Internet-centric Computing

The more I think about it, the less I would need to have a beefed up computer these days as long as I used the resources on the Internet for most of my work. For me, the exception to this would be Photoshop CS3 which I use frequently, but even that could be dispensed with in a pinch.

Already I use Google Docs & Spreadsheets to store my text files and spreadsheets. I update them online, or squirt them up from one of my tiny electronic writing devices. I keep a cardio exercise log there that I update and use to fill out for the sheets I hand in at class for my cardio rehab program.

Blog entries, such as this one, are written directly into WordPress from the keyboard. The online editor is fine for this kind of writing and it offers interactive spell check to help me catch typos and misspelled words.

Most of my good photos go up on Flickr, which now offers an online photo editor for making corrections to colour, sharpness, contrast, sizing. A casual hobbyist could take shots with a digicam, look at them on the LCD, and select the best ones to load up to Flickr, fixing them up once they’re online.

With this in mind, those sub-compact notebook computers, or Internet devices if you prefer, such as the Asus eeePC, could be all the computer you’d need. It runs a variant of Linux that is invisible to the casual user. It offers wireless connectivity and a few basic programs, including a browser.

I’m even tempted to say you could almost do without owning a computer at all. Just book time on an Internet computer at the local library or rent some connection time at an Internet café. Talk about travelling light!

Of course, most of us would be unable to live without checking email several times a day or, if you use IRC or IM, being in constant contact with friends.

But a time is coming, and it could be soon, when the only computing device you might need is an iPhone-like cellular phone with embedded camera, MP3 and video player, browser, and an accessory Blue-Tooth folding keyboard to use for any serious typing.

Forget hard-disk failures and nasty Microsoft upgrades. Soon we’ll be nomadic, Internet-centric computerists doing our hunting and gathering via wireless hotspots.

Alzheimer’s and Authors

Alzheimer’s. I cannot think of a word that strikes more dread into my heart. Alzheimer’s is tragic for anyone who is affected, but doubly so for those whose lives are entrenched in brainy creativity. Scientists, artists, inventors, and especially writers. Although it’s a childish fantasy, I wish highly-creative types could somehow be exempt.

I felt punched in the gut today when I read that Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I just spent the past year working my way through every Discworld novel he’s written and like millions of his fans everywhere, I’ve been looking forward to many more.

In a statement released by Pratchett he says, “Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet.” With his wry humour obviously intact, he says about the situation, “This should be interpreted as ‘I am not dead’. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this may be further off than you think — it’s too soon to tell.” “I aten’t dead” is a sign that his witch Granny Weatherwax affixes around her neck when she goes “borrowing” and appears dead to someone on the outside.

He further states that he is continuing his work and plans to complete his current commitments to his publisher. My fingers are crossed that there may yet be the promised third Tiffany Aching novel.

Selfish wishes aside, I wish the best to Terry, his family, and his friends. My hope is that with state-of-the-art medications and treatments, he may continue to live and enjoy his delightfully creative life for years to come.

Terry Pratchett’s Statement

Catching Up on Film

Kitchen Window

Over the past few months as I’ve started to recover from a cardio procedure I’ve taken a few rolls of B&W film but haven’t had the energy, or maybe the will, to process them.

That changed two days ago when I finally felt like tackling the four rolls I had backlogged: 3 rolls of 35mm and 1 roll of 120. What’s embarrassing about this is that two of the rolls are test rolls from used cameras I’d bought and I didn’t even know if they worked okay.

Fortunately both purchases look fine. I’ve started my scanning with shots from the Minolta Autocord TLR and the images look great. The 75mm f/3.5 Rokkor lens lives up to its reputation. The negatives from the Contax IIa all look well exposed and I’ll scan them next, followed by a roll from the Nikon FM10 that my friend Peter lent me because it’s lightweight and easy to take on my walks, and finally a roll of Tri-X from my Olympus XA, my smallest 35mm camera.

All the films were developed in Rodinal 1:100. Rodinal is one of the oldest B&W developer formulas. I still have two or three bottles of the classic Agfa Rodinal that I purchased before the demise of Agfa. When I run out I’ll have to try one of the substitutes on the market.

Developing your own B&W film is akin to baking your own bread. Most people don’t want to be bothered when they can buy really tasty and delicious breads at the market. I don’t blame them. If your life is full and fast-paced, ready-made is ideal. It’s one of the reasons why digital photography has become so popular.

But for those with the time, or who make the time, custom developed B&W has a special quality, again akin to homemade bread. No matter how good bakery bread is, it’s not the same as homemade. Convenient it’s not, and it takes time, but the results in the case of both bread and B&W photography are delicious.

Ice Formations

Ice Formations

Sometimes photography is about equipment. Other times it’s about the seasons. Once in awhile it’s about art. Today it was about friends.

This morning Richard picked me up at my place and drove us to Starbucks where we met Marty and Dan. We had a great chat over coffee and munchies, then we took a casual stroll around Saddington Park, over to Ben Machree Park and back on the Waterfront Trail beside Lake Ontario.

