Vacation photos

As promised, here are links to some of my better photos from my recent Hawaii / San Francisco vacation.

Akaka Falls and Hilo – mostly interesting plants.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – volcanic landscapes.

Miscellaneous Hawaii stuff.

Photos of the transit of Venus.

Miscellaneous San Francisco stuff.

The Golden Gate Bridge.

The Computer History Museum.


A thing I have finished

I’ve been craving a feeling of accomplishment for a long time, and I promise myself that over the Christmas holidays I would make an effort to finish at least one of my personal projects.  And I did!  And it feels good.

For a while I’ve been needing some bright lights for my macro photography, and also wanting some bright color accent lights.  I bought this from ThinkGeek.  It has the advantage of simply plugging into a standard light socket, and has sixteen different color settings.  I found it still a bit too dim, and some of the colors were off – blue especially looked too purple for me.

So I decided to make my own – a larger one using multiple super-bright LEDs of four colors (red, green, blue and white) arranged in a mosaic with a diffusing filter in front to mix the colors.  With this arrangement I should be able to get a much better variety of colors, and using multiple LEDs would give me more brightness.

I based the physical design around available enclosures, protoboards and power supplies.  I don’t like working with high voltages (they tend to be a bit killey) so I’ll always use an off-the-shelf power supply if I can.  I decided on a 12V, 1A supply I had on hand because using a higher voltage would let me place the LEDs more in series, thus reducing the current requirements and the number of current limiting resistors I would need.  Most super-bright LEDs have voltage drops between 3V and 4V, so that let me put them in series of three.

Here’s the schematic (click to embiggen):

I decided to socket the LEDs in female header strips instead of soldering them to the protoboard, in case I burnt some of them out and needed to replace them.  In practice this perhaps wasn’t such a good idea; it complicated the physical layout of the circuit on the protoboard, and generated problems with loose connections between the LED leads and the sockets.  I could probably solve the latter problem well enough by bending the ends of the leads slightly, but it seems to work well enough if I don’t shake it too much, and it’s easy to fix if a connection fails.

Here’s a picture of the finished board, populated with LEDs, installed in the enclosure I picked for it.

You can see the four brightness control potentiometers installed on the sides.  At the bottom is a cheap tripod mount I made with a quarter-inch bolt and bolt joiner.

The next picture shows the reflective, scattering backdrop I put the LEDs through to help blend the colors.  Since I was planning to put a diffuser in front of the LEDs, I figured there would be a lot of light back-scattered and so I should put a reflector at the back to stop some of the light from being wasted.

I also added the color-coded knob handles to the controls in this shot.

And finally, here it is with the diffuser on the front:

I made the diffuser myself by cutting a thin sheet of clear Perspex to size, then grinding both sides with coarse and then smooth sandpaper.  It worked out well.

Although I had intended the light to be mounted vertically on top of a tripod or light stand, someone pointed out to me at this point that it could also be used horizontally as a small light table.  It kind of looks like a disco floor when used this way:

And now, the results!  To see if my project achieved its goals of brighter light and better color than the light I bought from ThinkGeek, I shot the following series of images (click to enlarge please).  All images were shot using the same exposure and a fixed color temperature of 5400K.  The upper row shows the primary colors of the ThinkGeek light, and the lower row is mine.  Mine has an extra photo for white – the dim one is just the white LEDs, and the bright one is with all LEDs on at full intensity.


