This is not a blog. So sue me!

Crikey, things are looking up!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Essay for biology course

This essay was written for the MIT MOOC course, Introduction to Biology: The Meaning of Life.

About the course: The course is, in summary, fucking brilliant!

If you take it just to understand a little about genetics it’s worthwhile. They bring the whole of biology, genetics, biochemistry and genomics alive! It's 14 weeks of about 3-4 hours a week but it could change your view of the world.

Students are in for an incredible ride describing 150 years of science* which is explained in pretty simple terms. There are real world examples and the compelling stories that are really necessary for ordinary people like me to really grok the material.

The videos of classroom lectures are with real students (some of whom are real, shut up that girl!) and with Professor Stephen Lander who is my new science pin up! 

Not only a scientist with a brilliant career (Humane Genome Project) but a great lecturer. He’s right up there in the great tradition of fine American science communicators along with Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, in my humble opinion.

The software modelling tools embedded in the webpages used for the courseworks are absolutely stunning. Looking into the heart of complex proteins, thinking about what all that wet stuff inside us is doing...realizing that there is order and simplicity underlying complexity...and that mutation and change is built right in as a mechanism that allows evolution and the adaptation of organisms. Looking at the science behind all this, I can see why scientists get so exasperated by creationists I mean, you can argue about the existence of invisible beings, but the biochemistry of life proves evolution by adaptation through constant mutation. This is probably the best course I have ever “attended” in my fairly long life...

So here's my essay after Landers discussed his role in advising the US Supreme Court in the case** where a company had patented the genes for breast cancer:

In my opinion, the US Patent Office has, for many years, awarded patents for things that they shouldn't have. This includes genes, which to me are obviously discoveries of existing natural features; ("Farewell dear, I'm off to patent the South Pole!")

Silly enough, if the BRCA patent were strictly applied, a person carrying these genes may not have sexual relations or have a child that carries the gene! That could be copying the DNA sequences at issue, surely?

I am very glad that someone as sensible and well-informed as Prof. Lander was able to contribute rational input to the legislative debate. If the Patent Office had been doing its job properly, it would have saved everyone a lot of time, trouble and expense! Basic research discoveries shouldn't be intellectual property.

The people who funded Myriad's work on finding those 15 base pairs for BRCA were part of a "gold rush" phenomenon. They knew they were were taking a gamble and that they could have their patent invalidated. This and other genes were known to exist - even if the exact sequences weren't. Someone else would have found them shortly thereafter.

This kind of work really belongs in the realm of publicly-funded research in universities, hospitals etc. It's expensive, difficult, and quite often goes nowhere. The incentives for cleverness in these fields are, publication, peer recognition, public recognition and gratitude, exciting moderately well-paying jobs with tenure, the satisfaction of contributing to human knowledge, cures for diseases, and, in extreme cases, awards like the Nobel Prize.

Using government funding for basic research and then allowing private companies to do the commercial development of technologies, devices, and drug therapies appears to be more rational. It's not a simple question as to where the line is drawn, though.

Prof. Lander's cited example, where a friend of his didn't start to start a commercial  company to build a test for inherited eye cancer because of the many patents surrounding these genes, is, to me, proof of the failure of the patenting system in the US.

The system as it stands has damaged commercial interests - that person could have build a for-profit business where none existed - and the interests of the public who perhaps didn't get a better or cheaper test for a genetic disorder. It could be argued that he should have bought or licensed all the applicable patents, but mostly these are not available. They are being used for obscure purposes of squatting on intellectual property and excessive rent-seeking.

If the decision is made to uphold gene patents, other countries' R&D will continue and US research institutions, arguably the finest in the world, could be subject to unfortunate restrictions.

The US government is presently attempting to coerce other countries to accept US rules on intellectual property through bi- and multi-lateral trade deals, but this is not necessarily going to be successful.
The US Patent Office has done a disservice to US industry, research, the public and intellectual property holders as a whole by lending a disreputable air to the whole business of patenting.

It's patently obvious what Einstein** would have made of this!

* Science!!

** Myriad lost their case to patent genes in a 9-0 decision in June 2013.

*** Einstein worked in a patent office when he was younger, I believe. Although Einstein is quoted as having said that "God doesn't play dice with the world" - this course has made me realize that indeed, He isn't playing dice, He's been playing a massively multi-player lottery!
Note: This is a feeble attempt at a joke; I don't believe in invisible deities; don't get me started...

Cheap mildew killer recipes

Mildew is a mold (mould for you Canadians and Brits). It has a distinctive black stain that grows on moist surfaces, especially in warm conditions, but it doesn't mind a bit of cold it just grows more slowly. It has a distinctive unpleasant smell which is very hard to get out of fabrics or paper products. There are other fungus types that will grow in slightly less moist conditions especially on household dust particles that have accumulated. I hate to say it, but our grandmothers were right. Dusting is a good thing...sigh. I think I have too much stuff ;-)

The best formula is the mildew killer “cleaning soda” so beloved of our foremothers.  (It is now marketed as Concrobium if you want to spend a lot of money on it. That product does come in a nice spray bottle, though.)

Practical Sailor magazine* recently did a test of anti-mildew sprays and this cleaning soda was the best formula that you can currently get. The cleaning borax solution came pretty close and was slightly cheaper ($0.39 as opposed to $0.49 per quart!) Bleach also works to kill mildew (and will help with stains) but it’s nasty and doesn’t last long to stop re-infestation.

Best solution is to get rid of the damp conditions that mould likes. If you can’t, use the cleaning soda solution to spray the area that is mildewed. Let it dry and leave it alone. Check every few months and reapply if the problem reoccurs. Apply at yearly intervals if you can remember. It does work even if the area is always wet.

Cleaning soda - best results, kills mildew and prevents re-infestation.
Alkaline. Use in spray or wipe on with a cloth. Safe in use, although I wouldn't drink it.
When dry this leaves a harmless, white, powdery residue especially on dark items. Later you may think this is mildew. Don’t worry, it probably isn’t. Brush or wipe it off if you need to.

in 1 quart (2 litres) hot water dissolve:
  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) washing soda (sodium carbonate)
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) TSP (trisodium phosphate)

These other recipes are given in case you don’t have the ingredients above:

Cleaning borax - pretty good, kills mildew and prevents re-infestation.
Somewhat toxic, if you breathe borax or spray.
Alkaline. Use in spray or cloth. I'd use rubber gloves. Avoid breathing spray.

in 1 quart (2 litres)  hot water dissolve:
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • 2 tbsp (30 ml) Borax (sodium tetraborate)
  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) TSP (trisodium phosphate)

Bleach - removes mildew stains somewhat and kills mildew. Only short-lived protection (the chlorine evaporates), it's a bit unpleasant to use, toxic. However you can get it everywhere.
Alkaline. Use in spray or cloth. Use rubber gloves. Avoid breathing spray.
Can discolour fabrics and soft materials.

