Little Darling It’s Been a Long Cold Lonely Winter

When we moved from the Toronto area to the Valley we anticipated some climate change – after all we were 400 km closer to the Atlantic and 175 km further north. That brings us into the fringes of Atlantic storm tracks and definitely into the Laurentian microclimate – invigorating. We had lived through this type of thing in the 1970s so we had some concept of what that could mean but – Wow!

In 2007-2008 we had the highest snowfall I have ever experienced in my life – 430 cm. That is Alaska-esqe. Nothing like that happened in the past two winters but oh my they have been cold ones. Brutal in fact. The average daily high temp. for the past two months is colder than the normal nightly low – and the lows were often in the -20s with windchills approaching -40 C. At -40 it doesn’t matter what scale you use – that is frigid.

We have now made it through 2/3 of the official winter period but there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. George Harrison – wherever you are – please give us a chorus of “Here Comes the Sun.”




19 Years Online

I read a good article recently about the death and possible (partial) resurrection of the Prodigy Online Service.

It got me in a nostalgic frame of mind because when I first got a PC capable of online access, Prodigy was the first service I tried. This was in early 1996 so I have been online for 19 years.

Prodigy (or P* as it was known to the insiders) predated the World Wide Web as we know it today. So did its principal competitors – Compuserve and AOL. Prodigy had its own proprietary protocol (not TCP/IP but NAPLPS,) its own server network and special client software you installed on your PC. It was sort of a parallel Internet at the time. Later on Prodigy developed a special browser so you could venture out into the WWW, but most of its content remained closed inside the NAPLPS cyberdomain.

To access P* you needed an account (which charged you by the minute) and a PC equipped with a dial-up modem. My first computer had a blazingly fast 14.4 Kbit browser. My current broadband speed is about 2500 times as fast as that and it really isn’t a speedburner compared to the FIOS connections out there.

Of course, the PC I had then would never have been able to handle those current speeds anyway. It was a Packard Bell desktop with a 100 MHz Pentium processor, 4 Megs of RAM and a 1 GB hard drive. I have 16 times as much RAM in my current desktop as I did hard drive space back then!

Needless to say I didn’t do a lot of digital photography or YouTube video in 1996. I hung out in mostly text based forums such as P*’s “Canada and Friends” and also the chat rooms for real time action. Prodigy provided some rather lame graphics to go along with it. Sounds wonderful, right? Right. To keep costs under control you could sign on, download your messages from your favorite forum and read them offline. Even I find it hard to believe I actually did this 19 years ago!

However the presence of information online revolutionized my work and leisure life. In 1995 I planned a trip to London and to see what shows were playing in the West End I had to buy a week old copy of The Telegraph. In 1996 I planned another trip and when it came to London Theater, I just looked it up online. We take online access for granted today but it was quite an information upgrade when it happened.

Sadly, Prodigy could not compete with the burgeoning Web and disappeared from Canada in 1998. In 1999 (citing possible Y2K issues with its aging technology) the venerable Prodigy Classic service disappeared from the online scene completely. Only a standard Prodigy Internet Service Provider remained and it’s gone today. I believe it was part of Yahoo for a while but you won’t find Prodigy as an ISP today.

Canada and Friends migrated its P* community to Delphi Forums and is still going today, after 20+ years.

19 years online and in terms of performance and activity it seems a Millennium away.

A Tale of Two Sims

Simulator games attract the most fanatical of enthusiasts, and train simulators probably appeal to the hardest of hard core fans. You can include me in that category since I have two of them.

Arguably the two most popular train sims are the ones I own – Train Simulator 2015 is the latest in a long line of developments which started with Microsoft Train Simulator back in 2000 or so. And Trainz: A New Era (Beta) is the successor to Trainz 12. Trainz launched initially about the same time as Microsoft’s TS game. I’ll just call them TS2015 and T:ANE if you don’t mind.

I have many hours of experience with TS2015 and recently I got a good deal to buy T:ANE in its pre-release format. The actual retail launch won’t occur until May 2015. I have played around a bit with T:ANE – enough to see the differences from TS2015. Hence this blog post.

So why have two train sims? There is a difference between them for sure and each one has its own group of fanboys. I’ll try to go over each item in point form and give my opinion as to which one works best for me. You may see things differently. Let’s get started.

