Home, Sweet Home

So Pablo inquired “anything new to say?”

Well, I always have something new to say, it’s just that for the past couple of weeks I haven’t had a way to say it.   I just returned from a visit to California, and while away from home, I was “internet challenged”, so to speak.  No mobile computer, no e-mail, no blogs, no nothing!  How ironic – here I was traveling into an area where there is probably as much combined computing power as any other location in the world – and I might just as well have been in the dark ages.  So how did it come to all this?

My first “portable” computer was a Compaq III Portable, a pricey, heavy, luggable computer with a gas-plasma 800X600 amber screen that was considered superb in its’ time.  It allowed my to have access to my software development tools while on site at a clients location.  Being able to make minor programming tweaks and re-compiling .exe’s on site was a tremendous advantage for consultants at that time, and that computer served me well through the duration of my consulting endeavors.

Fast forward to 1996, when Retta and I decided to purchase a Roughwater trawler named Lorelei (photos here) and make her our home.  We were unusual among boat owners, we soon discovered.  We actually used our vessel for what it was intended for – we cruised it among the various islands of Channel Islands National Park religiously. In fact, if the nights we spent at anchor at the Channel Islands were strung together, it would be a span of nearly two years.  We wanted dial-up internet access on board the vessel while at the marina, and I also wanted to run navigational charting software that I could tie into our GPS and radar systems for use while cruising.  We needed a small footprint, so we chose a Toshiba Satellite Pro system that served our needs very well.

When we eventually sold our vessel and began to lead a more conventional lifestyle (if you call retiring to a remote, sparsely populated rural area in the Ozarks conventional), the Toshiba laptop was pretty much relegated to the closet.  While it served us well on board Lorelei, it is, never the less, an old computer running Windows 98SE (barely), running at 133 Mhz and sporting a whopping 1GB hard disk drive.  It would hardly qualify me as a technical road-warrior, so I guess until I can justify the expense of a new laptop, I will probably be banished to the dark ages whenever I hit the road.

Now here is some fun stuff.  If you have not yet been steered over to Yahoo for their collection of Widgets, and you are running at least Windows XP or Windows 2000, you will absolutely love this massive collection of very cool (and free) gadgets called Yahoo! Widgets.  Be careful, as you can burn up a lot of time looking through all of the neat gadgets that are available. 

The Widgets are intuitive and easy to use, as I discovered recently.  I installed a To-Do List widget just before leaving for California.  When I left, I had a few things on the list for my attention when I returned.  By the time I had gotten home, Retta had figured how to use the widget, and the screen was just full of things for me to do!  So I had better be going …uh…now…

P.S. to Cindy – please jump in with comments any time.  Remember, no comments = no fun.

The New Chicks Have Arrived

You may recall from a previous post (available here) that we lost all but one of our chickens to predation.  Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable consequence of allowing the chickens free run of the grounds during the day.  It is unacceptable for us to have only one chicken (she gets lonely), so we ordered a batch of chicks from the Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri.

We can hear and smell you in there!

Bright and early Wednesday morning we received a call from our local postmaster to come to the post office and pick up the chicks.  It seems the peeping of the chicks annoys them down at the post office, so they like us to pick up the chicks right away.

Cute little critters, aren't they?

Since the sole surviving hen is a buff-lace Polish chicken, we ordered a dozen more of this breed to keep her company (and to have a color-coordinated flock).  Retta also wanted to try her hand at raising a different breed this time around, so she also ordered a dozen German Spitzhauben chicks as well.  The Spitzhauben chick pictured below is quite attractive, wouldn’t you say?  We just hope that they remain as cute after they mature.

German Spitzhauben chick 

In Remembrance of “Squawk”

Sometimes Retta will toss stale bread and other tidbits out on the lawn for the crows to enjoy.  There is one crow who will often come near the kitchen window and pester Retta with it’s cawing until she tosses something out for it.  This got me to thinking about a crow I met some decades ago, in the badlands of Death Valley

Badlands of Death Valley

Death Valley was one of my frequent haunts decades ago, and I would try to visit the area twice per year.  One of my favorite hikes extends from the valley floor, up through the steep, narrow walled Golden Canyon, and on to Zabriskie Point (at the very upper right in the photo above).  At the very left top of the photo is a landmark called Manley’s Beacon.  Here is a closer view of Manley’s Beacon:

Manley's Beacon, Death Valley

The area around Manley’s Beacon is a rugged, but very beautiful area, so I made it a habit to pack a lunch and spend a few hours poking around the area for photo ops, or looking for fossils, or just enjoying the scenery.

