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July 26, 2008

From HyperCard to SuperCard, with a little help from my friends

Contrary to what many folk think I'm not actually interested in computers, only in what they empower you to do. (I programmed my first mainframe computer over 45 years ago.) I seldom upgrade unless forced to, and I am still devoted to my eerily silent Apple Cube despite its great age (virtually "last century"). Above all, I am still running not only my business but also all domestic, personal, family and other contacts using a wonderful HyperCard stack that my guru Bob Tennent and I developed in 1989! HyperCard was fast, friendly, flexible and (perhaps fatally) free. It was easy to adapt to developing needs and I simply can't imagine life without it.

Sadly, although Apple has kept faith with its legacy users who can run HyperCard in a window under the obsolete OS9, successive upgrades have been less and less compatible with keeping my wonder stack updated, and no new Mac can run it at all. My Cube is groaning under its workload and has slowed to a point where I notice delays. I saw this coming, and actually bought HyperCard's modern descendant SuperCard a few years ago. And then I postponed and procrastinated ... SuperCard is fundamentally different, a more powerful piece of software, slightly scary. Despite being about 95% compatible with HyperCard, I was worried about the other 5%. Normally 95% of a programmer's effort goes into fixing the last 5%. No longer a spring chicken, I funked the idea of having my life and my business paralysed by inability to debug unfamiliar code. It was, after all, nearly 20 years since I had been competent at HyperTalk coding ... and my LaserWriter which also dates from that era is still going strong!

Fortunately, SuperCard has three enormous assets, beyond the fact that it works with modern Macs. First is a HyperCard conversion utility which (to my enormous relief) took my stack (now with nearly 9000 records) and converted it into a 95% usable SuperCard project. Second, there's a wonderful user group where my "seeking help" message (concerned with the other 5%) has already provided 47 response messages from SuperCard developers who are really generous with their time and expertise. Third is John Johnston, user group member and teacher at Sandaig Primary School in Easterhouse, Glasgow. He has already helped me loads by email, and I haven't even met him yet. Look at the pupils' blogs, podcasts and projects on his school's amazing website. The result is that despite a hair-raising week since I converted, some scary "Bad Star" messages and a lot of messing with code (SuperTalk, AppleScript et al), I now have a working project which is very nearly as useful as the previous stack and not all that much slower.

Whilst I appreciate Danny Goodman's altruism in insisting that HyperCard be free of charge, had it been sold even at a sensible price, I bet it would still be alive and well and available on modern Macs, thereby saving all of us who loved it the pain of switching to SuperCard. Just a thought about market forces.

August 7, 2008

Wildlife at Landrick

I've just had a jaw-dropping experience: looking out of the window, I saw an otter ... a large, sleek, dog otter. It was only about 10 yards from the house, running across our driveway, where it met a fence and crossed again - in which instant I managed to attract Keir's attention so he saw it too. We haven't seen it since, but think he must have trotted in through the front gate, and presumably that's the only way he can leave because of our perimeter fence. Otters are my favourite creatures, and previously I've seen them in the wild only from a distance, and only twice before in Scotland (on the River Endrick and on Arran). So I was astounded to find one visiting our garden.

Landrick has the most amazing wildlife. We have a resident heron, known as Harry, who thrives on the fish in the pond, but also sometimes takes frogs and field mice. Roe deer are frequent visitors to the garden: unlike the otter they can easily jump the fence. We see brown hare and buzzard often, and stoat occasionally. We have had oystercatchers nesting in the garden, this year successfully thanks to my improvised shelter which kept the crows off. And a mute swan dropped in for a few days last year.

This year, unlike last when 12 ducklings all perished in their first few days, the ducklings have been a huge success: they were launched later, at the very end of June (instead of April) and their mother has been a total control freak, keeping them close and protecting them overnight by letting all 10 huddle beneath her. While out of line with infant-centred views about little ones choosing for themselves, this has the enormous advantage of having kept the little darlings alive. I wholly approve of this feisty mama, especially when she attacked me (I had picked up a duckling to let grand-daughter Amy stroke its superb down).

For weeks, I didn't even dare blog about them, in case I was tempting Providence, but now they are six weeks old and fledging, they are viable and have as good a chance as any. So here is our feisty mama, leading her offspring in closely controlled formation, with a larger close-up beneath: gorgeous or what?

