March 2009 Updates

Geese in Flight (by StarbuckGuy)

Whew, where does the time go? I intended to post more frequently but got busy with a number of things and, also, I didn’t have a focused essay topic that I felt like working on, so I got a little lazy about blogging. Lots of things have been happening, so this will be another ‘misc’.


Last weekend I sold my Nikon D300 DSLR to my friend Geeyen. The D300 is easily the nicest and most professional digital camera I’ve owned, and I loved the way it could meter with my old manual Nikon lenses, plus record the focal length and aperture setting in the EXIF data. I had only one problem with it, and it was major: it was too heavy for me. It wouldn’t be too heavy for most people — sensitivity to weight is a byproduct of my cardio recovery.

I really like my lightweight D40 because it can work, though not meter with, all my old Nikon lenses, including the pre-AI ones I enjoy using for their unique signature. Six megapixels is good most of the time, but I’d like a few more pixels to work with, for cropping purposes. My current thinking is that I’ll buy a D60 which is mostly an upgrade to the D40 but with 10 rather than 6 megapixels. It too offers a nearly universal Nikon F mount.

The Nikon F80 film camera I picked up from my friend Peter came through with flying colours on the test roll I shot. I posted one of the shots at the top of the blog. Peter and I continued with some trading and he has taken my Nikon F3HP — another great model that has proven too heavy for me.


A short while back I finished and submitted the article I was writing for Here’s How on Canadians who have developed a following on YouTube. It should be in print in a day or two. This morning the editor called me to see if I could do a roundup of superzoom (‘vacation’) lenses. I said OK and have about 3-4 weeks to do the testing and writing.

I’m working on a short story that was triggered by a sentence that popped into my head: “She was the Miss Marple of wiccas.”  It’s going well, I think. I’m such a newbie at fiction writing I can’t be certain.

I posted two short pieces in the March writing challenge on Creative NonFiction Writing Forums. Nonfiction infused with the techniques of fiction appeals to me highly, both as writer and reader.

I’ve been journalling regularly, on whatever device I carry with me. Most of it is done in Starbucks, where, when it’s not too crowded and noisy, provides a good setting for freeflow writing.


I’m very happy to say that my health appears to have improved very much in March. The iron supplements seem to be overcoming the iron deficiency, and the hemoglobins are bigger and back into the normal range. My energy has returned to near-normal levels and I can feel my heart pumping well and efficiently when I’m walking up hills. It’s taken the better part of a year for my heart to feel strong again. Perhaps I’m a slow healer.

Because of the low iron count, I’m heading into hospital on April 1 (ha, ha) for a gastroscopy and endoscopy. I’m being scoped from top to bottom. Perhaps it will reveal that I’ve rusted out.


Tony Hanik is organizing another song circle and I’m looking forward to some picking and singing. Kirsten has lent me a Tori Amos album — I’m unfamiliar with her work. I’m reading lots of Pratchett at bedtime, and listening to many podcasts during the day.  Marion is in Salt Lake City researching family history but will be back in time to whisk me to hospital for the scoping. I’m rewatching season three of Buffy, usually at the pace of two episodes in the evening, after dinner. As an exercise in brain plasticity, I’ve moved the mouse from the right side of my computer to the left.

Oh, and I’m decluttering my office. Ugh.

Nikon F80

Nikon F80 (by StarbuckGuy)

I developed three rolls of B&W film today, from three different cameras. I’ve not been keeping track, but I think it was only the second time I’ve developed film since my operation last spring.

I totally embrace digital photography and love it, but there’s still a part of me that is drawn to B&W film. Partly it’s the process of using chemicals to bring forth images on a strip of plastic, partly the aesthetics of B&W film itself, and partly because I like using film cameras.

By that, I don’t mean classic cameras only, though I’ve owned my share of them. I tend to like modern-era film cameras with built-in metering and other conveniences. As I age, I appreciate the autofocus capabilities of my DSLRs, and doubly appreciate AF in a film camera.

When I heard that my friend Peter Cameron was thinking of selling his Nikon F80, I let him know I was interested. The F80 has a lightweight body — an increasingly important feature for me — plus bunches of goodies built in. Excellent built-in metering (AF lenses only, alas), and mount compatibility with any AI or AIS lens.  For an automated camera, including auto wind to the next frame, it’s very quiet.

