Saving The World, One User at a Time

It’s been a busy week on the Almonte IT support front This week so far I have:

  • Advised a lady in Tim Horton’s how to update her copy of CCleaner Free – a program that cleans up old files and junk on your PC.
  • Upgraded a lady’s laptop to Windows 10 while she’s off cruising the Caribbean.
  • Deleted a second copy of a neighbor’s email account in Microsoft Live Mail, showed him how to read his mail directly with a web browser, and installed a program on his laptop and desktop that makes Windows 10 look like Windows 7.
  • Set up another neighbor’s old second computer with a new hard drive and Linux. Installed a USB wifi adapter and now he can surf the web in the basement, and play music while he walks on his treadmill.
  • Configured a new router for a third neighbor and tried to figure out why his computer would not upgrade to the latest version of Windows 10. I think I know why but it’ll take another service call to fix it properly.

I provide the IT support free of course. I get asked why I don’t have a little business and charge for my services. The answer is quite simple. I am out saving the world, one user at a time.

I’m retired, have enough to live on and many of my “clients” are friends in the ‘hood. Some cannot really afford to pay a real geek so they’d either screw things up trying to do it themselves, or just get more viruses, malware and junk on their machines. I suppose I’m competing with real techs who might need the business but I doubt many of the people I help out would see their way clear to pay $100 for a service call to anyone. I can get a new machine set up and running in an hour or so and it’s better for my friends to call me than use the Geek Squad or Staples services for it. Besides, doing this stuff keeps my mind active.

I don’t advertise, do anything outside of Almonte except for family, and I still have weeks like this. I guess I must be doing something right. Just call me Iron Man.

Netbook Resurrection

We all know netbooks are dead, right ? These cheap low powered laptops had a short time in the sun between 2008 and 2012. They were eventually killed by consumer apathy, Microsoft trying to install Windows on them and most of all by the iPad and Android tablets.

I’ve always been sorry to see them go. A netbook does most of the things a tablet does (minus touch of course.) It also has a proper keyboard, and makes a nice little system to take along on holiday for email and saving photos.

The netbooks should have had Linux installed in the first place. Some early models did feature a Linux O/S but the OEMs did a bad job of choosing and installing Linux. Customers wanted Windows so Microsoft gave away XP at first and then developed a Windows 7 Starter installation which ran like a hog, especially after you loaded up all the CPU sucking security apps. But I digress.

Yesterday I did a little IT work for one of my neighbors. He has recently bought a new small laptop to replace his old netbook and asked me if I would like to take the old machine away. I jumped at the chance. This particular netbook is from ca 2010 and is really a nice one. Toshiba NB 305, second generation Intel Atom processor that supports 64 bit systems, very Linux friendly hardware. I wiped Windows 7 away, installed Linux Mint and everything worked right out of the box. Here’s how it looks now:

I have a couple of older netbooks in the Computer Museum but nothing with the memory and performance of this one. It’s great – just as long as you don’t try running Windows on it.




The Sweet Spot

I’ve been playing around with microcomputers for close to 35 years now. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in that time is in the video display. When I started with a VIC-20 back in 1982 the display resolution was (wait for it) a dazzling 128X128 pixels. Feed that into an old 20 inch color TV as I did back then and you’ll have the very definition of blocky and fuzzy graphics.

Of course by the time I arrived in the Windows desktop environment in the mid 90s and got online, I was using a dedicated 14 inch monitor with a 640X480 resolution and I thought I was really in business. You could read email and everything – Zowie!

Fast forward to 2001 and I had reached the “sweet spot” of Cathode Ray Tube monitor technology – 17 inches and a respectable 1024X768 pixel resolution. This gave a decent display that I used for probably 7 more years and I was happy. Anything bigger than that in a CRT was heavy and bulky and took up the entire desktop.

By the time I was ready for another computer upgrade, flat screens were really in and I got a similar 17 inch display in a 5:4 aspect ratio. I believe the resolution was 1280X1024. This may not sound like much but it had 80 times as many pixels as my VIC-20 put on screen in 1982. The graphics card had to be a lot better.

Shortly after I got the 17 inch flat screen HDTV became a mainstream item and even computer monitors changed to reflect the now standard 16:9 aspect ratio and 1920X1080 pixel resolution. I have standardized on this widesceen monitor for a while now as in my view it is the new “sweet spot” for computer monitors. 1920X1080 looks good on a big TV, so up close it is fine on any monitor up to 24 inches. A 24 inch monitor gives me an eyemax view, and unless you have a really boffo graphics card you aren’t about to do any 3D gaming full screen at higher than 1080p.

Just because a monitor isn’t getting larger or more hi-res doesn’t mean it can’t get better though. Technology has made today’s displays lighter and thinner – more picture, less monitor. The better ones today are called IPS – in-plane-switching. An IPS monitor gives brighter and more accurate color as well as much better viewing angles. You don’t see a color washout if you view the display from anywhere except straight on. IPS can compete with the best of the old fashioned CRT monitors when it comes to color fidelity.

