Saturday, December 31, 2011

Winter Lights

I stopped on the railway bridge on the way home to try to capture the view. We complain about the short winter days and going back and forth to work in the dark, but sometimes the dark has its own appeal.

After loading these onto the computer, I was surprised to see that the camera hadn't used a higher ISO than 800. Then I realized that I still had the camera fixed at 800 from using it diving. Oops! Pretty slow shutter speeds (.6 seconds), but I could rest the camera on the railing. (And take advantage of the articulated display.)

Monday, December 26, 2011


I went out for a walk today, just to get outside in the fresh air and away from the computer. It had been a cloudy gray day, but the sun broke through late in the day. With little or no snow, winter seems more drab than usual. Didn't even see many birds, just a magpie and a lone chickadee. These trees against the sky were the only thing I got motivated to photograph.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rock Paper Sun

After writing yesterdays blog post on my new solar system, I realized I had completely forgotten to credit the company that did a great job on the system - Rock Paper Sun.

I actually contacted another company first, Solar Outpost, but they took a long time to get back to me, and then after an initial call (where I stressed I was serious) they never called me back. I think they're a good company, but they dropped the ball this time.

I had seen Rock Paper Sun in connection with the VerEco home, and then ran into Brent (one of the owners) at Green Drinks. We met and Brent explained the issues and choices. (I took it as a good sign when he arrived in his Prius.) Brent and his partner Phil then did a great job of installing the system. The work is neat and well done. There were no surprises or mishaps. It took a while to get everything done, but they had warned me that it would, so it was expected. And they've also been helping with applying for the various rebates that are available. (See Solar Energy for Your Home)

If you're looking for a solar system in Saskatoon, I would definitely recommend Rock Paper Sun.

PS. If you're a techie (which you probably are if you are installing a solar system at this point) then you probably want to also get something to monitor how much energy you are using. The solar electric system does a great job of telling you about what it's generating, but to make that meaningful you want to compare it to what you're using. So I'm planning to install a TED 5000.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solar Powered

I finally got my solar electric panels inspected and turned on. It's taken several months to get everything ordered and installed and approved. The solar thermal (hot water) was a much quicker, easier process to get installed and turned on. It still had to be inspected, but that was after it was already turned on. (The solar thermal panels are the two on the right, white because of frost.)

Of course, this is the worst time of the year for a solar system - the days are short and the sun is low. And the cold temperatures slow down the solar hot water. On the positive side, I'll now be able to watch the output increase as the days get longer and the sun higher.

Amazingly, the solar hot water system did come on the other day, partly because it was an unusually warm day (for winter), and partly because the temperature of the water in the holding tank is low, so the panels don't have to be as hot to get the required 10c temperature difference.

Frustratingly, we haven't had a full day of sun since the solar electric system was turned on. It's a 5kW (kilowatt) system (20 x 250W panels) but the highest output I've seen so far is 1.6kW and my best total day was only 3.2kWh (kilowatt hours). I'm not sure what my maximum output will actually be since the slope and direction of the roof is not ideal and I do get some shading from trees. (Some trimming might be in order.)

In case you're wondering - the economic story for solar panels is not great (yet). They are expensive and our electricity and gas are cheap. At current rates it'll take a long time for the system to pay for itself. Of course, the reason electricity and gas are cheap is because we're not accounting for the true costs, like climate change and environmental damage. And we're not taking into account the fact that we're using up a finite resource that will eventually run out.

There's also the question of embodied energy. Although the solar panels are generating (capturing) energy, they also took a lot of energy to create - mining the materials, manufacturing, transportation, etc. This embodied energy unfortunately negates much of the benefits.

So if it doesn't pay, and they take almost as much energy to manufacture as they produce, why do it? I guess for me it came down to wanting to lead and to be an example. If enough people install solar systems, the costs will come down, and the manufacturing will get more energy efficient. If no one installs them because they're not good enough yet, then there's little incentive to improve them. They also serve to make people think about energy and alternatives. We've already had a lot of interest from neighbors and friends.