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August 14, 2008

Calmness descends after the computer upgrade

I'm delighted to report that the dust has settled on my computer upgrade, and I'm back to using the machine as a tool rather than diverting energy into installing software, troubleshooting and choosing hardware. My SuperCard project is running sweetly on the new iMac and although it doesn't try to exploit most of the new SC features, it does the job smoothly, and I can expand its functionality as I go along. And I have never seen photographs look as stunning as on its glossy 24-inch screen.

The problem with using my ancient laser printer was looking intractable with System 10.5 (Leopard), possibly related to its AppleTalk connection. Having swapped it with the new Epson printer (which I had given to husband Keir, see blog entry of 21.11.2007) for diagnostic purposes, I had the happy idea of making the swap permanent. Since husband Keir is not about to upgrade from 10.4 any time soon, Leopard gives me a good reason to retrieve the better printer! How ironic that a piece of machinery which has given 19 years' reliable service is now on borrowed time for reasons of software "progress"!

The AppleWorks problem has been solved, also in an unorthodox way. My own, legally purchased and upgraded AppleWorks CD had refused point-blank to instal under Leopard. Considering that all our invoices and many book manuscripts are in Appleworks, this was a major setback. The solution was a kind friend who emailed me his AppleWorks to try. Despite having the same version number (6.2.9) as mine, this one works a treat under Leopard. So all my recent concern about Microsoft Office 2008 and downloading a trial version of iWorks Pages was needless. I realise AppleWorks is no longer maintained, but feel I've done enough innovating recently and my motto remains "If it ain't broken, don't fix it". The time to change word processing systems is not ripe.

October 4, 2008

From the bedroom of a sleeping toddler

It's lucky that the PowerBook keyboard is near-silent, because I'm typing this in the same room that grand-daughter Amy is sleeping. She has had an exciting day, with no nap, lots of exercise, games with two large black Labradors, sociability and a swim. She wore the Polyotter today, a swimsuit with removable body floats, and it was her longest, and most independent swim so far. Then we visited neighbours and dear friends Malcolm and Aileen, which was a brilliant distraction from the fact that her mother was going out for the evening for a well-deserved break and her grand-father Keir was going to Glasgow for a concert to celebrate Nigel Osborne's 60th birthday. We walked back up the hill in near-darkness (Amy in the buggy by now) and had the loveliest bath with bubbles. Before I had finished reading Jill Lambert's wonderful "Peace at last" to her, she was already asleep.

Much as I would like to have gone to Nigel's concert, fielding Amy was more compelling. (I've just found out that it will be broadcast by the BBC on Saturday 25 October, 22.30 to midnight, which is great news as he sang a cameo role in one of the opera selections and I've never heard Nigel sing before.) I feel absurdly proud of Amy's water confidence, and her insistence "I can do it by myself". This is approximately true when she's wearing the Polyotter but doomed to failure when, as so often, she asks to come back in the water, after I had thought she was finished, without a stitch on. But she will get there, as long as she goes on enjoying it. She has the most wonderful social confidence, a real tribute to her mother's patience and child-centredness. But she fell asleep before 8.30 pm and I needed to occupy myself for the evening.

Real work is now out of the question: the office is too far away to be in earshot, and neither music nor TV are compatible with monitoring her welfare. So this is the ideal moment to update my blog, which at least has proved useful to me when I forget things (which has become increasingly often lately). I'm wildly unreliable about update frequency but have decided just to accept my own faults and forgive them. If I blogged about some of the exciting things I've done recently, I might never be able to make myself write the book. My time in June on Kili by the Lemosho route is an example: I just have to keep my powder dry or the book would never be written.

December 22, 2009

Birch tree and the winter solstice

The winter solstice is our turning-point in morale, when we look forward to more daylight and make fresh plans. Presumably it was the pre-Christian reason for celebrating late December, and it's good timing for those of us who live at high latitude. I realise the solstice was actually yesterday, but it was today before the irresistible beauty of Landrick in the snow made me stop work, look around and finally take the camera into the garden. Even the pampas grass looks good rimed with snow, and the frozen pond and trees seem quietly to embrace the house.

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Most beautiful of all is our mature birch tree: surprisingly spreading and shapely for a birch it has new serenity with its dusting of snow. It seems a particularly suitable image for the optimism I feel whenever we "turn the corner".