IPS had two disadvantages when it originally came out. It was far more expensive than the basic TN panel of usual consumer experience, and it was slower to respond to changes in display color. Technology has reduced the response gap somewhat. And economies of scale have dropped the prices to the point where if you get a good deal, IPS is almost competitive with TN.

The other day I was in Costco and I saw a very good deal on the LG IPS monitor pictured above. I brought one home and it really is a beautiful thing – sharp, bright, colorful and no fading if you change your view angle a bit. It certainly knocks the socks off my VIC-20.


Our Boy

His much-anticipated birth was a highlight of a year marked otherwise by a lot of sorrow and family tragedy. He was born on a historic day when an African American man assumed the Presidency of the United States. He’s our first grandchild and only grandson. Quite a start if I do say so.

And he has grown. Oh my, has he ever. It looks like he’ll be a tall lanky young man at this point. His radiant smile is changed a bit into a hockey player’s grin since his front teeth are out now. That’ll change again, and he’ll be back to his usual heartthrob looks – dark hair and big brown eyes which contrast with his sisters.

He’s a smart kid too – like his grandpa he can focus like a laser on stuff that interests him. He’s enjoyed Thomas the Tank Engine, Hot Wheels, and now Iron Man and the Super Heroes. His reading ability is uncanny for a child of 7. I think he’ll be a math whiz someday. He can certainly whip my butt in online auto racing.

Like his mother, he’s friendly and outgoing and empathetic, ready to help anyone who is in need. He’s creative and enjoys drawing and painting like his dad.

He’s been counting down the days to his birthday, and now it’s here. Happy birthday and much love to Teddy. He’ll always be Our Boy

Train Simulators Revisited

A few months ago I wrote a post on the two most popular Train Simulators out there – Train Simulator 2016 and Trainz: A New Era. At the time I wrote that I would revisit the issue after a bit more experience with T:ANE. It had just been released at the time.

Having now played around with both games – and enjoyed them both – I conclude that which one you like better is a function of what your goals are in Train Simulation:

Just Want to Drive a Train?

No question your choice should be Train Simulator 2016.


Although TS 2016 makes use of an outdated graphics engine and relatively ancient 3D technology, it still looks great. Dovetail Games – the developer – has really pushed the envelope to deliver a smooth running, good looking product. As well a number of third party companies have made some wonderful models of old British steam and heritage rolling stock, as well as the sound packs to go with them. TS 2016 does its best work on British routes – the North American ones don’t have the variety of rolling stock, and most of the routes are mountain passes where you spend a lot of time grinding uphill and braking hard on the downhill sections. However the British locos are outstanding in their variety and quirkiness – from 1898 steam to modern diesels – and many of the British routes are spectacular. The control display is particularly well done, and you can make up your own trains. You do end up spending a lot of cash for additional content, but it’s often on sale.

Route building itself in TS 2016 is very difficult and complicated so:

If You’re More Interested in Building a Railroad Itself

You’ll want to look into Trainz: A New Era.


T:ANE had had its growing pains. The initial release was quite buggy and unstable, and – unless you have a powerful enough desktop unit – rather a pig to run. The latest SP1 upgrade has fixed a lot of that although you cannot run at the highest quality unless you have a top of the line processor, scads of RAM and a massive graphics card like an Nvidia GTX 980 (I don’t.)

T:ANE has wonderfully simple tools to build a route though – either a model railroad or a simulation of real life. You can easily lay track, design shunting yards, put in mountains and lakes, build tunnels and bridges. It all starts with a simple grid on a board – and you take it from there.

T:ANE does have a more modern graphics engine and 3D technology but it has a bit to go to match the smoothness and good looks of TS 2016. You can get special downloadable content for T:ANE but there’s also a lot of free trains and scenery assets available for download – some good, some not so good. Some of the older free trains are pretty ugly.

T:ANE has a nicer simple mode for driving trains that is quite similar to the electric transformer you’ll see on a model railroad.

I have a lot more to learn before I can be a proficient route builder, but I am a fairly experienced locomotive engineer (digitally at least) so right now I do better with TS 2016. T:ANE does have its charms though.

Both sims are available on Steam – the online game library – so in my books that is the way to go if you are interested.

So Much for El Nino

It’s been a roller coaster winter here so far, but it sure feels like a normal one for Almonte today.

We had a mild December and the first green Christmas in a long while, thanks to El Nino I guess. After the New Year we experienced a pretty significant snowfall courtesy of a Texas low and then the temperature plunged for a few days. Last weekend it got mild and we had a lot of rain and snowmelt, then down again into the deep freeze.

Yesterday was supposed to bring some light snow. We had to go to Kanata and Carleton Place so navigating some icy roads was on the menu. When we got back to Almonte it was snowing and blowing like crazy and I guess we got about five times as much snow as expected. Today is bitingly cold with a north wind and more snow is on tap to end the week. Good thing I got more gas for the snowblower.

