Monday, April 29, 2013

Valentina Lisitsa plays Rachmaninoff Sonata No 1

The fluidity, the strength, the precision of those hands.

It's as if a tornado passed through a field and erected a cathedral.

And to think that this morning I never even heard of this pianist. There are days that I absolutely love the Internet.

Typewriter Sighting at the Center of the Tardis

Anyone else catch the treasure in the latest episode of Doctor Who: Journey to the Center of the Tardis?

And no, I'm not talking about the pretty lady.

It looks like a Remington to me, quite similar to one I've got hanging around in my collection. But I could be mistaken. It's only on camera for a second and a half.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Back to Linux for Good?

I probably spend more time tinkering with the operating systems on my old computers than I spend tinkering with my typewriters (and lord forgive me but there isn't a heck of a lot of time left for actually writing anything after all this tinkering).

For the last seven or eight years I've been going back and forth between Windows and Linux. Sometimes I use dual-boot configurations. More often I just wipe one OS and switch to the other whenever I got particularly frustrated by some failing.

For a while Windows will draw me in with its officially sanctioned, up-to-date video drivers and the vast collections of software (including games) available for purchase. But then some malware or virus brings the system to a halt, or the anti-virus software starts slowing it down. One time I got an obnoxious notification across my monitors that my copy of Windows was not Genuine. Turns out this happened to millions of customers whether their copies were genuine or not.

So, with that bad taste in my mouth I'll download some recent Linux ISO and burn it to a disc. I've given all the Ubuntu flavors a spin (Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu) plus Linux Mint, Bodhi Linux, and of course the adorable Puppy (for my ancient Sony Viao, circa 2000, maxed out with 256 MB of RAM). I'll spend a few months marvel at the array of free software available, and the ease with which I can install software and configure my system. There's a software center built right in, which is kind of like an app-store, except that everything is free. But if you know the name of the software packages you're looking for, you only have to open a terminal and type sudo apt-get install xyz... and you'll have a new office suite, photo editing program, 3D rendering package, or game in minutes.

But then a friend will want me to play some Windows only networked game with them. Or I'll miss the facility of organizing my thoughts with the Windows-only Evernote, or I'll have a day where tinkering on the command line to try to get a printer working just isn't what I'm in the mood for, and it'll be be back to Windows for six months or so.

(This is why I store all my documents and media on a separate hard drive from my operating system. It makes wiping the OS and switching the system to a new one ever so much easier. Plus, if I ever do get a new PC, I can just pop the spare drive into an empty bay, rather than copying files over a chunk at a time.)

One fun side-effect of all this switching is that it feels like I get a new computer every six months, when in truth I haven't bought one in four years (and that one was used). Anyway, every time I make the switch back to Linux, I find myself spending more time there. I opted for Linux Mint on the latest install,  because I'd used it before with good results, and because its developers don't try to re-invent the wheel by getting fancy with the desktop. While Windows 8 has gone all sketchy with their "Metro" interface, forgetting that the whole point of Windows was to have, you know, multiple windows open on your desktop, and Ubuntu has decided to confuse their desktop with some equally confusing, tablet-driven sidebar business, Mint seems content to provide your classic panel-on-the-bottom-with-a-menu-when-you-need-it which has been serving us perfectly well since 1995.

There weren't any obvious changes since the last time I'd been in Linux Mint, but as soon as I started installing and configuring stuff I was struck by how much easier this was now than in the past. Wireless networking, sound, printing, and the first monitor came right up from the get-go. There was a little hiccough getting my second monitor to work, but before I could really get frustrated about it, a notification popped up suggesting I update my proprietary video drivers. A quick reboot later and I had both screens glowing politely at me.

And the selection of applications is getting better. In the past, I'd used an interface program called WINE to run the two Windows programs I couldn't live without: Scrivener, for writing fiction, and the aforementioned Evernote. It worked, but loading up all those Windows DLLs always put a strain on the system, and for some reason Windows programs inside Linux just looked bloody awful, with jagged blocky fonts and impossible to manage text-sizes. Given that these were my two go-to programs for getting things done, it was just frustrating that I had to spend so much time working with software that just looked so terrible, because their developers couldn't be bothered to port a native Linux version of their code.

