Then and Now

It’s been 20 years or so since Sarah started university (21 actually) and it was around that time that both of us got online – me at home and she at Guelph. Internet experiences have sure changed a lot – especially for me as a home user. Let’s take a look.

Equipment to Get Online

  • Then – essentially a desktop or tower with a heavyweight 15 inch CRT screen.
  • Now- you name it – desktops, laptops, tablets, TVs, smartphones, door locks, washing machines, refrigerators…oy.

Connection

  • Then – a slow dial up at 28.8 Kbps at home; Sarah was connected to the University Internet backbone via wire. She got a blazing 1.5 Mbps.
  • Now – pretty much wifi over your local network. Speeds of 25 Mbps are routine. If you’re wired in you can easily get 130 Mbps with my ISP’s service. If I wanted to pay for it I could get gigabit speeds.

Communication

  • Then – mostly text based. We had email of course using a standalone client. Online we had forums and bulletin boards. You could make your own website if you were tech savvy and learned HTML.
  • Now – it’s the age of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, vlogs, WordPress – all making online presence easy and full of content. Point and click – you’re an Internet star. This blog – with a custom interface and my own domain – needs less than half the work my old website required. And frankly it is pretty much old school compared to what the millennials are posting today.

Browsing

  • Then – the browser heavyweights were Netscape and Mosaic. Internet Explorer was just starting to become popular. You could still pay for browser software back then.
  • Now – IE has morphed into Edge and Netscape became Firefox. Google Chrome has come out of nowhere to dominate. If you use a tablet or smartphone you probably use an app to access your favorite site like Facebook.

Websearch

  • Then – remember hierarchical hypertext search engines like old time Yahoo! ? Remember Excite? Remember Altavista? Gone like a soldier in the Civil War (Bang! Bang!)
  • Now – all you need to know is Google or maybe Bing if you feel masochistic.

Privacy and Security

  • Then – The Age of Innocence – maybe you ran McAfee scans once in a while to check for viruses.
  • Now -The Age of Paranoia – everyone’s out to infect you, scam you, make you part of a bot army, encrypt your data for ransom, hijack your browser, spy on you, steal your ID. You have firewalls, antivirus, antimalware, antispyware, antiphishing, VPNs, incognito browsing – and you still worry about it. Madness I say…madness. That reminds me – I should go check the spam filter on this blog. Only 8 spam comments. Pretty good for something this obscure. How do they find me?

Music

  • Then – There was ricky-tick electronic stuff called MIDI which you could embed on your site to annoy visitors. MP3 was just coming into its own but you needed a lot of bandwidth and storage to get music that way. It was also illegal to pirate music, as many downloaders found out.
  • Now – stream, baby, stream. Spotify is amazing. I don’t think I’ve listened to a DVD in months. Not only can I play an entire album from 1967 by The Doors, I can play it anywhere in the house. “Break on Through to the Other Side.”

Video

  • Then – sure thing, Sherlock. Even the college kids didn’t have enough bandwidth for video. Hardware wasn’t fast enough to render it, storage wasn’t big enough to store it, codecs weren’t mature. You want video in 1997? Go to Blockbuster and rent a cassette.
  • Now – did I mention stream,baby stream? YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix rule the Web. The US is ahead of Canada which seems strangled by regulatory red tape and the telcos / cable guys – but we do OK. Even the social media is obsessed with video – which you can make on a smartphone. It’s a new world out there.

Photography

  • Then – shoot your 35 mm film, get it developed and prints made. Put the print in a photo album. Stack up the albums in your basement.
  • Now – capture your photo in digital with a smartphone camera. Attach it to a message, or post it on Facebook or Instagram. Never make prints of anything. If you want to backup your photos locally you can put a zillion of them on today’s storage media. Maybe if you are a dinosaur like me you’ll have an actual digital camera.

Banking and E-commerce

  • Then- you’re kidding right? Try telephone banking if you are desperate.
  • Now – everything goes from paying your tax bills to buying a new pillow from Amazon.

Who’s Online?

  • Then – university students and some geeky early adopters. The vast majority got their news, did their everyday work, made financial transactions the same way they would have in 1950.
  • Now – A tiny minority (mostly in their late 80s) still live an off-the Net analog life. They find it increasingly difficult to do so in an era of 24 hour online access and activity.