In one quart (2 litres) hot water mix in :
4 oz. (200 ml) of 3% bleach (sodium hypochlorite)

* Practical Sailor magazine November 2013. (They should know; boats always have damp and often have mildew problems).

Sunday, May 26, 2013


The apparently trivial issue of dandelions has rent our community once again. Every Spring, the advent of these cheerful yellow flowers brings forth the best, and worst, in our fellows.

In my opinion, gardening is an exercise in humility. Spring comes, hope blooms and one rushes to dig and sow, hoe and weed. Many plants are honest and just die straight away, some grow well, some pretend to grow but languish until they finally expire with a defeated is a matter of allowing Nature to have her way, while still getting some reward, of beauty or something to eat.

That said, the most useless struggle, is the one against dandelions. While these do have some utility in that the leaves, rootas and flowers can be eaten, it is not common to find anyone who admits to liking them. I did once make wine with dandelion flowers at the suggestion of a winemaking book. The result was truly horrible. It had a flavour similar to some unpleasant medicine that I was doctored with as a child. I couldn't drink it. I eventually gave the whole gallon to a student friend because he claimed to like it. Strangely enough, he stopped coming to classes shortly after and we lost touch with him. I doubt if the wine was responsible for his dropping out, but I suspect that it was involved. Living with dandelions is not that hard. Leave them in the lawn and remove them from the vegetable garden and flower beds is my compromise.

Dandelions are one of the free riders upon human behaviour. There are many of these, birds like starlings, pigeons and sparrows, rodents like mice and rats. If people are the mechanism that grass uses to spread its genes to every continent (with the present exception of Antarctica), dandelions are inevitably carried with them. We give dandelions the best environment to live in - a lovely sunny lawn with gaps between the grass leaves into which a dandelion seed is evolved to parachute. If we really wanted to eliminate them, we should stop planting lawns at all. Lawns containing only one species are a doomed artifact of our obsession with controlling Nature. A monoculture that needs to be constantly patrolled and chemically treated for the invasion of dandelions and other plants and animals. The waste of resources is enormous.

My own lawn is a happy mess. To lie on my lawn is a pleasure today, surrounded by dandelion, violet, strawberry, and ground ivy flowers. The bees and other insects like them as well. In a few weekks the clover and ranunculus will bloom and then the whole garden will be abuzz. I have no problems with animals "ruining the lawn". If any plant can survive the weekly mowing except ragweed and poison ivy it is welcome to live in my lawn. The dandelions seem to do very well for the month of May and then retire. Other plants start to take over. It is a small ecology, showing competition and co-operation.

I think my neighbour hates me. The elderly man whose house backs onto mine has a Lawn Order kind of lawn. Regular mowing, weed'n'feed, watering, aerating, rollering and eliminating the inevitable dandelions with chemical weapons. One Spring he sneaked ten feet over the boundary to spray the dandelions in my lawn with herbicide. I suppose he thought that their spiral death agony over the next few weeks was invisible. I eat food grown right where he sprayed and even if it says that it is safe on the bottle, it's still poison. His later attempt to stop the dandelion encroachment by erecting a fence was pathetic. I don't think that chainlink will stop them, even if it has barbed wire along the top!

And thus the little irritations between neighbours continue. I like to have blank floors and flowers in my lawn. As long as it is sort of green and sort of level it's a happy place. You may like to have flowers on your carpets and a clean lawn. Congratulations! You have a hobby that will keep you occupied for life while struggling against the inevitable! The dandelion legions are on the move and they are coming for you!

Friday, May 17, 2013

News from Loon County - May 2013

Hi again D,

For a number of reasons we haven't yet made it for a visit to your place! Aargh...where does the time go?
We will definitely try to get up there next week, perhaps Wednesday or Friday.

My mother has had a chest infection which has used up a lot of my time and resulted in a trip to the Winchester Hospital emergency room, a lot of pills and inhalers (with varying results), doctors visits, and many trips to the pharmacy. She's getting better now, but for a while I thought she was going nuts - she started getting angry and abusive, thought she was dying and didn't sleep for 3 days. It now seems like this was in reaction to taking prednisone - I think the emergency doctor could have warned us! Mind you, knowing of your struggles with that drug, I might have questioned him giving it to an 83-year old woman...but after waiting 3 hours in the hospital I had just gone to the cafeteria to get her the inevitable cup of tea and missed the 60-second consultation. Sigh. I'm not complaining, I think 3 hours wait on Mother's Day is quite good...I just wished I wasn't there!

After the first antibiotic didn't work, her own doctor gave her a stronger one, along with a admonition to come in to the surgery more often - someone with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) should be monitored more closely. This is the first my mother appears to have heard of it. She never smoked, but my father was a chain smoker. Then it appears that the pharmacist had previously told her she wasn't using enough of one of her inhalers (should be every day) and she had been "saving it for when she's sick" which was precisely not the point of it. So, the system works, but the patient must be paying attention and perhaps interrogated to make sure they understand! After we got home, we made a daily schedule of pills, inhalers, mouthwashes, meals etc because she almost needs a smartphone app to integrate it all. Stuff that can't be with food, stuff that must be with food, stuff that interacts with dairy, stuff that can cause yeast infections and on and on. Hopefully now she's aware, we can manage better in future.  She is also on a regime of immuno-suppressants for her arthritis, so this isn't trivial.

I still think that the potential for mistakes and abuses of the medical system could be mostly fixed by proper data management thoughout. A text message to say take the red pill now sort of thing. When most people are sick they're not really capable of listening to the medical professional much less create a plan for medications...oh well. That's my "belief in Progress" talking...!

In other news, the chronic behind-with-the-house-and-gardening-chores guilt sensation has started again. I did manage to mow the lawn and hoe a few vegetable beds, and some of my seedlings are going out in hanging baskets etc. However, I have decided that I'll just grow peas, beans (3 varieties), broccoli, leeks, shallots and green onions). It didn't seem like much when I bought the seeds...those damn seed catalogues!

Work on the boat has been slow, while the weather was so cold. However, some things are coming together. I finished a new coat of varnish on the wood on the outside of the boat, and I am starting to do all the inside. This is going to take some time as there are about 15 wooden cupboards, but the results complete are wonderful! The interior has a lot of solid teak, which was not expensive back in the '70's unfortunately it was finished with teak oil, which goes all gluey over time and holds the dirt. The only good thing is that it comes off fairly easily. Some turkey did varnish about a third of the interior but did a terrible job, so that has to come off. I have been playing with incredibly expensive paint strippers and finally found one that (a) works quickly and in any temperature (b) doesn't dry up immediately and (c) will not poison me, as I need to use it inside the boat. I started with the normal expensive boating stuff ($100 a gallon) from the nice, smiling fellow at the Chandlery, but it didn't really do a good job. It claimed not to contain methyl chloride, (which is effective, but is highly toxic) but the smell of acetone was appalling. I am taking half a gallon of it to the hazardous waste dump tomorrow. I can't use it inside the boat, it's just nasty.