So I was thrilled to discover that Scrivener had a Linux version available now. There was a warning attached that it was in beta, but I've used it for a couple of weeks now without any trouble (while making regular backups) and it doesn't seem to be lacking any of the features that I'm used to. There really is nothing like it for organizing and planning fiction, or even longer nonfiction projects. More in praise of Scrivener in some future post, no doubt, but suffice it to say that my eyes have been rejoicing to have an integrated and well-rendered version of my favorite software to use within Linux.

Evernote still seems to be holding out on a Native Linux version, but some volunteers have provided a third party client, called Nixnote. It doesn't have the full functionality of Evernote running in Windows. Notably, the handy screen capture utility is missing. But it syncs to the same Evernote account, and it imported all of my notes without a hitch. Again, it looks smooth and elegant--no more of those jagged microscopic fonts. And the interface matches the rest of the Operating System.

WINE is a handy way of getting things done with Windows software in Linux when you have to. It's just not polite about it, and it seems better to do without it whenever possible.

Surprisingly, gaming on Linux seems to be coming along, too. I'm guilty of indulging in the occasional Minecraft marathon (it's a surprisingly social experience when you play a networked game) but performance in Linux was always abysmal compared to the same game running in Windows. Not this time. It must be the update to the video drivers that is making 3D rendering much better all of a sudden.

Pressure for this change might be coming from Valve software and their Steam content delivery platform--which recently became available on Linux for the first time. My amazement at this development was a little diminished by the limited number of titles that were available through the platform (you can buy Half Life 1 for Linux now, but not Half Life 2 or Portal), but still, it's a huge step in the right direction. It felt surreal, and strangely wonderful, to install the Steam platform with a sudo apt-get install steam command.

And better yet, my seven year old computer with its budget video card can actually play a bunch of the games.

So this time, I think I may be hanging around in Linux for good. I know I've said that before, but... Well, most of the reasons that sent me scampering back to Windows in the past just don't exist any more. And there's enough new and exciting stuff happening in Linux now to make up for the few frustrations that remain with running what used to feel like a hobbyist OS.

Now the big question is whether the next laptop I buy will be able to run Linux at all. It looks like Microsoft might be set on locking up the machines that carry their latest travesty of an OS. And I've even read a report of a Linux install bricking (ruining) new Samsung laptops. I've been saving nickels for a new laptop for about a year, but now that I'm close to a purchase it looks like I may be waiting a good deal longer--and doing a lot more research.

Because what's the point of buying a new machine if it doesn't run the software that I love?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Running the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach

We sure are blessed with having some lovely places to go running around here.

One place I haven't taken nearly enough advantage of is the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach. The north side is a fairly typical six mile stretch of stony Cape Cod sand. Folks are allowed to take their all-wheel drive vehicles out there, provided there are no Piping Plovers nesting along the shore. Because the beach only has one access point, a plover nest at the first mile shuts down the last five miles of beach to vehicles. This has caused a great deal of tension in the community, as environmentalists and beach use advocates go head to head. We've even had nests of Plover eggs smashed so that the rangers would have no excuse for keeping big stretches of it closed.

Personally, I'm more fascinated by the southern side of the barrier beach, which has a winding trail between the salt marsh and the beach. There's seven miles of  constantly changing nature back there worthy of a zen garden. I did a lot of work out there with a biology teacher during high school. In addition to the plovers, they've also studied deer, coyotes, crows, diamondback terrapins, and honeybees all along this route.

There's also a scattering of cottages, most of which went up during the Great Depression and which pass to the builders' descendants through some kind of eminent domain arrangement. The way I understand it, the owners are very limited in the repairs the are allowed to make, and new construction is forbidden. No one is allowed to drive on these trails except for cottage owners and rangers. Although the biologists I worked with did have a pass to drive here--as well as a publicly held research station that's used for overnights with students. I spent a couple of nights there myself, in-between days tracking coyote trails and homing into the signals broadcast by radio-collared deer.

