Tuesday, 31 July 2018

i finally finish watching 'The Americans'


I've just finished watching The Americans on Amazon. It's been a six series box set almost impossible to have watched in real time because of all its weird scheduling.

Slightly based on a real situation, Russia sends spies to the USA to become part of the American fabric. Known by the FBI as illegals, the series centres on a couple living in suburban Falls Church, just a few miles along the I-66 from Washington D.C. A KGB Fred and Wilma next door to an FBI Barney and Betty.

Add family members, Russian agent controllers, an FBI office and the Russian Residence in Washington, and there's a great recipe for a series.

The two Russians (Philip and Elizabeth) are mostly American in their behaviour, except when on their espionage missions. There's plenty of breakfast table scenes, working at the office and so on. Then, unlike this publicity shot, they don elaborate disguises and do everything from surveillance to assassination. No-one they interact with ever notices their sometimes dodgy looks and that thing about 'the wig enters the room three seconds before the person' doesn't seem to apply.

Their teenager-ish kids don't ever spot anything untoward, even with the late night working frequently required by one or both parents.

Set in the 1980s through to around the start of the 1990s, the period seemed almost older. No smartphones, clunky old cars, cassette and diskette operated computers, distressingly jagged nightmare-inducing geometric wallpaper. The era worked well to support old-school spy-craft, with buzzy walkie talkies and chalk marks on post boxes. Oh yes, and crazy walls full of paper.

There were some colour palates at play too. Moscow was often shot in a bluer hue, Washington got greys and some of the house interiors were almost 1970s browns. The soundscape buzzed and clicked. Air conditioners, car engines ticking as they cooled, city hubbub, tumble dryers, diskette head seeks, only the black screens were properly quiet.

The making of the series between 2013 and 2018 overlaps recent events in the USA, with the series featuring Cold War prevalence and various players with sharp personal memories of World War Two and the Vietnam war. The Russian central control frequently reference famines, sickness and the huge USSR death toll from World War Two. By the end of the series we're around the time of perestroika and arms limitations. As 21st Century USA gets ready to spend huge new money on military and borders, there's a worrying parallel with the earlier situations in the series.

I never really found the main protagonists likeable. They were watchable with their unplugged backstory. Understandable because they had been wrenched from Russia to suddenly become Americans. We could then see their acceptance of American lifestyle and its choices and surpluses. A contrast sharpened through another character, who was exfiltrated from the USA to go to live in an empty shelved Moscow. A distancing from what was becoming a changing Russia too. Philip and Elizabeth had memories of how it was, but not what it was becoming.

There's also a coiled spring ruthlessness in these two main characters. They both kill reflexively and in the case of Elizabeth, in later scenes we see her mantling over bodies like some bird of prey.

There's various ways that this kind of show can end. The last couple of series set up questions about life in Russia and USA, through character discussions. Then we have some all-important show-downs and some clever directing. The sort of scenes that could go in a number of directions.

I won't dwell on the actual ending. It's in an episode called START, which could itself signify an intriguing character's reboot, or maybe George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Monday, 30 July 2018

my latest thriller reading is a government report


That Facebook. Up it pops again in that MP Damian Collins Commons Select Committee report. It could be a best-seller.

Yet, after all the news a few days ago about Facebook's share valuation dropping by around $120 billion, I can't help but notice their overall share price is still only back to May 2018 levels. A case of the eyeballs have it.

Facebook is certainly the 'Eff' in FAAANG, so that so-called US President should be aware of the difference just those few companies make to the US outlook.

That's in more ways than one.

I do still have a Facebook account, but very much as a placeholder. I won't be seduced by the recent electronic adverts on bus shelters saying how cuddly Facebook has become.

Damian Collins committee's "Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report" [click to download a PDF of the report], shows how interwoven the likes of Facebook and other social media are in the spreading of disinformation.

