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Posts Tagged ‘Personal’

At the start of February, my parrot Beaudin died. It was unexpected, because to all appearances he was healthy and active until his last few hours. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, I was sharing the townhouse with a single parrot, and the silence was unsettling.

A few people suggested that I was becoming too old to get another parrot. Besides, some said, pets would only tie me down. However, chances are that I have several decades left, and, really, what worthwhile choices don’t tie you down?

Moreover, the number of abused and neglected parrots made me determined to do what I can to help without becoming a Crazy Old Parrot Man. After mourning Beau, I contacted Greyhaven, the adoption agency from which he had come, and asked whether it had any conures who needed home.

Greyhaven is still reeling from the collapse of the World Parrot Refuge, a well-intentioned effort to provide for domestic parrots that ended with neglect and larger parrots preying on smaller ones, and at first I was told that no smaller birds were currently available. However, then the staff remembered Morrison, a brown-throated conure who had been with the agency for almost two years.

Morrison had been abandoned by his person. His person had not seen fit to take the little bird when he separated, and the wife had no interest in keeping birds. Greyhaven’s volunteers had seen to his basic needs, but his noisy and curious personality was too demanding for most of them to give him more than minimal attention. But that same personality is what has always attracted me to conures, so I agreed to consider him.

Greyhaven’s adoption policy can be rigorous – and rightly so, since the point is counter the cruelty and neglect that domestic parrots often face. I was prepared for questions about my lifestyle and knowledge of parrots, but the adoption coordinator remembered me from Beaudin’s adoption, and the interview was largely a formality. One look at Morrison was enough to delight me, and to let me know that he should have no trouble settling in. Smaller than a nanday, he almost seems delicate, except that is active, almost hyper personality dominates the space around him automatically, with the slightest need for aggression. I had expected some objection from Ram, my remaining parrot and the victor of many dominance competitions, but he is largely indifferent to having a stranger around — perhaps because Morrison is a different species.

I was prepared to spend hours feeding Morrison to help him accept me, teaching him to step up and coaxing him to eat fruits and vegetables. But none of that proved necessary. He was under-socialized, but not abused. Within a few hours, he was sitting on me, and in less than a day eagerly exploring the living room.

He was eager, too, to start what is apparently a ritual with him: exchanging whistles and his limited vocabulary of “Hello” and “Pretty bird” with a person over and over. Probably, he has little understanding of the words, but just as obviously he knows the important of verbalization in human socialization. Pleased with the attention, he will keep the ritual going for as long as ten minutes at a time if I continue to participate.

If anything, he is almost too eager to settle in. He has the habit of flying to Ram’s cage, an invasion of privacy that Ram does not appreciate. Several times, I have had to lunge across the living room before Ram could make his objections known on Morrison’s person.

Still, perhaps I worry too much. After less than a week, Ran and Morrison were sitting on me as I lay watching a video. And as I type now, Ram has claimed my right shoulder and Morrison my left. Sometimes, they studiously ignore each other, each preening his back and making happy chirps while watching intently, and I have to be watch that Morrison keeps to his own side – but mostly all is right with the world, at least when the two birds are on neutral ground.

In years of working with parrots, I have never met one who adjusted so easily as Morrison has. If the first ten days are any indication, I look forward to years of his company. Morrison is nothing like Beaudin, and certainly not a substitute for him, but he is very much his own person, and someone I am overjoyed to know.

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I discovered typography just as I was starting my second career as a technical writer. Just as I had when learning poetic meter, I became obsessed. My newly trained eye criticized every sign I saw on the street and the design of every book I read. As I added graphic design to my list of employable skills, I realized that I wanted to develop a personal typographic brand for business cards, portfolios, and web sites.

After looking at hundreds of fonts and pairing them, I settled on Eric Gill’s Joanna for body text, and his Gill Sans for headings. The combo was classic, but not seen often enough to be a cliché, a balance that made it ideal for my personal brand. Gill thought of himself primarily as a stone cutter, and, like many classical Ancient Roman fonts, you can easily imagine both Joanna and Gill Sans being cut in stone. The result is a simplicity and boldness that makes for versatility.