Anyway, so the next stop was Lee Valley, also a merry purveyor of expensive stuff for people with too much money and no sense of proportion ($30 garlic crusher, anyone?) They sell a paint stripper called Greensolv - of which I was suspicious, because of the "green" epithet. Greenwashing chemical products is big business. (But Leonard Lee says it is wonderful!) However, for $25 a litre (same price as the other) the stuff is effective, gives off few fumes and is, indeed, green in colour. I was told that I can paint it on, cover it with Saran wrap and it will get through multiple layers of paint of varnish. It does that. Even better, you don't have to scrape a jellified layer off, you can use water and a brush or rags. Hooray!

I am also repairing a coxed-four rowing shell that was run over some rocks last fall. There was a 10-foot split in the hull which is only made of two layers of glass fibre and glue.  (Luckily it wasn't one of the wooden boats, that would have to be written off with such damage.) The crew were sitting in water up to their bums by the time they got back to the dock! The cox who was driving it was white with fear - I think she thought she would be keel hauled or's been quite a process - patching it up. Fortunately I mended my own rowing shell last year so I know what to do. It has taken about 15 hours so far from a couple of us, but we're onto the final paint coats now. That is made more complex because it it our "cow boat" S-Moo-th Waters sponsored by the Dundas county dairy producers. (I think the father of one of our former members was a dairy farmer and got them to buy the paint). Anyway, it is a white hull with black Holstein-type splotches on it and causes excitement where ever we take it, so it has to be done. So it is 2 coats of white, then two coats of black on the patches - I just hope they are still visible at that point! More marine paint...! The Chandlery guys know me by name...

The rowing club is starting the Learn-to-Row course again next week, two evenings a week for 4 weeks. It is one of our most reliable fund-raising opportunities we get nearly $1500 from it and if we are lucky we get new members to join next year. We almost always have to turn people away. Strangely the club membership is always around 25-30 people, each year a few come and a few go.

We have built a new concrete foundation for the rowing dock and extended it so we can get more boats alongside and this year we have the brand new coxed four which we hope will win us some regattas. I'm not bothered myself, but there are a lot of people who are really driven to compete. I just want that "Participant" ribbon and the ability to keep on rowing.

The writers' group I mentioned last time is still going strong. Subjects have been "Music", "Pet Peeves" and "Morning Meditation". This latter topic was suggested by one of our number who is, shall we say, a believer in the invisible fairy government that runs things ineffibly in mysterious ways or something like that. She also has a huge and very obvious ego whilst presenting a prim and proper demeanour - the usual church-going annoyance. Our host, had been to the emergency room at Winchester hospital for a badly infected foot. Because he is a paraplegic he has no sensation, it can get very serious. The lady in question insisted that he should be wearing magnetic insoles in his shoes (that are purely decorative) and that this "therapy" would fix him right up. I, of course, rose to the bait and announced loudly that this advice was bogus and magnets were woo etc. Fortunately our host changed the subject before we came to blows!

"Morning Meditation" provoked some impressive free-association streams of consciousness. Apparently we are all seething masses of fury and resentment; mostly at cats.

I got to choose the next topic for writing, and I decided on Dandelions. As the subject came up in conversation between the Weed Slackers and the Lawn Fascists during the meeting, I thought Dandelions might prove an interesting subject. I had briefly considered "War", "Peace", "Religion", "Gun Control" or "Syria" or another such subject of trivial import. However it is obvious that people all feel strongly on one side of the Lawn Order issue and that the rest of you are irresponsible and Just Don't Get It™. Be warned, we are all nice and friendly now, even prepared to take tea together. At the end of the next session we will probably be unable to tolerate being under the same roof...

However, I was shocked to then receive an email from the Morning Meditations person trying to shut me up, saying that "even one doubter" might cause the gentleman to shy away from her idea. He is well-educated and, I am sure, reluctant to be the subject of unwanted and patronizing advice. Needless to say the email exchange after this, was, very interesting. I am not going to be told to shut up by anyone I know to be wrong. Crikey, magnets! In your shoes! To heal you! If you believe!

It's funny about these pseudo-scientific things. People never talk about the dose, or the possibility that if the therapy is indeed active, that it may also be harmful. I mean, what happens if you wear your magnetic insoles upside-down? There is like the movement a few years ago when a bunch of people got anxiety attacks about living near power lines, or Our Children in School! Under Hydro Towers! Now it seem to be wind farms. No-one yet seems to recognize the Menace of Magnets in Our Shoes. I am probably being churlish but I think these people deserve ruthless mockery. Although there was a British psych-doctor on the radio who made me feel a bit unkind, when he said that although wind farms (or insert your unreasoning fear here) were not actually harmful in themselves, they are harmful to people who have convinced themselves that they are being harmed. He called it the nocebo effect, contrary to the placebo effect, I guess. He also said that people who have these beliefs, hold them very sincerely but almost inevitably drop them only to pick up another anxiety and that they can experience many very unpleasant physical symptoms. People are insanely complicated, or perhaps complicatedly insane, or even simply insane. Perhaps us sane people should be locked up in protective custody!

Many of the writers' group including the host, are members of a local choir 35-strong. Don and I took my mother, her 97 year-old neighbour and a friend to their end of season concert. It was pretty good, in one of the local churches with decent acoustics. The 97 year-old lady is a famous personality. She herself sang in this choir up to the age of 92. She was a music teacher in Montreal many years ago and was in a choir with Oscar Peterson when he was young! Then she married a church minister and went to live in Nova Scotia. Her daughters (both in their 70's) took away her car last year - she was a menace to society, having mini-strokes that rendered her temporarily blind etc. Now she terrorizes the village with an electric scooter. My mother is very impatient with her, I think because she is so independent. It is unfortunate, but my mother is so selfish that she doesn't seem to feel that she could help Muriel, with shopping, going to the library or going to appointments etc. Sigh, old people, behaving badly. Anyway, enough compaints about my family!

How are you? I see that you will have visitors this coming weekend, so perhaps we'll come up next week. We'll give you a call.


Sue & Don.

Discreditable senate appointments

Dear Mr. Lauzon,

I am writing to complain about the disturbing behaviour of the Prime Minister's Office in regard to the Senate scandal about expense claims.

It is not believable to me that a person like Senator Duffy couldn't find, or borrow, the money to replace his expenses claimed (possibly) in error. The bail out by the Prime Minister's chief-of-staff is a dreadful mistake. It leads to the perception of impropriety, and the branches of Canadian government should be above reproach.

The Conservative government has made much about ethical behaviour and accountability, more than just following the letter of the law. This was important in rebuilding the party after the Mulroney years.