I could go on but you must have gotten the idea by now. The last 20 years have revolutionised our everyday life. And artificial intelligence hasn’t even gotten started. Wow.

 

 

 

 

My First Build

It’s rather strange that after more than 40 years of working with computers, I didn’t actually build one myself until I was a senior citizen. And even that build was a bit unusual. To begin with I didn’t build it to run Windows. Second, my pre-construction planning wasn’t the best. Third, I added to it as time went on. But I was certainly happy with how it turned out. Even today as this home built desktop turns 4 (pretty old in computer terms) I continue to use it and be happy with it. It was a long and winding road though.

My story begins when I inherited an old XP based desktop after my parents passed away in 2009. I still had the old box in 2013 but by then XP was obsolete. I decided to rebuld the desktop with new components, reusing the case and power supply. The old machine had AMD based technology so I decided I would go that way again. Most of the basic parts came from Newegg – a well known supplier of computer hardware.

However as I began to disassemble the older system it was immediately apparent that the case and power supply were going to be woefully inadequate. The old case was big and heavy but was a bear to work inside. The motherboard was mounted in a way that I didn’t want to duplicate in a new build. The power supply was antiquated and weak. And the case lacked proper cables to connect things up.

So I had to do some scrambling before building. I went to a local computer store where I got a new case and power supply. My case (shown above) was more brutalist / gamer oriented than businesslike but it was the right size to fit on my desk, and featured 3 dimensional (convex) side panels that made it easy to run wires behind the motherboard. The power supply was modular – I only had to run the cables I needed and did not have to stash a bunch of unused cabling somewhere inside. Off to a better start now.

I splurged a bit on the motherboard – got a higher quality one than I arguably needed but it gave me all the modern features and future proofed me a bit.

The build was pretty easy. I used the stock cooler for the processor (didn’t try to fit anything difficult.) The processor I chose was called an APU – it combined graphics and computing technology in one chip. I didn’t have to put in a graphics card.

I added a hard drive and optical drive. I got 8GB of fast memory. After I screwed it all together and connected up the cables everything worked the first time. Amazing. I installed Linux and was off to the races.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. I installed in a wifi card to communicate with my router upstairs. I decided I’d be better off with 16 GB of RAM so I got another 8GB stick for dual channel operation. And solid state drives were coming down in price, so not long after that I added one to boot the operating system. I used the mechanical drive for storage of photos and documents. That was the first SSD I ever had. There was a convenient spot to screw it down in the bottom of the case. Cooler Master is a very thoughtful case maker. That SSD addition completed my build in 2013. Not well planned but it worked great.

A couple of years later I found that my graphics solution wasn’t all that well supported any longer by AMD – even in Linux – so I put in a newer discrete graphics card. This improved performance again – to the point that even with essentially four year old hardware my machine is fast and powerful. I expect with Linux I’ll be able to extend its life for another 5 years or so.

I was sorry I couldn’t honor the memory of my parents by re-using their old computer case. But I think of them every time I turn my first computer build on and hear that satisfying “beep.”

No Economy for Old Folks

I was reading recently that consumer spending accounts for 56% of Canada’s economy. How much of that is represented by the Boomers I don’t know. But we Boomers are all becoming old folks (both men and women) so if we are typical in our spending patterns it doesn’t look that good for future growth.

So what are some of the things consumers spend on and how do we personally fit into the pattern?

