ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

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Photos17 Oct 2010

Streaky Pleiades

Or even just a tripod. The Pleiades. A 30 second exposure with the camera precariously balanced on an end table on a beach, on Thanksgiving weekend. Brightness cranked way up in software after the fact.

News and Photos04 Jul 2010

Remember those bean plants that we’ve been growing? And how I wasn’t sure if they’d actually produce anything? It turns out reproduction was the least of our worries.


Indoor Bean Fecundity

Not long after my previous bean post, we noticed that the bean leaves were suffering. It appears that the bean plants attracted what google informed us are are spider mites. I started spraying the leaves regularly with a mixture of soap and water, and that seemed to slow the invaders down. I figured that the beans plants would survive until harvest time, and then we’d pull the plants out.


What Spider Mites Will Do To a Leaf

Unfortunately, the mites spread to the rest of our little indoor garden. They annihilated our thai basil before it really got started, killed the thyme and mowed down the oregano. Our sweet basil and parsley are also affected, but seem to be soldiering on.

Today we picked the beans and turfed out the troublesome bean plants. Unfortunately, the rest of the garden is looking a little thin. While I’m happy that my crazy bean idea actually produced some edibles, I don’t think it was worth the cost in other plant lives. I should probably have responded more aggressively at the first sign of mite trouble. Oh well. The neophyte gardener learns a lesson.


A Snack


The Survivors

Musings and Photos and Travel12 Jun 2010

I have an iPad.  I got it last week at the Apple Store in Montreal, where we spent the weekend being tourists.  I would have picked one up sooner, but they sold out pretty quickly in Ottawa.  I’ve had it for a week now, and figured I’d post a little review here on the old blog.

In short, I like it.  It’s definitely a luxury item, and doesn’t replace an actual computer, but I’m finding it useful and fun, and will probably continue to do so after the initial novelty wears off.  I have one of the 3G models, which carries the added cost of a monthly data plan, but the iPad really shines as an “always connected” device.  I understand that most folks use their smart phones for their Internet-on-the-go, but I’m a telephony Luddite and my phone is categorically “dumb”, so the iPad fills that role for me.  I like that you can adjust your data plan month by month, and so can save some money when you don’t actually need cellular internet access.  While we were visiting Montreal, the 3G came in handy for checking email and finding our way around the city.  Since the trip I’ve pretty much just used wifi at home and at the office, except for browsing the web on the bus a little bit (more on that later).  I think during normal operation I won’t bother to buy the 3G data, but it’s great when traveling, and is much preferable to paying for hotel wifi, not least because you can take your connectivity with you when you leave the hotel.

It’s while traveling that the iPad really shines.  At a pound and a half it’s much easier to lug around than a laptop, it can always get online (unless you’re beyond the range of the cell towers), and it fits comfortably in a backpack or shoulder bag.  It’ll even download and beautifully display photos directly from your digital camera, which we would have made great use of on the Montreal trip, if only the Apple Store hadn’t run out of camera adapters.  Oh well, I’m looking forward to using the  iPad for in-the-field photo viewing in future.  In the mean time, I’ve contented myself with loading the photos of our trip via iPhoto on my Mac after we got home.  There are also some great on-the-road apps, such as the excellent Urban Spoon, which shows you nearby restaurants along with reviews and ratings, and the built-in maps app, which told us which subway line to take and how much it would cost to get to the Montreal Biodome, where I took this and many other pictures of penguins.

I’ve taken the iPad on the bus everyday this week, where I’ve mostly used it as an ebook reader.  Canadian publishers haven’t got their act together and so new books aren’t available on the iBooks store yet, but I don’t mind, because there is a ton of public domain material on Project Gutenberg to be downloaded and read.  I’m half way through The Three Musketeers and am enjoying it immensely.  I wasn’t sure how I’d like reading on a lit screen, but I’ve found it to be just fine, especially with a bit of daylight to counteract the screen glow.  It looks not unlike an actual book, and flipping pages with a finger feels natural.  And the iPad is more portable than the copy of Anna Karenina I lugged around for a month a while back.  I’m also quite curious to see what iPad magazine issues turn out to be like.  I’d ditch my paper New Yorker subscription for an electronic one if the experience is right.