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January 17, 2010

Snow, chains and publishing

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This photo evokes a period of four weeks in which Landrick has been effectively cut off by snow. In 17 years of living here, we'd never thought of chains before, having coped by leaving a car at the foot of the hill and hiking the last bit. After over two weeks, this was beginning to pall and we opted for Klack & Go which are self-tensioning and supposed to be easy to fit. This isn't as simple as the girl in the video makes it look! We even wondered if they would be too late to be useful. Not a bit: in the last fortnight, they have repaid their cost by letting us give lifts to people and boxes of books. As a publisher, we still have to get orders out to customers, which means meeting delivery drivers at the foot of the hill.

A compensation of the snow has been the view from the office window: snow becomes Landrick well, and our pond is a natural skating rink:

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Wednesday brought a phone call from The Bookseller to ask if Rucksack Readers had been affected by the weather at all? So I told them about the snow chains and the view from the office window and was astonished to find myself quoted on page 3 of Friday's issue.

Yesterday the thaw arrived in earnest, and we removed the chains (much easier than fitting them). Our colour-starved eyes are feasting on greens and browns, the postie has resumed delivering our mail and life may be returning to normal. Perhaps washing and putting away the chains will become a feature of Januaries to come, like taking down the Christmas tree and packing up the lights.

April 1, 2010

Snow at Landrick in April

Just when we thought that the snow had gone, there was a fresh dump in March, which lay on the ground here for longer than most people could believe. For all the hot air talked about global warming, the issue is climate change and to what extent human activity is causing it. We narrowly escaped having to refit the chains to the car, but our garden project which began last November (and was suspended because of the weather) still hasn't resumed.

Here is the view west from our kitchen window, with Bramble, who gets frisky whenever there's white stuff, heading off in the distance:

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And here is the view west across Threat Moor, both shots take at lunchtime on 1 April 2010, no fooling, honest:

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November 29, 2010

Snow chains, frustration and the X-type

I now realise that I was lucky to get home from Dundee on Saturday. By yesterday, the A9 was closed in both directions and the chaos around Dunblane was on BBC Breakfast, with lots of vehicles stranded overnight near the Keir roundabout. Why the police didn't attend until this morning is unclear, but for people in unheated vehicles overnight survival must have been a challenge.

The snow at Landrick is of course deeper than that down in Dunblane, and the hill impassable to all but high ground clearance 4x4s. So I couldn't get the X-type up the hill and although kind neighbours took it into their driveway late on Saturday night, I was determined to get it out of their way yesterday. So I hiked down the hill with snow chains in my rucksack, and tried to fit them.

I had bought the Klack-and-Go chains online from a British company last January. After a struggle which I attributed to inexperience, I had fitted them to the X-type's front wheels, where they did an excellent job for weeks until I took them off (easy) once the snow melted. Given the advantages of daylight, plenty of time and a previous success, how hard could it be to repeat the process?

Three hours later, humility had set in. The chains were still not fitted, and I had learned some painful lessons:
a) like the stock market, past performance is not a reliable guide to the future: somehow since January the chains had become mysteriously an inch too short, or the tyres had mysteriously grown, impossible though this may seem
b) don't listen to anybody that tells you to try fitting the bottom before the top: this led to the chain wrapping itself around the axle, the disc brake and other expensive bits, then getting stuck fast and creating an urgent need to remove the wheel in the hope of sorting it out
c) the bottle jack may be a dream to pump up, but if it isn't tall enough, you end up with a car jacked up, the chain still wrapped around expensive bits of hub and the jacking point being occupied makes it hard to deploy the car's own jack
d) after a further two trips back up the hill to collect various tools including said useless bottle jack, the whole afternoon is beginning to wear thin, not helped by kind neighbour Malcolm volunteering that he had fitted chains only once and it took him five minutes (!)
e) once the car was fully lifted on its own jack, and I had failed miserably to distentangle the chain, the only thing that redeemed Malcolm from his 5-minute boast was that he freed the chains in a casual, gentle flick; by now I am too desperate to feel irritated
f) with darkness falling, I am finally ready to give up and phone the chain supplier next day to try to negotiate a swap for a larger size of chain. Since the other cars were going nowhere, mine being in the way no longer seemed so devastating. Enough already.

