A Few Updates to the Blog

A few minor updates here.

First, due both to a longstanding request from my friend Oliver Baker, and to meet my own needs when using the 17 years of blog posts as personal reference (i.e. “what was I writing about on the day before the day I got my gallbladder out?”), I’ve added “Previous” and “Next” buttons to the bottom of every post (borrowing heavily, design wise, from Jeremy Keith’s version of the same feature):

Screen shot showing how Previous and Next links look on the blog.

Second, I’ve fixed some longstanding issues with the full text search (you knew you could search the site, right?). The search index was stuck for a while due to some unrelated hacking about. And the search now indexes my sounds and my travels as well as regular old posts. If you’ve never used the search feature before (and in typing this I realize that this all might only be of interest to me), it’s useful to know:

  • You can search for phrases — just like Google et al — by surrounding your search keywords with quotes. A search for open data”, in other words, will only find posts with that phrase, whereas a search for open data, no quotes, will find any post with either of those words or both.
  • If you enter multiple words or phrases, the search will return posts with one or the other. If you want to find only posts with all of your words or phrases, put and between them. So a search for Charlottetown and fire will only find posts with both the words Charlottetown and fire in them.
  • You can search for posts that don’t contain words or phrases by prefixing them with a minus sign. So a search for “tim banks” -ducks will search for all posts mentioning Tim Banks, except those that also mention ducks.

Finally, the archive of all posts I’ve ever written now goes back to the year I was born. Not because I was writing in utero, but because I’ve dated sounds my father recorded then by the date they were recorded. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Thank you for your continued patronage.

From Little Pigs to Friendly Water Buffaloes

Many, many years ago I happened to be present on the day that Stefan Kirkpatrick was born. His parents were good and trusted friends, and I was happy to be a part of both that day and the early part of his life that followed.

When Stefan was two-going-on-three years old, I was, for a heady couple of months, his nanny. In El Paso, Texas. Which is a longer story for another day.

One of the elements of our daily life during that period, Stefan and I, trapped in suburbia on the cusp of America, was a cassette tape of The Three Little Pigs.

Stefan loved that tape, and wanted to listen to it over and over and over and over. And over.

I am, I think, a patient man at heart, but the 339th listening of The Three Little Pigs almost pushed me over the edge.

But I survived.

That I was able to emerge with my faculties intact from that nannying experience was, in no small way, what gave me the confidence to think that I had it in me to be a father; I owe him a great debt for that.

Young Stefan is now slightly less young: he is in his twenties and lives on the shore in Nova Scotia. He is a parent himself. And, with his partner Desiree Gordon, a farmer of water buffaloes. Which is what you hear Stefan and Desiree talking to CBC Information Morning’s Phlis McGregor about in this radio piece.

My favourite part of the interview is when Stefan talks about the nature of the water buffalo as a large, dangerous, friendly beast:

They’re so gentle. It’s like any kind of large tool that can kill you: you still have to be cautious of the fact that they’re massive creatures. But they’re really easy to get along with. Really friendly.

My small slice of a contribution to Stefan’s upbringing was likely insignificant in shaping what he’s grown into as a human being, but could it be that whatever patience allowed me to play The Three Little Pigs for the 340th and 341st times engendered both the patience for and interest in small scale agriculture?  Let’s say yes, just for fun.

International Great Lakes Datum

Given that I was born on one side of Lake Ontario and grew up on the other side, you might say I have the Great Lakes in my blood.

And even more so because my father, a nearshore sedimentologist, was engaged in a survey of the Great Lakes over much of my childhood, and so my strongest childhood memories are camping on the shores of one of the lakes or another, usually in a provincial park, while my father was “in the field.”

This might explain why I find this visualization of the International Great Lakes Datum so compelling:

International Great Lakes Datum Visualization

The visualization shows the Great Lakes from Lake Superior (where my father, and before him his mother, were born in Fort William) through Lake Huron and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River (from which I get my middle name).

The depths shown are from the the 1985 International Great Lakes Datum, which is a set of depths that, as explained here, establish a reference point from which to measure:

For navigational safety, depths on a chart are shown from a low-water surface or a low-water datum called chart datum. Chart datum is selected so that the water level will seldom fall below it and only rarely will there be less depth available than what is portrayed on the chart.

In other words, if you’re going to measure the depth of something, you need a commonly-held understanding of where “zero” us. That’s this.

Beyond visualizing a technical system for measurement, the graphic also illustrates wonderfully how deep Lake Superior is, how shallow Lake Erie is, and why there is Niagara Falls (between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario).