One is often judged by the company one keeps. The Conservative government is being rightly pilloried in the press for bad judgement in picking senators who have discredited to the party.

I can honestly say that I am shocked.

Yours sincerely

Dear Susan,

Thank you for writing to my office regarding the repayment of Senator Duffy’s living expenses to taxpayers. I always appreciate hearing the concerns of my constituents on matters that are important to them.

I can assure you I do not believe that taxpayers should be on the hook for improper expense claims made by Senators. Mr. Duffy agreed to repay the expenses because it was the right thing to do. However, Mr. Duffy was unable to make a timely repayment.  Mr. Wright therefore wrote a cheque from his personal account for the full amount owing so that Mr. Duffy could repay the outstanding amount. The independent external audit by Deloitte looking into Senate expenses was completed and the results tabled. Due to the controversies surrounding Senator Duffy’s improper expense claims, the Senator made the decision to resign from the Conservative Caucus and sit as an independent.

Once again, thank you for writing.

Best regards,

Guy Lauzon
Member of Parliament
Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry

Dear Mr. Lauzon,

Thank you for your prompt reply.

I am sorry, it is not believable that a person of Senator Duffy's status and income could not immediately borrow such funds from a Canadian bank to cover the shortfall. If he could not, the taxpayer was not "on the hook" for this - it is still his responsibility. I am ignoring the possibly misleading statement that was made to the press, that Senator Duffy and his wife had decided to pay back the money. I am also ignoring for now, the idea that someone else, in any other occupation, would be suspended without pay and possibly facing police charges.

I expect the government of Canada to be held to the same or hopefully better standards of behaviour than this. I happen to know, and as you probably know yourself, Mr. Lauzon, that when a new senator or MP is brought into Parliament, there is an extensive orientation and briefings explaining what is allowed and what is not (and the reasons for that).

I am very sorry, that you appear to have to defend this type of behaviour, as I believe that you are a person of unimpeachable honesty and you do a great deal of good work in our community!

Yours sincerely

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stopping LinkedIn emails

Hi K,

You asked how to get out of LinkedIn. You can try changing your account so you don't get any messages or you can close your account.

To change your message options:

Sign in to LinkedIn - here

If you cannot remember your password, click on the "Forgot password?" link. You will be sent an email to reset your password which will allow you to sign in.

After you have signed in, there is a drop down menu on your name at the top of the page. Mine says "Sue Welsh v". Mouse over that and click on the "Settings" to go to the Setting page.

At the bottom left of this page, are a set of menu tabs: Profile, Communications, Group (and stuff) and Account. Click the Communications item. It will expose the following menu:

Emails and Notifications

  • Set the frequency of emails
  • Set push notification settings

Member Communications

  • Select the types of messages you're willing to receive
  • Select who can send you invitations
Click the "Set the frequency of emails" item which will switch you to a page with the controls to turn off emails.

There are a bewildering set of apparently similar items. You can set them all to "No email".

You can also close your account if you want to do this.

Sue W.
p.s. Most social networks or websites with logins have an equivalent function. They don't really want to annoy you! They have help pages that are useful, but they are often confusing if you don't understand the language or what is happening behind the scenes.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Letters to M - April 2013

Oh, it sounds like they're throwing every weapon in the arsenal at this thing! A good thing too, but heartbreaking all the same.

Mr. and Ms. Cardinal are now expectant parents! I know this because he is collecting sticks and leaves and presenting them to her to help build the nest in the cedar hedge next door. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to be impressed with his choice of building materials! She keeps dropping them over the edge of the nest. It could be that they have finished the structural part and are on to interior decorating...and that she doesn't like his choice of colours for the nursery! Of course, it's very difficult to find leaves that are any colour other than brown, these days!

Freya is taking a keen interest in the activities of all the birds - those delicious juncos are hopping about in a most endearing way in the leaf litter at the end of the yard. The cat is confined to the house, except under supervision, while the birds are all so busy. Too bad, but she is not to be trusted as I wrote about before.

Coincidentally, Don and I drove past the nearby town of Cardinal just the other day. It is, like where we live in Morrisburg, on the St. Lawrence River. Cardinal (the town) has a large white water tower with a picture of Cardinal (the bird) on it! The town is small, but it has a waterfront park which was made from the old canal. Many years ago the St. Lawrence River was very wild and rough with many dangerous rapids. In the 1800's people built a series of locks and short canals to bypass the rapids so that boats could go from Montreal to Kingston on Lake Ontario. In the 1950's (about the time that I was born) it was decided that there needed to be a way for wider and deeper boats to travel with their cargoes on this route. So the St. Lawrence Seaway was built. It took many years but it was finally opened in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth who traveled on her royal yacht through part of the new canal.

The old canals and their locks were abandoned. Today, there are many parks and play areas around the old locks near Cardinal, and lots of places to walk the dog! There are the wrecks of old boats in some places, which are interesting to divers, so sometimes we see scuba divers there as well.

This day, we drove down to the Legion Hall which is in the park on the riverside in Cardinal. From the road above (Highway 2), we had seen a great mass of white objects floating on the water and we wanted to investigate. When we got closer, we realized that these were the snow geese taking a break from their annual migration between Mexico to the Arctic! There must have been 10,000 birds all sitting on the water all across the river! They looked like they were sitting still, but they must have been paddling like crazy because the water runs fast just there.

We met a man who had binoculars that he let us look through. We were all amazed by the sight of the shining birds in the setting sun. From his car the man then got a big telescope on a tripod. When he had set it up he gave us a look. Each bird which looked tiny in the distance could now be observed just as if it were in my back yard! It turns out the man was a serious bird watcher...he told us that this flock had spent the previous night in some nearby fields. He thought that they were waiting for the high winds to stop before they few on. He didn't know why they were on the river like that as there was ice all around, and no food for them, but he suggested that they had been frightened by something and were waiting for that danger to pass. Eventually we said goodbye - Don's stomach was rumbling - it was suppertime!

The next day we saw that immense flock flying over our house, beautiful white strings of birds were shining in the sunlight, making their strange honking noises. We called our next door neighbour, Richard, who was raised on a farm in the area, and he said with satisfaction, "Now the Spring is here!"

Monday, April 8, 2013

Coding for Open Source

This is a note that is intended to be the start of a discussion. I am not laying down the law, just trying to get some ideas going. All in my opinion.

If we are to write code for Open Source projects and put it under change control, we must take responsibility for it. Think about it. Own it.