This morning, the chain supplier insisted that the size was correct, but suggested that the least little kink in any of the links would make the chains seem too short. By now I have watched the glamorous female on their website video fit these chains inside two minutes 20 times over: infuriatingly, she doesn't even get her long fingernails soiled. But her chains are a very slack fit whereas mine still seem a fatal inch or two too short. Nonetheless, now desperate, I spend another couple of hours lying in the snow, struggling to flake out the chains and eventually, hallelujah, after endless fiddling, both are in place.

The only trouble is that the snow is too deep for a saloon car, so this victory only lets me move the car from one inconvenient parking place to another, a very modest form of progress.

December 1, 2010

Snow, November 2010

We will remember this month's snow for a long time. Travel disruption has been unprecedented (airports closed, trains cancelled, roads impassable) and my ski-ing holiday seems unlikely to happen. Shoulder-deep in powder snow, poor Bramble can barely walk, almost having to swim. But amid all the practical chaos and everyday hassle, it's good to look around and notice the quiet beauty. Sounds are muted, shapes muffled, strangeness prevails.

Mundane objects like the balcony over our frozen pond have been transformed,

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the ironwork chair has developed improbable, generous cushions of snow ...

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... and on the terrace, the chimenea has acquired a colossal crown.

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December 21, 2010

Lunar eclipse: winter solstice

It was only when we switched on BBC Breakfast this morning that we heard about today's lunar eclipse, and it was a welcome alert. Our view to the west of the full moon was spectacular, but the earth's shadow had already started taking a chunk out of its perfect sphere. Through binoculars, the moon seemed particularly 3-dimensional, and I went off to fetch tripod and camera. By the time I had woken up enough to start shooting, here is all that was left of the moon-sphere:

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Just 16 minutes later, the shadow was total and the sky had begun to lighten slightly. Here is the eclipsed moon in a delicate shade of rose, apparently a result of indirect sunlight piercing the moon's shadow:

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You can see better photos on the BBC website here, but despite current handicaps, I am glad to have attempted to capture my own image. After all, it's the first total eclipse at a winter solstice for nearly 400 years so I won't get another chance.

The eclipse was supposed to last for at least an hour, but sadly by then the sky was too light or the moon had set, and we saw no more. Now I'm looking forward to moonrise (due about 4pm) to check that all is well and the circle complete when it reappears.

May 27, 2011

In memoriam canum (Bramble and Max)

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Bramble would have been 15 years old today, had she lived. You've never met such a good-natured dog - emotionally intelligent and loving to a fault. From puppihood in 1996 she had lived happily at Landrick - much loved by Sandy and Helen, as well as by me and Keir, and in the last five years adored also by Amy. We were all very sad when her end came 3 weeks ago, on 3 May. I want to keep her memory alive with this photo that I hand-printed back in June 1999, just after Bramble had mothered five lovely puppies.

Below is her great friend Max, a half-Doberman mongrel whom we rescued from Cambuskenneth in May 1998, and who nearly took over my life. His end came over five years ago, and Bramble is now peacefully buried beside him. Life at Landrick will never be the same without these wonderful dogs. My office feels achingly empty.

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October 26, 2011

A blue tit rescued

A feature of living at Landrick is the proximity of wildlife, not always at convenient times. Today, a bird had somehow got into the attic above our kitchen and, hearing its frantic flapping I opened the hatch. A beautiful blue tit emerged and vigorously tried to beat its brains out against an unopenable window. It took Keir's gentle touch to capture it in his cupped hands while perched dangerously on a stool. I suggested the table outside as a safe haven for it to recover from its trauma.

And then I remembered that I had just bought a lovely, lightweight telephoto lens (45-175 mm) for my G1 camera, so I dashed to the office and stalked the bemused bird, gradually closing in from a long distance. Here is my best effort, taken from just a metre, the beautiful bird filling the frame. That's what I call payback! Immediately after this snap, the bird flew off as if nothing had happened.

