hatched offspring. Click here to view.

Update three days later - I got more footage of the chick being fed a huge bug, that it can barely swallow. The parents are bringing it food every few minutes throughout the day. My guess is that it will make its first flight any day now, and have to fend for itself. To see this movie, click here

It is quite interesting to see them arrive with a large bug, stand on guard on top of the box for a while, and then take it in to feed the young bird. (Last year, they only had one chick; I don't know if this is normal for this species). They then go back on top of the box, and have another good look around. Both the male and the female seem to do this, but I have rarely seen them both at the box at the same time.

Income tax time in Canada!


Not for the first time, I procrastinated over my taxes. I bought a copy of Ufile from Future Shop early in the year. This $20 package has done the job for me very well for several years. Three days ago, I tried to install it, and it will no longer work with my very old copy of Windows XP. I was facing the prospect of paying a tax-preparation service for the first time, when I discovered that Ufile has an on-line version that runs entirely within a web browser. They even advertise it as compatible with the Mac and with Linux.

There are quite a few tax preparation packages, some free, and some which only require payment when you print the form or netfile the tax statement. Here is a good list of them.

And an update from later today. I used the online version of Ufile to do both our tax forms, submitted them with netfile and paid the balance owing on-line, in a total of about 90 minutes. Total cost under $30 (not including the $20 wasted on the Windows version). A great user experience, to use a very annoying phrase, and the easiest tax filing ever.

Why don't national tax authorities such as the CRA and the IRS supply software, at no charge, to the public? It is a logical extension of them providing free tax forms and tax guides, which they have done for many years. The forms guide you through the process (imagine trying to provide a return on paper if there weren't any forms). A software equivalent does the same thing, and is of great advantage to the tax authority, because it can do a substantial amount of editing at data entry time. So it should be in their interest to supply it. The software is just a codification of the forms and the guide. There is no need for third parties to be involved in its preparation and distribution. It should be downloadable, at no charge, from the tax authority's web site.

The cost of development would easily be covered by the savings in data entry and editing.

They would do even better to provide, in addition, a clear, open, documented format in which they are prepared to receive tax submissions.

They should supply the software to run on a variety of operating systems, including the open source ones.

Why won't it happen? Because the software industry and the tax preparation services will lobby heavily against it, and the voice of individuals who would benefit will hardly be heard.

Why do the forms, and the software, have to change every year? Because the tax rules are changed a little bit every year, no doubt in part due to lobbying by the software industry. An electronic form could easily be parameterized, so that rates could be adjusted each year in line with government policies. There is no real need for so much annual "churn"; it ought to be possible to stabilize the form for, say, five years.

What can you do?

  1. Boycott proprietary electronic tax preparation software until it is supplied free.
  2. Send the tax authority paper forms, even if you have to print them out and mail them. Tell them why.
  3. Even better, if you are in an aggressive mood, just fill in the 'input' fields on the tax form, mail them, and have the tax authority do the (very tedious) math. They always correct mistakes anyway. The main downside is that you will have to pay interest on any unpaid balance. Even that may be less than the cost of paying a tax preparation service. But I chickened out of doing this; there is usually no benefit in provoking dragons...
Rant over...

Squirrels not welcome here


The squirrels have chewed open the holes in two of my birdboxes. The boxes have been up for several years, and this is the first time they have started trying to get into them. I took them down and made new fronts. I only put them back up yesterday. One has been attacked already, and I will have to make metal protectors for them.

Birdboxes need to be made to fairly precise dimensions to attract particular species, and the size of the hole is quite critical. I was hoping to get the great crested flycatchers back this year, and will have to do some prompt, and more permanent, repair work.
Wrens' box
Flycatchers' box, before repair
Flycatchers' box, ONE DAY after being repaired
And here is my repair work. Cutting a circular hole in sheet metal required advice from Google. Sandwiching the metal sheet between two pieces of wood with G-clamps, and drilling with a hole-saw, did the trick quite nicely. Chew on that, guys!
Flycatchers' box, after repair. One lives in hope.

A gadget from Staples


Just before Christmas, I bought a 35mm slide copier from Staples, for the bargain price of $79. It is made by Innovation Technology, and looks like this. It comes in this box. It contains a 5-megapixel fixed-focus camera and an LED-illuminated light bed, and a variety of frames for holding film and slides. It works very well with monochrome film and with colour negative stock, and automatically inverts the image. I tried it on a few very old Kodachrome slides, and the results were not so good by a long way; they are much too contrasty, and even with treatment from ImageMagick, they are still of poor quality.

The most difficult part is keeping dust out. There doesn't seem to be a way to disassemble it easily. It is very easy and quick to use, and I have copied nearly two thousand negatives so far, and have many more to go.

It was on sale in Staples at $99 for a few weeks in the fall, and then put on special at $79. Our small local store had about 15 of them, but when the sale finished, they seemed to vanish off the market.

Here is one sample of a copy from a 35mm colour negative. It dates from before the days of hand-held GPS units, but I was quite amused when I saw it.

The Barnes and Noble Nook


While in Vermont recently, my wife bought me the Barnes and Noble electronic book reader called a "Nook". It is similar to the Amazon "Kindle" and the "Kobo" reader that is sold by Chapters in Canada. I was assured that it would work in Canada, although there might be a "few" books that were only available in the US, for copyright reasons. I chose the slightly more expensive version with 3G connectivity, without being sure if I would need it. Service in the store was excellent, and I walked away with an activated account after just a few minutes.

She also bought me the cover with a built-in reading light, which is great for insomniacs. I have used it once or twice, but I don't qualify as a hard-core insomniac, thank goodness.

It is great for reading, and the ability to changes the font size is very useful. I always meant to read some of the classics when I retired, and I have since made my way through several that I have never read before.

It seems well-engineered and convenient to use. I like having forward and backward buttons on each side of the frame. The battery life is excellent; long enough that I forgot to charge it up one time, and had to read something else for a while. It occasionally freezes however, and I have to press the power button to start it up from scratch. This takes about a minute, so it isn't a big problem.

I was a bit annoyed to find the 3G service is not available in Canada. I had a terrible hassle with the 1-800 help line, which is one of the most dysfunctional I have ever encountered. It goes through four cycles of "please wait for us to service other customers", and then it says "we cannot service your call right now", and drops the line! Incredibly irritating, and I never did get to speak to a human being, after many tries. I also tried contacting them by email. They took three days to reply, and then told me it needed a discussion, and that I should call the 1-800 number. That pushed up the bar for uselessness even further.

In desperation, I called the store in Burlington, Vermont where it was purchased. This was a much better experience; a very helpful young woman walked me through the problems in a cheerful tone, and I was very pleased with the service.

Fortunately, it talks to my wireless router with no problems at all. But when I tried to buy two different books, they were not available in Canada. A sample size of two is a bit small to draw conclusions, but it is not a good omen. Even more surprisingly, many classics are not available in Canada through Barnes and Noble's service, but are freely available in the correct (epub) format from the Gutenberg Press. Hard to figure out the reason for this.

I found some software called "Calibre", which works with both Windows and Linux, that will convert PDF files to the epub format. So I will not run short of free reading material for some time. I don't think I shall buy many books, because I still like to have an old-fashioned physical copy. Those I do buy I shall get when we are in the US, and avoid the copyright problems. I don't think customs are likely to care all that much for smuggled electronic book images, and I can always count them as part of our personal allowance.

Sheep toppled by earthquake!


We visited the newly-opened Canadian Museum of Nature yesterday. It is located in a beautiful old building that once housed the Parliament of Canada, on Metcalfe Street not far from the Queensway. It has been a museum for many years, but was closed for a while to completely re-do the interior - and they have made a wonderful job of it.