As it worked out, I’m starting to thin my collection of AIS manual-focus lenses and had Peter try out the Voigtlander F-mount Ultron 40mm f/2 I’d picked up a couple of years ago. He enjoyed using it and when I proposed a swap, F80 for Ultron, he agreed, but fearing he was getting too good a bargain, is throwing in a pre-AI Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 with hood into the swap. That’s lovely, because I can use that classic glass on my Nikon D40 DSLR.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll stay interested in film — it’s not a philosophical obsession for me — but while I still like it and can manage to develop it, I’ll continue to use it. I enjoy the way it connects me to photography’s past, especially its remarkable history of 35mm cameras,  lenses, films, and photographers.

Robins, Grackles, Redwings

This is the week Winter’s game went ’tilt’. She may attempt a comeback or two, but she’s tried for one freeze too many and is now out of the competition.

The lawns in the park have been greening, almost imperceptibly. A hint of colour that deepens subtly each day until the colour palette changes from browns and greys to chlorophyll. Spring is at the controls!

Surging through the biological clocks of plants, insects, fish, birds, and animals (including cellphone-chatting primates), the new season gathers strength and puts forth life. Energy over dormancy. Robins fresh from a long flight are already patrolling the lawns, scouting the emerging earthworms. Grackles fly around in bunches, squawking and preening and doing whatever else grackles do.

A lone male redwing has claimed the territory by the bridge over the harbour. Singing aggressively, scarlet epaulets flaring in the sun, it brooks no challengers.

Tagging studies have shown that many migratory birds return to the exact same territory they occupied the summer before. I wonder if the robin in our back yard this morning is the same one I watched last summer.

I wonder, particularly, if the hormone-frenzied redwing is the same one that dive-bombed pedestrians last summer. Not just fly-bys to chase us away, but actual pecks on the head. I got drilled three times and I’ve talked to others with similar stories.

You never saw him coming. Just a sudden, loud fluttering of wings in your ear and a peck on the head while he circled around in the air just out of reach. When you’re walking along lost in thought or listening to your iPod, it’s startling.

But I say, welcome back! Welcome home!  If you’d ease off on the attacks a bit, it might improve your PR, but glad to see you nonetheless.

Some of My Fave Science Podcasts

I’m not science-trained, but throughout my school years, science was one of my favourite subjects. I was never a science whiz, but I’ve always been curious about, in the words of Douglas Adams, ‘life, the universe, and everything.’

I fail to understand how anyone cannot be curious about how things work. The continuing breakthroughs in molecular biology, physics, and astronomy are breath-taking. As more species are studied, and more fossils emerge, the history of life on Earth becomes increasingly complex and fascinating. As Carl Sagan once pointed out, we’re built from the stuff spewed from supernovae — matter somehow come to life. I personally don’t have a need to go beyond science to experience the miraculous.

The problem with trying to keep abreast of even a few of the recent scientific findings, though, is that most of us require an interpreter. Science publications are written to communicate findings to other specialists in the field. There is no point in a layperson even trying to read them. Fortunately, there are a number of science writers and science-news podcasters, who have the training and the knack for  explaining science to ‘the rest of us.’

What follows are some science podcasts I find particularly good. By definition the list is neither comprehensive nor perhaps even representative of your interests. They’re simply the ones I’m currently listening to on a regular basis.

General Science News

For me, the best overall science podcast for busy people who don’t want to delve into science too deeply, but would like to hear interesting bits of discovery, is the New York Times Science Times weekly podcast, hosted by David Corcoran. I cite this one as best overall in this category because it’s short — about 20 minutes per episode — and well presented. Unlike many newspapers, The New York Times has a strong science section and a stable of excellent science/health writers, many of whom appear on the podcast.

My second choice in this category (busy people who don’t want to delve too deeply), is the Guardian’s weekly podcast Science Weekly, hosted by Alok Jha and a roundtable of regulars. It’s at times comical and bantering, and always likable. It runs roughly one hour in duration and  includes interviews with scientists around the globe.

Raising the ante a bit: for a general science podcast with depth on selected topics, nothing beats the Scientific American weekly one-hour podcast, Science Talk. Host Steve Mirsky does excellent interviews with guest scientists and science writers. He spends more time on a topic than the other general podcasts, which is good if you find the subject of interest, and less good if the subject doesn’t grab you.