And what of the other iPad capabilities?  As mentioned, viewing photos is great.  I watched an episode of Doctor Who on it the other night, and found that to be quite acceptable.  I’ve used it as the world’s largest iPod, and while the iTunes-like-but-not-quite-iTunes interface is a bit confusing, music via headphones is just fine.  The built-in speakers are understandably not super.  Except for some online chess, I haven’t done much gaming on it yet, but it seems like it could be a good gaming device.  I am looking forward to exploring that aspect.  

Typing with the on-screen keyboard is pretty good.  My one quibble there is that it takes two taps to get an apostrophe.  I typed the bulk of this blog post on the iPad, and while it took a bit longer than it would have on a real keyboard, it wasn’t unpleasant.  Unfortunately the included notes app with its cartoon felt marker font and lack of wireless syncing is a bit of a letdown.  I wrote this using the free version of Evernote, which syncs to my Mac via the cloud.  I’m not sure if Evernote is the answer to all my iPad writing needs, as the free version won’t save notes on the iPad so you can access them when you’re offline (so forget looking up the grocery list from the grocery store, for example). Also, it crashed on me at one point while writing this and cost me a paragraph. When my current month of 3G runs out I’ll either shell out for the paid version (5 bucks a month or 45 for the year) or ditch it for some other app. Maybe I can write my own notes app, I am keen to do some programming for this gizmo at some point…

Surprisingly, given Steve Job’s assertion that the iPad is the best browsing experience ever, I’m only feeling luke-warm about the web in the iPad.  I find browsing a little constrained.  Perhaps that’s because I normally open a million browser tabs at once, and the iPad’s browser doesn’t really allow that.  This is also the one area where the lack of multitasking hurts the iPad: it’d be nice to be able to go do something else while waiting for webpages to load in the background.  On the whole, one doesn’t really notice the lack of multitasking most of the time, as apps load quickly and remember state very well.

I don’t know if the iPad is quite the “magical and revolutionary” gizmo that Apple’s marketing department would have us believe, but it is pretty slick, and using it makes me feel a little like a character in science fiction.  I think I’ll probably discover more uses for it the longer I have it, too.  I’m not running around recommending it to everyone, but I like it a lot.  

Be warned: an iPad is surprisingly hard to put down once you pick it up.

News and Photos29 May 2010

This summer we decided to grow some herbs in our apartment. Sweet and Thai basil, oregano, parsley, mint, and… beans?


Guess which one isn’t a herb

I chose bean seeds on a lark. I wanted to try to grow a few bean plants, even though beans are not too space-efficient when it comes to indoor gardening. Realistically, the best I can hope for is that my harvest will provide a fresh side-dish for one meal later this summer. People tend to laugh when the see our little bean patch, but I am undaunted.

From past experience we have found it is better to grow the plants entirely indoors, rather than putting them on the balcony periodically where they can be exposed to wind, hungry birds, and punishing afternoon sun. For herbs, this is fine, but urban apartment-dwelling vegetables face certain challenges that their rural cousins don’t have to worry about. I mean that delicate issue which might be metaphorically referred to as “the birds and the bees”, or, in this case, literally referred to as “the bees.” In other words, sex. Vegetables grow from flowers, and flowers require pollination, i.e., the male flowers have to send their magic dust to the female flowers. Outdoor veggies enlist friendly insects to help with this vital transfer, but there are no insects where my beans live.

When flowers started appearing, I realized that I’d have to midwife my little beans into existence. I googled for “manual pollination” and started reading up on how to play floral match-maker. However, it turns out that I needn’t have worried, because indoor beans are randy little creatures capable of pollinating without extra help from q-tips or delicate paint-brushes. All I need to do is stand by and wait.

And lo: the bean patch has produced its first bean.