Check out the live monitoring from the solar electric system

See also: EcoFriendlySaskSolar Energy for Your Home

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter Scenes

From my recent train ride from Montreal to Saskatoon.

Disclaimer - taken from a moving train, through a dirty window.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Homebrew Underwater Camera Weight

When I got to the Bahamas with the new underwater housing (WP-DC34) for my Canon G12, I realized that it was really buoyant (floats). I knew Canon had a weight kit for the underwater housings, but I hadn't needed one with my last camera/housing, so I hadn't really thought about. But the new housing is quite a bit bigger and has more air inside (e.g. around where the telephoto comes out).

I managed to borrow a bolt and some pieces of metal but the bolt was too long and the pieces of metal were large so it was quite awkward, but it was better than nothing.

When we got to Providenciales (in Turks and Caicos) we found a hardware store and I bought a bolt closer to the right length, and a bunch of washers for weights. I needed the extra nut because the bolt was a bit too long.

In case you want to try something similar, camera tripod mounts take a 1/4" bolt with 20 threads per inch (tpi).

This arrangement worked pretty well. With 15 washers the camera was almost perfectly neutral (not sinking and not floating).

I didn't bring my homebrew weight kit home because we were overweight on our luggage as it was. I'll probably order the Canon DC-1 weight kit for next time (although it's $55 as opposed to a couple of bucks for the bolt and washers).

Overall, I was pretty happy with the G12 and housing. A couple of times I had a few drops of water get inside the housing, not enough to cause any problems, but still troubling. I'll order a new o-ring and see if that solves it. If I didn't like having the G12 for other purposes, I'd be tempted to go with the Canon S-95 (or the upcoming S-100) which has virtually identical specs, but in a much smaller size. It doesn't have all the manual controls or the articulated screen of the G12, but those aren't important for underwater.

Check out the photos.  Related posts: Diving Photography

Monday, December 12, 2011


Honestly, I wasn't too thrilled by Nassau - too touristy and dominated by the cruise ship hordes who descended on the town in their thousands every day, seemingly for no other reason than to buy junk souvenirs or expensive jewelry.

However, it did have a nice little zoo that we ended up visiting twice. (The second time because the botanical gardens next door were closed.)

So for a change from underwater pictures here is a batch from the zoo.
click to view photos

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nassau Diving

We had a few days in Nassau at the end of our trip so we did three days of diving with Bahama Divers. The diving was good, but a much more mixed bag of dive masters and divers, compared to Small Hope Bay and our live-aboard.

This is the last of the diving photos - there were a lot, but then we did a lot of diving - roughly 40 dives in 20 days (up to 5 a day on the live-aboard).

2011-11 Nassau Diving

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Travel Teaches

Travel can teach you a lot, if you let it.

When you're sitting on a plane or train that's late and you're going to miss your connection, there's no point getting all worked up, you might as well learn to stay calm. When your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, you might as well break out the snacks and enjoy the scenery.

When the way things are done in a new place annoy you, you need to be tolerant. It seldom gets you anywhere to yell or get upset. No matter how homogenized the world becomes, or how much you think the way they do things at home is the "right" way, the fact is other people do things differently.

An area where I struggle is with my overdeveloped sense of fairness. (Research indicates this is hard-wired into our brains.) When someone does something like cut in line in front of me, it really pisses me off. But things aren't always fair, and there's often nothing you can do about it. Might as well get over it.

One of the most important things travel can teach you is simply to see, to look at what is around us. At home, we don't really pay attention, everything is familiar, and we're too busy anyway. Traveling, especially long trips by train or bus, supplies plenty of time when there's nothing to do but look around.

Last, but not least, travel gives you time to think. Time we often don't have in our hectic home lives. And it supplies plenty of material to think about. Sometimes I think we unconsciously get afraid to listen to our own thoughts, afraid of what they might tell us. So we pack our lives with distractions - cell phones, music, chatter. But how can you ever be at peace if you're afraid of your own thoughts? Travel can be a form of meditation if you are open to it.

