Cameras: crack for the discerning geek

Programming is hideously addictive. It’s really fun to build something that you want, poke it a couple of times, and then watch it get up and dance, doing exactly what you told it to do.1 Sadly, it’s not really socially acceptable. Saying that you’re a programmer at a party is kind of like dipping yourself in Girl-B-Gone and shouting “I HAVE HERPES!” at the top of your lungs.

Geeks have convinced themselves that cameras (specifically digital cameras) are close enough to programming to be fun, but are much more socially acceptable.2 As such, geeks now have new lunchtime conversational gambits. Instead of talking about the exciting deadlocks they’re currently debugging, geeks can now say stuff like “So, what kind of workflow do you use when you’re importing pictures?” If this sounds far fetched, it’s not: I said it today at lunch.

The answers I got weren’t quite what I was hoping for. I want to do stuff like: upload pictures to online albums, resize batches of pictures, rename pictures on import, etc. My fellow geeks explained how they wrote programs to do at least some of that for them. I don’t want to do that. Life is too short to code for free (okay, not entirely).

So I was happy to discover digiKam a KDE app that does pretty much all of that stuff. I don’t know if I’d subject any of my non-geek relatives to it, but it feels relatively easy to use. My experience using it is much better than with Ubuntu’s default photo album app: F-Spot.

Paying to give stuff away

I really like the idea of a community WIFI project. The idea is pretty simple: people who already have internet connections set up WIFI hotspots and allow others to use their bandwidth for free (or a minor charge). I like this idea because I dislike my ISP, and I barely use my connection.

I wasn’t aware of a community WIFI project in Ottawa until yesterday, when CBC did a story on ogWifi. It’s a quasi-community group that is giving away free access to other people’s bandwidth. The only catch is that they are charging the hotspot owner $50/year. That’s on top of the $80 for the router.

C’mon ogWifi! I’m a private residence. I don’t want to pay to give away something I’m already paying for. If you want to charge for-profit agencies who stand to make money on their connections, fine. But I’m not a for-profit entity. By signing up with your service I would have to do a lot of work. And you want me to pay on top of that? Good luck.

On the other side of the coin, I just got my FON router. The thing is tiny (about the size of a pack of cards), and, most importantly, free. You hear that ogWifi? FREE!

$80,000 for what?

It’s a bad sign that I’m getting my local news from the blogotubes, but I couldn’t resist posting a link to a bit of investigative journalism done by the folks at Miss Vicky’s Offhand Remarks.

In a nutshell: the city (at Larry O’Brien’s bidding) paid a consultant $80,000 to help develop the city budget. Part of that budget mentioned outsourcing parking meter management as a cost-saving measure, pointing to the success of Hamilton’s parking meter outsourcing. Miss Vicky and the Webgeek did some Googling, and discovered that:

Hamilton handles its own parking meters, thank you very much
Dundas, which recently amalgamated with Hamilton, did contract out their parking meter management, but now wants to reincorporate the service back into their city. The goal is to increase profit being seen in the old municipality of Dundas.

The comments contain an interesting back-and-forth between Blake Batson and the purveyors of Miss Vicky’s on whether outsourcing of a profitable really service is a good idea. Reasons to outsource: a private company has a stronger profit motive than government, so it should be able to be more efficient (ie, a greater return without charging the public more). Reasons not to oursource: the tender process is expensive, and the city will eventually realize that it can be as profitable as the private company and it will reintegrate the service anyway.

Of course, when you factor in that we’re dealing with a finite amount of profit, the silent costs of outsourcing add up: paying off employees who are let go, legal fees for tender and reacquisition, costs of studies to ensure that the private organization is doing a decent job, cost of interacting with the outsourcing firm, et cetera. The devil is in the details.
This text was originally posted on Saturday, November 17, 2007 by Erigami Scholey-Fuller.

Sandy’s Cape Breton Pork Pies

Cape Breton pork pies1 are date-filled tarts topped with a citrus butter icing. Sandy introduced me to them when I was but a lad. Since then, Christmas/Festivus hasn’t been Christmas/Festivus without a Cape Breton pork pie. This recipe is quick, and enjoyably messy.

The recipe should make roughly 30 mini tarts.


1 cup butter
4 tablespoons icing sugar
2 cups flour (I use 1 cup bleached all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole wheat all-purpose flour)

Prepare yourself a glass of Bailey’s and milk. Mix the flour and icing sugar. Cut the butter into small cubes and kneed into the flour. Within a few minutes, you’ll get a greasy ball. Press the dough into small muffin tins. When you’re pressing you can make the shell quite thin (3 or 4 millimeters) – it will expand impressively as it cooks. Bake at 425F for 10 minutes.


2 cups tightly packed chopped brown dates
.75 cup brown sugar
1.5 cups water
Lemon juice (from half a lemon)

Enjoy a glass of rum and eggnog (if you have a little coffee and nutmeg, toss those into your drink for good measure). Simmer the ingredients together until they get a soft, mushy consistency. Allow to cool. Fill shells.


