30 November 2011

elliptical cross trainer

My running injury fails to heal - stinging pain on the outside of my left foot. I don't want the pounds to pile on so I am visiting the free local gym two or three times a week for a vigorous cardio workout on the elliptical cross trainer. I'm hoping this will keep me in decent shape to resume running in the spring, or whenever this injury eventually heals.

Forty minutes at level five burns nearly six hundred calories, the equivalent of a five mile run but without the sights and distractions of road running it's easy to get bored. There is no TV screen. This is a free facility after all. To pass the time I analise the display on the elliptical, using the 'cadence', 'calories burned' and 'time remaining' figures to confirm my effort is on track. Sometimes I pedal/ski for minutes with my eyes shut.

Almost inevitably, people-watching takes over. I start noting the time as someone on the running track passes. I look again as they complete another lap and check their lap time. This varies wildly according to the individual. Serious runners clock the lap at under forty seconds while the less energetic struggle to break the minute. Curiously there are some who adopt a gait where both feet stay on the ground at all times and shuffle round barely above walking pace in seventy seconds. (For the record my usual pace is forty two seconds per lap.)

Now I turn my attention to the rider of the exercise bike to my left, a middle-aged woman sporting a neat shampoo and set. She is turning the pedals at a crawl and studying a paperback propped so that it obscures the display panel and all its vital information.

To my right a twenty something guy in a short sleeve t-shirt is lifting a chunky black dumbbell. His bicep looks like a coconut wedged under his skin and his neck muscles strain like cords. He grunts with each effort.

I turn back to my digital display. 'Time remaining' is six minutes on this, my second twenty minute stint. My heart rate is high at one hundred and fifty-six beats per minute and I'm slick with sweat. I love the feeling of my pores leaking away all the toxins. My thigh muscles are firing hard.

When the machine beeps I dismount and wipe down the surfaces. I might not be doing this again until January but I'll try and squeeze in one more visit before we leave for England on Monday.

Cases are packed, itinerary printed, passports stowed and to-do lists are shrinking. Bartons, you are cleared for take off...

06 November 2011

the geese

We were invited to a small private gig arranged by Brian Metzger on Saturday night at the Farm Centre on University Avenue. The Geese, a collective of musicians now based in Vancouver, were in the midst of a lengthy Trans-Canada tour promoting their debut album and kindly agreed to play privately for us in Charlottetown in return for donations to our local food bank.

The venue was a meeting room, perhaps three times the size of a large living room, with about fifty seats arranged theatre style. On arrival Michelle made her way to the front row in four strides and plonked down in the centre. Oh well, up close and personal it is then! I wasn’t sure what to expect, having sampled just a couple of clips on YouTube but hey, this is live music and up stepped four men with beards and a girl with goose wings!

Brief introductions over, they launched into their opening track. We were almost indecently close and could easily have tripped over a beard or two but proximity quickly felt natural and we were soon engrossed in an evening of fascinating entertainment from five accomplished songwriters, musicians and singers.

I like to categorise music (well, truthfully that extends to most things) and pigeonhole bands in a specific genre. I have entries in categories from ‘Americana’ to ‘Roots Rock’ via ‘Britpop’ Blues Rock’, ‘Prog Rock’, ‘Hot Rod Revival’ and a smattering of ‘Cowpunk’! It has been gnawing away at me for some time that the Canadian arm of my collection has been shamefully lacking in ‘West Coast Danger Folk’ so during the rather civilised intermission, I put that right and picked up the band's eponymous, self-released debut album.

Stylishly the Geese swapped instruments, slipping effortlessly from guitar to drums to bass and back as they performed their eclectic repertoire. Country-tinged rock gave way to folk and quirky indie rock with each band member quite at ease stepping up to explain the stories behind their songs, laughing at a broken guitar string and inquiring if the sound needed tweaking at all. They seemed like a group of friends we’d invited round for a knees-up yet their professionalism shone through.

In true rock ‘n roll style with much clapping and foot stamping we persuaded them to stay for an encore, the rousing tribute to their former home Province, ‘New Brunswickers’. I even had the chance to thank them in person when I chatted to a couple of the band afterwards, friendly, relaxed people who had put heart and soul into their performance for our small gathering.

Alphabetical order by band is the only valid way to sort a collection but it often throws up curious juxtapositions. The Geese are now nestling on my shelves somewhat uneasily between Gay Dad and Geldof, Bob!

08 October 2011

flying the great divide

Roughly three thousand miles separate Canada from England and sometimes the distance makes itself felt more than others. Like when my father died last month or when my grandson Oscar was born. You either organise expensive flights or make do with the phone and emails.

This year I flew to England in January to spend three weeks visiting my sons and managed to see various relatives and friends too. I lodged with my dad which turned out to have been a good thing. When I flew back to Canada I was as sure as you can be that I wouldn’t be returning to England for at least a couple of years.

Dad’s death in September meant I dropped everything and flew home for his funeral, a sad affair but an unexpected opportunity to see family again.

My grown up sons are eager to meet their little Canadian half sisters and although I could have taken us all in September, the occasion and the lack of available time prevented it.

To put matters right I have just booked tickets for the four of us to fly to England for the month of December! Long-haul flights will be a struggle with Maisie at three and a half and Kathleen still under two but the timing is reasonable. Kathleen goes for (almost) free as she is not yet two and dad’s bungalow stands empty until it is sold, so we can stay there . Michelle’s current nursing course will be over and she has sufficient holidays left to cover the period we are away.