  • Shelter and Real Estate – this is a biggie but not for us. We have owned a house for many years, no mortgage and we have most of the stuff like landscaping taken care of. We might need some major repairs in the years to come like roofing and heating but that isn’t an ongoing thing.
  • Autos and Transportation – We have 2 cars right now (both older models.) We still can’t get down to one – not while we are in the sandwich generation. However we don’t put a lot of Km on either car. We don’t have to commute anywhere daily at least.
  • Food and Restaurant Fare – Nothing fancy. Maria is a demon bargain hunter when it comes to groceries and as far as eating out goes, we can have lunch in a local family restaurant or take the grandkids to McDonald’s once in a while. That’s it.
  • Clothing – we can get our “foundation garments” at Walmart and other things at the Hub – our thrift shop in Almonte. I suppose I bought some slacks a few years ago at Mark’s Work Warehouse. Don’t need fancy duds when you aren’t working.
  • Travel and Entertainment – We have had some cruise holidays over the years but those are mostly outside Canada. We didn’t travel at all in 2017 – not even to Syracuse NY. I guess we are getting into our “Go Slow” phase.
  • Health Care – some paid by our government health care but we have to ante up for dental, hearing aids and of course vet care for Mr. Oates. So far we can cope with that. I have some cataract surgery coming up but that shouldn’t break the bank. We have to plan for the future though.
  • Gifts – we can afford to be generous and we are. That sort of cash gift often gets saved or at the very least someone else spends it so we aren’t responsible for boosting the economy directly.
  • Electronics – our TVs and computers are old (the newest TV is from 2009.) I can fix a lot of stuff like old PCs anyway. No need to buy new, and with Linux a 10-12 year computer lifespan is normal. We have one smartphone which mostly gets used for talk and text.
  • Taxes and Pensions – Well can’t get away from that although we take advantage of the seniors tax breaks – certainly we pay less than we used to. We are receiving pensions, not paying into them.
  • Furniture and other stuff – we collected our art years ago. Our household furniture is still going strong and we can pick up the odd knick-knack at the Hub. Like most old folks we have more crap than we will ever need. Well, I did buy a new pillow the other day.
  • End of Life – got that taken are of, hopefully won’t need it soon. My grandfather bought our “final resting place” back in the 1930s and still lots of room there.

Sorry all you sales and service entrepreneurs out there. Unless you are selling geriatric stuff you’ll have to rely on someone else to keep you in business. Canada appears to have no economy for old folks, and there will be a lot of us in the years ahead. Maybe we could learn to gamble.

 

My Girl Turns 7

Yesterday (August 24, 2017)  was Veronica’s 7th birthday and she had lots of opportunity to flash her lovely gap toothed smile all kids her age have. Too bad you can’t see it here as this is more her Betty Bacall Look.

She wanted to have Apple Fritters as a special treat and how could we say no? I teased her a bit calling them Apple Critters and she was quick to correct me. She always is – just like her Nonna.

Sometimes you hear that the middle child gets neglected in a family. This will never happen with Veronica. She’s assertive to a “T” and she wants to make sure everyone has a fair share of mommy and daddy’s attention. Maybe she gets a bit more of Grandpa’s but hey…you’re only old once.

I still find her the sweetest and most affectionate of our grandchildren. She has a special spot in her heart for me and I for her. She is the joy of Gunther the tabby cat’s elder years. She feeds him, cuddles him and makes sure he can safely get on and off the couch beside her. She looks out for her older brother and younger sister with passion.

I think Veronica has inherited the musical talents of both her parents. She wants to learn dance and piano and yesterday she was busting a lot of moves in a dance oriented video game – racking up the points as she moved and grooved to “Barbara Ann.” But she’s also a demon karate student – although she’s not a big girl the schoolyard bullies better watch out!

She’s worked hard with her mom to become a proficient reader It didn’t come as easily to her as it did to Teddy but she’s doing well now.

Probably it’s not politically correct to say so but she is a girl’s girl. She loves her dresses and “princess costumes” from the Disney Store. She has a gutsy female character costume from Star Wars to wear for her weekend party when all the kids arrive.

Happy birthday sweet girl. I am sure you’ll be able to twist Grandpa around your little finger for as long as I am able to be twisted.

 

Statues and Values

There seems to be a lot of controversy about the presence of statues in our communities, and it’s not just about the Civil War monuments in the US. Cornwallis is having his problems in Halifax at the moment. But in our tiny community of Almonte there are a few monuments that aren’t going anywhere any time soon. They reflect the values and sentiments of the time they were set up in the town but so far they haven’t been controversial or divisive.

First we have our war memorial which was sculpted in the early 1920s by Dr. Robert Tait-McKenzie at the behest of the Alexander Rosamond family. Mr. Rosamond – Almonte’s primary Edwardian businessman – enlisted in the Army in World War I and was killed at the Battle of Courcelette in 1916. The statue bears a startling resemblance to Lt. Alex – so much so that it shocked his widow.

This one has 94 years of Almonte history behind it and certainly reflects the values of Remembrance, Courage, Sacrifice and Sorrow that marked the thought in town right after the War. It’s not the friendliest or most approachable monument though. The stone benches are more designed to hold wreaths than people’s bottoms.