One thing this means is to have a reasonable header as an introduction at the beginning of any files/modules. This should contain:
  • Name of module. Title. If the name is an abbreviation, expand it.
  • Name of author(s) and the organization name (if any). Contact information, if applicable: We're proud of our stuff. If someone else want to use it they should know who to contact, if they want to discuss it. We might learn something to our advantage.
  • Time stamp & date: Of original creation or significant change. This can be useful in the event that the module gets disconnected from the source control system. Oh, it happens. (We don't need to reproduce what the source control system does though, that stuff about author, change made, version, date, reason for change etc. belongs to Subversion. Use the Source.)
  • Explanation of function: A decent plain-language explanation in high-level terms of what the module does. This is so simple to do when you create the module, please consider the rest of us and, probably, your future self!
  • Any disclaimers, or mealy-mouthed wording desired: to disclaim responsibility to the public and to ask for credit if someone reuses or re-purposes the module. Whatever our organization decides.
  • Credits to other projects from whom we have stolen er...borrowed code or ideas. Here or in the code. Within reason; I doubt if we need to know that your mom is awesome (although she is, indubitably! She and I are best pals.)
  • Any tie-in to versions of hardware - although we hope we have software and hardware co-located for version control, especially if we are maintaining multiple versions. (Cthulhu help us, if we are.)

In the body of the code, every function and obvious group of lines of code, should have a comment explaining what it does. Don't bother to document the parameters of a function; just pick parameter names and types that are helpful to the reader.

When re-using someone else's code, be a mensch and carry forward the credit, even if it is just in a comment.

Variable names, function names, you know the drill. Helpful ones are helpful and future coders will love you for your coolth. Explaining them with a comment is even better.

Format and structure the code according to your desires, unless you are editing an existing module. In that case, follow the example set by the original author. That includes names of things too. If the code is a combination of different formatting styles, you'll get treasure in heaven for making it consistent throughout. Only another coder will care. If the existing format/structure/naming convention makes you puke and you don't have time to modify everything, do what you will. The Hounds of Hell are coming on the next bus.

Naming of loop index variables. Go wild. The tradition of using i, j, k, as integer index variable names is long and honorable and goes back to FORTRAN - remember you are the privileged initiate of an ancient and noble craft.

Just because we hack, it doesn't have to look like garbage. Good code can be a lovely thing to be appreciated in an easy chair with a glass of wine. Consistency. Style. It speaketh volumes...

And lastly, if you are picking up a module, try to understand what the fuck the thing does. It is only code. Consult your team. Do the rubber duck walkthrough either with a duck or a person. If that stupid machine can understand it, you can as well. It's only got a teeny, tiny, brain...while you are a Lord of Creation!


The longest wait, in a chair on the landing of the stairwell. I have nothing to keep me occupied. The hospital is quiet, it is the middle of the afternoon.
My little sister is ill again. We are visiting her in a London hospital. We came by train and bus which was the best part of all of this. I liked the movement and the view. My mother and I sat on the top deck of the bus, at the front so we could see everything in the streets.
This time I am not allowed to see Helen; I am too young, or only one visitor is allowed, or she is too ill, I don't really know. I don't ask any questions. The ugly lady in blue with a white hat is really quite nasty to my mother and won't let me see my sister; I don't care. I pretend not to care anyway. I have been the centre of attention and now I have to be out of the way, while my mother visits. She takes the gift she had bought for me to bring and the signed get-well card. The card says, "Get Well Soon, but don't be a Pig" on the outside and "Because when he's cured, he's dead!" on the inside. There is a picture of a fat pink pig on the front. I have no idea what it means, except that my mother thinks it's funny. I am placed out of sight, outside the swing doors. Someone finds a chair.
The chair is big and hard. My feet don't touch the floor. I am good. I don't wander off. No-one comes by. When I move the chair and it scrapes the floor I can hear echoes from both up and down, it seems. The stairs are made of hard white marble veined with grey swirls. The walls are white. There are polished brass handrails on each side of the stairs with curly horns at the ends. The centre rail is continuous. If I lean over and look down it goes round and round and round.
The stairwell has high, bare windows; one for each floor, but the lower part of the window glass is frosted – there's no view, even when I stand on the chair. I rock the chair and it nearly tips. I sit down again.
There is a distant noise of footsteps and some people talking, and then it stops. Everything is so quiet. I am not used to silence. There is no sound even from the city traffic. There had been a big sign on the street as we walked from the bus stop, "Keep Quiet - Hospital." I am never quiet and that is obviously a bad thing around here.
Eventually my mother comes out and I hold her hand as we go down the stairs. It has been a very long time, and perhaps she is upset. I don't ask about my sister. I have my mother to myself again.


I am not going to pretend to know much about music, although it has undeniable power and influence. I have myself been moved to tears of joy or rage - a beautiful song at a funeral  - or muzak in a stuck elevator.

At school at ten years old, I had music lessons via a regular radio program with an accompanying book of lyrics and stories about the songs. That was multi-media for the sixties! Thirty of us sang a large variety of folk songs, so-called “Negro” spirituals, and sea-shanties from around the world. In later years, I was to find out that the lyrics had been cleaned up quite a bit – I suppose that references to the ladies of the night in English seaport towns was a bit shocking to teachers even in those swinging times.

Other musical experiences were at the daily religious service. All English state schools were, by definition, Anglican and had daily prayers and hymns. Later on, I joined the school choir. Hymns, ancient and modern, Christmas carols. I can't say I hated it - until I learned the error of my ways.

This revelation came with my adolescent realization that the music I had experienced thus far was crap. I blamed the government. At this time there were only three radio stations in Britain. The BBC had a monopoly on radio broadcasting, for reasons to do with the National well-being. The Home Service had news, serious talk and drama. The Light Programme, old-people's popular music, some good comedy, some soap operas. The Third Programme featured classical music. Music that was actually popular with the under-thirties didn't get played at all. This was 1967.

Little did I know that the recording industry or copyright reasons enforced a legal limit of a total of only five hours recorded music daily on the BBC, for fear that it would cut into sales of records. The Beatles had become practically has-beens by the time they were heard on the BBC (we may think of their music as a bit pedestrian now, indeed I have heard it in elevators, but then it was characterized as “not what the public wanted”).

As a young child, listening to the music on the radio was alright, quite jolly really. Sometimes uplifting sometimes hummable. However, at thirteen I learned that the BBC was a tool of the capitalist repression of...whatever it was that was being repressed. I decided that it was soft, wet, lying and hateful. I rebelled. I started listening to Pirate Radio! I lived in the south-east corner of England from where one could hear the broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg, and from the “pirate” ships, Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London.

The music was new, fun and exciting. The disc-jockeys were American sounding and irreverent. They had interesting sound effects, jingles and, yes, advertising! Good heavens! Nothing so exciting on the BBC! 

I bought several really bad record albums based on a single hearing of a single song. So much for advertising. Funnily enough, hearing new music on the radio actually made people go out and buy records! The recording industry was in turn shocked and appalled and quietly banking the proceeds.

Now I wasn't a complete fool. It was illegal to listen to unlicensed and unauthorized radio stations. I planned this law-breaking step very carefully. I decided to listen but, I would only do it in the bath, where I thought that I and my little battery-powered transistor radio might escape detection by Big Brother. The signals were really barely audible even with an earpiece. I felt like a wartime spy in enemy country. My family were puzzled and annoyed that I spent so much time locked in the bathroom. I expect that they thought I was smoking.