You can learn all these things at home, but travel tends to present a lot more learning opportunities. And because things are new and different, we may be more willing and likely to think we need to learn. Travel can bump us out of the ruts of our comfort zones. That can be stressful, but it can also open you to learning new things.

But all travel is not equal. You won't get much of this kind of learning on a tour of umpteen countries in 7 days, with a guide organizing everything so you don't need to think, rushing you from place to place and yammering in your ear the whole time. Nor will you learn much by lying in the sun in some homogenized resort. If you want to grow, it helps to get off the beaten path.

Of course, like any kind of teaching you have to be willing to learn. You can refuse to learn during travel just like you can refuse to learn in school.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

All or Nothing

When it's hot outside you freeze on the train or bus.

When it's cold outside you roast.

Do air conditioning and heating really have to be full blast or nothing?

What happened to the idea of a thermostat?

I don't mind putting on or taking off a sweater. But I don't carry long underwear when it's hot, or shorts when it's snowing.

At first I thought I just had bad luck, but it happens so consistently and so many times that there's got to be some underlying design flaw.

Auberge du Vieux-Port

The Auberge du Vieux-Port is where I've stayed in Montreal, four times now (only two trips, but I've stayed on the way out and on the way back each time.)

I chose the hotel from the Internet. It looked like it was in an interesting area (old part of the city) and it was within walking distance of the train station. (But don't try to walk it with a suitcase, it's not that close.)

It's a nice hotel - small, not a chain, nice old building. It's a little pricey, but this is the big city, few hotels are cheap, and the ones that are, you probably don't want to stay at.

The restaurant is also nice. It's not too fancy, no white table cloths, but it's a comfortable place and the food and service are excellent. There are lots of great restaurants in Montreal, but when you arrive late and too tired to go out, it's nice to have a good restaurant right in the hotel. They also have a nice roof top terrace lounge for the summer time.

But what has really made me enjoy coming here is the staff, especially the restaurant manager, Zach Suhl. The first time I stayed here I was sitting at the bar having my free welcome drink (a good way to get people into the restaurant) and he came over and introduced himself and chatted for a few minutes. Every time he's seen me since then he has made a point of saying hello. And amazingly, he remembers who I am and makes a point of mentioning something personal. For example, one time he mentioned they had some new vegetarian menu options, and another time mentioned that he had recently had some other guests from Saskatchewan.

I don't like it when staff force an artificial friendliness, pretending to be your buddy even though you can tell they really couldn't care less. But at the same time I don't like being treated totally impersonally, like a cog in a machine. To me, Zach strikes a perfect balance - he remembers me, chats briefly, but doesn't pretend to be my "buddy". This last time he sent over a free drink because I'm a regular customer.

He also acts like I think a restaurant manager should act - he's actually in the restaurant rather than just the back office. And he doesn't just observe or greet people. He'll seat people, take a drink order, even help clear a table. And while he talks to people, he doesn't get carried away at it, he keeps it brief and returns to watching the restaurant.

The hotel staff are also good - for example, as I was checking in this time, the concierge said "You are in the same room as last time. Are you happy with that room?" (Each of the rooms is different.) I don't think he remembered me like the restaurant manager. He probably had a list of arriving guests and heard me give my name as I was checking in. But it's still impressive that his paperwork showed that I'd been there before and which room, and that he made good use of that information.

Of course, nothing is perfect. At the same time the concierge was impressing me, the woman checking me in was just going through the motions. She either didn't pay attention to my having been there before, or she didn't care. She just gave the standard spiel for new guests - where the restaurant was, where the elevator was, etc. She probably thought she was doing her job well, but unfortunately, she was doing it without thinking.

Once more, I find myself wondering how I and my staff at Axon measure up. Are we doing as good a job as Zach and the concierge? Or are we just going through the motions like the woman who checked me in?