  • Mine is not as much brighter as I had hoped (perhaps half a stop for individual colors) but it is still brighter. The full-on white is considerably brighter.
  • Mine has a slightly more bluish blue.
  • The diffuser/reflector arrangement worked out well; when used as subject lighting rather than as a light table, the color mixture is very smooth.  I could get more brightness by using a clear front panel instead of a diffuser, but then the colors would be less evenly mixed.
  • Mine consumes slightly more power (9W versus their 7W) but that’s not a huge difference.
  • Mine can produce a much wider variety of colors by virtue of having separate analog brightness controls for each of the four color components.
  • Mine produces softer shadows on small objects because the light-emitting surface is relatively large; the ThinkGeek light is almost a point source so gives hard shadows.
Overall I’m very pleased.  It’s one of the better electronic projects I’ve done in terms of polish (ie putting it in a finished enclosure with mounted controls etc).  It works, and may prove useful in my photography, as intended.  Best of all, completing it gave me a much-needed feeling of having finished something for once.
If I were to make another one, I would lay out and etch the circuit board myself rather than using a protoboard, so I could get more control over the spacing of the LEDs and the arrangement of the traces.  I’d also solder the LEDs in instead of socketing them.


2011/08/15 – one part of several to come; lots to cover about this day. Might take me a few days to catch up with it all.

In the early 1980s my father was working in construction in Calgary, but saw the end of the boom coming.  My parents wanted to buy some land to live on, so my mother and I spent a lot of time travelling around looking at properties.  In 1982 we bought 80 acres near Angusville, Manitoba, and moved there.  More about the land in a later post.

Angusville being a tiny town, the two nearby towns that we went to for supplies were Russell and Rossburn.  I’ll post about Russell first because that’s where I arrived first on the current road trip.

Unlike most prairie towns that are shrinking, Russell is holding on.  A couple of buildings have come down and a couple have gone up, but more or less everything is the same as I recall.  Except for the main street, which now has the future standing over every corner.  Top picture 1992ish, bottom today:


Detail on the arches:


There are some new businesses though – there never used to be any chain restaurants here, but now there is an A&W, a Tim Horton’s and a Subway.  The old Russell Inn restaurant is still around and still fairly good, and that’s where I prefer to eat.

The Russell Inn was founded 20+ years ago specifically as an attempt to stave off the slow death of the town by making it a tourist haven.  They’ve also developed a ski hill nearby.  That plus the town’s location at a major crossroads seem to have done the trick, but it means the town is really counting on the Inn and the tourist trade to stay alive.

Fond memories ensue.

Russell is where I did my driving test and first got my driver’s license – I actually learned out in the country in my parents’ vehicles though.  I did my driving test in my father’s 3/4 ton pickup – not an easy thing to parallel park, but otherwise I had no problems.  I grew up riding in the front seat all the time, so I was very familiar with the particulars of driving long before I got behind the wheel.


The remains of the town theater (actually there were two, the other being a drive-in on the outskirts; it died first).  Disney likenesses probably not authorized.  This is where I saw the first and best Transformers movie, and also saw Baby and Old Yeller (man, that one got me good).


The laundromat at the end of the main drag. We came into town every two weeks like clockwork to wash our duds here.  For a while they had a Zaxxon machine, but I mostly killed time a few blocks away downtown at:


P&D’s Pizza (now an empty lot). P and D were a young husband and wife team who operated a pizza/burger joint and arcade here.  The restaurant was nice because it had high-backed booths with lots of room in them, but of course I was mainly here for the games.  They rotated through lots of games and I spent lots and lots of money on them.   P&D’s was still around when we briefly returned in 1992, and there were newer games then.  The main ones I remember from both periods were:

For the times when I wanted a different selection of games, there was a pool hall right across the street, in the grey stone building here:


Tougher kids hung out here, but they never hassled me except for one time one of them challenged me to a game of pool.  I lost.

This place is where I first saw the original Street Fighter – boy, was that a difficult game! Also super popular – the controls were often busted.  They also had (at various times) Blasteroids, Black Tiger (which I mastered so well during my time in Toronto that it became a way to kill time on the cheap), and Extermination, which was a rather unique vertical-scrolling shooter that I’ve never seen anywhere else and would like to play again.