A few of the exhibits have been kept from the earlier incarnation of the museum; I remembered several of the dioramas from the 1960s and 70s. But one was especially amusing. It is a diorama of mountain sheep, and it was damaged in the earthquake that hit the area on June 23rd. (We missed the earthquake, as we were driving home at the time, and didn't notice anything. People working in office towers in Ottawa couldn't miss it.)

Here is the sign posted on the exhibit, and here are the three sheep. I am sure that, in a few months as indicated on the sign, the experts will be able to prop them back up again.

Great crested flycatcher - Part 2


It seems that they successfully reared a youngster. Two days ago, I took a number of photos showing the hatchling about ready to fly, with the female feeding it with a huge green insect - quite a prize, I suspect. Today, the box is empty, and I will soon clear it out for next year. I hope the youngster made it safely.
Ready to fly soon!
Mother and baby
Good grub!

Great crested flycatcher - Part 1


We have a new garden bird nesting in an old bird box - a pair of great crested flycatchers. I have never seen one of these before, and had to call the Lanark County expert on birds, Lynda Bennett, to have it identified. The bird box has become usable courtesy of the local squirrel population, which has damaged the hole so that it is larger than it was intended to be. They (the flycatchers, certainly not the squirrels) are quite shy, and leave the nest making quite a fuss if I go within about 50 feet of their nest. Frequently, the male sits on top of the box guarding his territory, while the female is inside. We notice very few mosquitoes in the garden this year - I am not sure if this due to them being eaten. Either way, it is a pleasant surprise.

We also have wrens nesting in another box, and a chickadees' nest has now been abandoned. They either brought up a successful brood that took flight while we weren't looking, or something nastier happened to them.

An amusing moment


I had an appointment yesterday at the Ottawa General Hospital. As I walked from the parking lot to the main entrance, I met a very old man in a wheelchair, who asked me if I could spare change for a cup of coffee. I checked my pockets; I had no change at all, and I knew I had only a single $20 bill in my wallet. So I apologized, and he very politely thanked me for taking the time to look.

Directly inside the main entrance, I found a change machine. I put in my $20, and got the usual half-kilo of coins. I went back outside - and there he was, less than a minute later, drinking a cup of coffee that had magically appeared, and smoking a cigarette. So I kept my change for the hospital parking - they say the money goes to help those in need anyway. At $7 for under an hour, the needy should do quite well - if it does really go to them.

Dandelions everywhere!


Since the Ontario government banned the use of 2-4-D and other pesticides, dandelions have flourished in lawns - and just about everywhere else. This is a classic example of a nanny-state regulation, as farmers can still use the stuff, and, wait for it, golf courses have a special exemption. What a splendid example of political influence. Use on farms probably means that we are all exposed to just about as much of it as before.

Digging them out is not much fun, and doomed to failure. I used a tool last year that grabbed the root and a chunk of earth, which seemed quite satisfying. But it leaves in most of the taproot. In every one of last year's holes in my lawn, there is now a flourishing new dandelion, which is even harder to remove because it is deep in the hole. Getting the whole taproot out is almost impossible for a well-established plant.

I talked to someone the other day who has promised his wife that he would dig out a hundred every day. They will grow back in behind him as a guess, and it will be as bad as ever next year.

Fun with Toyotas


We have a 2007 Camry that is subject to the recall notice. Today is panic day, with the US Transportation Safety Secretary first saying such cars should not be driven until they have been repaired, and then back-tracking as soon as his staff told him what a blooper he had made. The story has got more and more confused. First it was pedals getting stuck under a floor mat, then sticky pedals, then a software problem.

On our car, the right windshield washer has never worked very well. My local mechanic said it wasn't adjustable, and I believed him for a while; then I checked with the Toyota dealer. They said it could be adjusted with a special tool, and I should bring the car in. I visited the dealer a week later. They said the nozzle was pointing in the right direction, but there was not enough pressure. They would flush out the line. That didn't work, and they then said the nozzle was missing a component, and they would order a new one. (Service was fast and excellent, and they called today to say that the new nozzle was in.)

[Added the next day]: I went in to have the new nozzle installed. It turned out that the old one wasn't the problem; their diagnosis was wrong. They now say they will order a new little plastic adapter that splits the flow into two streams for the two nozzles, because the old one is partially blocked. They will call when it arrives, and I will have another hour visit while they install it. Less impressive, I am afraid.

While I was there, I asked them about the gas pedal. The agent looked at it, and said my pedal was one of the type made in Japan, and didn't need replacing. Nevertheless, I am to bring the car in when I get the recall notice, and they will check it off their list. This story sounds a little inconsistent to me - surely it is either OK and doesn't need a recall, or it needs to be fixed. Don't their records show which type of pedal I have, if there really are two kinds?

The agent was a little sarcastic about the highway patrolman who got killed in California, asking how on earth he wouldn't know to put the car in neutral, even if the engine would over-rev and self-destruct. As he rightly pointed out - much better than him and his family getting killed. I can't imagine calling 911 from a speeding car without trying the neutral position first, and to the devil with the engine. There has to be more to the story than that.

I tried putting the car in neutral at 80 kph on a deserted bit of road, and turning the key to the 'accessories' position. The car was easy to control and stop, even when the power assist ran out. Steering and brakes were heavy, but perfectly usable.

I think there will be more details to come out. It is a fishy story.

Too soon old, too late smart


Years ago I used to put on snow tires for the winter, but stopped using them when I first bought a car with all-season radials. For at least twenty years I have managed with them for - well - all seasons.

The topic came up at our Rotary meeting last week. I asked the members how many used snow tires in the winter, and just about everyone put up their hand. So today I took my car in for its regular service, and had a brand new set of winter tires installed, at significant expense. I was amazed at how much more sure-footed the car seemed on the drive home from the garage, on slushy, snowy streets.

Of course, within a few days, I shall be driving a little faster because it feels safer. It has often been reported that people tend to use up the safety margins so as to keep the probability of an accident about the same.

Traps for unwary British Tourists


How about "courtesy crosswalks" as a new invention? I have never seen them in any other town, but they may be common for all I know. But they don't seem like a very safe invention to me, especially for people from the UK. Over there, pedestrian crossings are sacrosanct. Stand on the sidewalk, and traffic whizzes by. Put one tentative foot out on the road, and traffic squeals to a halt. Not here. Put out one tentative foot, and see how quickly it gets flattened. A good thing most drivers in this town are polite and careful.

What were they thinking?

Computing nostalgia


I have an ancient 486DX computer, with 20 MB of memory, and an equally ancient 15 inch CRT display in my basement. The motherboard and CPU come from the first computer I bought, in 1992. It hasn't been used in four years. Just to see if it would still work, I plugged all the bits together, and fired it up. I was amazed not only that it still worked, but the Windows 95 booted up much more quickly than any modern operating system. The machine seemed very fast - opening small applications like PF-Edit was virtually instantaneous. Word 6 was pretty fast, too. I didn't try web browsing, as there is no ethernet connection in my basement, and it didn't seem like a good idea to expose such a machine to the current wild-west of the internet anyway. The machine is much too old for a wireless connection; it doesn't even have any PCI slots.

I also booted it with an equally ancient copy of Caldera Linux, from the days before the SCO debacle. See www.groklaw.net if you don't know what I am talking about, and if you have loads of time. (I nearly wrote "time to waste", but groklaw is never a waste of time. One can learn a great deal from it.) This operating system too was quick to boot and had excellent performance. The FVWM window manager was also a nostalgic blast from the past, and very functional.

Sometimes I think we haven't made all that much progress.