A little more whimsical Dr. Tait-McKenzie sculpture. This one uses an old millstone with a bas-relief of his parents in the center. The bench is on the opposite side and gives a peaceful and tranquil view of the river above the falls. This one is from the 1930s and reflects Almonte’s industrial history, traditional side and family heritage. Totally non-controversial.

And here’s my favorite – a masterpiece by by Kansas sculptors Elden and Kim Tefft, it is a duplicate of the one in front of the University of Kansas fieldhouse. James Naismith, the inventor of Basketball, came from Almonte so it’s only fitting that he sits right downtown amid all the historic buildings. This one is fun, informal and welcoming – certainly the way we’d want to look at life in Almonte today.

Just a brief look at some ways that sculpture enhances rather than complicates our lives.

Cell Phone Roulette

We are nothing if not loyal to our wireless provider. That was the first service Rogers Communications ever provided us – way back in 1991 when they were called Cantel.

In the ensuing 26 years we had 3 – count ’em – cell phones:

  1. (1991-2000) Motorola bag phone – plugged into cigar lighter in the car and only worked there.
  2. (2000-2008) Nokia candy bar phone. We’d probably still be using this puppy except Rogers dropped their analog service and forced us to upgrade.
  3. (2008-2017) Nokia flip phone. Great for phone calls but little else.

So today we joined the 21st century I guess. Maria was up visiting my sister this past week and she discovered the convenience of instant messaging on Linda’s smartphone. She was going to try it on the flip phone. It supported it but all you had was an old numerical keypad that took three presses to get the right letter. You could probably write an instant message faster on a stone tablet with a hammer and chisel.

To make a long story short, we were off to Rogers in Carleton Place today and we came back with our 4th cell phone in 26 years – a Samsung Galaxy A5. Not the latest and greatest tech but it does have a nice display and keyboard and yes – she can send messages on it. She’s happy.

The Joy of Tampering

When Dave and Sarah got their HDTV close to a decade ago, they gave us Dave’s old RCA Standard Def TV along with this snazzy Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300 PVR. Since then the PVR and TV have graced our basement where Maria uses it to record soaps as a backup to our upstairs NextBox 3.0 HD-PVR. She often watches the soaps in SDTV down there. I don’t question her choice of soap viewing – nor of format.

All went well until last week the old PVR started to say “Disk Trouble – record and playback are not available.” Not a good sign. I tried to reboot the box and reformat the drive but no joy. All signs pointed to hard drive failure. It happens after 12 years or so. The tuner worked fine but Maria wasn’t happy.

Now this is old technology. Really old. I checked online and found out the hard drive was IDE/PATA – the old fashioned ribbon cable variety. Who has one of those archaic hard drives around today?

Well turns out I do. I checked my junk parts box and sure enough there was a perfectly serviceable 160GB PATA drive I took out of an old desktop PC years ago. Problem solved, right? Not so fast Mac.

I quickly ran into Ray’s First Law of Repair:

  • No matter how many tools you have collected over the years, you’ll never have the right one for the job.

The nimrods who designed the 8300 put three screws into it to hold the case onto the chassis. They were tamperproof Torx – and I did intend to tamper, believe me. I had to go to Home Depot and get a special security screwdriver set. An odd name don’t you think – because I was about to jailbreak the secure appliance. Anyway armed with this screwdriver I got the case off. Then I needed two more types of screwdrivers to remove the drive cage and free up the drive.

The rest was easy – just like replacing an old hard drive in a computer. Plug and pray, as they say.

Once I got the unit reassembled and hooked up, it started the reboot cycle – this time it flashed electronic messages like “HDD+” – which I took as an encouraging sign. When the reboot was finished, the recording capability was back.

Of course I had to reprogram the dam’ thing to record Maria’s soaps and I hope I did that right – we’ll see tomorrow. Old technology and the joy of tampering on a Sunday afternoon – can’t get any better than that.

 

Laundry Agitation

My daughter’s 15 year old GE washer bit the dust earlier this week. With three kids that wasn’t a pleasant situation so she decided to replace it ASAP.

In helping her research a new model, I had some personal concerns since our own Maytags are getting up there. Granted they don’t get the steady use Sarah’s machine did but you never know.

I learned more about washers and washer efficiency than I really wanted to know. It appears that in the past decade there has been a revolution in technology in the washer biz – not to mention a concentration in brands. Not only do you not know who’s who but also what’s what. Whirlpool, Amana and Maytag are the same company today. GE and Hotpoint are brands of Haier – a Chinese appliance powerhouse.