It's been years since I've been all the way out to the end, and then it was only once or twice. The stretches of loose sand alternating with packed dirt and gravel make for a vigorous workout whether one walks or runs. But it was a crystal clear day today, with a cool north wind, and recent rainfall has left the sand a little more firmly packed than it would be otherwise, so it seemed like a good day to take my new runner's legs out for a prolonged drive.

So many vistas, treasures, and surprises.

Like around mile five, I came across...hello what's this?

Let's go in for a closer look. Could it be...

Yep. It is. Just about the nicest writer's retreat someone could ask for. I'm tempted to strap the Olivetti Lettera to my back and spend a day out here tapping away on the porch. Or maybe my Remington student model, which has no bell and therefore would make for quieter jogging. Maybe if I left a politely worded note I could work out a rental arrangement. Me and the spirit of EB White, in a shed.

Not today, though. Today I had my heart set on jogging all the way to the end of the beach. (Plus, no typewriter.) Around mile six I passed a hiker going the other way. He took in my plodding gait and the half-empty water bottle in my hand and said, "I'm exhausted just looking at you." Strangely enough, I was still feeling pretty damn vigorous at the time.

The thing about getting to the end is, you're only halfway there. All that sand is a lot harder to run through on the way back.

Round trip was 14.3 miles according to my magic GPS phone. This is a record for me, more than a half-marathon, and in sand. And I have some pretty gnarly blisters on my toes to show for it.

The body is tired but the soul is restored.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Watching the Shore at Evening

I haven't written a sonnet in years, but lately I've been feeling the urge to rhyme and meter. Form gives meaning to words they wouldn't take otherwise, the currents of language bringing you to destinations you never set out to reach.

Plus, I had an hour to kill with no connectivity, and the restraints of a smart-phone actually lend themselves pretty perfectly to writing short bursts of poetry.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Me and My Chainsaw

Because this blog is now exclusively about cutting and gathering wood, apparently.

The other day I worked the split shift and thought I'd save some gas by hanging around at mom's place (closer to work) through the middle of the day. I planned to cut and split some swamp maple that fell during Hurricane Sandy. My sister is minding the place while the folks are gallivanting down in Florida for the winter. I brought my chainsaw and a change of clothes but forgot to take working shoes. Carrying the saw to the car in the morning, I got a drop of dirty bar oil on my new Bucks and so will likely be looking at a black circle on my toe for the next 18 months, unless this pair wears out quicker than the last one.

I found a pair of The Captain's boots in the basement, only four sizes too big, and used those to tromp around the yard. The physical discomfort was nothing compared to the irony of being literally unable to fill my stepfather's shoes.

Looking around the place I found the two huge pines that had fallen from our yard across the neighbor's path during blizzard Irene. I know the folks don't get along with those neighbors too well; they're unhappy with the barking dogs and the two 30' + boats parked in the yard, and they complained when The Captain built a shed 15' from their property line. This led him to hoist the shed up on some logs and roll it across to the other side of the house, pulling it behind his truck. He's pretty spry for a man in his 70s, and he'll be helping us with our roof in a few weeks. It didn't seem right to leave him with this extra task when he got home if I didn't have to.

My sister was nervous about the fact that the neighbors had made some early attempts to trim off some branches so they could duck under the tree and make it to the pond. She was convinced they'd come pounding on the door, doing their best to make her uncomfortable. "But don't go cutting it up," she said. "You'll wear yourself out."

Sounded like a challenge to me.

After my sister left for work, the oil-delivery man came. He watched me studying the tree. "I'm trying to decide if these are safe enough for us to tackle or if they need a professional," I told him.

"You can do that," he said. "It's pine, so it'll cut easy." But his eyebrows went up when he saw me bringing round an electric chainsaw. Electric powered chainsaws are for lightweights, apparently. "Oh I get it. It's for conservation," he said, referring to the fact that agents of the conservation commission tend to come running when they hear a gas-powered chainsaw running anywhere close to wetlands.

There's a real cloak-and-dagger aspect to yard maintenance around here.