An Unwelcome Visitor


This short movie was taken through a tightly-closed window of our house. I stayed in for the rest of the evening.



We have an adventurous chipmunk living under the deck. He tries hard to get into the bird-feeder. He can't quite make it, but gets a good living from the seeds spilled by the birds. We often see him peering in through the kitchen window while we are eating. Since the weather has at last got warm enough for us to eat outside, we have seen even more of him.

He is getting quite tame. I put some sunflower seeds on my slippers, and he came to get them very quickly. Here he is.

3-D Movies


We have now been to see two of the recent 3-D movies: "Monsters versus Aliens" and "Up". We were blown away! The realism of the 3-D effect is amazing, and it made both these movies much more enjoyable. Kids -of any age - love them.

The technology is fascinating. They use a very high frame rate of 72 frames per second, with alternate frames targetted for each eye. Separation is done by glasses with circularly-polarized filters, so full colour is preserved in the image. 48 frames per second for each eye is easily enough to provide natural-looking images, and the only blurring is seen when objects move quickly across the foreground. The amount of computer time needed to render these very detailed images is enormous. The number of theatres equipped with the special projectors is growing steadily - there are about three in the Ottawa area so far.

These movies may help the movie industry to get people away from their television sets for a few more years. A new generation of TVs with 3-D is some way off, I think.

Highly recommended. See them yourself, and take some kids with you.

GPS Navigator


My latest toy is a GPS navigation system. After a false start, I chose the Garmin 255 model, which is not quite an entry-level device, but is modestly priced. (My first attempt was a MIO 300C, which worked very well, but which only comes with detailed maps for Canada, and can't be upgraded).

The Garmin has spoken street names, which makes it easy to understand. I was a little puzzled by instructions to "keep right on highway 4170", when the highway number is 417. I realized after a bit that it only happens east of Ottawa, where the signs are in both languages. It must have been reading the "O" for "ouest"; it says "highway 417 west" on the other side of Ottawa.

I used it when we went down to Essex, Vermont, and it found a variation of my usual route that saved about twenty minutes, bypassing the town of Malone, which always holds us up for a few minutes. This is a huge benefit, because we take that route several times a year, and will always go that way in future. It also found a good alternative for the first few miles home.

It responds quite quickly if you make a turn off its planned route. There is a moment when it says "recalculating", which is computerese for "you screwed that bit up". But it finds an alternative within a few seconds, and rarely tries to make you turn around and try again they way it wanted you to in the first place.

I shan't need to use it very often, but it is great for trips to areas that we don't know well, and I shall definitely keep it. I like its predicted arrival time, which is quite accurate if you keep going. You can shave off a few minutes on four-lane highways without attracting police attention - or so I believe.

In the US, it shows the current speed limit as well as the car's speed, which is very useful. It changes within a few metres of the sign, and shows both numbers in kilometres/hour, which is also helpful. No more excuses!

More deer


We hoped the grandkids would see a deer when they visited after Christmas. To be devious for once, I went to a local store, and asked if they had anything to feed deer with. I expected to be kicked out, and told not to be so dumb. To my surprise, they said "Oh, sure, do you want 20 kg or 40 kg?". I bought the small bag, and put some out each evening before the visit. It seems to be a mixture of corn and molasses, and it was a mistake to handle it with leather gloves; they took quite a bit of time to clean up properly. Success was immediate - the only catch is that they have also eaten most of my $50 yew tree, planted last summer. I don't know if it will survive.

Four of them turned up right on schedule during the visit. Exciting times for young children. We had to be very careful to keep their dog in the house.

Anyway - here are the deer. The small bush they are munching about half way through is the remains of the yew tree.

To Fedora and back...


I have been an open source user and enthusiast since about 1997, and used FreeBSD as my operating system for many years. About two years ago, I had to abandon it with my Pentium 4, as it will not work properly with standard IDE disks at full speed, giving occasional timeouts and read errors. It would not operate my Hauppage TV card either, which was a minor annoyance. (I still run an ancient Pentium 1 with FreeBSD 5.3 as a server and backup machine, and it runs 24/7 between power failures).

So in 2005 I switched to Ubuntu, and found it highly satisfactory. I used it as my desktop for about 3 years. I was able to keep it fully up to date, and it worked fine with all my hardware, including the two IDE disks that choked with FreeBSD. Recently, I bought a larger disk, and decided that now was the time to try something a little different. So I downloaded and installed Fedora 10, and found it was just about as good, and as easy to use, as Ubuntu.

Well - nearly. I then noticed that the graphics card was running at a very low speed, and remembered that I had to load the accelerated driver for my Nvidia card. This is very easy to do with Ubuntu, and works very well. I tried a similar download for the Fedora version. X-Windows never worked again. I have lots of experience modifying the xorg.conf configuration file, and know it to be a fiddly and humiliating experience. Nevertherless, I tried. I made no progress, as it is overwritten at boot time by something else which appears to be called 'kudzu'. (A very apt name, it seemed to me). After a few hours googling and rebooting, I gave up, and went back to Ubuntu. Everything installed smoothly, including the graphics driver, and everything works.

Bye bye Fedora.

Leap Second


Every few years a leap second is inserted at midnight UTC, in order to keep in step with the earth's rotation. This is the only time a digital clock will show '60' in the seconds position; normally it runs from 0 to 59.

Here is a short movie showing the transition this evening. Watch the behaviour of the seconds hands on the two analog clock displays.

Home Movies


Here are my first attempts at editing home movies. I was stumped for some time by my inability to download movies from the MiniDV tapes on my Sony PV-GS80 camera. I eventually tried buying a new Firewire card, intending to return it if there wasn't any improvement. Good move - it worked perfectly, and the old card has been consigned to the garbage.

These movies won't always play on Windows machines, either with Firefox or Internet Explorer. They will play if you download a copy. (If you have a dial-up connection, don't bother...)

I do the editing with the open source product 'Kino', which has more than enough features for me to begin with. It is an interesting new hobby, that uses up a huge amount of disk space.

The first movie is the one I shall never be able to repeat. It shows a pileated woodpecker tearing apart an old bench on our lot. There were two of them when I first saw them, and I went back in the house to get the camcorder, sure that they would be gone by then. They were still wrecking the bench together, and I got a few frames of the second one flying off (not shown). This one stayed for several minutes. Click to view

We haven't seen quite as many deer this year, but this is one of two that showed up a few days ago. The other was hiding behind the forest of canna lillies, and I have a few frames of him - or her - peaking out. Click to view

Here we see a squirrel raiding my supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder, and being buzzed by a wren who thinks the food is his. Quite courageous; it came back several times. Click to view

Satellite Radio


Just over a year ago, on a whim, I bought a satellite radio receiver for the car. The main reason was that our previous car had been able to receive the American National Public Radio (NPR) station fairly well. Our new car could barely get a signal, and we missed it more than we thought.

I fell for the corporate advertising. $39 for a receiver, and $15 per month for the service. We could try it for a month, and write off the cost if we didn't like it much. It isn't quite that easy. You actually have to buy a one year's subscription at a time, and there is an activation fee that is quite substantial. A bit annoyed, I decided to go ahead anyway.

Within a month, it became an essential service that we renew automatically. It gives high quality, consistent radio anywhere we are likely to travel. We quite often listen to NPR, but there are dozens of other channels. They include several classical music channels, many pop stations, sports and sound feeds for major TV channels such as CNN and BBC World. There are talk shows such as Howard Stern, jazz stations - just about everything.

And the great attraction? No advertisements, except of course on TV station sound tracks. (It surprises me that a TV sound track is perfectly intelligible most of the time; you don't really need the picture. On the other hand, watching a TV program with the sound turned off is useless).