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Gill Sans and Joanna

I went through a period of hunting down every typeface by Gill that I could find, and I might have kept using the combination, except for two considerations. First, a biography of Gill revealed that in his diaries he was a self-confessed child molester. That revelation did not detract from his skill as a typographer or sculpture, but it did make reluctant to tie my professional identity to him in any way, even though few people would have heard it.

Second, several years after beginning my study of typography, I became a free software advocate. The fact that fonts can be used more or less freely in documents makes them something of a gray area in terms of free software, but not enough for my comfort. I began looking for alternatives – ideally ones that I could use with older documents set in Joanna and Gill Sans without any re-formatting.

I found a Gill Sans clone of reasonably in the Arkandis Digital Foundry’s Gillius ADF. It is not a perfect substitute, because it requires more leading than Gill Sans, which makes it less suitable as a body text. Also, its Regular weight is somewhere midway between Gill Sans Bold and Gill Sans Light. However, although I briefly considered using Gillius ADF for the body text in my book Designing with LibreOffice, in the end I was not especially interested in using it for anything except titles and headings.

Joanna was harder to find a substitute. However, one day, I came across Fanwood, a font designed by Barry Schwartz, who is best known for his modern versions of fonts by the American typographer Frederick Goudy. The League of Movable Type site describes Fanwood as based on the designs of an unnamed American-Czech typographer, but as I started experimenting with it, I could have sworn that it reminded me of another font.

Eventually, I realized that three-quarters of Fanwood’s letter shapes were similar to Joanna. Even more importantly, characters displayed in Fanwood occupied only a little less space as Fanwood – not an ideal situation, but far less complicated than occupying more. Since Fanwood included small capitals, old style figures, and other advanced typographical features, I left Joanna behind and have been happily using Fanwood ever since.

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Gillius ADF and Fanwood

I mention this switch because it is one that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. But free-licensed fonts have become common place in that decade, offering hundreds of choices where before only a few for online display were available before. By contrast, proprietary fonts number in their tens of thousands (at the very least), but one thing that free font typographers have been very conscientious about is offering alternatives for many popular proprietary fonts. As a result, I have been able to switch entirely to free-licensed fonts for my personal branding, as well as the occasional bits of graphic design that I still do – a luxury that makes me glad to live in the times that I do.

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Beaudin Goodfellow, aka Beaudin de la Bec Noir, died today shortly after 4am. I was holding him cupped in my hands on my chest, knowing he was fading. He had been unconscious for twenty minutes, and I was sure he would not wake again, but he suddenly lunged forward, spreading his wings, and collapsed. For a moment I hoped he had rallied, but then I saw the light leave his eyes, and knew that he was gone.

Beau came into our lives in 2006. Trish and I made a practice of not having more than four birds at a time, reasoning that two apiece were the most to which we could pay adequate attention, and the death of Jabberwock the year before had reduced the birds to three, leaving Ram outnumbered by the mated pair of Ning and Sophie.

We wanted a rescue bird, so we adopted him through Greyhaven, the local bird rescue charity. It might have been easier to adopt a human child, considering how we were vetted and interviewed, but since the whole point was to compensate for neglect, Trish and I entirely approved of the process. We were told he had had a mate and lost her, and that he had spent several years locked in his cage in a dimly lit laundry room, and was about seventeen, but all this information was tentative. He might have spent time with cockatiels, since he sounded like a deeper pitched one, but nobody really knew.

What was obvious, though, was that he was high-strung. He could be quiet enough while he was on a shoulder, but getting him to step up left my right index finger a bloody mess of scars for over a year before he became calm enough to step up without drawing blood.

Still, we managed to enjoy him from afar, watching him bathe in his water dish while chortling happily, and watching him open the latch on his cage until we had to thwart him by tying the cage shut – a parrot who gets loose when you are not around is a danger to themselves. We even had to tie the barred floor of his cage to the frame, because he soon learned to bounce it loose and slip out the bottom of the bars.