As usual I will try to visit as many people as possible in the four weeks we are there but this time everyone will be meeting the girls for the first time and some of them will be meeting Michelle for the first time. There’s a lot to organise and plenty to plan for. I feel a list coming on!

15 September 2011

end of an era

What is supposed to happen when your father dies? There’s no definitive rule and I’m not given to public displays of emotion and not very much even to private ones, for that matter. Letting things simmer away inside is my way. I received the sad news earlier this month and clicked into action mode, organising flights to England and a hire car from Heathrow.

This news was deeply sad and quite unexpected, despite dad’s steadily declining health over recent years. His sudden departure was remarkably similar in speed to my mum’s a decade ago, though different in cause. After fracturing his hip in a fall at home dad slipped away over a two week period. There was a brief and encouraging rally after a few days but the outcome is so often grim for a hip fracture in the elderly and dad‘s weak kidneys and lungs succumbed to the effects of the trauma.

I flew home to visit last January and I am very thankful I did. I spent three weeks lodging with dad and although I was out most days visiting relatives, friends and my two adult sons, I still spent a good deal of time with him. He was more introspective than ever, more detached from reality and the modern world, more confused by technology yet he was still dad – not the dad of old, with sharp intellect, resolve and reliable memory but still dad, just about.

It’s ghastly the way time slowly robs us of our personality as we age. It’s as if we develop a new personality fit for each stage of life but the one we spend our final months with is a far cry from the one of our heyday.

Perhaps it’s that steady but inexorable shift, that winding down, which prepares those who are about to be left behind. I had watched dad’s decline from afar and sometimes up close so when the end came I was not devastated but able to appreciate the relative lack of suffering, the degree of dignity dad experienced up to the end. That’s not to say the scene my brother and sister witnessed over the final hours was not distressing, it was but dad was spared perhaps years of miserable institutional living. A stubbornly independent soul, he would not have taken well to living in a nursing home, nor to the daily routine of kidney dialysis.

The funeral service and requiem mass was very well-attended. Many old friends, cousins, nephews and nieces, grandchildren, in-laws and former work colleagues were there as well as his surviving brother and three children. A few days earlier I had composed a eulogy which I was invited to read aloud during the service. It was a little history of dad’s life and times, his achievements, his likes and dislikes and little details those who knew him would remember. I enjoyed giving it and I’m glad I did.

In no time at all I was aboard a Boeing 767 bound for Toronto then on to Charlottetown and being greeted my wife and daughters. Deaths remind us of our own mortality and the shocking brevity of life. They allow us an opportunity to celebrate the life of another in ways we seldom do in their lifetime.

Take nothing for granted.

20 August 2011

the parade

Here are some photos of this year's Gold Cup and Saucer Parade in Charlottetown.

12 August 2011

OPPO BDP-93 Blu Ray and Universal Disc Player

I decided to branch into Blu Ray for certain films. Carrying 50gb of data per disc compared to a standard DVD’s 8.5gb, Blu Ray discs are able to provide significantly more detail for both picture and audio. We won’t see the best of our Hi-Definition TV unless we have a Hi-Def source so I researched players and settled on the Oppo.

I need a player that can handle Blu Ray, DVD, DVDR, CD, CDR, SACD and DVD Audio. Not only that but one which can read discs encoded for all geographical Regions and convert video from PAL to NTSC and vice versa. In short, a universal disc player that can play anything I own whether purchased in the UK or North America.

Oppo is a new American Manufacturer established in 2004 but already making a big name for itself with multi-functional disc players, upper mid-range in price but rivalling high-end competitors for performance. I bought the BDP-93 from an online retailer in Ohio for $630, $100 more than list price for the “region free” modification. Delivery took four days by FedEx. Packaging is the best I have seen; a large box with plenty of padding and the player wrapped in a strong linen bag. A separate box within contains cables, leads, wireless dongle and a chunky remote control with beautiful backlighting. I won’t delve into the technical detail of the BDP-93, suffice to say it has played anything I have thrown at it without fuss. The hefty owner’s manual is available online for the curious, as are detailed reviews.

From a user’s perspective, the Oppo’s upscaling of DVDs is great. My picture has never looked so sharp. Blu Rays are notoriously slow to boot up but this player reaches the menu within thirty seconds. So far I have only sampled a Blu Ray transfer of the thirty-five-year-old “Exorcist” but even that looks superbly defined with detail and illumination even in the dark corners.

As to sound quality, the player is amazing. I already own good players by NAD, Cambridge Audio and Toshiba but this beats them all by some distance. A universal disc player is all well and good but if you need an additional CD player to achieve quality audio then the point is lost. The Oppo gives the best audio experience I have had. Sound is full and crystal clear. I play it through a Yamaha ampilifier/receiver and Harmon Kardon surround sound speakers and the sound is truly detailed and powerful.

A potentially useful feature is the Oppo is wireless Internet ready and I had no trouble connecting it to my home network. Now a full range of online videos are available via the likes of YouTube and Netflix.

As a bonus you can leave an external hard drive plugged into either of the two USB ports and access any audio or video content using on-screen menus on the TV. My entire music collection is ripped to mp3 so unless I am looking for CD quality then I can call up from my armchair anything I fancy listening to. What’s more, the Oppo can read image files enabling you to watch slideshows of your digital photos on the big screen. All in all I’m quite happy with the purchase.