Satellite radio is a great service, and, to us, well worth the money. Strongly recommended.

Black and Decker Batteries


I have two Black and Decker tools, a drill and a weed-eater (known locally as a whipper-snapper!), and they take the same 18 volt ni-cad battery. Quite convenient for once, or so it seemed. The drill is about 3 years old, and I keep it on charge most of the time. When I went to use it recently, it no longer worked well. A little checking showed that the charger no longer worked either, and the battery was producing about 5 volts, with no load. So I plugged it into the other charger, and waited a few hours. Bad move. It still wasn't charged up.

Then I noticed that the second charger wasn't working either. I went to the Black and Decker agent on Clyde Avenue in Ottawa, and was told that bad batteries quite often burn out the charger. So I now have one good battery, and no charger. I bought a new charger for $30, and declined to buy a second battery at $50. I don't plan to use the weed-eater in the winter, and next year I think I will buy a gasoline-powered one, as the rechargeable one is very underpowered, and doesn't work for more than about 15 minutes.

A new battery and charger would have cost $80, not much less than the original cost of the drill. It seems very wasteful to just throw out a perfectly good drill and buy a new one, but it makes sense from a personal economics view.

[Postscript 2008-10-07: A trip to Walmart showed that I could buy a new 14 volt drill, with charger and battery, for $34. My new charger was not a very good buy.]

  1. Chargers should be protected against damage from bad batteries.
  2. Batteries should be standardized.
  3. Proprietary batteries are just a license to print money.
I will try another manufacturer next time.

Asus Eee PC


My latest toy is an Asus Eee PC. This is an inexpensive, very small laptop, running the Linux operating system. It does not have a hard disk and is therefore very robust. It relies on flash memory for persistent storage, and comes with 4GB, which is enough for most typical use. It also comes with a wireless connection, which makes it easy to use anywhere in the house, or in hotel rooms with wireless service.

It has connectors for sound and a microphone, 3 USB ports and an SD camera memory card, and makes a good companion on the road to my digital camera.

It includes the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client, and the whole of the OpenOffice suite that effectively replaces Microsoft Office. It is easy to install other Linux-based software, and I found the GIMP (the oddly-named GNU Image Processing program) was a useful addition.

It wouldn't be adequate as a regular desktop, as the screen resolution is low in the early model I bought, and it wouldn't have enough storage. Later models have a higher resolution screen, but cost more. As a second machine for occasional travel, it is very effective.

All for $350, including software! You can read more at www.asus.com

Stone the crows!


That's what we felt like doing yesterday. To backtrack a bit, we were delighted to see a robin building a nest in a cedar bush right outside our kitchen window. We could watch her on the nest while eating breakfast. I took a quick peek when the robin was away - there were three perfect blue eggs. I looked up the incubation time on the internet, and prepared to watch the baby birds learn to fly.

Over at a fellow Rotarian's house, I described what we were watching. He commented that I had better look out for crows.

That evening, we saw a huge crow on the deck-railing. I hadn't realised quite how big they are - shooing them off seems a bit dangerous. Stoning them from a safe distance seems best.

Next morning - the nest was empty. There are bits of blue eggshell in the lawn, and two disappointed human beings in the house.

Train derailment


There was some excitement in Carleton Place this week. A freight train was derailed, with three tanker cars coming off the tracks. This happened about a mile outside town, and only a short distance from the back of our house. It seems that the derailed train was waiting on a siding, and a second freight train passing through hit the derailed cars, and caused some damage.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the only damage was to railway equipment. It took most of a day to get the second train moving again, and the damaged tankers are still sitting on the siding, waiting to be towed away.

However - it was quite a near miss for the town. One of the tankers was labelled "chlorine - inhalation hazard". This is a bit of an understatement, as chlorine was used as a poison gas in the first world war. We hear that it was empty, but there is no independent way to verify that; we just have to take the company's word for it. If it had been full, and if the inner tank had been punctured, it would have been much worse. With the wind blowing towards the town, it might have caused injury and death.

Click here to see pictures. Look at the black chlorine tanker.

Mahjongg and Socks


I try not to spend too much time playing computer games, as there are so many other things in life that are more interesting and worthwhile. That said, I did get hooked on the solitaire version of Mahjongg that is installed on many computers. It is easy in principle - you just have to find matching tiles at the ends of rows, and click them both to get them to disappear. You work through them to get rid of all the tiles, and see how your time compares with previous efforts. It is good memory training, and I can see I am still slowly improving. The patterns are very distinctive and not familiar to North American culture, and the task is made harder because they have no names. I find myself assigning names to some of them while I am playing, to make it a bit easier.

For the second part of the story, I sorted and paired up all my socks yesterday, as they came out of the dryer. I am not good at throwing things away, so I have a large collection of socks bought over many years, and they are almost all black. It suddenly struck me part way through that it was almost exactly the same as playing Mahjongg - it is hard to find the first two; it requires memory to do it in a reasonable time, and it goes quickly at the end.

There are obvious differences - the tiles in the computer game always match up with none left over. This is not the case for old socks. And no - I don't have names for my socks.

Weather graphs


The Ottawa weather graphs have been re-written so that they are processed entirely on the web site. The graphs are produced with Perl's GD::Simple module, which is an easy-to-learn tool for generating graphics.

They have also been modified to use an alternative source for data if the CBC web site is down or more than two hours out-of-date.

A new chart has been added to show the annual temperature cycle since 2003. It is updated automatically every night. All this processing is run on the web site, with no need for a home computer to be running.

A scary diagnosis


After treatment for prostate cancer, the patient's PSA level is expected to drop to zero, and stay there. This is usually monitored by taking a blood sample every six months. Even a slow exponential rise, such as 0.1, 0.2, 0.4, is a sign of real trouble coming down the turnpike. Mine had been fine for two years after treatment, until last October. I breezed into the clinic, confidently expecting to hear "Yes, it is still indetectible, come back in six months". Not this time. I was greeted by a very long-faced doctor who said he was "quite surprised" by my latest test, as it had gone up to 12.0. He asked if I felt OK - did I have any aches and pains? He looked a bit surprised when I said I didn't.

He told me to get a repeat test at the lab next door just to verify it - stat - and to come back in forty-eight hours to review treatment options. Naturally, my wife and I had a bad couple of days.

We went in together for the second appointment, to be told with a cheerful grin that it was still zero - the first test had been a lab error. I don't know if they followed up the 'other guy'. But we headed off to a nice restaurant.

Kipling quote


Rudyard Kipling has been a favourite author for me; I especially liked the not-very-well-known public school story "Stalky and Co". I found a copy of this in a used book store in Burlington Vermont last year, and bought it on the spot. I hadn't seen a copy for over forty years, and was delighted to find it. Kids were tough in those days.

But today I came across a quotation I have never seen before, which really appealed to me:

So it came that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her.

The amateur gardener


This house came with a good-sized vegetable garden that had been 'let go' for a while. Last fall, I dug it out, and planned to grow lots of vegetables.

The first day we moved in, we were delighted to see a rabbit in the front garden, and before many days had passed we had seen a deer and two fawns. They all became quite regular and very welcome visitors. Very cute, we thought, as naive former city-dwellers.

Both deer and rabbits have lived well at our expense in the vegetable garden. My tomato plants have yielded a single, small, tomato. All the others were eaten while still green. The rabbits ate the chives and parsley well ahead of us, leaving only thyme and oregano, which they don't seem to fancy. And the deer have laid waste to the pumpkins and rhubarb.

Next year, I will either put up a deer fence, and use a compound called 'Deer-Away', or give up altogether. Considering the cost of a fence, I am not likely to make a profit.