I brought The Captain's big stepladder over from beneath his boat, trying to decide if I could cut it from above without it knocking me over. But as I thought about it, it started to feel like too much extra work and danger. So I ended up starting at the base. The bigger trunk was over 20" across, quite a bit longer than my saw blade, so I went at it from one side and then the other, stopping when I heard the weight start to pull it apart. I was lucky the stump didn't spring up and hit me in the face. Eventually the trunk fell and landed across the stone-wall, at a height I could cut at from the ground.

But it's dangerous cutting at a tree from the base, with all that weight bearing down on you from above. Better to chop up a tree, even a fallen one, from the top down. But there was a lot to that top, extending far into the neighbor's swamp, and I knew I wouldn't have the time or the energy to take care of all of it. I just wanted to clear the path and do my part for neighborly relations. So I made the best judgments I could, at first alarmed when I felt the bar of the saw start to bind in the wood, then approaching more carefully when I realized what was happening, and the forces of all that weight bearing down.

The whole process had the element of danger to it, which made it all the more satisfying--like a Sudoku puzzle that could crush you if you put in the wrong number. I love tasks that are safe when you think about them, but deadly if you get stupid, like sailing and flying. If I ever get more than a little money set aside I'll be doing both of those again.

At one point the tree collapsed into my cut. Thousands of pounds pinched together, bringing the saw to an instant stop. There was no way I was going to get it out. So I fetched mom's smaller saw from the garage, an even lighter-weight model, really just meant for limbs and brush. I tried to take care of some of the branches that were holding up the top of the tree. The middle was lying across another tree-stump, and I hoped that if I could make the top of the tree fall away by taking out its support, the halves would separate apart and free my saw. But then the weight of one of those branches collapsed onto that saw, and I was left scratching my head and looking at two trapped chainsaws. Rehearsing my phone-call. "Yeah, mom, I was trying to do you a favor but..."

Then I found a hatchet in the garage and went to work with that.

Hacking at a tree with a small axe is hard work, but at least an axe isn't likely to get trapped in the wood the way a saw-blade will. Eventually I was able to knock the branch off of the smaller saw, and then there was a good hour of further consideration and cutting before I got the main trunk of the tree to fall and free mine. It took another hour after that before I could get it into big pieces that would roll free of the stone-wall and that stump. Cutting big vee-shaped wedges from the top and bottom seemed to help. I did the bottom cuts first, so that I didn't have to be underneath the tree when it finally let go. And now that I understood the forces I was dealing with, I was always quick to back out of any cut as soon as I felt the pressure of the tree threatening to trap the saw again.

After that it was a matter of cutting the trunks into sections light enough to lug over the stone wall to our own yard. "Light enough" is, of course, a matter of perspective. I got most of them out of there, leaving just two segments that were too thick to cut through, at least with the energy I had left at the time.

A sensible man would have taken a nap after that, but I was mentally fired up and so I brought my equipment around the house to the wood-pile of maple I had actually planned on tackling when I woke up that day, and set to work cutting it up into lengths suitable for our tiny wood-stove. I wheeled the electric wood-splitter out of the shed. Mom's had that Craftsman splitter through 30 years and three partners, and fortunately The Captain has done a nice job of keeping it well greased up.

Good thing, too. There's no way I'd have the arm-strength left to swing a maul at that point.

It's just as much fun to use that splitter now as it was when I was a kid. You put logs on one end against a stationary wedge. Throw a lever and an iron pusher bar forces the log against the wedge until it splits. When it's half-way across you can put a log against the wedge on the other end, and when the bar's all the way across you throw the lever in the other direction. What a satisfying gadget! I worked straight through my nap-time, and got through three quarters of the pile before it was time to wash up and head back to work.

It had been a high-drama day at the office, apparently. Mis-communications trickling down through all levels, fowled projects, grumpy customers and low morale. Fortunately I was too tired to give a crap. I felt like the guy in Fight Club, who goes into work all beat up and discovers that the volume of the usual bullsh*t around him has dropped to near inaudibility.

It's a perfect state to let people vent it and forget it.

Maybe someday I can buy a little wood-lot somewhere, and treat it as my personal fight club. Or I'll get a truck and advertise a small-scale wood-clearing service. It's good therapy.

Clearing and gathering firewood is like going to a gym that pays you.