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After several years, though, he became a glutton for affection. He would slip under my finger on the keyboard, chuckling and demanding that I scratch his neck, and grooming my fingernails gently. At other times, he would roll over on his back on the sideboard beside my work station,squeaking and nipping playfully at my fingers. Increasingly, he would fly to me wherever I was, leaving me terrified that he might land just as I opened the oven and tumble into it. He even learned to tolerate sitting twenty centimeters from Ram on the futon by the window, just so he could nestle in the crook of my elbow.

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Perhaps Beau tolerated Ram because Ram is a cripple who never learned to make an adult squawk and seemed no threat (although, as often as not, Ram would win their dominance games). Or perhaps Ram was the enemy of his enemy Ning. Beau never did take to Ning, the mated cock on the other side of the living room. They fought territorial skirmishes until I felt like a UN observer, and Ning would torment Beau by crawling under the table to beneath Beau’s cage, where the angle was too steep to dive bomb him. Beau would always be furious – and totally clueless about how to respond. I could almost see him thinking that he was young and tall and should be dominant, yet somehow he never managed to give Ning a bad moment.

In recent years, with the flock down to Beau and Ram, Beau blossomed. It always touched me to see him showing affection, considering how violent he had been when we first brought him home.

I had spent the last couple of days trying to decide if Beau was ill. But like many parrots, Beau was good at hiding his illness. Besides, he remained a hearty eater up to his final few hours, raiding my dinner plate then retreating with a bit of corn or potato as he had always done, and emptying his seed dish.

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Still, I detected some unsteadiness, and decided to take him to the vet this morning, just to have him checked. I prepared a travel cage, and placed it in him for the night so I could wake and leave as soon as it was late enough. Just to be sure, I placed the travel cage on a chest by my bed, and slept with the lights on so I could check him easily. Once, I woke to see him sleeping in the corner of the cage nearest me.

The next time I woke, his posture seemed unnatural, so I took him from the cage, scratching his ears and stroking his wings, talking and singing to him. I knew by then he would never survive to arrive at the vet’s, and that the most I could do was soothe him in his final moments – and perhaps not even that much.

I was out the door before 8am today to take his body for cremation. When I returned, it would be hard to say if Ram or I were more aware of the Beau-shaped hole in our daily routines. So Ram and I are sitting together, neither of us wanting to go far from the other.

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One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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Several weeks ago, I bought myself the Christmas present of a Fiio X7 portable stereo. Since then, I have raved about the quality of the sound to the point that old friends are surely contemplating crouching behind hedges and trees when they see me coming.

My one complaint is how the screen gathers finger print smears. The X7 is packaged with a protective film, but I have yet to apply one of those films without air bubbles I cannot remove. I much prefer a glass screen protector, which are sold separately. I have one for the music player I carry on the bus and Skytrain, and it is far preferable than a protective film.

On Amazon.com, the American site, a glass protector for the X7 screen costs $11. Allowing for exchange on the Canadian dollar and extra postage, I would be willing to pay about $20 for it. However, on Amazon.ca, the Canadian site, the same glass protector sells for $69, plus $17 shipping – about four times a reasonable price. Apparently, the glass protector is being sold by a third party that is using its monopoly to set outrageous price.

After paying for the X7 and Bluetooth speakers, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about aother $87. But I dislike being taken advantage of, and I determined to see if I could do better.

My first thought was to buy from the American Amazon site. But the postage to Canada was unacceptably high. Somehow I balked at paying more for shipping than for the glass protector itself.

Feeling stubborn, I contacted DISAGU, the company that had made the glass protector for my about-town music player. It didn’t make one for the X7, but its representative said that, if I send the dimensions, they would start to. Moreover, they would send me a free one.

At the same time, I contacted Fiio, the manufacturer of the X7. I explained the price difference on the two Amazon sites, and asked if the Canadian price was a mistake. The Fiio representative replied that her company could do nothing, since the price was set by a reseller. However, she also gave me the address of Aliexpress, a Chinese site that sold the glass cover for $10US and shipped free world wide.