Goodbye, Maytag Repairman


About two years ago, we replaced three aging appliances that had given us very good service. We believed that Maytag was a reliable manufacturer that supplied well-made and reliable products at a price slightly above the average for that kind of item. With hindsight, we may have been subconsciously influenced by their well-known series of advertisements, which show a lonely and bored Maytag repairman who has nothing to do. So we bought a Maytag stove, washing machine and dryer.

The washing machine (a typical top-loader for which the design has been stable for decades) started to leak and be extremely noisy on its spin cycle. We had to close all the doors in the house to be able to hear the TV, and in the room over the laundry area it was deafening. We found a real Maytag Repairman - actually from a small private company. He was able to come out after just a few days. He looked for a few minutes, and said the transmission was shot, and that water had got into all the seals. The labour cost for the repair would be $350, and I should check to see if the transmission was still under warranty.

After protracted calls to Maytag (press one for sales...), I learnt that the part was not under warranty, and there was no extension even though failures are very common. It was clear that the total bill would exceed the cost of a new machine.

I called the repairman, and told him it wasn't worth proceeding. He took me for over $100 for the service call.

We bought a new GE machine. The men who came to install it and take away the old one were not surprised - they said they were always taking away nearly new machines that had died.

Then the lower oven element burnt out on the two year old stove - also by Maytag. I managed to find a replacement unit at a store in the east end of Ottawa. Of course, they are a special design at twice the price of the 'standard' units. At least they are easy to install.

And now the Maytag dryer is starting to squeak. It can squeak for some time, as far as I am concerned. No Maytag Repairman will enter this house again.

It seems I am not the only one. This link will take you to someone else's opinion - but don't click on it if you are offended by a little bad language.

The time is ripe for an Asian manufacturer to do unto Maytag and Whirlpool what Honda and Toyota did to General Motors and Ford. Sell well-designed, durable equipment with a good warranty, at a modest premium.

Lanark Auction


We visited an auction at Lanark today; the first auction we have been to in several years. Lanark is a town of about 800 people west of Carleton Place, and about 80 kilometres from Ottawa. It is a pretty town with a number of stores designed to bring in tourists, and is well worth a visit. Recently, we read that an auction of estate 'objects', including a number of old stationary steam engines, would be held there. This is quite an unusual collection for a country auction, and it brought in a large crowd of buyers and casual visitors. Here is the overall view of the event.

The auctioneers were professionals, and used the traditional 'patter' which is very hard to understand for people, like us, who are not used to it. We hadn't planned to buy anything, so it didn't matter too much that we weren't able to follow exactly what was happening, but it was very interesting nevertheless. Old artefacts like hooks for handling bags on railways went for quite high prices, and will no doubt appear in antique stores soon at even higher prices. We didn't stay to hear the the bids on the expensive items at the end; some of the engines must have gone for many thousands of dollars.

Two minor, but eye-catching, items were a perfectly-preserved Sears woodstove and a motorized rocking chair. I also liked the box of high-explosives.

There were several stationary steam-engines:

My favourite picture from the afternoon was of an old gear wheel lying against a very large stack of wood.

Other Wildlife


Here are a few more wildlife photographs taken from inside the house. This is bad practice; there are often distortions and reflections from windows, but it is often the only way to get the picture.



My interest in birds has re-awoken since we moved to Carleton Place. The previous owner left two bird-feeders and a few nesting boxes. This year, I cleaned out the nesting boxes and repaired the ones that were in bad shape. I also built a new one, mainly as an exercise with my new table saw. Precision was not a requirement.

We have seen most of the common species, and have wrens nesting in the new box. I have managed to squirrel-proof the feeder (for now at any rate; they will work it out soon), and the mourning doves get through lots of sunflower seeds every day. We have lots of chickadees, of course.

We were delighted to see two pairs of mourning doves together the other day, and I managed to get a quick photograph before they heard me and took off. For a moment, I thought I was seeing double - or quadruple.

We have also seen a ruby-throated hummingbird at the hummingbird feeder - a fascinating sight. Getting a photograph of him (or her) will not be so easy.


Point gun at foot...

I received our bill from the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) today. It had a box with a picture of flowers, and an apology that said, in part, "GE Money takes pride in providing our customers with the highest levels of support and service, however recently, we haven't lived up to your customer service expectations". We can ignore the misuse of the comma for the moment. There is no clue what actual failure they are talking about, so, for nothing better to do, I called the 1-800 number to learn more. There was of course the usual "press 1 for English, press 2 for French" menu, running to several levels. Then I was put on hold for many minutes, and finally was permitted to speak to an operator. The problem they were alluding to in the message was long wait times for answering customers' phone calls. I wonder how many other people added to the load by enquiring about the non-specific message?


A cold day in Ottawa

It is a cold morning today. Here is a clip from the CBC weather forecast. Note the windchill. Not nice for mid-March.


When does the sun rise?

I have been interested in astronomy since my early days, although I have never done much serious observation. I like the mathematical side of it, and the very high level of precision that is possible. I have used the SLALIB libraries for some time, but just recently found out about the GNUPLOT libraries for plotting charts and graphs, and decided to see if they could be used together effectively. The first few results are shown in the new topic "Astronomy"; it is the third in the list on the left.


The Magic Thermostat

This house came with a fairly modern electronic thermostat, made by a company called UPM. It controls both the heating system and the air-conditioning, and is programmable, providing settings for four different times each day, and with an independent set of settings for Saturdays and Sundays. It takes quite a few minutes to adjust all the settings. Naturally, I personalized it when we moved into the house.

After several weeks, it became clear that it would occasionally, at an apparently random moment, reset itself to the factory settings. This wouldn't be all that annoying in itself, except for the fact that it also reset the clock to an arbitrary time.

So I bought a new thermostat. This one is by Noma, but is just a re-badged version of the UPM model. It is physically identical to the old one, and this made it very easy to install. There was one snag - the old one was not rewired exactly according to the instructions for the new one, which makes one ask whether to follow the directions, or to copy the old wiring. I chose the latter method.

I put the old thermostat on my study desk, hoping to see when it would reset itself. So far, it has kept perfect time.

Today, we got home from a movie, and the house seemed quite cold. Guess what - the new one has gone back to its factory setting. I will try rewiring it tomorrow, and wait a month or two to see if the problem is fixed.



We went with friends to see the tiny village of Balderson, about 30 kilometres south-west of Carleton Place. It is famous for the cheese factory, that makes some of the best cheddar I have ever tasted. We didn't find the factory, and the Balderson web-site is strangely coy about its exact location. But there is a growing collection of stores aimed at the tourist market. They include the cheese outlet, which sells a large variety of cheese, as well as ice cream, jams, salsas and many other products. It also has a store with a wonderful collection of furniture made in the United States by Amish communities, clothing outlet stores and a flea-market (also closed for renovation). There is an art gallery on an upper floor, with some quite impressive works that are far beyond our casual-purchase limit.

The tea-room is well known in the area, but is currently closed, and will re-open in a new location next month.

The United Church is a very impressive building for so small a village; there can't be more than one or two people at a typical Sunday service. There is also an Anglican church, to further divide the church-going clientele. Maybe they stagger the services, to let keen church-goers attend both.

There is also a diner that is up for sale, with an entertaining name. I hope they manage to re-open.

There is NO SNOW to be seen in any of the pictures. This is a first for Eastern Ontario for early January, in my nearly-forty years of experience anyway. One swallow does not make a summer - but this winter suggests that global warming may be nearer than we think.


Do-it-yourself movies - Take 1

Here are one or two very amateurish attempts at a very short home movie; probably even worse than anything on YouTube. They are each about 8 MB, and and may be too long for a modem connection.