If you're looking for a place to stay in Montreal, I'd definitely recommend Auberge du Vieux-Port. And say hi to Zach for me!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Train Security

I was sitting in the cafe car on the train in the section where the staff hangs out. (The presence of the staff tends to keep the drunks and other obnoxious types away.)

A lady brought a bag to the staff, saying it had been "left unattended". (Someone had been listening to the airport security announcements.)

The response from the staff was: "Don't you be bringing that to me, honey, it might be a bomb, it might explode on me."

She was joking, of course, but it was a little shocking to those of us that have been repeatedly told that you never ever make jokes about bombs.

Another example of how train travel differs. Or conversely, how anal air travel has become.

An Excess of Gadgets

I tend to agree with minimalism and simplicity. And in some respects I manage it - I'm traveling for six weeks with a relatively small backpack. (Admittedly, only because Shelley hauled our dive gear.) But I fail miserably when it comes to gadgets. Here's what I'm traveling with:

- 13" MacBook Air
- external USB hard drive
- iPad
- iPhone
- Kindle
- Pentax K7 SLR camera
- Canon G12 camera

I need the MacBook to download and process my photographs. I guess I could wait to process the photos till I got home, but I enjoy posting them as I go. And I'd still want some way to back them up - I like to have two copies. On previous trips that was on the MacBook and on the external hard drive. But I have enough memory cards now that I don't need to reuse them, so I didn't end up using the external hard drive.

This is the first trip I've had the iPad. I debated bringing it since it definitely seemed like overkill to have MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. But partly I wanted to see how it worked out for traveling. I ended up using it a lot. It's lighter and easier to carry than the MacBook, but nicer for browsing and writing than the iPhone. In some ways I like it better than the MacBook because of all the apps I have - Go game, bird guide, offline Wikipedia, star gazing, and offline maps. It's easier to find apps that work offline for the iPhone/iPad than for the MacBook.

I could probably do without the iPhone, but in Canada it's great to have 3G Internet access so I can look up places and use maps while I'm out wandering around. I wish I could do this outside Canada, but roaming data charges are ridiculous. I do use the iPhone as a phone occasionally, but usually with Skype (if I have wifi). But I could probably use Skype on the iPad with earphones/mike.

Although I could read my Kindle books on the iPad, there are two main drawbacks - battery life and reading in bright light. If you're going to go somewhere warm, you want to sit outside, but it's hard to read on a regular LCD display in bright light. The Kindle's eInk display works great. (Although you have the opposite problem at night, where you need light to read the Kindle, whereas a backlit LCD provides its own light.) The battery life is a big factor - the Kindle will go a week or more without recharging. Power is usually available on most trips, but if you're not careful you end up running out somewhere where there's no power. (Or you don't have your charger with you.)

If I didn't need to process photos I would skip the MacBook and just bring the iPad. But I think I'd still bring the Kindle as well. If I had a data plan on my iPad I'd probably skip the iPhone.

Two cameras is mostly due to wanting the G12 for underwater, and the Pentax for the rest of the time. I have done trips with just the G12 which is much smaller and lighter to carry, and still good quality. But I miss the longer zoom on the Pentax (a Tamron 18 to 250, equivalent to 27 to 375) especially for wildlife like birds or lizards.

One concern when traveling with so much gadgetry is the risk of theft. I don't like to put expensive stuff in my checked baggage due to the risk of it getting lost, so my carry-on bag ends up pretty heavy. And then I have to keep a close watch on it, because of all the expensive stuff in it. One factor that helps is that I don't think I look particularly rich. Of course, it's hard not to look like a tourist when you're walking around with a camera and a backpack and your skin is nothing like the local color. Another drawback to so many gadgets is that I seldom carry them all at any one time, which means leaving some in the hotel room, not always the safest, depending where you are.

Maybe I should try a trip with no gadgets. Nah, that's too crazy :-)

Turks and Caicos #3

The last batch of diving photos from the Turks and Caicos.