Suddenly, I had two solutions. Naturally, I was pleased to save money, but what pleased me more was that I had stood up to consumer exploitation. I’m going to remember this small incident and the lesson that I can never know what might happen if I stand up for myself, and complain to the right people.

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The last few years of Trish’s life, she was on disability, and increasingly bedridden. Although I work from home, her situation caused few problems, except for one thing – she wanted to play music, and music — at least with words — distracts me when I write. As a compromise, I bought her a music player, and soon bought one for myself to use when I was on the bus or Skytrain. The only problem was, no player of the time could hold more than about one-fifth of nine hundred albums. So an ambition was born: to have all our music digitized and accessible from a single, portable source.

For the first decade of the millennium, the goal was barely possible. For a while, I thought of using a dedicated netbook, but that was not as convenient as a music player.

More importantly, the goal faced several problems. I had not thrown out any music I had bought since high school, and I am one of those who still buys music as a way of supporting artists I admire. For years, concerts and the Vancouver Folk Festival had been a major form of socialization for us, and over the years we had accumulated an unlikely collection of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs. Our stereo needed four components just so we play it all. In order to access them from one device, I would need to digitize all my albums. In addition, I would need to divide the albums into tracks to take full advantage of them.

However, digitizing is easier to talk about than to do. A CD can be ripped in about five minutes, but records and cassettes have to be recorded while playing, and divided into tracks manually. The process is tedious, so after quickly digitizing the CDs, I tackled the records and cassettes in starts and stops. In fact, I don’t expect to finish it until near the end of 2017, partly because I changed my mind partway through and decided that, for many artists, I wanted high quality sound, not the standard MP3 file size – even though, because I was using the Ogg Vorbis format, my files were higher quality than most of the ones I could find online.

The second obstacle is that the memory for music players – that is, the size of micro SD cards – increased slowly. Trish had been two years dead before about two-thirds of our music could fit on a micro SD card, and that meant swapping music out several times a week since I wanted variety.

The problem was finally solved when micro SD cards with 128 megabytes were released a couple of years ago, but most music players were not equipped to handle the files that cards of this size could hold. Many had a limit to their list of tracks that was far below the size of the cards. The only way to view all my files was to use the view of the memory, and that meant there was no way to play them in the order they appeared on the album. Most of the time, I listen to music by album, on the grounds that how musicians arrange albums is part of the experience they want their audience to have, so this was a problem.

This last barrier fell when I needed to replace my music player, and accidentally discovered the Fiio line of music players – or, more accurately, of portable stereos. When I bought the entry level X1 in October 2016, it had solved this final problem while producing sound that was far superior to that of other music players. The X1 gave me a music player to use outside the townhouse, but I soon decided that I wanted the top of the line X7 for use around the home. The X7 had even better sound than the X1, solved all my problems, and was even set up to stream music from the Internet when WiFi was turned on.

Accordingly, after several weeks of resisting the temptation, I bought an X7 as a Christmas present for myself. My biggest problem now is to decide whether to stay with a single Bluetooth speaker, or to buy at least one more. I may just carry the speaker with me into the kitchen or living room so that I can position it to give me the best sound.

I only wish Trish could have heard this solution. Being of the same generation as I am, she would be amazed at a music system that weighed about 1200 grams and could be held in one hand. Better still, she would have loved having all our music in one source as much as I do.

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I have spent the last few months in the grip of an enthusiasm. At my age, I am proud I can still have an enthusiasm, because it proves that I have kept a youthful engagement with the world well into middle-age, but it is one I would have thought unlikely when I was a boy. It is, of all things, an enthusiasm for the Fiio line of music players – or, as I prefer to think of them, portable stereos.

I learned about music the hard way, by myself, with lots of false leads and blind alleys. My family is not musical, and my elementary school music teacher, who wanted to be a professional musician, was only interested in encouraging students who had already taken music lessons. When the transfer to high school allowed me drop music, I did so without hesitation. The only reason I was even attempting to play the trombone was that it could be rented to own cheaply.