Christmas Greetings! - a very short movie
Backyard in snow - December 6th


Moving House - Part 1

It's time to tell the story of the house move. Once I (and my doctor) had decided that I would not return to work, there was no need to have a house within walking distance of the office. The original reason for buying the previous house was that both my wife and myself could walk to work. Both workplaces were under a mile away, in opposite directions. The old house was quite small and close to the freeway, and although we enjoyed it, it was old and cost more than we liked in repairs. So here was a chance to make a real change.

We explored the towns surrounding the Ottawa area, and picked Carleton Place as the most attractive. It is only 50 kilometres from the centre of Ottawa, and 30 to a large conglomeration of stores at Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. Carleton Place is big enough to let us be able to buy most things we need, and has a small but very highly rated hospital that we are all too likely to need as we get older. The highway is good, and is being improved steadily. The population of CP is under 10,000, and it is growing quickly.

The sensible thing for a retired couple is to buy a compact, easy to clean, accessible bungalow or condominium apartment. We both hated the idea. We found a two-storey three-bedroom house that was twenty years old, in good shape but needing some non-urgent updating. It is set on two acres of land, most of which is bush, and needs no attention. I bought a riding lawnmower, and that means the lot can be maintained in a couple of hours a week, with very little physical exertion - just what I needed at present. In fact, mowing the lawn is very relaxing.

Moving takes much more effort than we thought! We spent a lot of time on the phone making arrangements, visiting lawyers and real-estate agents, and making sure the move was properly coordinated. We arranged a week's overlap, without which I would think it would be impossible, and far too nerve-wracking. Changing addresses and phone numbers on everything is a big task which never seems to end.

The benefits are enormous. We have more space and much more privacy, and the air is noticeably cleaner. Both of us have had fewer headaches, and we are now sure they were caused by pollution in the city. The new house has an unfinished basement, which I use as a workshop; the workshop in the old house was tiny and impossible to organise properly. It also has a 19 foot square 'bonus' room over the garage, which I use as a study/computer lab.

Advice? Don't move without a lot of thought; real-estate agents are absurdly expensive, and there are lots of other 'small' costs that add up amazingly. But if you need a life-style change, it can be well worth the effort and cost. Take your time when deciding on the new location and new house.


The Wasps' Nest

The previous owner of our new house left a composter by the back of the garage, and we used it for vegetable waste for the first few weeks. Then I noticed a lot of wasps near the bottom, and decided it was best left alone until I had time to deal with it. Research on the internet suggested it was wise to be very careful, and even to leave it to professionals. (Interestingly, most web sites that deal with destroying wasps' nests seem to be Australian or in New Zealand - they have a major problem there with imported European wasps).

I tried a $10 can of Raid, which has a special nozzle that allows you to use it from about 10 feet away. I used the whole can on what looked like the entrance to the nest, but it made no significant difference. One of them stung me on the leg, but it wasn't too bad.

Being a city-dweller most of my life, I didn't realise that composters have no bottom! I fixed 40 feet of spare clothesline to the composter, and tried to drag it away. It just toppled over, leaving a mess of rotting food with a wasps' nest intact inside it. So I sealed up all the vents in the composter with duct tape, and also sealed on the lid. Late one evening, I quickly popped the composter back over the pile. That will fix them, I thought! Wrong - they had found a hole by next morning. I tried dumping earth round the bottom of the composter to seal them in. This is where I got stung again, on the upper lip this time. Not so funny by any means. This morning, my lip is badly swollen and looks like hell, and I don't feel much like showing my face in town. The saga will continue...

Leave it to professionals.

Added two days later - my wife persuaded me to go to the emergency department at the Carleton Place Hospital, and have a doctor look at my lip. We were through the system and out again in a mere 90 minutes - far quicker than the hospitals in Ottawa. I was told - very nicely - to wait for it to heal up by itself, and to take antibiotics for a week as a precaution against infection. By now, it is returning to normal, and I no longer look like something out of a Frankenstein movie. If you have a strong stomach, click here

A week later - I sealed them in with a second can of insecticide, this time containing a foam which hardens quickly, and is designed for closing the entrance to a wasps' nest. It seems to have worked - I think we are now wasp-free.

Incidentally - "wasp nest", "wasps nest", wasps' nest or "wasp's nest" - which is correct? Lots of dissension to be found on the internet.


Ottawa Weather Reports

I have just added a set of graphs of recent Ottawa weather. They can be seen by clicking on the second item in the list of topics in the left frame of the main page.

They are computed by downloading the data every hour from a major news provider, and "screen-scraping" the page to extract the relevant numbers. The values are kept in a flat file, and the graphs are generated by a Python program that produces output in SVG (Scaleable Vector Graphics) format. Performance with current web browsers is rather slow, however. In an earlier attempt, I produced the graphs with Tkinter (the TK implementation for Python), and output the results as Postscript. They were then converted to the JPG format. The results looked dreadful, with poor font formats. I may try more alternatives soon; I am not all that happy with the SVG graph appearance.

To make it more reliable, and more complex, my main computer is monitored every hour by a second machine. (The ancient Pentium 120). If the main computer is not running for any reason, the second machine downloads the weather data instead. Then, when the main machine is restarted, it copies all the 'missing' data over. Thus, I only lose observations if both machines are not operating.

I also upload all data to a PostgreSQL database, and use that for various analyses that interest me from time to time. I have data for about the last three years.


Good auto repair service

My seven-year-old Honda Civic developed a rattle at low speeds in the front end, and I then noticed that the left front tire was losing pressure slowly. I made an appointment with the local Honda agent, but they had a two-week waiting list. So, on a whim, I took it in to the Island Park Esso station at the corner of Island Park Drive and Wellington Street. This is a well-established gas station and repair outfit that has been there for many years.

I was greeted very politely, and warned that there was a minimum charge for putting the car up on a hoist. They had a vacant bay, so I told them to go ahead right away. He banged a couple of places near the exhaust system with a mallet, and put a circlip around one part - and told me the rattle was fixed. Then he took off the leaky tire, and found a huge nail embedded in it. He fixed this with a plug and some rubber cement, and carefully checked the valve and rim for leaks.

I was back on the road for $50 after less than half an hour. Exemplary service!


The Great VISA Switcheroo

We are in the process of moving house, and I arranged for a moving company to come and do most of the heavy lifting. The salesman visited our home to discuss final arrangements, and asked for a $200 deposit. Either cheque or credit card were acceptable, so I handed him my VISA, and he carefully copied down the number and expiry date.

Later that day when I was filing the paperwork, I noticed he seemed to have copied the expiry date incorrectly. I pulled out the credit card from my wallet, and saw that he was in fact correct. But the number on the card looked unfamiliar, and a fraction of a second later I realised that the name was also unfamiliar - it was someone else's card.

Naturally, I called VISA at once. A very competent man with just the faintest trace of an Indian accent listened to the problem, and expressed amazement. He had never had a case like that before. We traced it back to the time my wife and I had lunch at "The Brigadoon" - a highly-recommended restaurant in Oxford Mills, south of Ottawa. Another couple had also had lunch there, and the cards had accidentally got switched. Neither of us noticed. Nor did the Honda agent when I charged nearly $800 for car servicing a few days later. The person who received my card also made three or four charges, and no one noticed, even though my name is recognisably male, and hers female. No one checked signatures; as far as I can tell, no one ever does in North America, whereas they are always checked in Europe.

To add to the complication, my wife has a copy of the card, and used it to make a couple of purchases after the accidental exchange. VISA agreed to clean up the mess, and issue us new cards. From now on, I shall carefully check that I have received the right card.