I mentioned the ski hill – it’s about 20 minutes outside of town as Asessippi Park – and yes, I’ve already made all possible jokes about that name so we can take them as read, OK?  Anyway, I also went back there today.  We used to go for picnics, fishing and swimming there.  Here’s the “beach” and swimming area:


The lake isn’t natural – there is a dam offscreen to the left.  My father often took me fishing below the dam.  But near the picnic area there was a delightful little stream, with a miniature concrete dam on it.  I used to love to play in the stream, making more dams out of gravel.  To my delight, it’s still there exactly as before:


Slow on the uptake department: I always wondered why this little dam was here.  I just realized today that it was for kids, and meant as a play-sized version of the much bigger nearby dam. Duh.


Today yielded enough things to fill another post or two, but it’s late and I need sleep.  Will resume when I can.  But here’s today’s map (sorry, haven’t had time to look into the centering problem yet).

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Calgary memories part 2

Another day of visiting old haunts with Frink.  Starting the day with a lighter dog-related note, here’s Frink holding his mother’s new puppy, Shadow.  Shadow is a rat terrier, eight weeks new in this photo:


Puppies are so delightful.  A ball of wiry nervous energy, eager to please her new packmates and licking and nibbling on and faces or hands within range.


Breakfast with another old friend took place at Tubby Dog.

First order of the day: Forest Lawn.  Another place we used to go frequently when we lived in McKay Lodge.  One reason was to get me some socialization; being homeschooled and at the time not yet integrated with the neighborhood kids, my parents enrolled me in a bowling league.


That’s me in the baseball cap.  I did get a trophy for something at the end of the year, but I never really made friends with any of the other kids.  This is where I was forced to learn to tie shoelaces; facist bowling alleys didn’t have slip-on or velcro bowling shoes!


I am amazed that this bowling alley still exists and is apparently still open today.

Also in Forest Lawn:


It’s a Zellers now, but when we first moved to Calgary it was a K-Mart.  It might have been in a slightly different location on the lot too, but that doesn’t matter much.  What’s important is that this is where I played my first arcade game.  My mother went in to buy something and I was distracted by the bright colors and bouncy music of a City Connection machine by the door.  My mother gave me a couple of quarters to try it, and the course of my life to date was decided in the next few minutes.

I became a diehard arcade rat from then until arcades finally died out in the 90s.  Calgary in the early 80s was a great place to be an arcade rat – every mall had an arcade, most of them were pretty safe places to be, and most of them took the gaming hobby seriously.  Almost all of my allowance went to quarters, and when my parents went shopping at a mall they would simply give me a roll of quarters and park me in the arcade until they were done.  Usually they had to drag me away.

Naturally I got into home video games too, but they were never the same; arcade games always had better graphics, better music and sound, better controls and so on, and there was something about the arcade experience that just didn’t translate at home.


On to the next landmark: The Calgary Tower.


Once Calgary’s mightiest phallic symbol, it has since been eclipsed twice.  But for old time’s stake I decided to go up and shoot a panorama of the city. I’m not posting said panorama because I can’t get the stitching software to do a good job on it.

There’s a new feature up there that i don’t remember from before: a section of glass floor.  I could not make myself step on it – the desire to not fall is strong in this one.


Another memory-loaded site I spotted while up there: the central Calgary Public Library.


This library was the source of most of the books I read when I was a kid.  My mother and I used to frequently ride our bikes over here (on Calgary’s stellar bicycle path system) and load up on books for me.

In more recent years, I saw Douglas Coupland speak here on his Microserfs tour, and got my copy signed.


Final tour stop of the day: my kindergarten.  My parents actually did enroll me in school – for all of six months.  Halfway through the year they changed teachers on me, and I did not like the new one at all.  I was a sensitive kid, and the activities she had us do usually ended up with my going home crying.  My parents pulled me out, and I was homeschooled all the way to the end of grade 12.

My class:


(Plane not actually inside school). That’s Miss Patterson, the good teacher, on the right end. That’s me standing at the other end.

The sitting boy in the red pants, blue jacket and white cowboy hat is Arrey (or something like that), my only friend in the class.  We played together a few times at his place outside of school.  I was somewhat jealous of him because not only did he have more Lego than me (one of very few people I’ve met who did), but he had one of the earliest Lego train sets.  Somehow I conned him into trading me a couple of the blue rails from that set, which was stupid on both our parts since there wasn’t much I could do with only a couple of rails, and it made his set incomplete.  But I was young and blinded by brick envy.