I’m following “Junior’s” progress with great interest

If that bean is the only one I manage to get, I’ll still be happy with the indoor bean experiment, ridiculous as it may be. Growing things is fun.

Photos31 Mar 2010

This, the view from my window as the sun set yesterday.

Photos29 Nov 2009

I snapped this a couple of weeks ago at the locks on the Rideau Canal. I think it’s one of the cooler pictures I’ve taken, though I can’t claim it was totally on purpose.

Photos and Travel01 Aug 2009

After the ballgame in Toronto last Friday (and as of writing, the trade deadline has come and gone and Roy Halladay is still a Bluejay! Hooray! At least until the off season…), Shengrong and I spent the rest of the weekend in Niagara Falls. She’d always wanted to go ever since Dashan (possibly the best known Canadian in the world) took her on a “tour” of the falls in one of his TV programs. The falls are very well-known in China: westerners who go to China want to see the Great Wall, Chinese who come to Canada want to see Niagara Falls.

The falls themselves are as spectacular as you would expect. If you’ve never been there, there are two waterfalls, one much larger than the other. There’s a boat called the “Maid of the Mist” that’ll take you up close, which is a pretty intense experience, and made more so for us because it absolutely poured rain for the 30 minutes we were on the boat, and then the sun came out. They give you a stylish blue slicker to keep you from getting soaked by the spray, so we came out of the experience relatively dry.

The town of Niagara Falls is a little surreal. It’d pass as a fairly ordinary small town, except for the giant tourist area grafted on to the side nearest the waterfalls. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants, which is to be expected, but also a large number of “attractions” like the one pictured above that don’t really fit. Apparently, everyone is trying to offer an answer to the question of “we’ve seen the waterfall, what now?”, and answer it louder than his neighbour. I suspect there’s a positive feedback loop in action: each outlandish attraction pushes the next to be even crazier.

The waterfalls, at least, are beautiful. We mostly stayed away from the surrounding madness, but I couldn’t resist snapping the photo above of Frankenstein’s castle-and-burger-king, which is across the street from the toppled over Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and just up the hill from the pro-wrestling themed “pile driver” amusement ride, and the wax museum where teenage girls busily snapped pictures of a wax statue of Heath Ledger as The Joker in the window.

I found myself trying to imagine what the Falls would have been like before the town. What must the first people to see it have thought, coming upon this roaring display of nature surrounded by the quiet woods? It would have been like finding the hand of god reaching down to the earth in the middle of the wilderness.

Musings and News and Photos and Travel27 Jul 2009

Roy “Doc” Halladay, the best pitcher the Toronto Bluejays ever had, is very probably going to be traded before the end of the week. I’d never seen him pitch except on TV, and, with a little bit of panic, realized that his Friday night start in Toronto might be my last chance. So I did what any die-hard Jays fan would do in my position: took the day off work and booked a flight. Shengrong said I was “feng feng dian dian de” for my impulsiveness, but gamely came along.

Halladay is incredible. Because he plays in Canada, and not say New York, he isn’t as widely known as he could be, and he seems to like it that way. Whenever he talks to the media he’s thoughtful and well-spoken, even a little shy. One the field, he’s incredibly intense. He rarely smiles or even looks up at the crowd. He glowers down at every batter like an ace pitcher should. Occasionally, steam comes out of his ears.

And what a pitcher he is: “dominant” is a word often used to describe him. He’s an incredible athlete: all of his pitches from the 94 mph fastball with deadly movement, to his pinpoint curveball, to his devastating 92 mph cut-fastball (Marino Rivera, the Yankee’s legendary closer, throws only cutters), to the sinker and the change-up, are “plus” pitches, meaning better than the average for the league. He has great command of all of them: he can throw any pitch for a strike on the corner of the plate when he wants to, and the hitters can never guess what might be coming next.