Eventually, the BBC fought back against my campaign of terror. They opened a fourth radio station that was called, rather oddly, Radio One. They hired a few middle-aged disc-jockeys and they had strong, stable signals. No teenaged hipsters like me were fooled. The smarmy, smiling faces of the “housewives' friends” were all over the the “Radio Times”, a publication that I eschewed. Although as the official organ of the BBC which carried the exclusive weekly listing of all forthcoming programming on the 2 TV stations and 4 radio channels, I also frantically consulted it when it was delivered each week.

Further salvos came from the British government which pushed to prosecute the advertisers who supported the pirate stations and they gradually went out of business (thus fulfilling my paranoid view of a nanny state that suppressed all the fun.)

In reality it wasn't the BBC that was a tool of the capitalists. Music had become a commodity with vast profits, to be bought and sold, together with the audience. The model had been set in the United States and the pressure was mounting to cater to, and to fleece, the large and growing "Baby Boomer" population. Over the next few years pressure to sell music by radio broadcast had become enormous. People were being bribed, or demanding bribes, to promote music. By 1973, independent private radio stations were permitted and they followed the old pirate radio formula. Some of the hosts were former pirates. It was all fun, laughs and advertising.

Since then, popular music as fashion has seen wave after wave of rebellion, consolidation, stagnation and rebellion once more. It's interesting to think back and realize how my tastes were manipulated into liking things that were derivative, stolen, silly and actually pretty bad. The radio stations of today are like the fossilized remains of these eras. We now have a large number of formulaic commercial radio stations each of which contains the exact flavour of music that will appeal to a particular age group with the advertising to match. These are mass produced by a California company called Clear Channel. I look forward to the “Classic Rock” station that features advertizing for incontinence products for seniors and retirement homes.

And for today's thirteen-year-olds, the rebellion of Pirate Radio is on the high seas of the Internet. The music continues.


A pet is often defined as a non-human companion although humans can be pets too. The word implies a subordinate being doted upon by the pet owner. Most of us think of animals when we think of pets.

There is an enormous kaleidoscope of behaviours around this topic. People are usually very devoted to their pets, sometimes beyond death – I was astonished to find my brother-in-law has his late dog's ashes in an urn on a specially built shelf at the turn of his stairwell. This is years after the dog died. It seems so...unbalanced. Every time one goes up and down the stairs of his house, there she is. Perhaps I'd have felt it a bit more normal if there had been a picture of the dog there. However, the portrait, there is no other word for it, is an enormous oil painting-like photo set in a gilt frame over his fireplace.

There are a lot of funerary practices for beloved pets that are considered quite sensible – burying the dear departed at the end of the backyard is one. I think this is reasonable although it can be exhausting what with the fits of weeping and the damage to the lawn. Paying the vet to have the remains cremated is another for the more fastidious and less athletic. Buying a plot in an actual pet cemetery, where vast green lawns are dotted with full-sized statues of sleeping animals, seems a bit excessive. Worse still, one may be buried in such a cemetery, provided one is first cremated. This isn't much different from the Ancient Egyptians who mummified their cats, presumably to meet them again in the afterlife. Millions and millions of mummified cats. Of course, this did happen over the course of more than a thousand years so they had quite a while to accumulate.

At the other end of life is the expression of our love in the form of food. Mealtimes for cats and dogs are sometimes as fraught as those of small children. The pet owner (or the staff as my cat appears to believe) provides that adorable tiny tin of Duck and Wild Rice, or Cod, Sole and Shrimp – opens it, mixes it, just so, with a drop of warm water, and then is stunned by its almost instant rejection. 

“What? You liked this the other day! What have I done? What can I do?” 

Our hunt for ever more exotic and increasingly expensive delicacies to appeal to the feline palate is on-going. I have it on good authority that other pets like hamsters, gerbils and rabbits are not so particular.

Someone has made a shortfilm, in the style of the French existential cinema, black and white with a deep male voiceover and subtitles – it's called “Henri – le Chat.” In this, the tormented soul of an indoor cat ponders his fate – he is doomed to live a life where his Whitefish and Tuna is starting to taste the same as his Turkey and Giblets. It's all very sad. The difficulties in getting good staff are manifest.

There are more difficult cases. I have a friend who spoils her cats. She got a new kitten a couple of years ago, a very pretty tabby with unusually wide black stripes. It grew up into a beautiful young cat. And then it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Not in height, but in girth. It is now has the dimensions of an enormous furry beach ball. I presume this is not entirely the cat's fault. We love our pets to death.

What do I want to say about pets? I thought about saying they are useful in reminding us about Life and our humanity and the natural world, but it's really about love.

We need to love and we need to be needed, even if it is only by an ungrateful pet at mealtimes.

Friday, April 5, 2013

News from Loon County - April 2013

Hi D,

We hope you are doing well - with this prolonged winter weather! I must admit that this winter has been quite vexing (as my grandmother used to say!) Still, I must not complain, as there are signs of Spring.

A week ago we drove to Ogdensburg in the U.S. to pick up a parcel (a boat part, inevitably) and we saw a mass of white birds on the St.Lawrence in Cardinal which is the next town along towards Prescott from here. The river flows really fast here, as it is quite narrow, and when we drove to the shoreline we could see there were thousands of snow geese swimming in formation. Amazing sight! We were joined, moments later, by an elderly gentleman with binoculars who was very pleased to discuss the birds and their habits. When he realized we were interested, he got out his big dog - a massive telescope on a tripod, from which we could see the geese up close. The birder was very concerned to explain that you can tell a snow goose by the "smile on their faces" - but I put that down to the prospects of breeding in the Arctic. Not that there's much to see really, they all look the same to me, but the sheer numbers are remarkable. The noise is quite impressive, especially when they take off.

The next day the flock flew past Morrisburg, really high up, beautiful - really long strings shining white in the sun. Going back to Labrador and points further north for the summer, following the river.

Other signs of Spring are the robins, red-wing blackbirds, starlings, grackles, turkey vultures, and of course, the inevitable Canada geese. These last are causing irritation to the more well-off section of Morrisburg, that is, those with waterfront houses. I suppose if you spent thousands cutting trees, digging up the shoreline, landscaping, laying turf, aerating, fertilizing, watering, and buying the suitable agricultural machinery to maintain a lawn, you feel entitled to complain when there are hundreds of our feathered friends crapping on it all day! However, there are a few houses that have no trouble with geese - they have kept a natural shoreline (or what passes for natural in a man-made reservoir, which is what our section of the river is) - rocks and stones with trees and shrubs. No grass except what can grow in the shade of the trees.