The platinum-haired girl standing behind Arrey in the photo is the first girl I remember thinking was cute.  I don’t remember her name; just that she was extremely shy and quiet.


We capped off the day with another nerd gathering for supper at Peter’s Drive-In, which is apparently favored by none other than Hugh Jackman.  It is my favorite burger joint of all.  It’s not fancy, it’s not gourmet, it’s just delicious.  The milkshakes are the best too.  Avoid the fries though; they give you a lot of them, but they’re not very good.

Back on the road eastbound tomorrow.  Visiting Calgary again has been great, and I wish I could spend more time here.  The city is still very familiar; I had forgotten how easy it is to get around in this town, and the city fits like a glove.  I could easily see myself living here again.

I used to bitch about how crazy Calgary drivers were, but now they seem tame in comparison to Vancouverites.

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Calgary memories part 1

Road trip post for 2011/08/11

Today I spent the afternoon driving around Calgary, friend Frink in tow, rephotographing important sites from my youth.  My parents and I moved to Calgary for the first time when I was 5 or 6 years old, my father coming out first to get a job in the booming construction industry.  He got us a basement room at 1016 19th Avenue SE, otherwise known as McKay Lodge.


It’s a weird building. It looks like a large house, but it’s a rooming house and at the time had seven apartments in it, plus an additional room in the attic that went with one of the apartments.

We lived in this place for five years, perhaps my most formative years, and I have loads of memories associated with it.  A few follow…

My bedroom was a tiny nook under the stairs leading down to the basement apartment.  Here’s my father repairing one of my Tonka toys for me.  The photo was taken from the stairs looking into my room:


My bed was to the right, under the stairs, and just above it there was a trap door in the wall that led to a crawlspace under the white windowed veranda seen in the previous photo; I would sometimes crawl out there and use it as a play space.

The downstairs apartment was too cramped and my father was making good money in construction, so we expanded by renting a second apartment in the same house.  We took the second floor front apartment, the balcony of which you can also see in the house photo above, and with it we got that spare room in the attic, which became my private playroom.  That was pretty sweet.

This is where my parents started homeschooling me.  I did have friends in the area, though.


This neighborhood (called Ramsay) was full of native kids at the time, and most of my friends came from that set.  Pictured above, brothers Francis and Norbert, and Stephanie (who had a nearly identical sister, Yolanda, who I sadly don’t have a photo of).  There were a couple others as well as some white kids that I played with.  It was easy to get the interest of other kids because I had lots of toys – tons of Lego, and later on a pedal go-kart and the Atari VCS.  Stories behind those two items I won’t go into right now.

Anyway, these native kids were a lot less naive than me and were always playing jokes on me and trying to get me in trouble.  For the most part it didn’t work; not being subjected to the same conditioning they went though at public school, I tended to be resistant to peer pressure.  Looking back at some of the things they said and did that I didn’t understand at the time, I now wonder just how much abuse and emotional trouble they were living under.  Most of them had badly alcoholic and disinterested parents, and one year all of them – every native family in Ramsay – were uprooted and moved down to Ogden, another neighborhood to the south, and not long after that shipped off to a reservation named Sandy something – there are dozens of reservations with the word Sandy in their name, so I have no idea where they actually went.  I often wonder what became of them and hope it was something better than the standard fate of native kids.

Just a few blocks from McKay Lodge is Scotchman’s Hill, which is a steep bluff overlooking the Stampede grounds and is a favorite spot for watching the fireworks – and has a good view of the downtown skyline.  Here’s a skyline photo circa 1995:


Picture-in-picture today:


And, for good measure, a panorama:


My mother and I would often ride our bikes around the right limb of Scotchman’s Hill, going to the downtown Co-Op for groceries.  Just across the river in the foreground of the above photo is this unremarkable scene:


It’s an important spot to me because of what happened here.  One day on our way to get groceries, I was riding my bike along this sidewalk and there was a small paper bag in the way.  Being an energetic kid who liked doing bike stunts, I was going to run over the bag just because.  Then it occurred to me that there might be a brick or some other nasty surprise in the bag, and avoided it at the last second.