2011-11-24 Turks and Caicos

2011-11-25 Turks and Caicos

Sunday, December 04, 2011


I don't mean all the crap that surrounds flying - queuing up, security, waiting, crappy food, cramped seats.

I mean the actual flying. The acceleration of takeoff, watching the ground dwindle, seeing the landscape go by, flying through and over the clouds.

For a kid raised on Apollo moon landings and science fiction, it's the closest thing to spaceflight I'll likely experience.

Not having flown for two years, the experience seems fresh again. Sadly, I still don't think our current profligate use of fossil fueled air travel is sustainable. And biofuels are unlikely to be the solution. Unless we come up with a cheap abundant source of power like fusion we may have to change our ways at some point.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Diving and the Art of Seeing

Scuba diving is an interesting activity. There is the initial thrill of overcoming your fears of being underwater. And some people continue to push the thrill and fear by diving deep or in caves etc. But most people dive to see the amazing life underwater. That surprises me. In this age where the most common activities seem to be talking on your cell phone and shopping, it surprises me that so many people will spend hours underwater not speaking and just observing nature. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

When you start diving you're fully occupied with yourself and your gear, trying not to suck your air too fast, trying to control your buoyancy, trying not to lose your companions. You have to remind yourself that you are supposed to be looking around.

Once you get more comfortable (an ongoing process) you start to see more. A coral reef is an amazing place. There's really nothing like it on land. A rain forest might have as much diversity, but it's much harder to see and nowhere near as colorful. The backdrop of coral and sponges is an amazing array of shapes and vibrant colors - bright reds, greens, yellows, purples, blues, etc. And the fish are everywhere. Imagine if you were bird watching and you could glance around and see 20 different kinds of brilliantly colored birds all around you in large numbers.

The more you dive, the more you see. Partly that's a result of getting better at the skills. At first it's like you're blundering and crashing noisily through the forest. Not surprisingly, things tend to run away when you do that! But as you get better at moving more smoothly, you don't scare everything away. And once you get better control of your buoyancy you can swim closer to the coral without worrying about crashing into it. Being closer lets you start to see smaller stuff.

The huge range of scale of underwater life was brought home when I was listening to people talk about a fish they had seen. They were describing its shape and color and behavior. Then they mentioned that it was the size of a grain of rice!

Of course, there's also a large factor of luck. On one of the few dives we skipped they saw a manta ray, a rare and exciting sighting. But you also have to notice what's around you. At one point the group was playing paparazzi to a turtle and missed seeing the eagle ray that glided silently by right behind them. That turned out to be the only eagle ray seen during the week.

Another example - I swam over to look at a sponge, then noticed that there were some brittle stars on it, and then noticed there was a scorpion fish right beside it. It would have been easy to swim right by thinking it was just another sponge.

Other times you notice something exotic looking and get excited about it, only to subsequently realize that it's everywhere.

This is the first trip where I got good looks and even some photos of the "cleaning stations" where bigger fish go to get "cleaned" by shrimp or smaller fish. It's funny to see a grouper sitting still on the coral with its mouth wide open, and then as you get closer see that there are a bunch of spindly little shrimp scurrying in and out of its mouth and gills. It's a good deal for both of them - the big fish gets its parasites removed, and the shrimp or little fish get to feed (without getting eaten!). Other divers always used to talk about the cleaning stations but I never saw them, no doubt because they swam away when I blundered by.

In the past it was always the dive masters pointing out stuff to us. That still happens (they obviously have way more experience than us) but at least now we also spot stuff on our own. One of the challenges is pointing stuff out to each other or to other people. First you have to get their attention, which isn't easy when you can't just call to them. If you have to swim over to them to grab them, half the time you lose what you were looking at. Things either swim away or simply disappear via their camouflage. And even if you can still find it, it's often hard for the other person to figure out what you're pointing it.

A lot of people get most excited about the sharks. Sharks are amazing creatures, and even when you know they're safe, there's still that undercurrent of fear. But there's so much more to see that's just as interesting and often more colorful and exotic.