Preventive maintenance and procrastination.

Last winter, on a cold and snowy evening, my snowblower wouldn't start. The electric starter just made a loud whining and grating noise. I checked, and found that of the two bolts that hold on the starter motor, one was loose, and the other missing entirely. The gear on the shaft did not engage properly. I found a replacement bolt, and managed to install it before my hands were too cold. I got the driveway cleared out with no further problem. I made a mental note to check the bolts during the summer. Back in the house, I found I had got black grease on my fur hat, and it had to be sent to Montreal by the local dry-cleaners, for a small fee of $25.

During the spring, I found, so I supposed, the missing bolt in the driveway. I reminded myself to check the bolts, but postponed the job a little further.

In November, when it was cold again, I heard that snow was being forecast for the following night. Annoyed with myself, I went out to check the bolts were OK - and found one loose, and the other missing yet again. The one I found on the driveway was probably not the original. Now, there are two bolts, this time with locking washers, tightly fastened. All I need now is some snow. Knowing Ottawa, it won't be too long.


Ottawa War Museum

Ottawa's new War Museum opened earlier this year, and I made a second visit with a friend yesterday. It took us over two hours to walk round the main exhibits, and we did not visit the huge hall with tanks and all sorts of military hardware, as we had both seen them before. The exhibits are arranged chronologically, with weapons and the history of fighting from pre-colonial days to the present. The museum is well worth a visit, with lots of detail and excellent labelling and documentation.

One of the more interesting and controversial exhibits is a Mercedes-Benz limousine which was used by Adolf Hitler. The two spare tires amused me; I had a picture in my mind of a very worried chauffeur changing one while being yelled at by the owner.

A second interesting exhibit was a Link Trainer, which looks quite amateurish, and was apparently harder to "fly" than the real aircraft. A good training philosopy.


LCD Monitors

I bought myself a new computer-related toy - a 17 inch LCD monitor. (This is after I have objected to the expense at work for LCD monitors, on the grounds that no one uses the space behind them for anything, and so the argument that they "save space" is a weak excuse for an expensive new gadget.) Now I own one, I am 100% converted - they are much brighter and clearer than the typical CRT, and a 17 inch monitor operated at 1280*1024 gives excellent results.

I chose the LG Flatron L1730S, as intermediate in price and specification, and good enough for the kind of use I make of it. I am delighted with it so far, and would not like to go back to my 17 inch CRT, which has a considerably smaller screen. (The diagonal measurements are 43 cm for the LCD, and 39 cm for the CRT, a 21% increase in area).


Manitoulin Island

Our most recent trip was to Manitoulin Island, which separates Lake Huron from the north-east part of the lake known as Georgian Bay. The island is accessible by bridge from the north, and by car ferry from the south-east corner. There are several small towns on the island, and good roads make it easy to get around.

We took the first day to drive up to Sudbury, about 300 miles from Ottawa, passing through Renfrew, Pembroke, Chalk River (where the nuclear research facilities are located) and North Bay. We had booked a room at the Days Inn in Sudbury. The room was fine, but the view was perhaps the most unattractive ever from a hotel room - mainly railway tracks and parking lots. Sudbury has improved enormously since I first visited it in about 1969, when the land was dead for miles around, and it was used mainly for making movies which looked as if they had been filmed on the moon. Now, there are lots of trees by the roadside outside the town, but they seem rather short, as if they are quite young. There is a severe shortage of restaurants in the city centre - we ate in the Days Inn, being unable to find anywhere else.

The next day, we drove through Espanola to the island, stopping briefly at Little Current. We went on to Gore Bay, where we found an inn that we had looked at on the internet - Queens' Inn by the waterfront. (I see it is now for sale, at $689,000). As it was out of season, we had no trouble getting a nice room at the front, with a view over the bay. The owner/landlady was very helpful, and suggested an excellent restaurant. This was the SchoolHouse Restaurant, at Providence Bay on the south shore of the island, about 50 km away. We had a good meal there; my lamb was excellent, my wife's steak a bit below excellent, but still good. Great atmosphere; highly recommended.

Then we explored the town of Gore Bay and drove round part of the island, going east to Kagawong. There is an interesting building that used to be an electrical generating station, supplying most of the power for the island, until it became possible to bring it in from the mainland. The remains of one of the generators are on display outside the building. Dinner was at Gordon's Lodge in Gore Bay. It was barely average, and the waitress disappeared part way through our meal. One couple left in anger without being served, and eventually I went into the rest of the hotel to find someone. It was tempting to leave without paying, but we didn't, of course.

There is a very recently-opened museum in Gore Bay, a converted jailhouse. The cells did not look very comfortable. Nor did the exhibit of a dentist's chair that dates back to the time of my youth.

We started home on the fourth day, driving down to South Baymouth, and taking the Chi-Cheemaun ("Big Whale") ferry to Tobermoray. We were a bit delayed, as a truck and bus had managed to get their wing-mirrors entangled, and the crew were puzzled as to how to drive them off without doing more damage. The ferry is quite large, being able to carry about 150 vehicles, including big trucks or buses. The trip takes nearly two hours, and gives a great view of several islands and lighthouses. We drove down the Bruce Peninsula (nearly spelled that wrongly...), and stayed the night at a Holiday Inn Express in Collingwood. Dinner was at a local roadhouse, and not at all bad. The parking lot contained an interesting car - a beautifully-preserved Ford Thunderbird, with a cute license-plate.

The final day was spent entirely in the car. We drove through Barrie and Orillia, and then down to Highway 7 near Lindsay - discouragingly close to Toronto. Barrie looks well worth a future visit.


Val d'Or

A few weeks ago, we drove up to Val d'Or in Quebec, almost due north of Ottawa. I had wanted to visit the area for over 35 years, and never had quite found the energy to do so. The drive was unusual, with over 200 kilometres running through the La Verendrye Nature Reserve. No gas stations, no services, just a sign every now and again that the next emergency telephone was another 10 kilometres away. And no deciduous trees - all conifers of a delightful deep green.

Val d'Or is a mining town of about 20,000 people, and there are two other towns of similar size in the area, Rouyn-Noranda and Amos. We found Val d'Or much more 'civilised' than we had expected - a thriving community that does not seem to be as dependent on mining as it used to be, and well worth the visit. One of the most interesting parts was an old mining village, in which the houses have been meticulously preserved, but are occupied as private homes. Here is an example. We enquired about the trip down a disused gold mine, but it takes four hours, and we decided that it might be too much for that day.

We also visited a mining museum at Malartic, half way to Rouyn. They had lots of mineralogical exhibits which were a challenge to my knowledge of French, being labelled in one language only. The "piece of moon-rock" was real, but not one of the samples brought back by the Apollo expedition, but a slice from a meteorite known to be of lunar origin. They had some splendid examples of geodes, and an excellent display of the mineralogical history of the area. The whole economy is based on mining, and now heavily supplemented by large factories that turn perfectly nice living trees into particle-board. (You can visit the factories, but they require 48 hours notice, presumably to give them time to screen out potential terrorists).

We found two excellent restaurants, never hard to do in Quebec; one for each night, I hasten to add.

We didn't spend long in Rouyn-Noranda, as it was Canada Day, and the shopping area was closed. We drove around the town, and then returned to Val d'Or.


Adventures with USB Flash memory sticks

The USB flash memory sticks get cheaper by the month, and are already a very convenient form of portable storage. So far I have collected three of them, and use them all on most days. One of them is used on my FreeBSD machine, and I reformatted it to the UFS file system, and use it for an automatic daily backup of critical files - mainly code and text documents I have written myself.