As I rode past the bag, I distinctly heard a “Mew!” come from inside.  I jumped off my bike and waved my following mother away from the bag.  Sure enough, there was a bedraggled kitten inside.  My mother speculated that someone was going to drown it in the river but lost heart.  I sure was glad I hadn’t run over the bag.  We took the kitten home and nursed it back to health, and named it Catmatix.  He grew up to be a fierce and somewhat wild cat – when we went camping we would keep him on a long leash, but he would still try to catch rabbits.  He also wasn’t too bright – a few years later he disappeared in the winter, and we’re pretty sure he must have drowned trying to catch ducks or geese on the half-frozen river.

Onward to the aforementioned Co-Op.  Now a parking lot:


There was a good cafeteria in the grocery store that used to stand here; it’s where I developed my love for the hamburger deluxe, and pioneered the idea of the standard test burger (onions and ketchup only) as a means for comparing burger joints.  But what I most remember about this location is that it’s where I learned about the troubling concept of death.  It just came up in conversation once when my mother and I were heading home from here, and she tried to explain it to me as well as she could.  I found it disturbing to think that the time available to me was finite, even if it was an incomprehensibly long time to someone of that age (the year between birthdays was *forever*!) and I wondered how everyone seemed to be at peace with the idea and why it rarely came up in conversation.  I know now that the idea of death is an enormous psychological black hole that few people can deal with, but it was that day in this place that started my ruminations about it.


After five years, for some reason I don’t recall, we moved out of McKay Lodge.  Probably because the two apartments were too small and inconvenient.  We rented a house on 1a Street, just on the other side of the Stampede grounds.  Here’s my parents behind the house with the wooden camper my father built:1a_back

This entire block has now been demolished, and I expect they’re going to put townhouses in – that’s what has happened to the rest of the neighborhood.  Across the alley though there still stands a building which at the time housed a stereo & electronics shop, which is where my parents bought my my first programmable computer for Christmas: a Commodore VIC-20.  That plus the tape drive, a 16K RAM expander and a couple of games set them back about $1000 back in the day.  But it’s what got me started down the garden path to software development and game development in particular; this house is where I first learned to program.


Jumping forward many years to 1993, when we returned to Calgary, we lived in this house in Inglewood, not far from Ramsay:


I was still avidly programming, but in the meantime had upgraded to a ‘386 PC and had learned to program in C and assembly languages.  I was living here when I started taking computer science at Mount Royal College (now University), and when I met via Fidonet BBSing a small group of friends who I’m still very close with today.

This is also the house where my two dear dogs passed away.


Coal was part collie and part Newfoundland dog.  She had been mine since she was a puppy – her mother was also our dog.  Pictured above not long before she died peacefully of old age.  She was about 19 years old at the time.  Good dog and I still miss her.


Sporty was not specifically my dog – more my mother’s, but it makes no difference.  He was part alsatian or German shephard and part something else; we adopted him after he was full grown (perhaps I’ll tell that story when I get to Manitoba). Anyway, one day when I was walking him near this house, he was attacked by a much larger dog whose owner was not keeping it under control.  Sporty suffered a back injury as a result, and there was nothing the vet could do for him.  After a year of watching him barely able to walk and in constant pain, we decided to euthanize him.  It was a heartbreaking decision but I think it was the right thing to do.


Moving on, here’s then and now photos of me in front of this house.  Thanks to Frink for taking the updated version today.


As you can see, I have gained some weight in the intervening years. :(

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the stories behind the places I revisited today, but I’ll cut it off there.

We also did a little shopping, and in the evening gather for dinner and some video watching with a couple of other local friends.

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