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November 8, 2011

Making snow chains size 10.5

It's nearly two years since snow chains entered my life, in January 2010. The size 10s I had bought for the Jaguar X-type were hard to fit first time around, which I put down to my inexperience. But second time around they were nearly impossible, so by November 2010 I had decided they were one size too small. Since they were by this time firmly and usefully in place, nothing happened until January when the 35-minute struggle to remove them at 4.30 am in heavy snow en route for the airport (admittedly after they had been frozen/rusted in place for two months) very nearly cost us our plane to Bangkok. We made the airport only after the flight had started to board, and our heart rates didn't return to normal until half an hour after take-off.

I was determined to avoid a repeat performance this winter. My supplier Snowchains Europroducts' offers a part-exchange scheme so I bought a pair of size 11s. It was deeply disappointing to find they were too loose, and the offchance of a chain flying off the wheel spells damage or even danger. After many phone calls and emailed photographs, they suggested the solution could be to shorten the perimeter chain to achieve what I now think of as size 10.5. Andrew of Snowchains made it sound easy: you open up a link, move the chain along, refit the chain and if it's a good fit simply close the link, cut off the surplus and the job is done. Here is the test fit, which had to be done on carpet so I could still return the chains if this all failed:

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and here's a close up showing the dangling blue links:

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This was great progress: the chains were now a doddle to fit and remove, and my friend Andrew at Snowchains was enthusiastic about my photos. He said they showed as good a fit as they achieve at their centre in Kent and almost made me feel I could apply for a job! However, I felt that our front tyres could do with an upgrade, and fearing that the new tyres might be slightly different in size from the worn ones that they would replace, I thought I should retest the chains before cutting any links. So this morning I took my carpet, chains and tools to J K Tyres of Springkerse so as to refit the chains after the new tyres were in place. On the driveway outside, the task was slightly harder than before, but only very slightly and not remotely like the nightmare of the size 10s. Each chain was on and off inside three minutes. They kindly helped by cutting through the spare links for me: this was hard enough to break one pair of their snips and took a lot of hammering and manual strength using a second, stronger pair. I was suitably grateful.

So now I have all-season Klebers on the front axle and, after only 22 months, size 10.5 chains that I can both fit and remove. Conclusions? Probably it won't snow at all this winter. Will I care? No: I shall take great delight in having spared everybody a snowy winter by finally having solved my chains problem. And, as with assembling flatpack furniture, I feel I have acquired some hard-won knowledge which may never, ever be useful to me again. It includes the unwelcome discovery that 225x45x17 may sound like a precise tyre measurement, but tyre sizes vary more than chains manufacturers realise!

May 29, 2013

Rare mammals at Landrick Lodge

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Yesterday morning's sensational sighting in our garden was of the handsome mammal above: a pine marten (Martes martes). We had great viewings as it moved calmly through our shrubs, seemingly on the prowl for baby birds.  We had plenty of time to view her (?) through binoculars, but they were barely needed - she was less than ten metres from the house. We felt sad for the infant dunnocks, whose parents were agitated but powerless when their nest was raided, but we felt so privileged to have such a clear sighting of this elusive predator. It belongs to the carnivorous family Mustelidae that also includes weasels, badgers and otters.

Persecuted nearly to extinction and confined by loss of habitat, by a century ago pine martens were found only in remote parts of the north-west Highlands. They were unknown south of the Border. They gained full legal protection in 1988, and according to Scottish Natural Heritage they are making a comeback and recolonising their former haunts in Scotland. The SNH methodology involved "DNA analysis on possible scats gathered along 1-km transects"; our methodology was to open our eyes and rub them in disbelief (it was about 7.30 am).

We were delighted to have our friends Nick and Margaret as house-guests and witnesses to this. And today we have been treated to a second daytime sighting of this amazing animal - agile enough to catch a squirrel. Previously we have seen a wild boar (once, in the adjacent field), a dog otter (twice - both times in the garden) and, of course, roe deer are regular visitors. Here is the handsome young buck whom we see often in these early, light mornings:

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Truly this is a remarkable place to live, and having decided with regret that after 20+ years we need to downsize and move on, we will miss these jaw-dropping sightings perhaps more than anything else about Landrick Lodge.

I was too excited to grab a camera for the pine marten, so the image at the top is courtesy of Country Diary, theguardian. And because trees are so important in the pine marten's ecosystem, and because they remain mercifully stationary while I pick up a camera, here is a closing shot of what IMO may be the finest birch tree in Scotland, captured in our back garden at sunset (about 10 pm).

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