  • The Object of the Exercise
    Nothing illustrates the difference between the two sims than the basic game objective. With TS2015 your goal is to drive a train – in fact a lot of trains – on some very professionally made routes. It is possible to make your own route but you have to invest a lot of time and effort into getting the route builder to work properly. Most TS2015 users leave that to the content creators.
    Trainz began its life as a model railroad simulator and hence the primary goal here is to do your own route design and construction. There are some prebuilt routes to be sure, but the real fun begins when you start making your own world. The route builder has a lot of complex tools but the basics are easy enough – even if you do end up with a model railroad at the end of the day.
  • Hardware Requirements
    You will need a robust system for either sim. I have an i5 quad core desktop machine with an Nvidia GTX 650 Ti Boost graphics card and that enables me to run TS2015 smoothly on a 1920×1080 monitor. T:ANE will have a new graphics engine that takes advantage of multicore processors and DirectX 11 technology so my system is barely in the recommended range for the new program. It seems to work OK so far – we’ll see when the developers get things finalized.
  • Under the Hood
    The basis of any video game is the program set called the Game Engine. TS2015 uses an old technology game engine based on DirectX 9.0c. DX9 dates back to the early days of Windows XP but the graphics engine in TS2015 still works pretty well. It also received some enhancements called TSX in 2012 so it’s pretty good with rain effects, shadows and lights from loco headlights. Dovetail Games (the maker of TS2015) have announced that there will be a future version of Train Simulator that will use Unreal Engine 4 as its basis. This newer engine will update the game to DX11 support. Further details are unknown at this point.
    T:ANE has its own graphics engine called E2. This new engine supports DX11 and is supposed to enable vastly improved graphics for the Trainz series of games. The developers are still working out the kinks. E2 also brings further enhancements such as multicore processing support. On paper T:ANE should have the advantage if its full potential is realized.
  • What You Get
    With TS2015 you get 3 basic routes – one American, one German and one UK. Each route has a few scenarios you can try or the possibility of just picking a train to explore a route. If you owned previous versions of TS you get a free update to TS2015 and your older routes will work. The locomotives and rolling stock are limited to the routes you buy so if you want more you’ll have to make use of Downloadable content (DLC.) More on that below.
    T:ANE comes with quite a large collection of locomotives and rolling stock, plus a lot of other stuff like buildings, turntables, switches. You’ll need this to build your own routes. You also get a couple of US routes, a UK one and an Australian one. This routes are nice but not as sophisticated as the ones in TS2015.
  • Downloadable Content (DLC)
    This is where TS2015 really shines. There are many available routes, lots of locomotives and rolling stock available from Dovetail Games via Steam (online game archive and cloud storage), plus a number of third party creators have stepped up with additional locos and carriages, plus sound and visual enhancements. You have to pay for it though. It can really add up if you aren’t careful. Fortunately a lot of this stuff can be picked up in sales from Steam or the content creators. If you get interested in UK steam the possibilities are mind boggling with TS2015.
    Trainz has a facility they call the DLS (Download Station.) You buy a pass to the DLS and in theory you can get over 250,000 free items – routes, locos, buildings, etc. So far I haven’t tried this because T:ANE is stll in Beta and I don’t know how much of the old content will be compatible. Time will tell.
  • Realism
    Let’s face it – no simulator that runs on a computer can give total realism. However some can come closer than others. There are many facets to giving a “realistic” experience on a train sim – the look of the cab, the “feel” of the controls, how realistic the physics are in starting and stopping a train, the look of the train models themselves, the ambience of the surroundings, rain and sky effects, etc.
    Perhaps it’s because I have more experience with TS 2015 but I get the impression that it just does this realism thing better than T:ANE right now. Certainly the look and feel of the trains and the cabs are much better to my eye and ear – some of the TS2015 steam locos are good enough to satisfy the most demanding “rivet counter.” I just don’t see that with the Trainz locos – they look more like models and less like the real thing – almost cartoony in some cases.
    Driving controls seem more realistic in TS2015 too – both sims have a realistic mode but TS does it better. The easy mode in Trainz is called DCC and it looks like a model train controller. There’s nothing like that in TS2015, although it does have a beginner’s mode.
    Shadows and lightings are getting better with T:ANE but at this point they haven’t pulled ahead of T2015 – even though T:ANE has a more up to date game engine.
  • Artificial Intelligence
    Although my experience here is more limited I have to give the edge to Trainz: A New Era here. The Trainz signalling system seems more robust, and it’s possible to run around the track with 5 different trains at the same time if you want – let the computer do the stopping and starting. You can even have multiplayer sessions with others on the Internet.
    In TS2015 things are more scripted – you meet AI trains on your journey but you don’t have them on the same track with you. The signal lights are more “show business” and don’t actually do any controlling of the traffic. TS2015 is strictly a single player game.
  • The Bottom Line
    It simply comes down to this: If you want to play with trains – TS2015 is the clear winner. If you want to play with train tracks – Trainz: A New Era is the way to go. I’ve had fun with both of them, but if I had to choose just one it would be Train Simulator 2015. The driving experience is far better and the steam engine models are superb – especially those from the third party content makers.