Time to turn on the fireplace and settle down with a hot toddy, methinks. Oh, is it only 10 AM? Pity.

Grandpa’s Family


Richard MacDonald – my paternal grandfather – died before I was born. I met only two of his siblings as a child – my uncle Eddy the retired locomotive engineer, and my Aunt Lizzie (Elizabeth) who lived at the time in Bobcaygeon Ontario. So when I got interested in researching the MacDonald family tree I didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Grandpa’s side.

I had a few pictures my mother and my cousin Larry gave me and that was that.

I did know that great-grandfather Richard (same name as Grandpa MacD) had sired quite a family. There were 9 surviving siblings listed on Richard MacDonald’s obituary in 1935. So I dug into the Census data from Canada in 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911. Just about the whole family was listed there in one form or another over the 30 years. However, people came and went from the list so I was never sure exactly how many kids we were talking about in total.

What really helped was the discovery of the St Anthony Centreville baptismal files from the 19th century on FamilySearch – the LDS genealogy site. All of Richard and Elizabeth’s kids were baptized in this one tiny parish in the middle of Podunk Ontario. The baptismal register was rewritten in the 1950s in a clear easy to read script. It was a goldmine – verifying once and for all the birth dates on 14 kids!

That was the easy part. It’s taken years to trace the rest – spouse, kids, death date – for each of these children born between 1862 and 1884. And it’s not over yet and may not be in my lifetime. It’s not like I have any one source of information on them. And besides that there are other complications, such as:

  • What was the real last name of this family anyway? The census data are mixed and confusing. At one time maybe the family name was McDonnell, but other sources give it as McDonald or MacDonald (the way my particular branch spells it.) It’s all the same name really, but it causes problems in research – especially the automated hint mechanism supported through Ancestry. Spelling was never a strength in census takers a century or more ago.
  • There was often brutal corruption of French names by anglophone record keepers. For example, it appears that my great grandmother Elizabeth’s family name was Brien at one time. This got changed to Briaw, Briault, Breaugh, Breault in various censuses and church records. The Breaults are a family in their own right and if you trace back my family using this name you’ll soon run into problems – like a generation out of place. It just doesn’t fit.
    Other problems occurred when my grandfather’s sisters married French guys. Aunt Lizzie married a Gendron but I’ve seen that name spelled as Jendron. Aunt Mary married John J. Jandreau but that name was corrupted to Johndrew or Johndrow. The Church marriage records in Napanee managed to confuse Gendron and Jandreau at one point.
  • It was a long time ago – certainly nothing recent about this group. My grandfather was in his 30s when my dad was born. My dad was in his 40s when I was born. I’ve been around close to 70 years myself. So we are talking folks who were born close to a century and a half ago. Some were in their 50s when World War 1 got started. I had contact with only a couple of them when I was 9-10 years old. There is no living memory to go on when I was tracing them.
  • They moved around a bit. The census never shows the whole family in one place. The older kids got started in their jobs when they were teens. Some moved to the USA and made their lives there. Others went to Toronto, Oshawa and Ottawa. By the time I grew up nobody was left in my home town, except deceased family members like my grandfather (occupying the cemetery, natch.)

Although I got lucky and established all the births thanks to the Centreville church records, figuring out dates of death for the MacDonald family was quite a bit more complicated. In fact there are a few I can only pinpoint as after 1935 or after 1945. A few died in Ontario prior to 1939 and for these I can mostly find a record. Others can be found in online databases of newspapers, or the Find A Grave website. I was able to find out what happened to two great-aunts and a great-uncle who went to live in New York, thanks to an excellent website called Fulton History and some wonderful help from a genealogy library in Watertown. I’m still working on these end of life issues and trying to trace descendants where I can – given that a number of these cousins are now deceased as well.

It would really help if the church records in the Diocese of Kingston would release more data. Right now any records after 1910 are still sealed. Maybe that’ll change one of these days.

I suppose I could end this post with the sad story of great-aunt Bridget MacDonald Gough (1881-1924.) Of all the family she was the hardest to track down. My parents never mentioned her. Sometimes Bridget showed up in the census and sometimes not. There were times when I thought she and Theresa MacDonald were the same person, but eventually found out they were not.

Anyway Bridget married Frank Gough in 1913 and they lived in Toronto. They had three children – Francis born 1914, Rita born 1917 and a third child who died immediately after birth in September 1922. Francis Gough Jr. died in September 1923. In September 1924 Bridget must have been overcome with memories of grief. She turned on the gas in her home and killed herself and her third child Rita.

Poor Frank. He moved to the US to make a new life for himself after losing his entire family. Who could blame him?

As you can imagine this came as a bit of a shock to me as well. You don’t imagine learning of a tragedy like this 90 years after it happened. But such is the story of Grandpa MacDonald’s family.

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