The icing makes the pie. It should be citrus-y and sweet. Sandy’s recipe didn’t include her mix for the icing, so I’ve had to reverse engineer it. With a little help from teh intarwebs, this is my current knock-off:

1/2 cup butter
1.5 cups icing sugar
1 tablespoon of milk
Juice of 1/2 lemon (you can add more)
1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract

You’ll need your wits for this bit, so mix a little rum or irish cream into hot chocolate and savour that before beginning. Cube the butter and kneed it into the icing sugar. Mix the milk, lemon juice, and vanilla together with a spoon and beat it like it owes you money. You’ll end up with a thick sugary gooey mass. Add a little more icing sugar to give it some body. This recipe makes about twice as much icing as you’ll need, so find some way to enjoy the remainder.

Top the tartlets with the icing.

Store the tartlets in a the fridge. The icing can turn to goo and pour off if you aren’t careful.

A Canadian School of Design

A little before Christmas, I started to notice that the IPod Touch had become the fetish object of the season. My fellow Ottawa denizens were wandering around lovingly stroking the screens of their Touches. In the winter. In the cold. Outside. Without gloves. Like idiots.

But it isn’t really their fault, is it? The Touch was developed in Cupertino, California, where the average temperature in January bubbles around 4°C and 15°C. Canadian fetish objects are pretty much the same as those in the United States, but we have a reality that our southern cousins don’t: winter.

Winter plays a huge part of our identity. Canadians snowshow, snowboard, ski, skate, and skidoo. We invented hockey. We dominate the sport of curling. We essentially invented the modern ski resort. In the temperate south of the country, we endure subzero temperatures five to six months of the year.

But our consumer goods, our clothing styles, architectural styles, and fetish objects are designed elsewhere. We use stuff designed in climates where zero is considered cold, and a light dusting of snow will close a city.

Imagine what gadgets would look like if they were designed with winter in mind. When it gets below minus five(ish), you don’t want to expose your skin to the elements for more than a minute or two. If MP3 players were designed by Canadians, they would be easy to control inside a pocket or mitten. They would have controls that are easy to manipulate without being seen. Alternatively, they would have buttons large enough that users would be able to control the volume or navigate tracks without having to remove their frostbite preventing gloves.

When you start to consider the realities of winter, more and more of our society seems like a cargo cult. We’ve imported styles that were created for much warmer places. When you see people walking around in winter, how many people do you see wearing long coats? I don’t mean coats that cover their hips, I mean coats that go to their ankles. When you’re wandering around Ottawa in -20°C weather, wearing a coat that goes to your waist is silly. It means your legs freeze, or you have to wear long-johns1. But do Canadians wear long coats? No. Because we’re suckers and we import our ideas of style from the south.

The realities of winter hit architecture hard as well. When six months of the year necessitate heavy clothing and heavy boots, our buildings should respect that and provide somewhere to store our sweaters and jackets when inside. Do they? For the most part, no. Malls, libraries, movie theaters, hospitals, and office buildings require us to carry our surplus duds around with us. The few buildings that do feature a coat check tend to be bars or clubs, where being seen is part of the experience.

It would be wonderful if Canadian designers and architects could reverse our fixation on southern climates. Well made Canadian goods that were attractive and designed for our climate would be wonderful. But they seem unlikely to catch on. Too much of our media comes from southern climes, where gloves are a fashion statement, and open air dining is an option year round.

Note: I didn’t notice our tom-foolery myself. It took the first 60 pages of John Ralston Saul’s Refliections of a Siamese Twin to wake me up to our national fixations on warmer climates. Perhaps a solution to our cargo-cultish behaviour was contained in the rest of the book, but JRS didn’t manage to keep my attention past page 61.

Link Love

On the off chance you’re interested in the RSS feeds that I read, here’s a quick rundown:

Blog aggregator for Ottawa-related blogs. I wrote the aggregator, so you should read it. =)
Runesmith’s Canadian Content
The rambling of Jennifer Smith. I enjoy her ongoing outrage at the Conservative government.
Ottawa LiveJournal Community
It’s more of a “where can I get X” listing, but it’s sort of interesting to see what the kids are up to.
A near daily listing posting of random bits of Canadian design from the past hundred or so years. I have no idea why their name is in ALL CAPS, but that’s the way it’s presented in their feed.


Lila’s Dreams Blog
Lila’s Dreams is a dev blog for an upcoming web-based MMOG. The setting is inside the psyche of an 11 year old girl. I’m not sure what the game is going to end up being, but it sounds like gardening should be a large part of game play, which sounds quite neat.
I went to school with Pat, and he’s blogging as a grad student, which is a lifestyle that’s dear to my heart. He opines about usability, the evils of hierarchical filesystems, and difficulties installing stuff on Macs. I disagree with most things he says, but he’s well read and he comes at problems from the right angle.
Breathless open data zealots who think freely available data is a really good thing. They don’t trouble themselves with the hard questions of data ownership (curation, metadata, dealing with licensing/access restrictions) but approach the problem from a public interest standpoint. I’m not sure why I read this blog.
The Online Photographer (TOP) and Photoborg
I’m not sure why I read these sites. They’re kinda/sorta about photography. I’m looking for something with a few more tips, but I do enjoy the opining.