10 August 2011

Marco Polo land

This was our pitch at Marco Polo Land. We camped for three nights and enjoyed a mixture of sunshine and showers. I wrote more about it here. And on my photo site there are some of my photos from the weekend.

The Marco Polo was a three masted clipper built in St John, New Brunswick in the 1850s and named after the famed Ventian adventurer. It sailed the seas in a number of guises and indeed setting records before finally floundering on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. In death it gave its name to the the high ground upon which today's campground was eventually built.

Pictures on the other sites show me looking a trifle subdued. I'm afraid the combined stress of taking tots camping and the lousy weather took its toll.

28 July 2011

Ian Hunter - Strings Attached

I bought this Concert DVD on its release in 2004 but have only recently acquired a surround sound set up to fully appreciate it.

Most people have heard of seventies glam rock act Mott the Hoople, if only for the single “All the Young Dudes” and long term fans from the 1960s and 1970s have followed lead singer Ian Hunter’s solo career with a mixture of frustration and admiration. This very English (and criminally under-rated) singer songwriter has released more than a dozen studio albums in a somewhat spotty solo career but the highlights are high indeed. Until now there has been scarcely any worthwhile footage of Ian Hunter performing live so the long-awaited DVD, "Strings Attached" was always going to be required viewing.

Universal released the set with only basic monochrome artwork and no liner notes, clearly aiming it at existing fans. Video and sound though are top quality, as of course they should be these days. Seventeen songs that lend themselves to arrangement with strings have made the set list but this is not just a typical Ian Hunter set with accompanying strings. No, all the songs have been rearranged (some fairly heavily) for a seventeen-piece string ensemble called the Trondheim Soloists. This is IH’s show and he rightly takes centre stage, playing acoustic guitar or singing with hand-held mic. Long time guitarist Andy York plays acoustic and occasionally electric, while there are Scandinavian guitar, keys and drums lurking well into the shadows backstage. Songs like Boy, Waterlow, Irene Wilde and Michael Picasso sound stunning and Ships will surely bring a lump even to the hardest throat.

I am uneasy about 23A Swan Hill and Once Bitten Twice Shy though, which have lost their power and bite and Memphis is barely recognisable. However by the time we reach the rousing finale of Saturday Gigs, it has become quite apparent that IH is taking this opportunity to present the songs to us afresh. His voice is simply superb and I really believe I have never heard him singing better. The violinists and cellists look full of respect for him and are clearly enjoying themselves.

The star of the Bonus Features is a fascinating thirty minute interview. A Norwegian interviewer asks the obvious questions but allows IH the opportunity to say as much or as little as he fancies. It doesn't come across as over-rehearsed and offers a rare first-hand insight into the man's thoughts. There is also a six minute film of behind-the-scenes clips where we hear from Joe Elliott, Campbell Devine, son Jesse Hunter and daughter Tracie Hunter (so very like her old man!) Additionally there are complete Mott the Hoople and IH discographies and a short biography from Campbell Devine.

I enjoyed the DVD for several reasons but on a purely personal level I prefer the hard-rocking electric sets he plays live. Who knows perhaps one day we may be treated to a DVD of one of the Astoria gigs I attended.

19 July 2011

dog days

It’s hot and humid. I don’t want to run but if I am to enter the Prince Edward Island Marathon in October I need to increase the mileage. My current ten or twelve miles a week is a decent enough base to build from and thankfully my injuries are lighter than last year.

I still suffer with sore ankles despite stretching, icing and resting after longer runs but not as badly as last year. I have a tendency to blisters on the little toe of my left foot but I am keeping them at bay with something I discovered at the Atlantic Superstore, a tubular piece of sticking plaster (that’s Band Aid in North American) lined with a firm clear gel. I slip it over the whole toe and it seems to do the trick. I know it affectionately as my “willy warmer.”

My longer runs take me out past the airport and there’s a house on the route which has four or five boxer dogs always untethered in the front yard. They bark ferociously and stand at the very edge of their territory. As yet they haven’t chased me up the road but as a precaution I slow to a walk as I pass their house. Dog days indeed.

Sunday was very hot but I set off on a ten kilometre run which takes in North River Road and Victoria Park. About halfway I was wilting but I pushed on. My pace slumped on the slightest inclines and I finished in sixty-two minutes, a good couple of minutes outside my norm. I was exhausted and sank into a cool bath.

Today I ran a short two and a half miles at a brisk pace in twenty-seven degrees Celsius. I sweated profusely for forty-five minutes when I got home, leaving puddles wherever I stood.

I had three teeth extracted last week and another three yesterday. More accurately I should call them “retained roots” as they were small remnants of once fine molars, filled and root filled over the years until there was nothing left to repair. I’m taking antibiotics for a gum infection in the wounds. Nonetheless I wanted to run and release some endorphins to ease the pain.

This afternoon I used the Rug Doctor on all our carpets, cleaning a year’s worth of toddler spillages. While some drying took place I folded the laundry and made copies of the BBC natural history documentary "Life" we got from the library on DVD. We’ve been immersed in Ewan McGregor’s “Long Way Round” and still have the extras to watch and we'll watch "Life" next.

I’m listening to Rosemary’s Baby read by Mia Farrow on Audio Book at night. A great story and beautifully written in a simple style.