We took casual shots of ice, geese, ducks, and each other. Plenty of jokes, lots of laughs, and a shared camaraderie as we skidded over icy sidewalks, chatted about our gear, and agreed that Flickr was immensely fun and rewarding.

The day was mild, around the freezing mark, with a trace of snow in the air. Compared to earlier in the week it felt balmy. It was a bit of a surprise how warm and comfy Starbucks felt when we returned there for a warmup java after our walk.

We all parted ways at that point. I walked to the library and picked up one of my holds. I thought about staying there and doing some writing in my journal, but I was a little tired so I walked the rest of the way home. I fell asleep in the afternoon and slept one of those delicious naps you hate to wake up from because you feel so toasty and relaxed under the covers.

Then up to an empty house. Marion is visiting her sisters overnight and Trev and Kirsten went into Toronto overnight. We’ll meet up again tomorrow in Burlington for a family pre-Christmas dinner.

I played the lazy bachelor and made myself a can of Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup for dinner which I ate while solving easy sudoku puzzles. I had to rub out my answers on three of them and start over before getting them right. I only learned how to do them last week and still make lots of mistakes. I’ll move on to harder ones after another week or so of practice on the easy ones.

Tonight I’ll continue reading book three of the Thursday Next novels: Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. It’s a delightfully witty series with off-the-wall humour reminiscent of both Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.

Portable Writing Machine

Writing Machine
I have a passion for portable electronic writing devices. It began in 1983 with the purchase of a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, later dubbed Tandy 100. By the standards of the day it was quite advanced: 32K internal RAM, modem software (via the serial port), MS Basic, calendar, text editor built in, and an amazingly typeable full-size keyboard. The display was a small LCD panel of 8 lines of 40 characters. Back then I was writing a lot for computer publications and I once estimated I’d written 100,000 published words with the machine.

The text files loaded, via a null-modem cable, into my Osborne CP/M computer and later my IBM PC. I used the Mod 100 for years beyond its relative shelf life mainly because nobody ever came up with a newer machine that duplicated its functionality.

In the past year I’ve discovered AlphaSmart machines and really enjoy using my Neo, which resembles the Mod 100 quite a bit. It has a slightly larger LCD display, and it’s more readable in dim light, but it too has a magnificent keyboard. I squirt my files from the Neo into my Windows or Linux word process via a USB cable. Plus ça change…

While I love the Neo, I think I’m even more affectionate about my new Palm TX with its matching Palm BlueTooth wireless folding keyboard. The bright colour LCD display on the TX can be expanded and flipped sideways, giving a really good view of what’s being entered. It sits in a little holder that is stored in the keyboard and unfolded during use. Because I already owned a copy, I use WordSmith, an inexpensive text editor for the Palm. I also have it loaded with eReader and have several Gutenberg eTexts on the Palm’s SD card.

Typing on the folding keyboard is not bad. The only quirk is that the right shift key and the slash/question mark key are reversed. I’m a touch typist so I always get a surprise when I type a slash or question mark. For the rest, the keyboard is decent and because it’s a four-row keyboard, I’m not required to use a function key to type numbers.

I’ve become quite speedy with this little setup, and I can see it under nearly all lighting conditions. The setup weighs less than half a pound or so and I can easily carry the two components in my coat pockets. With this, and an ultracompact digicam in my belt pouch, I can bring my main two interests, writing and photography, with me everywhere I walk.

My relative success with PicoWriMo was largely because of this gear. The only downside I’ve discovered is that the BT keyboard drains the TX’s battery fairly noticeably. I doubt I could get more than 3, maybe 4, hours out of it starting with a fresh charge. But most days I write an hour or two at the max, so it’s not been a serious issue for me. For a more prolific writer, the battery life could be a show stopper.


From today’s journal:

Things keep slipping through the cracks of my concentration. Life is kaleidoscopic. Another day, another turn of the scope, and all the previous patterns are gone, replaced by new ones. I see the ones in front of me. I forget yesterday’s images, or those of the days before that. Perhaps that’s why I keep a journal. It’s my butterfly net. The images are like butterflies I try to collect for later study. The difference is that these butterflies don’t lie dead, pinned in trays. They’re still fluttering and alive and seeing them again sometimes recreates the original impact of the images and ideas. Where there are butterflies, there is hope.

PicoWriMo Results

It’s the end of November and the last day of PicoWriMo, a stripped down version of NaNoWriMo in which each participant set his or her writing goals for the month. My goal was to write and complete two short stories and to write 500 words a day in my journal.

I wrote one story and started another before I became too discouraged with it to finish. I did, however, manage to write 28,459 words in my journal in November and I posted about 10 blog entries during the month. Given that I’d never tried my hand at fiction before, I didn’t do too badly on that side of things and that second story keeps calling to me with suggested changes to make it work better. I intend to work on more fiction writing if I can manage it.

I nearly doubled my goal for my journal and that pleased me very much. By deliberately writing faster than I’ve ever written before I found I was enjoying the experience more and breaking through to more creative material. I was outracing my inner editor.

Nonetheless, I’m glad PicoWriMo is over. While I intend to keep up a good pace of writing, I found myself feeling pressured. A little pressure is normally a good thing, but that’s not necessarily true when you’re also in cardio rehab. I need more downtime and relaxation than usual to allow my body to recover after exercise.