Picnic lunch spot

One day, as I was eating my lunch, I heard the distinctive “caw, caw, caw” of a crow echoing throughout the area.  The cawing continued for quite a while, and seemed to originate from a draw some distance away.  Suddenly, on a whim, and knowing that I was out of earshot of any other people, I began my best imitation of a crow.  Soon, the crow began to mimic my cawing patterns.  I kept this up, and much to my surprise, the crow flew over to where I was sitting.

First meeting with Squawk

Well, I certainly didn’t want to get a reputation for being inhospitable, and since I was eating lunch, I offered the crow a morsel or two (okay, so I shared half my lunch with him, so what?).  The crow spent a good deal of time with me on that rocky outcropping, but refused to come any closer than a few yards away.  He looked nervous about being even that close to me, but I suppose his fondness for people food trumped his fear.

She exhibited wariness at first

On my next trip to Death Valley, several months later, I hiked up to the same area and soon settled in to eat my lunch.  I began a chant of “caw, caw, caw”, and before long, my chants were being echoed by some crow in the distance.  This time, as the crow approached the outcrop, he showed no sign of hesitation, and proceeded to land almost on my boot.  We had lunch together, and then he left.  I believe it was on this second encounter with him, that I began to call him “Squawk”.  It just seemed to fit.

The crow gets more brave with time

This routine went on for a few years.  Whenever I would visit Death Valley, it now became a necessity to hike up to Manley’s Beacon, just to see if Squawk would show up for lunch!  It almost became an obsession.  About five years after my first encounter with Squawk, I again returned to the area, and being a creature of habit, again went to visit my “friend” the crow.

A later visit to the badlands

Before too long, as had become the routine, Squawk responded to my calls, and joined me for lunch and a little socializing.

Squawk, is that you?

But this time, Squawk had a surprise for me.  Squawk was not a he, but a she.  At least, that is what I now presume.  For Squawk had brought along a guest for lunch, and he certainly appeared to be more the virile sort than Squawk.

Squawk's mate?

As it turned out, due to life’s twists and turns, that was the last time I ever had the opportunity to visit with Squawk and her mate.  I do wonder, from time to time, what ever became of them.

To Quote Yogi Berra, “It Feels Like Deja Vu All Over Again”

For those who might not know, we have been experiencing a rash a fires in the area over the past several years.  The most recent (up until yesterday) was about two weeks ago (post of previous fire here). Yesterday, in the early afternoon, I again noticed smoke, but this time about a quarter mile to the east of us.  I immediately phoned a neighbor whose new log home was in the direct path of the fire, just to make sure she was aware that the flames were headed in her direction.

 Onset of fire

Not only was she aware of the fire, she had reported it to the authorities, along with the information that she had seen the fire being set by an individual in a white pickup truck.

Knowing that the VFD was on the scene, and seeing that the wind would not push the fire in our direction was comforting, but I empathized with the anguish my neighbor must have been going through.  A short while later we received a telephone call from our neighbor, who informed us that she had just seen someone in the same white pickup truck igniting fires along our road and on our property.  I jumped in my truck and headed down our road, hoping to catch sight of the perpetrator.  He was nowhere to be found, but the evidence of his visit remained – fires set in many places on our property.  I quickly returned to the house and asked Retta to call 911, while I grabbed my steel-tined rake and headed back to the newly set fires.  The arsonist had set fires on both sides of our road, one side being pasture, the other wooded.

Burnt pasture

It was apparent I could not put out the wooded portion alone, so I set to the task of containing the pasture fire.  I was soon joined by a member of the Lead Hill VFD, who had come to assess the situation.  Because the Lead Hill equipment had been dispatched to fight the original fire, we struggled to contain the grass fire, while we waited for personnel and equipment from the Bergman VFD (a neighboring community about 15 miles away).  Soon, the Bergman VFD arrived and began battling the blazes burning in the woods, along a fire lane I had built last year.  Before long, the Lead Hill VFD had a pumper truck available that they stationed near our house and structures,  which is quite reassuring.

 A reassuring sight, indeed!

The Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) office in Marion County, which has usually responded to fires on our land, had already been dispatched to deal with the original fire to the east of us, which now looked like this:

 Blaze threatens new log home

So the AFC office in neighboring Boone County sent men and a bulldozer over to assist us.  The fire that had been burning in our woodlands had been set in many places along both sides of an existing fire lane that the AFC built for me last year.