I should be saving money as we have a few months of belt tightening ahead however I am keen to get into Blu-Ray and have earmarked a player which will play every type of disc and media I own. That is to say Regions 1 & 2 DVDs (both NTSC & PAL pictures), Regions A, B & C Blu-Rays, Super Audio CDs, DVD Audio, mp3 direct from external hard drive for starters. Watch this space.

08 June 2011

this is the modern world

In fewer than thirty years we have moved from the floppy disc to the Blu Ray disc and there has been little if any overlap. Nonetheless I thought about comparing the two media in the realm of films. I realise that graphics cards from twenty-five years ago could not support what we now consider to be “high definition” nor did even regular 1990’s processors have the power to deliver anything more than grainy, jerky video. Undaunted by anachronisms...

The storage capacity of a 3.5” floppy disc from the late 1980’s was a heady 1.4MB. It occurred to me that backing up a Hi-Definition feature film that way would require a barely credible 35,714 floppy discs (50GB). So an avid film buff would need approximately nineteen standard sized suitcases to store the discs for one film. He’d also need some manual dexterity because he’d have to feed the discs into a disc drive at the rate of five per second for the duration of a two hour film.

Or he could just use one dual-layer Blu Ray disc.


I hear a detachment of twenty-eight British Policemen are to be offered counselling before returning to regular duty after a gruelling seventy day special assignment next year. Gosh, these guys must be about to see some sickening, brutal things, witness some terrible, gruesome events... no, they are to accompany and guard the 2012 Olympic torch on its eight thousand mile celebratory parade around the British Isles.


Acknowledging Maisie on her trike, a walker in Victoria Park remarked in all seriousness, “That child needs a helmet!” Bear in mind Maisie was propelling the afore-mentioned vehicle at crawling speed on a wooden boardwalk. Frankly that grizzled old crone of about fifty might have benefited more from a helmet herself, bearing in mind her pace of perambulation must have been approaching 2.5mph.

I’m all for safety where appropriate but I believe the nanny state has gone too far in the molly-coddling stakes. And they have people believing their propaganda, people like the opinionated pedestrian above, a woman of the baby-boomer generation who lived through:
. babies sleeping on their tummies
. cars with no seatbelts or infant seats
. pregnant mothers smoking and drinking
. lead in paint
. no childproof caps on medicines
. and the list goes on and on and on ...

Perhaps we’ll get our toddlers helmets when they are actually threatening their heads.

10 May 2011

sound and vision

I consider myself technologically minded but configuring a home theatre set-up has had me scratching my head. The theory is easy, plug the dvd/cd/blu ray player into the receiver; connect the receiver to the TV; wire five speakers and a sub woofer into the receiver. By now you should be enjoying sumptuous surround sound and glorious technicolour...

Well, nearly!

I should mention there are a mind-boggling eighty three inputs/outputs on the back panel of my new receiver, and several methods of connecting various devices each using different cable types. You can even mix and match the connections.

I went with the latest connectors, HDMI (Hi-Def Multimedia Interface). Far fewer plugs and lengths of cabling to wrestle with and supposedly the best carrier of audio/video signals. However, research showed me that SACDs (Super Audio CDs), which carry vastly more audio data than their standard cousins, require six analogue audio connectors to carry discreet 5.1 surround sound signals. No problem, I ordered those and dutifully used them to connect my DVD/SACD player to the new

The TV was relatively simple to calibrate and soon displayed a good picture but try as I might I could not get sounds I was happy with through the receiver. Yes the five speakers and the sub woofer were making lots of noise but when listening to a 5.1 surround sound DVD Audio version of the 1973 classic Tubular Bells Viv Stanshall's quintessentially British accent was conpicuous by its absence when I know he should have been listing each instrument by name as it joins the crescendo near the end of "side one." Incredibly there were no f$%*ing Tubular Bells at the point when they should have been clanging loud enough to wake the dead!

Clearly something was wrong. I could get the right sound if I selected the multi-channel input but only a thin, weird sounding version with many of the instruments missing if I selected the HDMI input. What's more the multi-channel input supplied no video image whereas it should have been showing a delightful and slowly rotating tubular bell against a changing sky. After much thinking, ploughing through a maze of on screen menus and studying the one hundred and twenty-two page manual, the penny finally dropped. My Cambridge Audio DVD player is barely three years old but the pace of technological progress has been frantic. Perhaps it can't send surround sound signals through its HDMI output. (Note: I researched this later and found my DVD player uses HDMI version 1.1 and we are already up to version 1.4).

More jiggery pokery with the on screen menus and I was deep within the configuration files. I discovered I could select sound from the multi-channel input and video from the HDMI, a combination which finally solved the problem. Sound and vision are now everything I had hoped for!

I have several SACDs and Music DVDs which, as well as the usual stereo track, carry an additional layer mixed for surround sound. That layer has previously been inaccessible to me but listening now to re-masters of old classics like Dark Side of the Moon, Brothers in Arms and the aforementioned Tubular Bells is a revelation. It really is total immersion in the music. Sounds which were buried in the stereo mix come alive in the 5.1 mix making these old favourites sound fresh and new.