We have just completed our first boat project of the year. It is a canvas and clear plastic spray shelter for the boat entrance, commonly called a dodger. Not sure why, although presumably one can dodge behind it if a big wave comes over the boat. We bought a so-called "kit" from a sailmaking supplies company, together with an instructional DVD. Six weeks later we finished it. It is a thing of beauty, at least to my eyes, and has worked out very well, but the process was a lot more complicated than we anticipated. We (Don) did all the metalwork to construct the stainless steel tubular framing then we made a pattern for the cover together. After that, it was mostly me that made the cover. This is probably the most complicated project I have ever made on a sewing machine! However, I learned a lot about tools and techniques. As we both say, having done this one, we are now capable of doing a good job! We couldn't possibly do this for a living, though. I think I'd be paid about $2 an hour at the rate we worked! Next job, after protecting all of the boat gear with made-to-measure covers made from the left over green cloth will be the replacement of my mother's retractable awning canvas. (Famous last words, probably. What can possibly go wrong? I've seen the video...)

Other things we've started gardening, or at least cutting the tree affected by the insidious black knot fungus. This has been a plague in our neighbourhood. It started with James over the back - he inherited the house from his father who had planted two yellow plum trees. These started getting the tell-tale black crusty lumps on the smaller branches, and before the year was out, it had moved to my plum tree. I pruned and sprayed for two years, but had to cut down the tree at the end of last year. The apricot tree in my front yard was less badly affected, but it did have some patches, so we did the radical pruning and sprayed it last week. Now that James has finally cut down his trees, perhaps the apricot can prevent re-infection. The trials of the home front - the Tomb of the Unknown Gardener as Richard Thompson once quipped!

I have just today started some seeds for this year in the house. Flowers, broccoli, basil. The rest of the stuff can be plated directly in a month or so, peas beans, tomatoes, potatoes etc. Then we have to get the main roof of the house replaced (shingles are shot on the south-facing side) which will delay putting back the plants along the side of the house. I had to remove everything so that we could dig up the foundation last Fall, if you remember. We also have another basement window that we didn't put in yet because it got too cold.

As always we have a list of house projects as well as boat projects. For sure, I haven't got time to go to work anymore! Speaking of work, I got a letter from the US regarding the bankruptcy of ASK's parent company SI. You have probably had one as well. I don't think it affects you either. It seems to be a call for any possible creditors to come forward, but since they don't owe me anything I threw it out. I haven't heard anything from anyone currently in the company for months. The last former colleague I heard from was John who is doing his ride for cancer charitable drive again. I sent him $25. He's still at RIM (now called Blackberry) and diong OK it seems. He has moved in with a girlfriend, instead of buying a condo, which seems to be a good compromise!

I have been going along to a writer's group every couple of weeks for the past two months. This was started by my English friend Lesley, and is mostly women of a certain age, where writing become more interesting. There is one man in the group, who is a talented interior designer with a penchant for Victoriana and all things royal. He is very keen on anything to do with the UK; I think his father was from Wales. He has been in a wheelchair since he was shot in a convenience store robbery when he was seventeen, and he is now (I'd say) in his forties. He had a business selling antiques, I think. He has moved to an old Victorian farmhouse house on Lakeshore drive (with attendant goose problems), renovated it, returning it to a state of high-camp late 1800's charm that it probably never had before! He has installed a lift from the drive to his front door and has an elevator from his garage to the first and second floor of the house. That and a fully adapted van and he is as independent as he can be. Also (to make everyone feel like an underachiever) he fosters troubled teenaged boys, mostly from the tough town of Cornwall. Then he sings in the various local choirs, plays the violin, is a charming well-read man...and I think Lesley wanted him to start writing his autobiography. He has a gift for writing as well, especially the kind of children's verse typical of his era (1890's) that Robert-Louis Stevenson's work typifies.

Anyway, the writers group has been writing and reading their work aloud to one another. We vary from struggling writers (i.e. can't write to save our lives) to some working writers (formerly writing for and publishing trade magazines) to very gifted people. It is going to be interesting.

The rowing club is just about to start up again. We have our AGM in a couple of weeks and rowing will start in mid-May, with any luck. I am going to a potluck supper with my crew tonight. Perhaps we can motivate each other to get on the rowing machine again!

Speaking of exercise, I heard that you have started working on using a walker. Congratulations! As S. said, it's another step...

Lots of love,

Sue & Don.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Pictures for M

This is Don and Sue on Pilger. She is docked in New York.

This is Pilger at anchor in the shelter of Cape May harbour

This is us sailing in Florida at the end of our trip.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sufficiently advanced technology 3

Sufficiently advanced technology*

I borrowed Don's camera to take pictures in the back yard. It not only took great shots but the darn thing puts the pictures' meta-data** all rolled into the jpg format. Camera model, date, time, place...more information than I am aware of myself, half the time. Isn't technology wonderful? No more working out "Well that must have been the Thursday before Easter..." or burning a digital date on the "film".

Only a few decades ago you would have needed a lot of money, time and an assistant to carry all the gear to get shots like that. Not to mention processing the "film". I am impressed with the advances in relatively cheap cameras, the software to use and manipulate images and the ease with which a total beginner like me can make pictures that are really quite pleasing.

I asked someone recently, "What is left for the professional photographer to do?"

The story goes like this: when I was young (about 100 years ago and far away) most families owned cameras and would take "snaps". Generally the father of the family did this. Then there was the process of taking the sealed film container out of the camera (some skill needed here) and to the "chemist's" for processing and printing (for some reason, many pharmacists seemed to do photographic processing, probably to do with inhaling dangerous chemicals.) Then everyone waited several weeks. The pictures were good quality (if they turned out) although expensive. There were also camera shops where you could get more expensive processing and better film, if people were interested. When colour film and processing came along, the price increase was so large that many resisted the change for a surprisingly long time.

There were many professional photographers. From the guys who would stand around at seaside resorts taking quick shots of passing holidaymakers, to the wedding album specialists, all the way to the professional photographic artists. There must have been many, many corner store-type processing labs and darkrooms. Mostly this was because the equipment was expensive and the training to use it properly was not that easy. If you were a serious enthusiast, you could buy the tanks, solutions, washing lines, enlargers and suchlike and do a reasonable job, but it took a long time to get good at it and it was tedious. Not for people like me who are into instant gratification.

When I was a teenager there came the mail-order photo "lab" - you sent your film away, and in 2-3 weeks colour prints came back and, they gave you a free replacement film! This impressed so many people so much that they didn't notice that the processing quality was low, the printing was poor and the results pretty awful. What mattered was that it was cheap; half the price of the colour film alternative. Now, 40 years later those pictures have turned a funny orangey colour, when 70 year-old black and white shots are unchanged. The processing and printing was largely automatic and centralized because the equipment was hugely expensive.