Planned Burn

In the aerial photo, the red x’s denote the approximate locations of the blazes.  The green o’s represent the boundary of a 37 acre controlled burn that the AFC was scheduled to conduct for us this spring.  Rather than trying to extinguish what was burning, the AFC ranger suggested we just take this opportunity, since men and equipment were already on scene, to backfire the entire 37 acres.  That sounded fine to me, so off to work they went, setting a portion of our woods ablaze.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the east stood vigil while the Marion County AFC and Lead Hill VFD (perhaps assisted by the Peel VFD, I’m not sure) built lines around the blaze threatening them.  It is once again with relief that I can say that no one was injured and no structures were lost. All of the personnel involved in these fires did an outstanding job.  Our heartfelt thanks to all of you, for the selfless way you give of yourselves to your neighbors and community. It is much appreciated!

This morning, George, Gracie and I took a walk to assess the outcome of the burning.  There are still areas where downed logs continue to burn.

Burning log

There are also areas of incomplete burning, such as the downed wood in this cedar glade.

Partially burned debris

The large oak tree, which lightning had downed and which blocked a fire lane, is now history.  The remnants of it’s trunk stands to the right in this next photo:

Downed tree is now gone

I wonder what Gracie thinks about all of the fires that keep burning up her playground?

Gracie surveys the ashes

I have absolutely no idea what story underlies this remnant of the firefighting.  Anyone care to speculate?

Mystery fire extinguisher

Computer Backup – The Time to Do It Is Now!!

We all know that we should backup our important data.  We know we should do it on a regular basis.  And yet, the vast majority of computer hobbyists either ignore, or put off this important task.  Now, more than ever, we must recognize the importance of maintaining a reliable backup system.  The use that we put our computers to today eclipses the uses of the past.  Who can imagine communicating with only a telephone and  snail-mail anymore?  How many of us do all (or most) of our banking, investing, and bill paying on-line today?  Many of us even maintain a quasi social life via computer.  Not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands of valuable photographs that exist only as bits on our hard drive.

Computer backup has generally been performed in the context of commercial, scientific, and governmental data processing.  Reliable backup hardware and software has been available for some time for these large data processing entities, and the cost associated with these reliable systems is low relative to the enormous costs of the “big iron” that is being protected.

The situation with respect to home computer users has been entirely different.  Small tape backup systems, while available, have never become commonplace among home users.  The sequential nature of these systems, along with the associated complications this casts upon the backup process, make tape backup systems an appropriate tool mostly for large DP operations.  The home user has been left with a few (not so great) options.  In earlier days, floppy disk backup was commonly utilized, due to the low cost involved, and the fact that floppy drives were standard on home computers.  But as hard disk drives grew in size, the time involved in shuffling enough floppies to create a backup became prohibitive.  To help alleviate this problem, backup software began to implement compression schemes, most of which attempted to pack all of a users computer files into one large, compressed backup volume.  This solution has evolved to use CD and DVD disks as the medium, which have increased capacity over floppies, but still suffer the same limitations.  A user must still be on hand to swap disks in and out of drives, compressed backup volumes are utilized, and special software must be used to restore these compressed files to your hard disk.  Additionally, to ease and speed up the backup process, incremental backup methods are employed.  But anyone who has ever used these backup tools, and needed to restore their lost data after a disk crash will attest to their inherant unreliability.  There is nothing quite so exasperating in the computing world as believing you have a reliable backup in hand, only to have your backup software choke in the midst of a restoration procedure (an all too frequent occurance).

But there is a new breed of device out there that has solved these problems, and in a most simple, but elegant way.  I am refering to dedicated, external backup drives, engineered specifically to perform the important task of data backup.

Seagate External Backup Drive

Unlike previous hard drive solutions to data integrity, such as the various incarnations of RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks), which are expensive for the average user to implement and require special disk controller cards and empty drive bays, these drives are the epitome of “Plug and Play”.  Inexpensive to purchase, simple to install, highly portable, and very reliable, these backup drives should be high on your list of computer hardware upgrades.

The Seagate backup drive (pictured above) has both USB and Firewire connectivity.  Capacities range from 200GB to 400GB.  BounceBack software is included in the price, and couldn’t be simpler to use. There are two modes of operation, manually initiated backup, and/or scheduled backup.  To perform a manual backup at any time, just push the power button on the front of the drive.  This launches BounceBack Express, which performs a file-by-file backup of your hard drive onto the Seagate drive.  After the initial backup, which copies the entire drive to the backup device, subsequent iterations of the backup copies any new or altered files.  The files will be uncompressed, exact duplicates of the files on your computer’s hard drive – accessable via plain-vanilla Windows applications and Windows Explorer.  Backup can also be on a scheduled basis, simply by entering your desired time and frequency in the BounceBack software interface.

I now rest a little easier, knowing that at 2:00AM every morning, all of my important (and not so important) backed-up data is safe, secure, and current.