Now that I am beginning to understand the sound set up I have been able to turn my attention to wall-mounting the speakers, hiding the speaker wire in conduit, coiling excess wiring behind the appliances and securing the coils with zip ties. Soon I can think about installing the back to the shelf unit. I now know where all the wires will need to exit and whereabouts there I need to drill slots to carry connectors from one shelf to another. I don’t plan to use the bag of tiny nails which came with the shelf but will probably screw mirror supports in place so that the back can come off with the minimum of fuss.

Who knows, one day we may be able to sit back and enjoy films and music. What a wild and crazy idea!

25 April 2011


It's low, way too low. A wide-body jet is circling the town, banking hard and describing loud circles. Its starboard wing points verticaly to earth. Easing out of the turn, it levels then banks to port. It's losing altitude with every second and the engines are screaming now. Somehow the pilot has aligned the doomed airplane with the main street through town and he's aiming to crash land. The plane's wingspan is nearly twice the width of the road. Almost immediately the wings are clipped off by buildings and the fuselage collapses onto its belly. There is a screech of tearing metal as the tube of steel careers along the street, flattening all in its path. There is a brief silence then a spectacular blast.

There's really no need to get dressed. It'll take too long. Anyway, if I hurry no one will see me. I'm not sure where I'm going but it's urgent. I scamper along the pavement, my bare feet slapping on the warm concrete. I slow and walk behind a parked car as a group of people pass by on the far side of the road. They don't even see me. There is no cover for the next hundred yards but I sprint on, confident that if I ignore people they won't register me. Naked running could be the next craze. A car approaches and instinctively I drop my hands to protect my modesty. Heads inside the car turn to look at me and I run on. I think they saw me. Up ahead a couple are walking towards me. I can't avoid them and in fact I recognise them. They stop to greet me and don't mention my nakedness. I feel exposed but carry on a conversation as if this is the most natural thing in the world.

The sun is blazing in a bright blue sky. I'm walking along a road in an average town. I begin to flex my legs then jump slightly, leaving the ground for just a split second. It's a nice feeling. I do it again and find I am not as heavy as usual. I jump perhaps six feet in the air then settle gently back on the ground. On my next jump I flap my arms. It seems a ridiculous thing to try but it actually works. I feel myself propelled higher. I flap again and the upward surge is stronger still. Two more quick wing beats and I'm as high as the rooftops. I can see beyond them to the fields and hills in the distance. I skim the roofs and catch a thermal, suddenly climbing fast. I must be five hundred feet above the ground yet I'm not scared. I glide over the town seeing people scurry about like ants. I dive and pick up speed, swooping between buildings then soaring upwards again. A line of pylons marches across the fields ahead, carrying power lines. I have to decide whether to fly under or over the lines. One sharp flap and I'm up and soaring over them. I feel the warm sun on my back and a gentle breeze in my face. I must do this more often.

02 April 2011

vista internet security, fake a/v removal

On my Internet travels I picked up a pernicious virus. Vista Internet Security 2011 is a rogue virus posing as anti-virus software. Immediately following infection a fake Vista Security window appears and a "scan" appears to be taking place. In no time a list of Trojans, Worms and other wicked infections appears.

Instinctively you try to close the window when you twig that it's fake but it won't close. The infection results in no Internet connectivity. Whatever programmes you try to open fail to run and instead the fake scan starts up again.

I tried to open System Restore but got the message the 'execute' file for System Restore could not be found. Heck this is serious. I held down the power switch and turned the laptop off.

Fortunately I found a back door. Michelle has a profile set up on my laptop so I rebooted and logged on as her. I found the infection had only hit my own profile so I was able to use System Restore and roll the laptop back to the previous day. I logged on as me again and found my profile clear and unaffected.

This virus has apparently been doing the rounds for a couple of years and has a number of names, all referencing Internet security and all directing you ultimately to a site where you can buy software guaranteed to remove the infection. There is no removal software and there is no genuine infection in the first place. The whole thing is a dirty scam. Many 'tech' websites are listing umpteen adjustments you can make to your Registry to eliminate the infection but none mentions System Restore, presumably because the virus itself disables it.

It's worth bearing in mind my backdoor method. A second profile on the same hard drive will be unaffected allowing access to System Restore, certainly a safer method than fiddling with Registry Keys.

25 March 2011

printer frustration

I seem to be collecting printers. All the same model. I now have three Epson Artisan 725 printer/scanner/copiers... temporarily.

I wanted a new printer capable of producing top quality photographs. Initially I bought an Epson NX510 at Future Shop but that went back when its images were generously supplied with dark horizontal lines. No amount of head cleaning or realignment would stop this. I've had three very good Epsons over the past decade so decided to persevere and climbed the range to the afore-mentioned Artisan after some research.

I got a good price from B&H Photo in New York and a large box was promptly delivered three days later. Exciting stuff! Except that this model too produced unsightly horizontal lines until I used the highest quality settings. The results are great but it is officially now the slowest printer I have owned, despite advertising to the contrary.

After three weeks the printer stopped picking up paper. It clicked, rattled and shook and generally tried its hardest but the paper wouldn't feed. During a thorough inspection I discovered that the CD tray wouldn't descend either. There's a little tray which is supposed to glide out at the touch of a button allowing a CD to be drawn into the innards for direct printing.

By now I'm cross.

The Epson help line is conveniently located three time zones away on the west coast of America. After consulting world maps and time charts I calculated the correct calling time and spoke to a representative. After the usual efforts to identify an easy solution she gave up and announced a "new" one would be with me in the post. Excellent, and what's more there would be a pre-paid shipping label to send the faulty one back.

