This is not a blog. So sue me!

Crikey, things are looking up!

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.


St Lawrence Rowing

Test content from SLRC