Of course there are many more general science podcasts than just these. Search on ‘science podcast’ and you’ll have plenty of options to select from.

Specific Science Podcasts

I also subscribe to some science podcasts with a more specific focus.  One I happened upon by chance is Chemistry World, a monthly one-hour podcast sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It’s a general roundup of chemistry news from around the globe, and chemistry, as should not be too surprising, covers pretty much everything in the universe — including the universe. Because of this, there’s a broad range of interesting topics covered in the podcast, some of which I never hear about elsewhere. As a result of listening, I’m developing a profound interest in nanotechnology and molecular biology.

I’m highly biased, but my favourite science podcast of all is Brain Science, a monthly, one-hour podcast about discoveries in neuroscience, hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell. A medical doctor, Ginger Campbell is not a brain researcher herself, so her podcasts consist of in-depth interviews with brain scientists and extensive reviews of new books published about brain science.

A highly intelligent, articulate, and charming host, Dr. Campbell’s podcasts are the highlight of my science-listening cycle. (I should also add that her admitted addiction to Buffy the Vampire Slayer has doubly enamored me of her work.) Her other monthly podcast, Books and Ideas, frequently features interviews with other, non-brain-science, scientists, and is equally informative and interesting.

One final link to the remarkable Dr. Campbell, is her site called, where you can explore yet more science podcasts.


Every subject needs an other or miscellaneous category and here’s mine.  My favourite ‘other’ podcast is Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid. It defines itself as ‘a weekly science podcast dedicated to furthering knowledge by blasting away the widespread pseudosciences that infect popular culture.’ It’s a short, 10-min, weekly podcast that’s energetic, fun, and controversial to pseudoscience and paranormal enthusiasts.

If you know of others you’d recommend, please leave a comment so I can have a listen!

Acer Aspire One — Reprise

Acer Aspire One (by StarbuckGuy)

Now that I’ve used my Acer Aspire One (named Sibyl, from an ancient Greek word meaning prophetess) for a couple of months, I can look back on my original thoughts on how I planned to use it and see what worked and what didn’t.

Portable Internet Device

There’s no question that Sibyl has worked out wonderfully as a lightweight device to take to coffee shops, libraries, and other venues that offer wireless services. It’s better than a pocket device, such as iPhone or iPod Touch, because it offers a bigger screen and a real keyboard. My Aspire One is a Windows XP model with 160GB HD, six-cell battery, two SD slots, and three USB ports, among other interfaces, so I’m able to browse the Web with the same Firefox browser I use on my home machines and the FoxMarks add-on keep my bookmarks sync’d.

For a full-service netbook, Sibyl has a small form factor and light weight. It slips easily into a small backpack, and even with a book or two in the pack, the weight is easy to bear. My usual gear lately is Sibyl in my backpack, at least one book I’m reading, a notebook for longhand notes, a collection of pens, some fountain, some gel,  and a small digital camera. I feel like a journalistic road warrior.

Writing Companion

As an aid to writing, Sibyl gets high marks, but not full marks. The small keyboard took me some time to adjust to, and I still can’t type as fast on it as I can on my AlphaSmart Neo or Palm BT folding keyboard. I have to watch what I’m typing because the keyboard still causes me to make typos I don’t normally make on larger keyboards. It is usable though, and I get by with it well enough.

I find Sibyl excellent for blog writing and magazine writing, both of which require Internet-based research or verification. When I’m on a magazine assignment, I add a USB wireless mouse to my kit because Sibyl’s touchpad is awkward to use for copying, cutting, and pasting references or text. The same is true for my larger Dell portable. It’s a generic issue for touchpads, not an Aspire One issue.

One great advantage to Sibyl being an XP netbook is that I can run WhizFolders on it — my favourite writing/organizing software for complex writing that requires research or interviews. I don’t much like WhizFolders’ busy, garish toolbars, but in full-screen mode, I have enough editor visible to make writing practical.

There’s a downside to being connected to the Net when writing an essay or thought piece. If the writing is difficult or demanding, it’s too easy to switch over to email and check out forum discussions instead of concentrating on the writing. What has helped with this is the marvellously simple Q10 text editor, that masks out the distractions.

For other kinds of writing, such as journalling, non-blog essays, and occasional forays into fiction, I prefer using the Neo with its superb keyboard, or the ultra-portable Palm TX with BT folding keyboard. I write faster and with fewer distractions on them.