The interim report's conclusions include that:
  • 9 Electoral law in this country is not fit for purpose for the digital age, and needs to be amended to reflect new technologies.
  • 41. In November 2017, the Prime Minister accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting 'fake news' in an attempt to 'weaponise information' and sow discord in the West. It is clear from comments made by the then Secretary of State in evidence to us that he shares her concerns. However, there is a disconnect between the Government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies intractability in recognising the issue.
Those two items alone illustrate how a perverse agency could tip scales in a democratic process. Throw in some blah-blah Black Cube/Crimson Hexagon hacking, citizen-by-investement schemes and a bunch of botnets and you've got the makings of a good thriller novel - or - somewhat improbably, a fascinating UK Government Report.

Weaponising information isn't exactly a new idea, but the scale and reach of its effects over the last few years create a significant inconvenience for the UK to ponder.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

would that it were so simple


There's still a storm of Trumpian fragments scattered through the news. Trump uses new noise to divert attention from whatever issue is hardening into a viewpoint. I decided to take a look at a sequence of possible inferences, stripped of all the side debates.
  1. Allegedly, Trump’s been cultivated for more than 20 years by the Russians.
  2. The cultivation was part of the long-term Kryuchkov initiative to seed more helpful ‘plants' in developed economies.
  3. Russian ambassador to US Yuri Dubinin appealed to Trump's ego so he didn’t realise he was becoming an 'object of deep study'.
  4. Trump’s ideas like 'spend more on defence and spend less on defending others' date right back to 1987. He even published a newspaper advert about it.
  5. Perhaps Russian work to gain kompromat about Trump started in 1987, when he was first involved with real-estate ideas about a Trump Tower opposite the Kremlin.
  6. At this time Putin was a KGB officer in the first directorate, running recruitment and kompromat operations in Dresden.
  7. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapses, post communist Russia begins.
  8. Between 1991 and 2009, Trump plays with the U.S. Chapter 11 company bankruptcy laws, to trim his over-leveraged debt and avoid tax.
  9. Trump needs more money so licensing deals and apartments for cash augment his casino businesses. It would be inappropriate to call any of these schemes laundering at this stage, although plenty of shell companies seem to have sprung up.
  10. Paul Manafort's plan about the ways to advance Russia by breaking up other alliances is fed towards Putin via Oleg Deripaska.
  11. Putin understands kompromat but also that as well as what you know, it’s what the other guy thinks you may know.
  12. Trump and various family members and associates have stepped into a Russian lasso but don’t realise it.
  13. Putin maintains his style of being completely 'hands off’ regarding kompromat, disinformation and hacker based influence strategies.
  14. There’s still plenty of time to pull on the rope.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Back once again, with the ill behavior (fade and return)

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To my surprise, my bike turbo setup and its related technology all still worked after its extended period without use. It restarted the exact session and recognised all the components.

Then, the next day, the bicycle monitoring computer requested a Windows 10 update. It wasn't a stroppy one where it just did it.

Instead it issued me with an ultimatum. Do it now or do it overnight. It even asked me what time, but then assiduously refused to provide any of the time prompts.

The next day I noticed a completely new wallpaper on the screen of that computer. Some sort of brownish building interior. I'll have to search around to reinstate my preferred one. Either that or something bicycle-related like a snapshot from my recent whizz around Montebello, Quebec.

Then I login to the machine and try the bicycle turbo wireless link. No longer working, of course. Unplug and replug things. Reboot everything. Still nothing.

I decide I'd rather take a bike out for a spin instead of faffing around with this time-sink activity.

Later that evening I investigate further. A quick email to someone in Nevada.

Yes, an undisclosed amendment to some of the software.

I've abandoned that way of linking things, adopted a plan B and am back in the game.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

ship of dreams? ship of fools? Plato said it first.



I've mused on the ship of fools previously, but this time I'm right back to 380 BC with Plato and the conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus.

"Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better.

The sailors quarrel with one another about the steering. Every one believes they have a right to steer, though each has never learned the art of navigation. Furthermore they assert that steering cannot be taught, and are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

These crew throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them. If at any time they do not prevail, with others preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard.