The "new" one arrived the very next day but my excitement soon evaporated. The box was marked 'refurbished' and had ominous damage to one corner - as if it had been dropped from a fair height. Sure enough, when I opened up the package I found a panel had sprung off the underside of the unit, not a repairable thing. To make matters worse the refurbished unit had clearly seen some action. It was scuffed and scratched and was leaking ink through the new hole in the bottom.

I wasted no time in calculating Pacific Time before grabbing the phone and stabbing the Epson numbers in. Another very helpful and apologetic rep listened to the sad story. I told him even if this refurbished unit had been in working order I would have been heavily down on the deal as the one I am sending back is, outwardly at least, in pristine condition. I want a brand new replacement.

This required the approval of his superiors. It took three minutes to arrange that but he came back on the line all chuckles and reassurance.

Yesterday our FedEx deliveryman came with yet another large box and a face loaded with deja vu. So... now I have three. I spent a while setting the latest one up because I cocked up the wireless settings at first. Uninstall failed but System Restore did the trick and I started again. Hooray, we're up and running.

All that remains now is for me to drive two thirty-five pound boxes to the FedEx office to get them out of my sight!

13 March 2011

rock on

These are covers from the first few vinyl albums I bought in the 1970's. I still own half of them and have all of them on CD in various formats. I occasionally play the Supertramp and Mott the Hoople but mostly they just take up shelf space. No matter, I not only listen to music, I collect it for the sake of collecting too.

Lately I have been ploughing through my Excel database and updating values (or at least replacement costs) for music. These days most mainstream CD albums can be bought for a tenner or less (ten Great British Pounds Sterling!) but I have plenty of less common pieces in my collection, maybe a quarter of which are no longer in print or at least not available in their original form.

Remember I'm talking about modern CDs here not crackling vinyl. You'd think the older something is the more costly it would be to replace... not so in the muic world. It's all about supply and demand. Sometimes an album is released with a limited print run and stocks disappear within a year. It's not always lesser-known bands this happens with. Take Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" an album which has been around for almost 40 years and has seen more than a dozen releases with anniversary editions, remastering, new packaging and bonus tracks. In 2003 EMI put out a Super Audio CD version (SACD) which, as many will know, contains not only a stereo layer but also a 5.1 surround sound layer, all remixed using modern technology. Out of print for seven years, it will now set you back a cool $75.

It is alarming to find albums in my collection like Wizzard's "Eddy and the Falcons" commanding prices of $90, or Supertramp's live release "Is Everybody Listening" going for $40. The gorgeous Mott the Hoople Box set "Anthology" is impossible to find for under $200. The Libertines' 2003 single "Don't Look Back into the Sun" sells on eBay for $50. Ian Hunter's releases sold to a small cult market and I have a dozen or more that show up from resellers on Amazon at over $50 and his poorly received 1981 two-disc set "Short Back and Sides" can't be replaced for under $120. Green on Red's pairing of "Gas Food Lodging" with their eponymous first album will cost $40. Even mediocre reviews and ratings don't matter, it's rarity that counts.

Of course none of this is in the same league as pink vinyl pressings, picture discs or sleeve art printed in reverse by mistake but nevertheless time is passing and the seemingly ordinary is slowly becoming extraordinary.

05 March 2011

snow and ice in Charlottetown

This is our apartment building, under siege from the toughest winter in quite a few years. The weatherman, "Boomer" Gallant tells us over four feet of snow has fallen. It has been cold and the deep snow has compacted under its own weight bringing down roofs. Schools have been closed several times.

Here are some more photographs of Charlottetown in the grip of winter. Some of the ice formations clinging to roofs and eaves are spectacular.

The streets have been ploughed almost daily, sweeping ever higher banks to the roadside, filling people's gardens and driveways. Miniature ploughs scuttle along the sidewalks resulting in walls of frozen snow separating pedestrians from traffic. Intersections have taken on an unfamiliar look with mounds of ploughed snow blocking views. You have to poke your nose out quite far to see if it's safe to pull away. Car tyres grind against chunks of brown ice clinging like granite barnacles to wheel arches.

I took this snap of the corner of my laptop screen just before hurrying down to the bins in my shorts and T-shirt. It took my breath away!

20 February 2011

borrowing DVDs, permanently

How very satisfying to trudge home through the snow clutching your latest box-set of a solid British drama series. Even better as the Library lends DVDs for free. There are buts coming and they're tricky ones. But what if the set is in high demand so the loan period is only seven days and there are four discs containing twelve one hour episodes? What if you have a busy week ahead just as this treasured series has become available?

Make copies! Not for broadcasting or sharing of course but to allow you that little extra time to view them in. Oh, and it’s useful to have the set handy in case you want to watch it again, right? But DVDs are usually between 6GB and 8GB in size whereas a blank DVD-R holds a mere 4.7GB. What to do? Are we thwarted? Not on your Nelly!

Squeezing lots of video data onto a small disc is certainly possible but you have to shrink the file. I have an interest in solving technology challenges and this is the copying method I have developed. The freely downloadable software DVD Shrink is a good place to start. It compresses the data during copying to ensure it will fit comfortably on any commercially available blank DVD. It’s easiest to choose to rip the disc as an ISO image file.