I started high school so profoundly ignorant that I might have grown up to be a life-long hater of music. I definitely took years to develop any knowledge; I was in my twenties, for example, before I could tell the difference between a sharp and a flat, and when I learned, I was profoundly excited.

Yet free from the humiliation of the band, I started discovering music first. As a would-be writer, I gravitated naturally to songwriters: first Simon and Garfunkel, and later Bob Dylan. Other explorations, such as the work of all the Beatles after the band broke up, including Yoko Ono, did not last, being less fortunate.

Still, by the time I started university, I was a compulsive music listener. I developed a taste for folk rock, and I still remember being down in the basement bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to Steeleye Span singing “Thomas the Rhymer” on my cheap transistor, absolutely delighted that a song seven hundred years old had been transformed into a modern hit.

Throughout my marriage, the Vancouver Folk Festival and later the Rogue Folk Club were the main part of our socializing. I can still remember the first time I heard Stan Rogers, Loreena McKennitt and Oysterband, and over the years we bought hundreds of records, cassettes and CDs (people bought albums in my youth, and I still do, as a way of supporting artists I appreciate). Usually at the folk festival we bought cassettes, because they were less likely to warp in the summer sun.

Over the last seven years, I have been slowing digitalizing my music collection. Usually, I made files of medium quality, reasoning that, since I would often be listening to the digital files on public transit, high quality files would be largely wasted on me. I looked forward to the day when all my music would be available from the same source, envisioning first a dedicated laptop and later a music player with enough memory to hold 12,000 tracks or so.

As SD micro cards became larger, I was nearing that goal when my Sansa Fuze music player needed to be replaced. I bought a Sansa Clip, but the manufacturer had lapsed from their former standards. My new player especially seemed to dislike my Ogg Vorbis files, refusing to recognize some and only playing others at a whisper.

According to my research, the Fiio X1 should perform better. I had noticed it when searching for a new player, but it seemed unusually large and clunky. I especially disliked the arrangement of four buttons at the corners of the scroll wheel – an example of poor design if there ever was one. But if it could let me play my files in the way I wanted, I was prepared to put up with the appearance. I did wonder, though, if the X1 would burst the seams of my pocket.

My reluctance vanished the first time I tried the X1. Even my average quality files sounded better on it. As for the high quality ones – have you heard the expression “wall of sound”? It refers to arrangements full of orchestration, each instrument interacting with the others in complex and interesting ways. That was what I heard on the X1. I even heard subtleties I had never heard on music players from other manufacturers.

That was when I realized why Fiio products were so much larger than other music players. They weren’t just music players. They were portable stereos, and, as far as miniaturization has progressed, their DAC (Digital Analog Converters) and headphone amplifiers could still only be made so small. The Fiio product line did not consist of oversized music players, but stereo systems that were as small as our current technology allowed.

As a lover of both excellence and music, I bored everyone in hearing about this discovery. Before long, I began planning to re-record some of my digitized music with the highest quality possible. I also decided I wanted an X7, Fiio’s top of the line product, for use at home. Unfortunately, my editors were slow in paying at the time, and I knew I had to wait.

Finally, in the last week before Christmas, payments started rolling in. One morning, I was just debating whether I could afford an X7 when I received a cheque for almost exactly the amount I needed.

This, I told myself, was obviously kismet. Within moments, I had placed my order. Miraculously, in the middle of the holiday season, it arrived the next day.

I had read the universally enthusiastic reviews of the X7, so I knew what to expect. Still, having been impressed already by the X1, I doubted there was much room for any improvement.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As superior as the X1 was to music players from other manufacturers, so the X7 was to the X1. The wall of sound had become a tsunami, and I have happily spent the last few days rediscovering my music. Once or twice, I have even mistaken a detail I could only detect on the X7 for a sound behind me or in the next room.

This was not just music; this was the kind of revelation that produces fanatics. The interface, the construction, the sound and everything else about the X7 has a quiet quality that I both respect and enjoy immensely.

I already listen regularly to music, but already I suspect I will be listening to a lot more. It sounds like advertising hype, but I really do feel like I have rediscovered music — including many old favorites — all over again because of my purchases.

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