Then, having chained the captain's senses with drink or drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores.

Those who aid them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman.

They abuse the rest, who they call good-for-nothings.

A true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, if he intends to be qualified for the command of a ship.

The true pilot must and will be the steerer, whether other people like it or not - However, the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?


Hmm. It may have been written around 2,400 years ago, but it's still a surprisingly accurate representation of current UK events. A pseudo captain. A quarrelsome crew. Some already thrown overboard. A few ready to lead a mutiny. Now even the new negotiation leader has been relegated to role of assistant.

I'm also reminded of last week's sunny adventure on the St Lawrence River when our whale-spotting boat played Dido as it re-docked. What's the line? "I will go down with this ship."

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

how it ends


I received one of those emails from Netflix. "Watch this," it said, "because you liked that..."

I'd just finished a set of episodes of something and thought I'd give this new one a try. How it ends.

Fire it up. Hmm, 1h40. Must be a long opening show or the pilot. Some sort of dystopian futures thing.

Twenty minutes in. They are just finishing the set-up about a man whose partner is to have a baby. The man has gone to visit the woman's stern militaristic father across the country.

Something happens. We get the wobbly coffee rings effect. The wobbly television effect. V-shaped formations of birds. The father and boyfriend argue before getting in a fancy sedan to go find out if the daughter/girlfriend is okay on the other side of the country.

There's no radio, television or internet. No traffic, yet few deserted cars. They drive and meet a military roadblock, which Dad uses military dad speak to get through. They find hillbillies with guns that cause confrontations. They find a native American village and team up with one of the locals. She knows how to fix the broken car. There's a long military train full of tanks and supplies that mysteriously derails leaving no-one visible.

Yes, it's a sort of road movie. Everything that happens has happened already in other movies (except one good line about helicopters).

My slight jet lag facilitated me watching it to the end, with it only dawning on me in the last minutes that this was all they'd got. It wasn't a series, just a single movie.

It had that thing that some TV shows do. The double ending. In Sopranos there's a scene at Series S6E18 (three before the end) which could have been the end of the whole show. It's around this scene, before the show runner writing for the clever end of the end kicks in.

In Breaking Bad it's a little bit earlier. In this movie it's at Movie End minus 20 seconds. They even briefly slow the frame rate. I knew it was the real end and they'd tacked another little piece on just for Hollywood.

Stars? 1. for the sweeping roads cinematography of the second unit and some of the special effects.

Monday, 23 July 2018

channel hopping


Our cable telly is provided by Virgin nowadays, so we're among the 4 million to suddenly get 10 channels replaced with a different 10. Weirdly the full set of replaced channels are anyway available on Freeview, so the whole situation is slightly odd.

I understand that it's about commercial rights and licensing payments. We probably use the Virgin system more for its 200Mb broadband, with the television channels as a useful accessory - although only the first page of the 200 channels is used most of the time.

I'm more interested in the way that the channel substitution was made, one evening and without warning. There was no explanation on the Virgin system for the next couple of days - with just the news about the 'new' Paramount Movies(?) channel.

It's that aspect of customer management that I find the most strange. I'd seen the rumours of the failed negotiation on digital spy, so it wasn't exactly news to me when it happened. Just that Virgin didn't bother to tell us - instead trying to spin the positive of the 'new' channel(s).

Do I care that I can't watch old episodes of Top Gear? Not really - why would I want to? What about ancient repeats of Have I got News for You? I've survived thus far without them.

If anything, it's made me think about whether to downgrade the TV subscription and go back to free-to-air plus the Netflix, Amazon and other subscriptions.

But wait. I don't have a roof aerial.

Friday, 20 July 2018

they lied to us (refrain)

they lied to us
I'm running out of tee shirts and had to dig out a couple of older ones. This one from 2008 is still apposite and could be repurposed easily for current times. A little lie could be that the 'no deal' crash (Br)exit is the preferred government option all along.