But there are many pitches with great “stuff”, as the pitch-arsenal is called. Great pitches alone don’t make a great pitcher, and his “stuff” is just the beginning of greatness of Roy Halladay. Some pitchers with wicked pitches try to strike everyone out. They spend five or six pitches per batter and are worn out after five or six innings. They’re happy when they manage to finish the seventh. Halladay can “pitch to contact”, he throws pitches that look appetizing enough for the batters to swing at, but they don’t connect solidly with the bat, and turn into easy outs. He saves the strikeout for when he really needs it, and thus saves his arm. He usually leads the league in innings pitched and throws more complete games in a season than most other teams. He once threw a 10-inning complete game and won it 1 to 0. Incredible.

And then there’s his work-ethic. Starting pitchers throw every 5th game, and Halladay is known to make the most of the time in between, both in terms of physical conditioning and in his analysis of the opposing hitters, learning their weaknesses, formulating a plan. I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell mentioned Halladay in his book on how “genius” is often a product of a huge amount of work, but if he didn’t, he should have. When Halladay first arrived in the major leagues, he dazzled everyone by nearly throwing a no-hitter in his second big-league game. Then he ran intro difficulties and seemed to fizzle out. He was sent down all the way to A-ball and most people thought that was the last they’d hear of him; he’d be the baseball equivalent of a one-hit-wonder. But Doc worked is butt off in the minors, retooled the mechanics of how he throws the ball, and came back. He’s been to six all-star games, he’s thrown 44 complete games, he’s won the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the league.

But Roy Halladay, the arch-competitor, has never been to the post-season. He’s on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1993, and that’s not good enough for the Doc. He’s current contract ends after 2010, and he’s said that, while he’d prefer to win in Toronto, time is running out for him (he’s 32) and he might look to other teams where he’d have a better shot. Right now, his trade value is as high as it has ever been, and so the Jays, fearing that he’d leave in 2010 and they’d get nothing back, have put him on the market. It’s unclear whether the Jays will get the kind of deal they want for him, but there’s a very real chance he could be going.

Whether he’s traded or not, I’m glad I got to see him on Friday. If it was his last game in Toronto, it was in some ways a fitting conclusion to his Bluejays tenure. He was brilliant, throwing 9 innings, giving up only 2 runs (1 earned) (giving up fewer than 4 earned runs in 9 innings is considered “good”), allowing only 4 hits, walking only 3, and striking out 10. The crowd, although not as big as it ought to have been for Doc’s final game, was certainly aware of what they might be about to lose. They gave him a standing ovation when he walked off the field after his warmup, they gave him a standing ovation after almost every inning, they stood and cheered whenever he got two strikes on a batter.

But for all of Doc’s superman effort, his team couldn’t get him the win. His opposing starter, Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, kept right up with him, allowing only two runs to the Jays and baffling their hitters over nine innings. In the tenth inning, the Jay’s bullpen coughed up two more runs, and then the Jay’s hitters went quietly. As much as he tries to carry the team, Halladay couldn’t carry them enough to win the game.

News and Photos21 Jun 2009

At the Dragon Boat Festival this weekend there were three or four crocodiles like this fellow on display in cages. Each croc seemed oblivious to the attention of the passing crowds, content to lie in the shady grass in one corner or another of his cage. While I was snapping pictures I saw a man walk up to one of the cages to see what the fuss was about. He read the sign posted on the side, which said something along the lines of “Man-eating nile crocodile” and then peered in. The crocodile was lying against the wall nearest him, and he couldn’t really see it from the angle he was looking down into the cage. His eyes went wide when realization dawned that he was looking at an empty crocodile cage… uh oh!

Then he found the little fellow hiding in the shade and looked relieved.

Photos18 May 2009

The humble sign is not a new piece of technology, dating back to sometime just after the invention of writing in Mesopotamia, circa 3500 B.C. The sign is a clever concept: take an idea you want to communicate, write it down, and situate it prominently. When people see it, they’ll read the words and know what you wanted to tell them. Sounds good in theory, but do signs actually work?

After 5500 years of wondering, I’m glad we can finally put the question to rest.

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