But to back up for a moment (pardon the pun), it is a good idea to clean the discs thoroughly first. In the case of well-worn discs, deep scratches will be unreadable by a computer drive so you may as well give up at this stage and save yourself the hassle. But light scratching, which will be bothersome to a computer drive, can be polished down sufficiently using a car body scratch remover – the kind that will gently buff away surface scratching.

Sometimes no matter what you do, the disc may be impossible for your drive to read, it may be badly pitted. Or perhaps you want to rip a ‘Region 2’ disc in your ‘Region 1’ drive. Try DVD Decrypter. That has more powerful features, will crack regional encoding and seems less fussy. Europe is Region 2, North America is Region 1 but DVD Decrypter will render the copied image region-free. However, the ripped file you end up with this way will still be far too big, so you will need to reduce the ISO file size in DVD Shrink. Earlier we shrunk an actual DVD but this time you will need to “mount” the ISO file on a virtual drive. Magic ISO will achieve this by treating the ISO file as a playable DVD and will allocate a virtual drive letter to it.

When you’ve at last got an ISO file on your hard drive coming in at just under 4.7GB then you’re ready for the easy bit, the burning. I use Nero or Roxio but any burning software will put the ISO image file onto a blank DVD. I find DVD-R discs are readable by most DVD players. I don’t notice an appreciable loss of quality even though the copied image is considerably smaller than the original.

After all that effort you’re ready to watch. Slip into your old slippers, light your pipe and relax in your favourite armchair... and don’t forget to take the DVD back to the library, you don't want a late fee do you!

16 February 2011

making new music

I returned from England a couple of weeks ago with, among many things, a great deal of new music. It came in the form of mp3 and wma files stashed on my external hard drive. This trove came from a friend I visited in Birmingham. He lives in a ninety room mansion but curiously confines himself to a single suite positively brimming with CDs and vinyl.

He and I have exchanged music for years. To sidestep any legal difficulties I prefer to think of it as storing backup copies for personal use (three thousand miles away). Luckily for me he has other friends who are equally acquisitive on the music front and are just as keen to keep copies somewhere safe and sound. This arrangement makes for a vast reservoir of music into which I can occasionally dip.

Usually these exchanges take place under plain brown cover through trans-Atlantic correspondence but this time, after two flights and a two hundred mile drive up the M5, we could hook up USB-wise in person and plunder each other's external hard drives with abandon. The result of this debauchery was a horde of around ninety albums. Plus of course an interesting and entertaining couple of days during my three week trip back to England.

Extreme Virgo tendencies won't ever let me leave it at that. Oh no, the harvest was just the beginning. Now the online work would begin in earnest. First a quick sampling to identify candidates for burning to CDR, then a tidying up of "tags" to be sure all tracks are properly labelled with title, band, album, genre and year. Next comes the job of burning to CDR, a big task but worth it for those albums which I will want to hear on my hi-fi.

Temporary labels adorn the pile of discs at this stage while the printing phase swings into action. This is a time consuming but vital part of the exercise if the CDRs are to be protected for storage on my shelves. Google Images is a happy hunting ground for the cover art and sites like Amazon provide track-listings which I can either copy and paste or transcribe. I paste the images and data one by one into an MS Word template I made many moons ago. Each gets printed on white cardstock.

Next out comes the guillotine and I do some trimming. I've done this so often now that I can slip the card in out and bring down the guillotine arm almost before the card has stopped moving. Swivel it round ninety degrees and slice off the excess, repeat twice more then cut around the folding tabs. Folding each tab is a long process with a batch this size but makes the gluing stage easier.

The tabs are brushed with a glue stick then the whole template is folded into its final shape, a slim CD-sized sleeve. While the seams dry I start on labels for the discs. These I form from a homemade template in DesignPro Lite. I keep the labelling simple just band, album title and year. I pick a background colour to match the cover art and print off the labels, two to a sheet.

I apply the self-adhesive labels with a trusty Fellowes labelling device which emigrated from England with me years ago. Finally I slip each CD into its new case and there it is, a stack of music to play on the hi-fi.

08 February 2011

the Realplayer Video download phenomenon

See important qualification at the end - 23 Jun '13 .

Some months ago I downloaded the latest version of RealPlayer. It’s not my preferred software but I needed it to watch a particular video. Since then I began to notice the appearance of an invitation: “Download Video with RealPlayer?” whenever I hovered my mouse over a video in YouTube.

Still not that interested in the message, I ignored it. Easy... as it vanished whenever I moved my mouse pointer away. Who downloads video anyway? With modems and routers permanently online these days, any video you might want is only a click away, right? Yes, but recently I decided to download a documentary to watch on my iPod. I clicked on the Realplayer message and collected a chunky video file. Next a dialogue box asked me what format I would like to convert the file to. The options catered for a host of end viewing platforms. I chose mp4 (for iPod).

But where is all this leading? I watched an hour long documentary on a screen the size of a matchbox but hidden in the recesses of my mind was the list of other file formats I had spotted on RealPlayer’s lengthy menu of conversion options.

Fast forward to last week when I was rummaging through a horde of over a hundred mp3 albums I had acquired from my friend Steve during my trip to England. Oddly some albums were missing a track here and there. The cogs in my head turned and there was a faint smell of burning. Hmm, music tracks are widespread on YouTube. Could I download the relevant video file using the obliging Realplayer downloader then convert to mp3 using the helpful Realplayer file converter? Yes, it worked!