The best part of the PicoWriMo experience was getting into the space of a creative writer, albeit briefly. I’ve picked up a few recommended books on fiction writing, and I’ve listened to many writers discuss their craft on podcasts such as Writers on Writing. I’ve developed enormous respect for those who write and gained some insight into the process.

It’s been a worthwhile experience and it’s given me plenty to ponder in the months ahead. Excuse me now while I sneak off to my favourite reading chair and lean back with a good novel.


From my journal, 29 Nov 2007:

I solved a sudoku this morning. I’m definitely getting the hang of it for easy ones. I’ll continue along this path until I feel more confident of trying the medium and harder ones. Doc Khanna thinks this is good for my brain. We’ll see.

Ubuntu Linux

When it comes to computing, I’ve become lazy. I call myself lazy because, like many of you, I do many things unrelated to computing, I have a family, and I am not interested in having to wrestle my OS or programs to the ground every time I want to do something with my computer. Of course if I were totally lazy, I’d simply use Windows or OS X and be done with it.

The reason I keep returning to Linux is that I sympathize with the goals and philosophy of open-source software. I’m also impressed by the talented programmers and writers the world over who have given so much of their time and talent to creating and documenting open-source projects.

Furthermore, I’ve always liked Unix. My first computer experience was with a dialup shared account on the University of Toronto’s Zoology Dept DEC PDP-11. Sitting at a 110 BAUD dumb terminal, I learned ed, nroff, and a handful of command-line utilities to manage files and directories. It was a heady experience I’ve never forgotten.

I’m an ex-IT professional, now retired. During my 20+ years working in IT I worked in all kinds of environments including CP/M, TRS-80, AppleDOS, early Mac OS, MS-DOS, Windows, OS/2, VAX VMS, AOS/VS, a tiny bit of MVS, and a number of Unix or Unix-like systems, including Solaris, SCO Unix, AT&T Unix, BSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, plus too many flavours of Linux to remember. My early favourites in Linux were Slackware, Red Hat, and Debian. I now use Ubuntu Linux.

I mention this mainly as background to remind myself that over the years I’ve done a lot of technical work and support, including programming, system administration, database design, user support, Internet infrastructure building, and even a bit of computerized typesetting. I don’t want to do these things any more. Instead I prefer to read fiction, take photographs with the cameras in my collection, enjoy my family, cook, go for walks, and do some writing. I don’t have time to hack at systems to make things work. I’ve become that dreaded thing: a User.

So this time around I freed up some space on my Windows XP workstation so I could install Ubuntu Linux and dual book my system. I tried Ubuntu once before and liked the ease of use it was acquiring. I hit it really lucky by installing right after the Gutsy Gibbon release (Ubuntu Linux 7.10). From what I’ve seen so far, this is a fine release for the lazy. Most things work correctly after installation without a lot of tweaking and reading. Exactly what I was looking for.

My Linux server in the basement, which I use mainly as an Internet server test bed for when I’m not feeling totally lazy, is a Debian system and I’m a fan of Debian-style packages. To me, Ubuntu is a slicked-up version of Debian for the masses.

Despite enjoying Linux, I’m not a zealot. In fact I’m pretty agnostic about operating systems and when I need Windows, I’ll be there. I use Windows extensively for digital photography and although I can accomplish some of what I do with photography in Linux, there’s nothing there that matches Photoshop CS2, Downloader Pro, or Irfanview.

Nonetheless, I’ll use The GIMP fairly regularly for casual work. It’s come a long way and I rather like it.

So, once again I step into the Linux world. Continue reading “Ubuntu Linux”

RR Tracks

RR Tracks
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

Sometimes luck plays a big part in getting a nice photo.

Two days ago I walked to the harbour along Stavebank Road, a road that parallels the Credit River in Port Credit. It crosses over a set of CN rails just before I turn off the road and walk around the hockey arena to the park, usually on my way to Starbucks.

I got off to a very late start. I’m beginning to rehab from a cardio procedure and some days I have trouble getting things going. But I decided that, late in the day or not, I really wanted to get out for some fresh air and a walk.

As we approach winter, the sun hangs low in the sky by late afternoon and at times I could barely see, even with sun glasses on, as I looked in a southwesterly direction. As I crossed the tracks I could just make out that the sun was highlighting the rails.

I’ve tried many times to get a shot of these rails, and have never got a shot I really liked, but I took out my ultracompact Canon SD800 IS and framed it the best I could. With the sun so bright, I could only make out a few highlights on the LCD panel, just enough to let me frame the photo.

I honestly had no idea that there was a strategically placed leaf sitting on the track in front of me. I was concentrating so hard to framing the tracks, and could see so little, I simply didn’t notice it.

It wasn’t until later that evening when I uploaded my shots to my PC and reviewed them that I saw two things: I finally got the rail shot I’d been wanting, and that I had a gorgeous leaf in it, in just the right place.

I call that luck. Or perhaps modified luck. If I didn’t have a camera with me, there would have been no photo, so I give myself marks for thinking photographically when I saw the scene. For the rest, I thank the muse.