This topic may be revisited in future when I’ve had some experience with the T:ANE retail release, and the Trainz DLS content.



10 Years in Almonte

The end of February will mark 10 years since our first visit to Almonte and our decision to buy here and settle in for our retirement years. We actually moved to Almonte in July 2005 but as you can see it wasn’t July quite yet when we first came to town.

As in most small towns, things move slowly but there have been a few changes of note. This fellow has had a refurbishment since 2005 and has been joined by another statue (of Dr. Naismith) nearby. Some other changes and events we’ve noted over time include the following:

  • Renovation and Gentrification
    The old downtown has had continuous upgrades over the years as property developers have renovated the old mills and Victorian streetscape. A number of new boutiquey shops have opened and Almonte has become quite an antique lover’s destination. As well some very nice white tablecloth restaurants have come to town to go along with the pub, tea room and family dining spots. The last of the “bread and butter” type stores – hardware, drugs, groceries have relocated to the eastern end of town.
  • One Main Industry
    In the 19th and early 20th century Almonte was a one industry town – mainly wool weaving and cloth making – but the last of this ended in the 1980s. Now the major industry appears to be building and selling houses for the many retirees and Ottawa commuters who want to settle here. The west end where we live has essentially been completed and development continues in the east end near the shopping area.
  • Festivals and More Festivals
    In keeping with its new found role as a tourist destination, Almonte continues to grow and develop its festivals – largely based on the heritage of the town. Celtfest, Fibrefest and the Naismith street basketball tournament are examples of this. Light up the Night is a big Christmas event, and The Puppets Up! Festival brings in folks of all ages.
  • Boomer City
    As the boomers retire, more and more of them are buying homes and settling here. The town has the security, community feel, and most of the necessities a retiree would want. We were on the leading edge of this retiree movement (at least as out of town settlers we were.) I expect this Boomer influx will continue for some time.
  • From Paper to Online
    In 2005 there was an actual Almonte Newspaper you could subscribe to (The Gazette.) Later on The Gazette was folded in with a Carleton Place newspaper and eventually was given away free as part of a shopping publication called EMC. The lost local news was soon found again online as an Internet newspaper called The Millstone came into being – and that’s how we get local news reported now.
  • Bye Bye Choo Choo
    For 150 years the CPR rail line ran through Almonte, crossing the river right downtown on a massive stone and concrete bridge built in the 1860s. At one time the rails were part of the CPR’s Transcontinental line – you could walk down to the station in Almonte and get a ticket to Vancouver. However, with the demise of CPR’s passenger service and the end of industrial cloth production here, the rail line became strictly an afterthought. No trains stopped in Almonte any more and the lone remaining rusty siding became the resting place of some decaying boxcars. CPR sold the trackage to a short line operator and – when things were slow during the Recession of 2008 – they stopped using it as a secondary freight route and took away 90% of the short line’s business. The train horns disappeared and in time so did the rails and signalling. About all that is left now are the trestles and underpasses, and the roadbed.
    The counties of Lanark and Renfrew may buy the former rail line as a nature and snowmobile trail I suppose. If not, it’ll gradually be broken up as individual landowners buy pieces of it. What will happen with the bridge downtown is anyone’s guess. About all that will remain is the downtown memorial to the 38 people who died in the great Almonte train wreck of 1942.
  • Fast Food Freedom
    Yeah, yeah we have Tim Horton’s. However the rest of the town has remained fast food free as far as the major burger and pizza joints are concerned. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a decent pizza or cheeseburger here. We even have good Shawarma. But you have to go to the local independent joints to find it. That suits me just fine. There’s talk about a Dairy Queen franchise but I think that’s mostly hot air.
  • Power to the People
    The penstocks and water turbines that powered the mills have long since ceased to function, but the source of power in the Mississippi flow is still going strong. The public hydroelectric power generating company completed an expansion and power house relocation in the first decade of the 21st Century – doubling the power output to 5 MW. Although this expansion was in general seen as a Good Thing by the local populace, there has been considerably more controversy about an upstream power development proposal by the private contractor who owns the old flour mill.
    The tripling of power capacity at the old flour mill from 300 KW to 1 MW will require dredging the river and constructing a new power house of questionable taste right in the middle of a touristy area. Whether the town is up for an industrial project like this remains to be seen.

There’s probably lots more stuff I haven’t though of that’s changed, but in a small town you’ll find that a lot of change is subtle. Not that we mind. We are getting a little old for revolutionary evolutionary activity.

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