Teenage scavengers of music may well have winkled out this little scam long ago but I have only just hit upon it. Today I picked half a dozen albums from my wish list, obtained a track-listing for each, searched for the tracks on YouTube and found ninety-nine per cent of them.

I triggered the RealPlayer Downloader for each, switched the YouTube quality control to 480p or above, hit the download button and soon had a dozen tracks downloading in a jolly, nice list-box. A few were preceded by irritating adverts but the helpful men at RealPlayer had that covered too. If the commercials are embedded, then when the download is complete you just call up the handy RealPlayer Trimmer, set start and end points on the video file and clip off the loathsome parts.

Next you open the video files in RealPlayer Converter and choose mp3 from the list of conversion options. After the swift conversion process you’re left with a music file recognizable by any portable player. I like to burn the best albums to CDR for my hi-fi so I chose a high-ish bit rate for mp3 encoding.

Next you slip the files into a folder named after the album and save that in a folder named after the band/artist. Then you open the music file “tag”-editor by right clicking the tracks and choosing “properties”. That way you can categorize the music with band, album, track number, genre and year tags for correct sorting when imported into Windows Media Player.

I like to print some of my patented cases on cardstock to store any burned discs complete with cover art harvested from Google Images and track listings prepared in Excel.

I should acknowledge that downloading is usually slightly illegal. But this method uses software available free from Internet giants and does not involve wicked file-sharing sites. Users of the YouTube/RealPlayer system rely on naughty people uploading their favourite new music to YouTube and newly released albums are subject to a flurry of deletions from YouTube. Literally millions of tracks from almost any CD you care to name, new or old, mainstream or obscure are on YouTube either with a video or a still image.

Finally, I am a fan of many bands and have spent a small fortune on a large CD collection and scores of concert tickets. For more than a casual listen I support the artist and invest in the CD (if you can call this convoluted process of downloading, trimming, converting, tagging, burning and printing casual!)

23 Jun '13 - I am adding this qualification. This month when attempting to use the Real Converter on my Windows 7 laptop I was confronted with an offer from RealPlayer to BUY the software! There is no option to decline. Clicking 'close' on the offer just stops the entire process and no conversion takes place.

Various Forums are suggesting this is a temporary issue between RealPlayer and YouTube and is under investigation. However the 'free' nature of this set-up seems under threat. I tried using various older versions of RealPlayer but none was compatible with the latest Firefox or IE. Another problem seems to be that files downloaded from YouTube are coming in the form of MP4 which limits the choice of converter. As a workaround I uninstalled RealPlayer and replaced it with just the RealDownloader. I am currently using the conversion feature in Freemake Video Converter (Take care to uncheck all the bloatware that comes with it) to convert from video file to MP3.

I might add that RealPlayer functions in the latest version remain (for now) unaffected on my Windows Vista laptop.

10 January 2011

then and now

In 1986 someone, I think it was my sister, pointed a camera at me during a family reunion. I remember grabbing my son Mike and holding him upside down by his legs in a show for the camera. Mike squealed and laughed a lot which is why heads turned to watch us. His brother Matt is sitting on his mum's knee smiling. The result was a snap I still enjoy looking at.

Yesterday, nearly a quarter of a century later, I decided to try and recreate that shot with my new daughters. Kathleen is a less willing participant, being one who hangs on for dear life whenever I lift her off the ground. Nonetheless she looks the part and even her sister Maisie is looking toward the camera.

04 January 2011

a deal with the devil

Niccolò Paganini was an Italian virtuoso violinist who lived from 1782 until 1840. To say that he brought incredible new techniques to the violin would be an understatement of massive proportions.

It is impossible to over-estimate Paganini’s impact on the violin. No composer or performer before him had raised technical ability with the instrument to such dazzling heights. People flocked in great numbers to witness his legendary performances, in which he exuded an almost mystical quality.

Violin techniques had remained conservative for decades but Paganini introduced ricochet bowing, double stop octave runs, left hand pizzicato, extensive harmonics and hitherto unheard of fingering. He played passages at astounding speed, sometimes twelve notes per second. He made the violin talk, effortlessly reproducing the sounds of birds and animals and even mimicing the sighs of lovers. His fingers were abnormally long, enabling him to play an astonishing three octaves across four strings in a hand span, a feat that is still considered impossible by today's standards.

Stories began to circulate that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in return for his amazing wizardry with the violin. His wild, piercing eyes, thin face, large sharp nose and long, gypsy-black hair only served to support the theories. Far from discouraging the rumours, Paganini cultivated them by dressing in all black and wearing long capes. He frequently broke strings yet played on sometimes with only two strings yet with no noticeable difference. Audiences gasped and fainted at his performances.

Paganini’s musical legacy is a small one compared with giants like Bach and Mozart but his compositions represent the sternest available tests. His complete works fit onto half a dozen CDs. However, nearly two centuries after their composition, his twenty-four Caprices are still the very highest pinnacle of achievement on a stringed instrument. Violinists who have learned and mastered to concert standard all twenty-four of these short but complex studies in finger co-ordination are a rare breed indeed, fewer than the mountaineers who have climbed Everest. Here is Caprice No. 24.

“The Cannon” was Paganini’s cherished instrument. It has a distinctive depth and resonance that defined Paganini’s unique expression. It is on display in Genoa and is occasionally loaned out for public recitals where its power shocks and awes listeners to this day. Few other instruments provide such a direct link with a musical genius.