So far, so good. The adventure came when, at work, we were looking at ways to sanitize disks - that is, to overwrite them in such a way that we would be confident that absolutely none of the original data could be recovered. (That is not the way we process unwanted disks before they leave the organization; in this case they are fully degaussed, or even physically destroyed. We take security and privacy of data extremely seriously).

I wrote some code in Perl that would generate an endless stream of any one character, and tried using the UNIX dd command to erase an entire disk, including its partition tables. I wrote a second short program to read back an entire disk, and ensure that it had been properly overwritten. I tested it on a spare disk at home, using Knoppix as the operating system. It all worked fine.

Then I tried the same process on an unused USB flash memory stick. It, too, worked perfectly. The problem came when I tried to recreate the partition tables. Windows 2000 refused to reformat a disk that was all zeroes (or all ones), and the parameters in what it thought was the partition table were garbage. So I tried recreating the partition table from FreeBSD. You can do it interactively, but I tried writing a configuration file, and using that as a parameter to "fdisk". Commands like "fdisk -f configfile da0" will do the trick. It worked well, until I forgot to specify the "da0" parameter which tells it which disk to work on. It destroyed my entire system disk, with a dual-boot setup for FreeBSD 5.3 and Windows 2000. It took hours to fix, and taught me to be very, very careful with the fdisk command.


Upgrading a Pentium 120

My first home computer was a 486-33DX, which I bought in 1992, and upgraded to a Pentium 120 in 1997. It has served faithfully, running almost continuously since I first installed FreeBSD on it at the end of 1997. This was done from no fewer than 30 diskettes prepared by a colleague at work. I remember spending $50 for each of four 1 megabyte SIMMS, to upgrade it from 4 to 8 MB, so that X-Windows would work reasonably well.

I later added more memory, bringing the total to 48 MB. It ran an early version of FreeBSD and KDE 3.1 quite well, and could just about manage to start an early Netscape.

Recently, I added more memory, for a total of 96 MB, and a PCI/USB card. I then loaded FreeBSD 5.3. It will only just run KDE 3.3 or GNOME, and bringing up Firefox or Mozilla is an exercise in patience - but then, it is quite impressive that it works at all. With a light-weight window-manager such as FluxBox or WindowMaker, it works very well, with good performance.

I mainly use this machine as a backup server for my Pentium 1.8. I do an rsync everynight of the home directories of the two machines. The Pentium 120 runs Apache well, and I use NFS to mount part of its file system on the Pentium 1.8.

Oh, yes, it is not really a Pentium 120 any more. The fan failed ages ago, and it has downgraded itself to a Pentium 100, as reported by the BIOS. A new fan did not help.


Personal Video Recorder

On advice from my son and several colleagues at work, I rented a Personal Video Recorder from Rogers last night. It was very easy to set up, and I had no trouble setting it to record a few favourite programs. Saturday Night Live is one that we both really enjoy, but not at 11:30 on Saturday Night.

The on-off control is too complex; we have to press TV, Power, CBL, Power (4 keypresses) to start the thing up, and the same to turn it off. They recommend strongly that the PVR be turned off when not in use, as it has a hard disk inside. I used to leave the previous Rogers box on all the time, as it was purely electronic. Maybe there is an easier way. There is no excuse for modal switches in this day and age - haven't designers learned anything yet?

It is early days yet - I will see what use we make of it. One colleague said it is like having air-conditioning in your car. You don't know how much you need it until you have it for a while.


Visit to Niagara Falls

Just over a year ago, we visited Hamilton, Ontario and Niagara Falls. I hadn't been there for many years, and was surprised how the town had grown, but that the main "front" for viewing the Falls was completely unchanged.

We stayed at one of the two Sheraton Inns in town. (We arrived at the wrong one to begin with, and had some trouble sorting out our booking). They wanted a lot more money for a view overlooking the falls when I called to make the reservation, so I was cheap, and booked a room on the other side. When we arrived, I showed my "Starwood" card, and got upgraded at no extra cost to a very nice room overlooking the falls. It being November probably helped quite a bit.

The view was excellent, but the weather quite overcast and rainy. We walked up and down Clifton Hill, which is an incredibly gaudy collection of side shows and inexpensive restaurants. There is an enormous casino, which we did not bother to visit - the one in Hull, across the river from Ottawa, has put me off casinos for life.

Here are views of the falls from our hotel room, and of Clifton Road at night, and in the daytime.

Hamilton is a weird place - it is upside down in my head. This is because the main highway turns back east as you drive round the end of Lake Ontario from Toronto to Niagara, but I still feel as if I am travelling west on the 401. So north and south got all mixed up when I tried to read the map, and I twice pulled off freeways in the wrong direction just south (yes, I mean south) of Hamilton.

The Queen Elizabeth Way from Toronto to Niagara was a scary drive. I was driving a bit over the speed limit in the middle of three lanes, with huge trucks passing me on both sides, in heavy rain. A time when it really pays to concentrate.


Million Dollar Baby

We went to see the movie "Million Dollar Baby", starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freemen. Excellent in all respects; beautifully filmed, and a superb performance by all three actors - although I thought Eastwood's was the best. Its depiction of a seamy boxing gym somewhere in the southern US is perfect - you can see the poverty in every corner, and feel the sleaze of the boxing world.

It has already raised some controversy about its final scene, which shows something that many religions have problems with, and in my mind is an example of where they interfere with basic human rights.



I have now made two visits to the Diefenbunker. This was the cold-war-era bunker for the prime minister and senior politicians, about 20 miles outside Ottawa, and a closely-kept secret for many years. It is now a fascinating and unique underground museum. It is a complete four-storey building that is completely buried, with a blast deflection tunnel at the entrance, and an escape hatch for use on a really bad day.

The idea was only workable as long as the enemy's targetting ability was poor. A direct hit would have blown the whole complex out of the ground. They were hoping - if that is the right word - for a near-miss.

I went with my son the first time a few years ago, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the tour. The second time, I took my wife for a 'treat', and I could tell before we got inside that it was not going to be such a success this time. We both found it was very claustrophobic, and that the tour guide liked the sound of her own voice too much.

To me, a memorable exhibit near the entrance is a 'practice' hydrogen bomb. It is very hard to believe they are that small - a foot or two in diameter, and about twelve feet long. I later found an identical exhibit in the new War Museum. I expect they made quite a lot of them, and by now have had enough practice that they can use the real ones.

You can't take photographs inside, so here is one of the entrance. The bunker is under the hill behind the building. Note the nice big sirens nearby - but it is not clear where one should run.

For anyone not familiar with Canadian history of the cold war era - John Diefenbaker was prime minister. You can work out the rest for yourself.


President of Good and Evil

I have just finished an excellent book by Peter Singer, entitled "The President of Good and Evil". He describes in detail the faults and contradictions in the behaviour of George W. Bush, with a great deal of evidence and well-reasoned thought. Singer is a well-known writer, and professor of bioethics at Princeton's Center for Human Values.

Favourite quotes? "That Clinton did lie about his private life is clear, and he was wrong to do so. But his lies did not lead his country into a war that cost thousands of lives. The false impressions created in the mind of the American public by Bush have had far more serious consequences"


"It used to be possible to say that the rights and liberties of Americans are more secure than those of citizens of other countries because they are protected by a written constitution that is upheld by an independent judiciary. Under Bush, it is no longer possible to say this. Basic rights to liberty and due process have been denied, and the Bush administration has resorted to secret assassinations of those it suspects of terrorism".

Singer's views on the contradictions between Bush's views on abortion and birth control, and his approval of the death penalty, are very illuminating. He is about as anti-Bush as Michael Moore, but has a far more reasoned and rational analysis.

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Last updated : 2007-07-02