One of the uses I intended for Sibyl was to be my computer for Dragon Naturally Speaking 10, a voice-recognition package that allows you to speak into a mic and translate your words into text. It hasn’t happened. I tend to use Sibyl in noisy environments where dictation is impractical, and when at home, I prefer my larger notebook. The Aspire One also has a weak mic input which I discovered when I ran some Skype tests on it. The weak signal makes DNS work too hard to be trained. I’m going to remove DNS from Sibyl and put it on my Dell laptop instead.

Music and Podcasts

I originally envisioned Sibyl as an alternative iPod Classic, with enough HD to hold most of my music and podcast library. I loaded gigabytes of MP3 files on it, and have never listened to a one. It’s an idea that sounded good but didn’t work out. I realize now how much I prefer my little iPod Nano to being tethered to a computer, no matter how small. I’ll be removing all the music, which occupies an enormous amount of my HD storage.


Once I take off the MP3’s and DNS binaries, I’ll have a lot of free space left on Sibyl’s HD.  Whenever I see a HD with free space, I think Linux, and I might investigate installing Ubuntu Linux if there are enough drivers around to support the built-in devices. I’ve been a Linux user for years and like working in an open-source environment. If I install Linux, I might even be tempted to study the Python programming language.

There are accounts of folk installing Mac OS on the Aspire One, and it would be fun to turn Sibyl into a Mac-alike, but the complex installation procedures give me the fantods. I could do it, but I’m not as technically inclined as I was prior to retirement. I’d rather spend my time writing than trying to wrap my head around the challenges of Mac OS on a non-Apple computer.

Bottom Line

Overall I can say I have no regrets about my purchase. For an inexpensive, tiny laptop with an amazing set of features, it’s been a bargain, and, even better, fun to use. Netbooks, no matter the brand, make good travel companions, and I know netbooks will continue to get better. There are already models with slightly larger screens and slightly larger keyboards that raise the weight only slightly. I’d love to see a Mac netbook, but so far there’s no sign of one — only rumours.

With six-hours of battery life, Sibyl is about as good as it gets with the current generation of netbooks. A few cautions aside, I say ‘no complaints.’

Harbour in the Spring: Impressions

I posted this “flash” nonfiction yesterday on Creative NonFiction Writing Forums as part of the March Writing Challenge. The topic was “water,” and the subtopic was “movement of water.” 100-500 words.

I live near a harbour, where the long, shallow Credit River flows southward into Lake Ontario. Upstream, the river is pretty, with high banks and winding channels, where water ripples over rocks and beds of pebbles and fishermen wade into the current in hip-boots, casting for trout and salmon. Farther upstream the river merges from two tributaries into a rocky, whitewater beauty spot known as Forks of the Credit.

At my end, the river is sometimes pretty, sometimes ugly. As a thin layer of late-winter ice loses its grip, spring rains deliver a sudden urgency to the sluggish current and tonnes of mocha-toned, silt-laden water rush downstream, surging around the bridge’s pylons in a rush to reach the lake.

The rains end and the river flows gently again. Barn swallows return to their mud nests under the bridge, and an osprey patrols overhead. Terns whirl by and, with a splash, one dives into the water, emerging with a small fish. Jealous, opportunistic gulls give chase, trying to cause the tern to drop its catch. Kayaks and sculls put out at dawn from the rowing club. In their ribbed wake, fishermen, cigarettes cupped in hand, watch their lines in the water, hoping, perhaps, that nothing will bite.

Note: CNWF encourages writers to submit pieces to the challenge, but you must be a member to be able to post or read the challenge postings. Membership is free.

Brown Creepers

Brown Creeper (by StarbuckGuy)

Photo Courtesy Creative Commons

Last week I saw my first spring migrants — brown creepers working their way up our maple and oak trees. They’re tiny little birds, but nature must have made them hardy because they’re among the first migratory songbirds to appear in spring and the last to leave in the fall.

The same week brought correspondingly milder weather and for the first time in weeks I was able to stretch my legs, taking longer walks without worrying about ice on the sidewalks. It even resurrected my winter-jaded interest in photography.  The mind goes numb after too much winter. It gets desperate for spring.

It was, alas, another of those too-good-to-be-true interludes. Late February and early March yield mild weather occasionally, but it never lasts. Winter will have her way.