The new buzzword in laundry is high efficiency – lower water levels, longer wash cycles, more efficient spinning and lots of digital gew-gaws. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to surf the Web on my washer or phone it on my cellphone – it’ll happen sooner or later though. High efficiency used to be the domain of front loading washers, but now the venerable top loader is also going that way. Why, even the non high efficiency top loaders are being designed with load sensors and automatic water level controllers you can’t switch off.

Anyway Sarah went over to Home Depot, was dissatisfied with the service and delivery times and ended up at a real appliance store. These folks know their business, gave her good advice and offered to deliver the next day and remove the old machine for free.

She ended up buying a Speed Queen – a brand I was not all that familiar with but apparently is built like a tank and is old school as can be – no fancy-schmantzy  electronics or missing agitator. A bit more costly but she thinks it’s worth it.

As for me – well I don’t think I need a washer to last 25 years at an age when I don’t buy green bananas. I just hope we can squeeze a few more years out of the Maytags.

Motown

Sarah and Dave gave us tickets for our anniversary to see “Motown- the Musical” and I am glad they did.

We went to the show yesterday at the National Arts Centre. Great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

I was wondering how Barry Gordy – who wrote the musical book – could fit a storyline around 60+ Motown classics but it didn’t take long to find out. There were actually three storylines:

  1. How Barry Gordy founded Motown Records, how he developed it from a “black artist” label to a worldwide success, how he moved to LA, how the major record companies stole his performers away and left him bitter and disillusioned.
  2. How Motown and specifically Marvin Gaye reacted to, and interacted with the turbulence in American society in the ’60s and early ’70s.
  3.  Gordy’s long term romance with Diana Ross.

All the hits were there. All the major players were portrayed – Marvin, Smokey, the Funk Brothers, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Contours, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Holland Dozier and Holland etc. etc.

Chester Gregory (Barry) and Allison Semmes (Diana) were standouts. Both had show stopper numbers, as did the precocious 12 year old who played Michael Jackson (right down to the Moonwalk moves and uptempo vocals.)

The story begins with young Barry in 1938 and ends with the Motown 25th anniversary celebration in 1983. They used lots of actual film footage of the historical events as a backdrop to the music.

Barry Gordy is now 87. All his fans are getting old too. But we had a good time yesterday.

 

Television in the Digital Age

Remember back when you dialed up one of the 4 VHF channels you could get on your 21 inch B&W TV, and then went outside to pull the wires to rotate the antenna? I do too – but nowadays ain’t your grandpa’s TV era.

Last weekend my wife went down to visit her mother – and noticed that MIL’s 10 year old LCD TV was a mess. It had double images, shadowy figures and jumpy behavior- all bad. I checked online and this was symptomatic of display failure. Not worth fixing.

Maria’s mom is 87 years old and mostly watches Italian TV shows. She doesn’t stream video, has no DVD player. All she needs is a simple dumb LCD TV the same size as the bad one. So it was off to Amazon where we got a new 32 inch Vizio – decent specs, good price. In a couple of days it was here and then we were off to Kingston to install the beast.

After disconnecting the old TV and putting it in the car to recycle later, we took the old SDTV cable box to the Cogeco store and swapped it out for an HD model – new TV, no point in watching crappy old standard def shows. I got everything hooked up. Then I had to wait an hour for the box to initialize – which it did NOT do. I had to call Cogeco tech support, then wait another 45 minutes. I was 2 hours into the install and still didn’t have a picture.

Finally I got some action out of the box. Then I had to reprogram the remote so that it would switch the TV off and on, and finally switch both the box and TV off and on in sequence. This activity was slightly more complicated than installing a wifi computer network – but I digress.

After the remote was working I then had to deal with Cogeco’s archaic high definition programming. Unlike Rogers Cable – which just broadcasts HD on every channel if it’s available – Cogeco is still in the late 20th Century. You have to dial up the HD channels in the range of 700-800 and none of the channels have numbers remotely similar to the old SDTV ones. Maria’s mom will have to relearn her channel surfing I guess.

It was worth it though – at least her TV picture stays in one place and looks great in HD. She’s happy. And I am longing for that rotary dial and wires on the antenna.

 

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