  • Why else put someone like David Davies in charge for so long? He only spent 4 hours in head to head with the EU and never showed any signs of a plan. We knew he was blagging it back in 2017. Some say he resigned with dignity. I accuse him of being asleep at the wheel.
  • Why else let the so called European Research Group(ERG), run by Jacob Rees-Mogg continue to target every related government paper and hack pieces off? It's not about European Research, it's about ways for a rich toff to exert influence.
  • Why else would Steve Baker leave the government to join the ERG? He knows where the bodies are buried what was happening in DexEU (Dept for Exiting EU) and most significantly knows about the work already completed on the 'crash out' option.
  • Why else would Theresa May scrabble around to produce a 12 point plan on a couple of sheets of paper right at the last minute? It's almost tRumpian.
  • Why else would the UK issue a 24 language summary of their intentions with enough translation and grammar errors to make everyone who has read them irritated and dismissive? Not forgetting it raises the wider issue around precise interpretation of individual words.
  • Why, when doing these translations, pointedly produce a full translation for Welsh (not an officially recognised EU language) but not for Irish (which is) and do this when Northern Ireland also the source of one of the key controversies?
  • Why hint at an early recess for Parliament, even if it was thrown out? Like 'job done' here's a reward.
  • Why run the lurching and shambolic process right to the recess of parliament, leaving only a few remaining weeks to get everything settled?
The populist street phrase now is 'Why don't they just get on with it?' - with no interest in the finer detail. In practice it's the ruthless beasts of the main parties trying to grasp power in the pretence that they are carrying out 'the will of the people'. Expect to get last minute situations sprung into the debate, which will give no-one time to properly respond.

Cameron, Osborne, Farage, Johnson, Gove, Davis, Rees-Mogg, Corbyn should all be very ashamed. I can't tell for May, who I have to keep in the 'hapless' column at the moment.

Oh well, it could still get worse, I suppose.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

TDS and the need for a reboot


Has the President of the United States been hacked? I can't think of any other excuse.

Look closely and his pixels don't properly align. His entire operating system is malfunctioning.

Not just at the level of previous narcissism and mendacity, but now as fundamental unconscious incompetence.

Aside from the would/n't statement, we had the follow-up where he answered 'No' to whether he thought the Russians were still targeting the US.

This too was later claimed as a misspeak.

Apparently, as explained by a White House spokesperson, he was simply saying 'no' to the idea of more questions.

It will be interesting to see how he unspools his 130 minute private conversation with Putin, although one has to assume this will be opportunist and revisionist.

He's just claimed his 'appropriately late' endorsement for Roby won her the Alabama GOP Primary.

His spinners are already generating him a new tightly scripted 'Exceptionalism' speech to attempt to reset a leadership tone. His acolytes will believe it along with any other staccato directive soundbites.

Curiously, there must be pieces of the Trump system still operating, He's actually tweeted a term to describe his own condition. He thinks it applies to others, but it's a case of one finger points forward and three point back.

Trump Derangement Syndrome. Would/n't you know?/no? System Exception. Kernel Panic. Reboot.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Suite 1742, Reine Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal


This time we're in lovely and friendly Montreal, staying in the hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their Bed-In. It was the second Bed-In actually, because their first one was at the Hilton in Amsterdam, when they had just got married. Famously that one is described in the road trip lyrics of the Ballad of John and Yoko.

Lennon and Ono protested strongly at the acts of governments appearing to do the wrong things. A lesson for today as well.

To set the scene, here's a Canadian TV description of their exploits, en route to Montreal.

And here's the original song, which was performed by the Beatles and shows the complicated route which led to the second protest about the need for peace and culminated in the second song. It's the only pop video I know that features Basingstoke and Hatch.

The song Give Peace a Chance was composed, arranged and performed in suite 1742 at the Reine Elizabeth in Montreal. Here's the 5 minutes version.