The corner store labs died. Some photographic stores went upscale, most closed down. When automatic processing machines became cheaper, some stores bought them and continued working, however the big box stores now built photo labs in their premises. There was still residual send-away processing from small shops in small towns, but the war of technology had reached the clipper-ship technological pinnacle of film: I take my film to a person who inserts it in a machine and a few minutes later out come the prints.

The professional photographers were now the wedding and portrait guys, news photographers, and the artists. Considerable training was still required to guarantee results - you had to capture the shot right there and know that it would work.

Then came digital cameras. Ten years later film has now died. People have moved to using lightweight, forgiving and cheap cameras. We put the pictures on a computer and up-load then to the " so-called cloud." This happens automatically with some 'smart' phones. We print them only if really needed.

The machines are doing the work now. It takes next to no knowledge or training to understand how to do this, especially in the context where many people have some computer access. And you see the results immediately. If it doesn't work, you do it again.

A gifted amateur can do a very decent job of taking wedding photos or family portraits. A professional will do better, but not so much that one is actually needed. The barrier to entry in this field is much lower. Most of this kind of photographer had better have a second source of income.

News photographers were probably next to go. In spite of the excesses of the so-called paparazzi, when the camera-phone is ubiquitous, the price paid for that unique shot is going to be lower, especially when the shot can be cleaned up using software. Enthusiastic amateurs are everywhere and the professional is out of a job. That is, completely apart from the threat that came from decline of print media where every newspaper used to have one or more photographers on staff.

What remains is the photograph as art. Most photographic artists have always struggled. Technology may lower the bar to the making of images and software manipulation does make it a lot easier to implement a vision, but the vision is still unique. We will get many more gifted photographic artists as a result.

Competition will make it harder for anyone to become a full-time artist and get paid, but the ones that make it will probably be better. And the globalization of media means that the maker of any brilliant image can become famous. Here are some artists I find interesting (no particular order):

* Arthur C. Clarke, English science fiction writer:  "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
** meta-data - information about a thing that contains information, that is, a photograph.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Letters to M - February 2013

Dear M,

Great news that you're starting on the new treatment! One day at a time, everyone...

Our cat, Freya, is not having a very good winter as I mentioned before but now there is more to worry about: firstly there is a nasty new grey tomcat in the neighbourhood - whenever he sees her, he chases her and bites her! Secondly, I have started putting out peanuts for the birds, and a flock of blue jays now come to our tiny bird feeder. This is attached to the front window of our house and it's so close, that Freya thinks she can catch the birds. She runs forward to seize them...until she hits the glass!

So she can't go out, for fear of being beaten up (unless we're around - we chase the grey cat out of the yard) and she gets very frustrated at the mocking and laughing of the blue jays, who have learned to ignore her attacking from the inside of the window. Plus it's cold, and snowing and stuff...and our patio door has frozen up, so she can't go out that way...and...and...she can't wait until Spring! It's a sad life being a black cat, stuck indoors, no fun at all.

Except, from time to time, we throw a dried kidney bean onto the floor for her. She just loves to play with one of these...they skitter and spin like little tops and seem to come to life. It almost looks like a small beetle on the floor. Eventually it gets lost under a chair or something but it is hilarious to watch her! So the cat is in Spring training for Summer beetle hunting!

Her other fun thing to do is hide in cloth grocery bags. We got a couple of these from Loblaws in black fabric and for some reason she loves to play in them (Don says it's because it matches her fur). I have to drop the bag on the floor, then lift it up by one handle so that she can get in, and then I have to pick it up (cat inside) and carry her to the other end of the house. She pretends to be asleep. I then put her down, she sometimes gets out and we do it all over again, or, she will stay in the bag and grab at anyone who walks by!

I'm not sure who is training whom, or who looks more ridiculous!

Lots of love,


Good news! Such a relief for you all, but eternal vigilance, as always :-)

Sue & Don.
p.s. Freya is asleep. She is exhausted after a long morning of bird-watching. She was staring out from the patio door for at least an hour while I have my binoculars. She did go out for a walk outside, but was back in 5 minutes crying that it was too cold. Still our feathered friends are a constant source of entertainment. We call it “Cat TV” - we have even made extra wide window ledges on the inside of the windows of our house, so that cats can keep watch.
Do you have a place you can watch for birds, M? II find it an interesting pastime that you can do from inside the house, or you can go out to a park or beach, or to the other side of the world and see birds of all types. My family can be quite irritating when we are out walking together with other people. Someone will be saying something serious and one of us will say "Ooh look! A greater spotted marsh twit! You don't see many of those!" 
You don't need any equipment but some people use binoculars and have books to check on the types of birds. Often people record the birds that they spot. Identifying birds isn't all that hard, except that the most common type of bird is small and brown and can be one of about 30 species!
Putting up a bird feeder can attract quite a lot of birds. In the summer there are hummingbirds who may come to a feeder filled with syrup (or you can grow red or orange flowers that they like). Some people say birds are "living dinosaurs" - they may be their closest living relatives. If you look in just the right way at a flock of geese eating grass in a park, you can imagine that it is a herd of dinosaurs grazing...!
Last year we had the Blue Jays nest in the next door cedar hedge. I hope they return this year. They are noisy neighbours as they seemed to spend a lot of their time loudly abusing the passing cat population. About ten times a day the blue jay (I can't tell the male from the female - they look the same) would sit on the fence shouting "Cat! Cat! Cat!" as a cat, hopelessly exposed with no further stealth possible, crept miserably by. 
Our backyard is now being graced with a new couple, Mr. and Ms. Cardinal. They seem to be getting comfy in the backyard snowball bush - I hope they nest there.  The male is magnificent in his bright red feathers, right now all puffed up against the cold - he looks just like the Angry Birds red bird. And he has quite a temper - he is constantly bullying the flock of little juncos who are always merrily bouncing about in the bushes. They don't seem to mind...they just flutter off a little way and carry on with their games. Meanwhile the female cardinal is quite indifferent to all this excitement. She is calmly pecking about looking for seeds. She has pretty brown feathers fringed in red and definitely looks like a little punk princess with a dyed red mohawk, shaved on the sides and pointy on top!
We will have to keep an eye on them this spring and summer - the backyard is an intersection of the territories for three or four cats - and they have a horrible habit of hunting birds. Freya has caught birds in the past, but she often doesn't seem to hurt them. She will bring them home and, when she had her own cat door, she would release them in the house! Then there was a lot of shrieking (from me) and running about with nets to try and catch the bird and get it out of the house! The bird is usually so scared by then that it poops all over the curtains!
The one time that we weren't home and Freya brought in her catch led us to decide to block up the cat door! Unfortunately the cat had recaptured her prey and there were feathers, and bird poop all over the place...and the poor bird was dead! So now, we make sure that the cat is in the house when we are away, and we let her out only under supervision. She doesn't like this much, but that's the New Deal, the bird killer is sentenced to house arrest! 


St Lawrence Rowing

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