Came the north wind, and the temperatures plummeted deep into the sub-zero range, with wind chills so bitter business even fell off at my local Starbucks. I had no trouble finding a seat.

I’m stubborn about my daily walk, and don’t like missing it, despite weather conditions. Yesterday was no different. I’d found that if I waited until after lunch to head out, the temperatures would rise just enough that, dressed snugly, I could manage the cold. Even so it was an extremely cold walk to the harbour, with no chance of an extended walk. I wrote a rant about iTunes and drank coffee. Ranting felt good.

As I headed home, I realized I’d miscalculated how cold it was. The wind was strong, brisk, and Arctic, and I was walking directly into it. Despite being warmly dressed, I was getting so cold I began to worry about my heart. This was the kind of weather they tell recovering heart patients to avoid and there I was walking into the teeth of it.

I concentrated on breathing through my nose only, to warm the air as much as possible before it reached the lungs. I even slowed my walk a bit, not wanting to overexert myself. It was one of the longest 20-minute walks I remember for quite some time.

Inside at last. I huffed for about fifteen minutes before settling into a warm stupor on the couch, wondering how those little frail creepers manage without electricity and a furnace. Feathers are a remarkable bit of evolutionary biotechnology, keeping the birds warm enough to survive a few cold days with ease. As soon as it warms up a bit, they’ll be back on the trees, confident that their internal calendars are on schedule and that, for their species, spring has returned to the North.

Therein lies the hope.

Why is iTunes such a POS?

If you’re an ardent Apple fan, don’t take this personally. I have nothing against Apple products in general. I own an iPod and love it, I’m impressed with my friends’ iPod Touch, and I’d love to own a Macbook. But I can’t help but wonder why iTunes is such a dreadful piece of … software.

For many of us Windows users, iTunes is the first Apple product we’ve ever used, and as an ambassador to things Applely, it’s not very successful.

I still recall my first view of the interface and thinking, what the hell is this? A spreadsheet? Looking at data as a table may tickle the fancy of accountants but it’s always been my least favourite view of a data set. Surely this wasn’t the main interface? Wrong.

Aside from an Album view, which is okay if you have a very large music library,  it’s cold and clumsy. Scroll, scroll, scroll to select a song.

Yes, I know about playlists and I make bunches of them. It’s the only way to make iTunes usable for music. But it’s time consuming to build them and as I discovered when changing computers, the playlists don’t travel well. Mine didn’t travel at all — I had to recreate them from scratch.

I’ve got nothing against the iTunes Store either. I love it for finding and subscribing to podcasts. Automatically syncing my iPod with new casts is a pleasure. Almost.

One of the problems with iTunes synchronization is that the settings are global — applying to all podcasts. For me podcasts aren’t equal. Some I like to have on my iPod for later re-listening, and others are a quick listen and out.

I compromised by setting sync at the 3 most recent, which gives me more of some than I want and less of others. Why doesn’t iTunes allow me to customize the profile of each podcast? It doesn’t take a Genius to figure out how useful that is.

Speaking of Genius — well, some people say they like it. I don’t. Fortunately this is one option I’m able to turn off. But instead of bloating iTunes with this kind of semi-benign spyware, why not work on the interface?

So, because of the global settings on podcasts, I decided to go Manual on the sync and just do it myself. But every time I tried to drag and drop a podcast into the iPod section of iTunes, I got a circle with a No-No bar across it. Huh? I went to the documentation which said, “drag the podcast to the iPod icon.” Swell. I went back to auto mode.

I don’t know much about how Apple develops software or how they made iTunes work in Windows, but I have no other single program that boots as slowly as iTunes — not even Photoshop. Is it running in emulation mode? It’s a pig.

A friend of mine who was recently given an iPod Touch as a gift confessed to me that as much he finds the device really neat, he can’t stand the iTunes built into the product. I had a look. Crikey, because of cramped screen space, it’s even worse than the Windows version. Yuck.

I really do like my iPod Nano and I’ve been thinking about getting an iPod Touch, but now I’m not so certain. I’m starting to think in terms of getting a different brand of music/video player that allows me to work with it directly.

Apple, get with it. Fix that damned program so it looks nice, is friendlier to use, is customizable for individual podcasts, and doesn’t take forever to load. This iTunes POS has been out there for years now, with a virtually unchanged interface. Not a nice intro to Apple products, nor does it inspire confidence that Apple can do things any better than Microsoft.