The hotel was recently remodelled and the original room has kept the spirit of the day back in 1969 when the song was performed. The promotional rate to stay in the room is a bit more that we'd pay. It's $1,969. echoing the year of the protest. We are staying in the lovely hotel, but can only glimpse the old green phone from room 1742.

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Standing in the dock at Southampton
Trying to get to Holland or France
The man in the mac said
You've got to go back
You know they didn't even give us a chance

{Chorus}
Christ you know it ain't easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going
They're going to crucify me

Finally made the plane into Paris
Honeymooning down by the Seine
Peter Brown call to say
You can make it O.K.
You can get married in Gibraltar near Spain

{Chorus}

Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton
Talking in our beds for a week
The newspapers said
Say what are you doing in bed
I said we're only trying to get us some peace

{Chorus}

Saving up your money for a rainy day
Giving all your clothes to charity
Last night the wife said
Oh boy when you're dead
You don't take nothing with you but your soul,

Think

Made a lightning trip to Vienna
Eating chocolate cake in a bag
The newspapers said
She's gone to his head
They look just like two gurus in drag

{Chorus}

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

{Chorus}

Monday, 16 July 2018

in which I encounter tic-tac-toe the humpback whale

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Meet Tic-Tac-Toe - a wild humpback whale that came up to our boat today. We're back in the mist-enshrouded wilds along the St Lawrence River and had a kind of substitute Jaws moment when this huge humpback whale appeared right in from of us.

No picture from that startled and incredibly close encounter, but a few from later when the same whale reappeared ahead of us.
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This particular humpback whale has a migration of about 7,000 km. They mate and calve in the warm, shallow waters of the Caribbean and Cape Verde and then return to the St Lawrence River, where this particular lady seems to thrive.
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Rude to ask about weight? Maybe a guess would be a svelte 30 tons. That's a lot of krill.
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Friday, 13 July 2018

i negotiate the hotel roadblock


Getting to our hotel in Québec was slightly awkward because of the extensive roadblocks. They were all because of the Festival d'été de Québec. I decided to ask a policeman how to navigate the last part of the barricades all around the hotel area. He good naturally described the route. I have a feeling he'd be doing that several thousand times in the day.

The stage closest to our hotel was the Bell stage. Before it got like the picture above, it was pretty easy to get around. Here's a soundcheck session from this afternoon.
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That same stage opened properly in the evening and here's a tiny clip from this evening's excellent Lorde concert.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

a brief stay at Château Frontenac

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There's no getting away from it. Our current hotel is large. It's the Château Frontenac in Québec.

Originally built with around 130 rooms, it was progressively extended until around 1920 when the whole central core was added. Another 17 floors bringing the total guest rooms to around 631. It's the main landmark in the city.

Yes, the hotel is bustling with people, Yes, we had to negotiate roadblocks to get to it, but it's a fabulously central location to explore Québec. So far every street has been interesting and quirky.

And everywhere we go seems to have a view back to the hotel.

Did I mention it was big?
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Green Day - American Idiot live from Milton Keynes


auto scheduled
Remembering a prescient song from the days before pervasive smartphones.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Mont Tremblant

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A few years ago we stayed in Whistler, BC. It reminded me of a kind of Disney designed village and our current venue is like another version. This time it is near Mont Tremblant, QC and a cross between Portmerion, Port Grimaud, part of Disney and possibly even a vision from Westworld.

There's a purpose built village which incorporates several hotels, winding streets, and a variety of shops and restaurants.

The whole area bustles in the afternoon and evening. We were there during the Blues festival and the main squares rocked with the music. Late night, it goes quiet and then at about 8 am there's the first signs off a new day.
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No cars are allowed in the main area, which makes it reminiscent of many European cities where the traffic has been stopped from the central streets.

The difference here is that it was built like it, along with the swooping cablecars over the rooftops and along the main street.

It's brilliant fun, but also slightly strange to think it was suddenly brought into existence about 25 years ago.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

if you go down to the woods today

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We decided to try some footpaths.

All very pretty although at a certain stage we decided it was best to be back inside a vehicle.