Cameras and Taxis

The great thing about a liquid lunch is it gives you a good reason to leave the bike at home and take a taxi. Earlier this week, while returning from just such a junket, I started talking with the cabbie about the City’s proposal for putting cameras in taxis.

The guy was emphatic. The cameras were a terrible idea, for a number of reasons:

The cameras don’t just take the occasional picture, the track the taxi’s speed, time on shift, and money made from fares.
The cameras must be installed by a city-approved umm… installer. Apparently there are only two, leading the drivers to think that there’s a little patronage action going on behind the scenes.
Drivers think that their fares may be put off by the invasion of privacy. The example the driver gave was of someone cheating on their spouse. He felt he’d lose business if they knew there was a camera taking their picture.
A camera wouldn’t stop a crime from happening, it would only make it easier for the cops to track down the perp. The driver didn’t seem interested in justice-for/vengeance-on/rehabilitation-of criminals as much as preventing the crime in the first place. He was in favour of a barrier, but said the city dismissed the idea because it would make Ottawa look dangerous.
The proposed cameras sounded over-priced. He thought the city was going to be selling them to cabbies at a premium.

It’s interesting that the media (embodied by CBC and the parts of the Citizen that I read) hasn’t really talked about the alleged capabilities of these cameras. If safety is the first concern of the city, then it sounds like they should opt for barriers, and then put cameras in (you know, the kind the only take pictures) if the cabbies want them.

Folks on CFRA were saying that it sounds like City staff would have access to the cameras, leading to the possibility that the cameras could be used for purposes other than ensuring cabbie’s safety.

Ottawa’s Transit Plan: Yesterday’s Solution Tomorrow

As others have mentioned, the City of Ottawa has put together four possible plans for public transit in 2031. The four plans cover the same ground, they

follow the current east/west arterials running parallel to the Ottawa river;
head south as far as Bowesville and Barrhaven Town Centre;
go north into Gatineau;
feature a tunnel though the downtown.

The only difference is the mode: the first plan is entirely bus, with each of the other three plans phasing in gradually more light rail. Plan four has the most track, featuring rail lines from the current Baseline station to Blair with a dogleg down to Bowesville and the airport.

If I sound unexcited about the plans, it’s because they’re all pretty much the same. Swap tracks for Transitway, and add a few percentage points of capitol and ongoing costs, and they’re basically the same plan: what we have now. Even the growth projections for transit trips downtown are ho-hum: they project an overall rise of transit use (heading into the downtown core) of 10%.

Tomorrow: suggestions for what a transit plan should include.

Ottawa’s Transit Plan: Critique

So what would make a good transit plan? I’m not an urban planner, but I can make a few ill-informed guesses:

The plan shouldn’t be based on streeters that ask people what they think of their current transit system – that model is too easily biased. Instead, they should do a survey of where people actually go. Ask them for their home and work/school addresses, for example. Build a map that shows where people go and when, then build transit to service their needs, not what you think they may want.
The plan shouldn’t just have a “vision”, it should also explain how the goal will be met. The existing plan states that they want to see 30% – in 2001, it was around 16%1, but they provide no indication of how those goals will be achieved.
Include city growth as part of the plan. Ottawa is all crawling with new condos downtown and new subdivisions in the ‘burbs. The plan should serve existing population centres and plan for new growth.
The transit plan should include zoning amendments to encourage growth and in-fill around transit lines. The old 2020 plan alluded to that, but the new napkin sketch doesn’t even raise the possibility.
The plan should provide a basic breakdown of costs. We’re told that laying track from Baseline station to Blair, and from the Rideau Centre past the airport is only $660 million more expensive than upgrading the transitway? And that a fleet of a few dozen trains won’t cost much more to buy than the 690 buses that OC Transpo runs? That may be true, but it’s hard to believe without knowing where the numbers came from.

The proposed plan is fine – if we want to pay around three billion dollars to get the same service we have today.


For some reason, Mayor Larry likes to keep saying Ottawa is a “world-class” city. Then again, he also liked to say that “zero means zero” (or is that 4.9?).

img_0730.JPGI suspect it will be a few more generations, a few city-wide fires, and a revolution or two until Ottawa becomes a world-class city to rival Paris. We don’t have the boulevards, landmarks, or public transit system to rival the French capitol.

About the only place we can hope to compete is with our on-street food vendors. We have two advantages: our culture accepts eating while walking and we have a large francophone population. It’s only a matter of time before some bright lad or lass at Algonquin discovers that crepes can be made and sold on the street.

“Oh! But what about beaver tails?” you say. The answer to that is simple: savory crepes. Do beaver tails have ham, tomato, feta? No. What about cheese? No. Beaver tails are a culinary dead-end. Crepes are like prokaryotes. There isn’t a gastronomic niche crepes can’t handle. Bring on a Canadian school of crepes, I say.

Sure, our city is a sprawling mess. Sure, our future transit plans are pretty much what we have now (with a little more tunnel). Sure, our city has few landmarks almost no public art. Sure, we don’t have much in the way of urban parks. But we can at least have some decent street food, dammit!