If you want a primer on the Great Lakes, there is no better one than The Rise and Fall of the Great Lakes, the 1968 Bill Mason film.

Wordstar 2000 and Prince Edward Island

When I started working with the Province of PEI on its website in 1995, Wordstar 2000 was the word processor used by most public servants in the province.

Within a few years it was largely replaced by WordPerfect and, years after that, by Word. Which is what’s mostly used today.

One of the last Wordstar 2000 holdouts in government was the Legislative Counsel Office, which drafts and maintains the province’s acts and regulations. They’d carefully worked out a system for laying out legislation in its section-by-section, clause-by-clause format, complete with the marginal notes.

It was this marginal material that was the fiddly bit; the words like “rents” and “dividends” in this example, that need to line up with what they refer to:

Sample PEI act

Those marginal notes are an important part of legislation, and long after the rest of the public service had moved on to WordPerfect, the Legislative Counsel Office continued to use Wordstar 2000 because of the difficulty of migrating and preserving this element of the layout.

It’s because of this that PEI was relatively late to getting its acts and regulations online: Wordstar 2000 provided no way of producing PDF files, and so we had to wait until it was replaced before legislation could go online as a collection of PDFs.

I was reminded of all of this when I came across John C. Dvorak’s Whatever Happened to Wordstar? essay today, a well-worded review of the history of Wordstar and its descendants.

Here’s the part where Wordstar 2000 comes along:

While Wordstar was still the best word processor on the market until the mid-1980’s it lacked a couple of features that annoyed users. As DOS was improved and UNIX-like paths were added, Wordstar could not initially accomodate paths. Worse it had no UNDO key. The code base by now was turning into spaghetti code and Barnaby wasn’t around to fix things. Worse, in 1985, the company produced Wordstar2000, a copy protected program that was nothing like the older lovable Wordstar and which contained annoying copy-protection features that scared most users away. While many pundits including Esther Dyson predicted great things for Wordstar2000, users rejected it. The product was big and slow and expensive. And despite complaints by the company and others, people wanted software they could copy and use on more than one machine. During this era piracy sold software and created market share. People would use a bootleg copy of Wordstar and eventually buy a copy. Wordstar may have been the most pirated software in the world, which in many ways accounted for its success. (Software companies don’t like to admit to this as a possibility.) Books for Wordstar sold like hot cakes and the authors knew they were selling documentation for pirated copies of Wordstar. The company itself should have just sold the documentation alone to increase sales. This was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge aspect of the industry at the time and everyone knew it. So when Wordstar2000 arrived with a copy protection scheme everyone should have predicted its immediate demise. By the time the company removed copy protection it was too late to save it. One curiosity was the 1985 release of Wordstar2000 for UNIX! Wordstar would later evolve into Wordstar professional and Wordstar for Windows (which developed a cult following), but it was an uphill battle despite superior usability. The edge was gone.

Wordstar was my first PC word processor (although I’d used various other programs on my TRS-80 Model One before I had a PC); I had flashbacks as I read Dvorak’s words about that “no UNDO key.” I seem to recall needing to rewrite many mis-deleted sections of many essays because of this lack-of-feature.

I skipped right over Wordstar 2000 to WordPerfect, and, for a time in the late 1980s I had a small side-practice in teaching the blind how to use it with a screen reader (thus forever having “WordPerfect. Orem, Utah. USA” burned into my eardrums: that’s how the screen reader started each time WordPerfect was launched).

WordPerfect was slow to be replaced in the public service too; long after most everyone else had moved on, I’d still get WPD files from government and I kept LibreOffice on my Mac around specifically to be able to open them. It was as recently as a couple of years ago that I got my last one.

I expect that if I looked through the attic of our house I’d find floppy disks with Wordstar, Wordstar 2000 and WordPerfect files on them. I think it’s probably high time to rescue whatever’s on them before that’s no longer possible. Indeed, maybe it’s already too late.

The Summer of Cold Brew

This is the summer of cold brew coffee in Charlottetown.

In our house this was brought on by the introduction of a Japanese Hario Water Brew Coffee Pot, ordered from Amazon in March. We coarse-grind up some coffee, put it in the filter sleeve, add cold water, and leave it in the fridge overnight. Twelve hours later we’ve got easy-drinking cold coffee.

This morning I had the chance to taste the new cold brew at Receiver Coffee; it’s in a whole different class. More like wine than coffee, I told Chris, the personable brewmaster. You should try it. Especially this afternoon, when the temperature peaks and it’s just what you need.

Because I had both a cappuccino and a flagon of cold brew, I’m a little bit over the top this morning. But in a pleasant way.

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