It's not difficult to guess when.
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Okay, nothing too serious with a bit of care.
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Quite picturesque, actually, although the signs are turning increasingly French.
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Strange that the very nice lady warned us about something in French. Surely the French word bison means something else?
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It's getting slightly sticky underfoot.
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Although the local wildlife don't seem to find it boring.
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I suppose after the wild boar, we need something more ooh-ahh inspiring.
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But wait. This fellow looks as if he wants to own the path around here.
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And now I understand that warning. Don't feed the bison.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Château Montebello

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Onward to a wooden lodge in the wilds, the Château Montebello.

It's s huge log-château that was impressively built in a matter of months. At its centre is a hexagonal rotunda containing a six-sided stone fireplace more than 20 metres tall.

The rafter timbers are 18 metres long and there's a couple of mezzanine levels. The rooms splay out in corridors on each of the six sides.

The Scandinavian builders were led by a Finn, Victor Nymark, a master-builder who taught the workmen the ways to cut and splice the logs together. A special rail track was laid on to bring the timber to the site, with truckloads of British Columbian timber arriving every day.

Its setting in on the shores of the lake-like Ottawa River adds to the charm, and it has been used for all manner of events, including a G7 summit, NATO meetings and various other world-leader events. Spot a few famous faces in the group below:

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Byward Market

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We took a look around Byward Market. A few blocks of fresh produce market, with a French feel to it. There was a very French patisserie and several cheese shops as well as plenty of local fresh vegetables and fruit.

Around the area were many cafes and bars with frequent references to the local poutine, which is a chips and cheese with gravy dish. I deduced that there is a basic version as well as more complicated varieties with added toppings.
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We seemed to be on the edge of the full French speaking area, with still the majority of signage in English. Across the river things would be different.
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Saturday, 7 July 2018

this time it's Ottawa


My first visit to Ottawa, which is a very pretty city. We are staying in a hotel next to the Parliament buildings, and we have a view out towards the Rideau canal and parliament.

This city has a human scale, with less high rise and big roads than Toronto. It somehow reminds me of Paris, with the green areas and landmark buildings.

We've been out exploring, both the city and the Ottawa River, which curves dramatically through the city. Founded by John By, who features on prominent landmarks as well as originally naming the city, which was Bytown.

John By was responsible for the construction of the Rideau Canal, which was completed in around six years and links a 200 kilometre stretch from Montreal to Kingston (which is on Lake Ontario), as well as neatly bypassing an often US-controlled stretch of the River Lawrence.

Olden days maybe, but perhaps in these trade war times there's some history repeating itself?

Friday, 6 July 2018

mobile screen time = 55 minutes per day


A slightly side-bar kind of entry.

I loaded that iOS 12 onto my iPhone around a week ago and notice my current screen time per day is around 1 hour across all devices.

That includes email, social media, blogging and other random applications.

It must be around my lowest usage in recent years, but I guess I'll see how it changes over the coming weeks when I revert to normal mobile roaming.

Until then, expect occasional silences.

Niagara Falls - The Canadian side

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Toronto to Niagara Falls isn't too far, so we decided to make the side visit. I've been in the area plenty of times, usually on the United States side, but never made the trip until this time.

We were on the Canadian side in the boat called Hornblower instead of the slightly more well known U.S. Maid of the Mist. There main difference is which side of the river the trip starts, and thus the colour of the ponchos.
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Ours were red, the US ones were blue. I did take some snap shots although there was an awful lot of water flying around, so my camera was drenched. I've also some live footage, but decided that videoing a recreation from a slightly later voyage might make more sense.
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My handheld footage of that later run by our boat is below. When I get more time I may edit in some of the soaked deck view although it is mainly water, screams and laughter.

I've decided it is a "must do" experience. I'll add that I think the Canadian side is probably better because of the walkable access to the main Horseshoe Falls and some further spectacular views.

My handheld video of our boat's identical later trip - maybe I'll add our deck view