Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Internet service providers get little love these days it seems. In my town I have a choice of two – one really if I don’t want to get TV via satellite dish. My local monopolist is Rogers Communications.

Generally Mr. Rogers gives good service although I pay him well for the privilege. And don’t expect him to tell you if he has a better deal.

Lately one of the guys in my coffee group got a new Rogers modem installed and for once he didn’t have to attach a separate router to it to get decent wifi speeds. The early Rogers combination Internet gateways were horrible. No speed anywhere in the house more than a couple meters from the gateway.

So I got sniffing round the Rogers website and discovered what looked like a better deal for a few bucks more. Faster speed, new modem and more bandwidth. I started chatting with a Rogers rep (in Moncton I think) and she did even better – almost double the speed and unlimited bandwidth for about the same price. An offer I couldn’t refuse.

The catch? I had to switch my older but nicely functioning Cisco modem for a new Hitron Rocket Modem. I noticed really bad performance with Hitron gateways when my friends and family used them – that’s why I made the local Rogers store give me a Cisco modem in the first place. But the deal was too good to resist. Besides I figured I could always reattach my old router if need be.

Well how wrong I was. The Rogers store in Carleton Place gave me one of the latest and fastest Hitron modems. My wired connection to the upstairs desktop is just flying. And I didn’t have to reconnect the external modem. The internal wifi in the Hitron gateway is providing just as good if not better speeds than I was getting with my earlier, more complex setup. Looks great so far.

Maybe you have to nag Mr. Rogers a bit, but in the end he does the job.

The Next Great Linux Platform

 

I’ve been installing and running Linux as an alternate to Windows for over 10 years now. In that time:

  1. I’ve installed Linux as a replacement for Windows systems that were obsolete or slow.
  2. I bought a couple of netbooks that came with Linux pre-installed.
  3. I had a desktop system built without Windows to run Linux only. It’s only run Linux in its useful life.
  4. I built my own desktop system to run Linux only. No Windows ever installed.
  5. I’ve installed many types of Linux in “Virtual Machines” to test and run inside Windows.

Since probably 95% of all computers ever made run some form of Windows, most of my experience is with case #1. And the key to a successful Linux replacement is how the original Windows-centered hardware responds to a Linux installation.

In my years of doing this I have encountered two really great platforms that are the essence of “Linux friendly” design:

  1. Dell Dimension desktop systems from the early 2000s.
  2. Lenovo Thinkpad laptops.

Both of these systems are based on Intel architecture – processors and motherboards. In addition the Thinkpads generally have Intel graphics and wireless adapters.

All hardware will work with Windows but Intel has done the best at being compatible with Linux over the years.

The early Dell desktops were solidly built machines that were almost exclusively Intel based. They did not have a lot of built in peripherals – you had to choose your ethernet card, graphics card – even a sound card. If you bought Dell all this stuff tended to be Linux friendly as well as Windows friendly.

I almost took it for granted that if a computer ran Windows it would run Linux. Sadly my experience with other motherboards, graphics solutions and especially wifi soon taught me otherwise. But an early Dell desktop? It never let me down.

As the desktop era wound down and Dell outsourced its production to Asia, things changed. New Dell laptops – especially their cheaper models – became notoriously unfriendly to Linux. The worst offenders were Dell’s wifi cards – they were made by Broadcom, and there was a time around 2009 when it was a crapshoot if you could get wifi to work in Linux at all with a Dell laptop.

This was a big problem because it’s a lot harder to upgrade and replace parts in a laptop – what you see is what you get.

Fortunately for Linux advocates the next great Linux platform was emerging and it was a laptop – the Lenovo Thinkpad.

Now you don’t just go out and buy a new Thinkpad unless you are a business like Unilever. They cost thousands. A lot of Thinkpads are leased and after a few years come back to a refurbisher. Then they are checked out, cleaned up and sold through companies like Canada Computers for a fraction of the original price.

So it was that I ended up with a beautifully preserved Thinkpad T430 (circa 2013.) it must have been an executive’s laptop. It looks brand new and has extra memory and a Samsung solid state drive. It’s all Intel – processor, graphics, ethernet, wifi.

I figure this machine likely ran Windows 7 but it was refurbished to run Windows 10. However I wanted it to run Linux so I wiped the SSD and installed Debian. I had to do a bit of geek work to get the wifi to go but everything else was fine.

Had I chosen a more mainstream version of Linux like Ubuntu everything would have worked right out of the box. I kept a Windows 10 image in case but I doubt I’ll ever install it – maybe as a Virtual Machine but I really don’t need it for anything.

This powerful laptop boots up to the desktop in 10 seconds and it flies on any task I want it to do. It is like 2005 all over again – and I have experienced the next great Linux platform.

Retooling

I recently read a book called “Janesville – An American Story” by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein. It was gripping and thoroughly readable – but it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Janesville – as I found out – is a medium sized city in Southern Wisconsin near the Illinois border. It is famous as the home town of conservative American politician Paul Ryan, and as the founding site of the Parker Pen Company. But Janesville’s biggest employer for close to 90 years was the massive GM assembly plant. Four generations of Janesville people worked in the plant or at one of the supporting factories that supplied it. It was never easy work but it paid well enough to support a middle class lifestyle for the 7000 or so workers at the plant. They figured it would be there another century or so.

The Great Recession , high oil prices and the GM insolvency dictated otherwise. The plant closed in December 2008 (mothballed at the time, permanently closed 7 years later.) At the end it was building gas guzzling Suburbans and Tahoes and GM didn’t offer the plant a new more fuel efficient product.

The American story follows the fortunes of a few families and influential people in the town. It is at times inspirational with tales of self-sacrifice and hard work; at other times it’s totally depressing with accounts of desperation, poverty and death. It’s well worth the read.

What struck me the most was that studies by Goldstein and labor economists seem to disprove the generally accepted wisdom that the best course of action when a labor force is displaced is to invest heavily in retraining those folks for new and supposedly better jobs. This axiomatic conclusion seems to be about the only thing both progressive and conservative politicians can agree on these days.

To be sure, a lot of time and money went into technical training for the displaced members of UAW 95. Of the more than 7000 men and women affected, close to 2000 started in to retraining courses at the local community college. They studied everything from Criminal Justice to Heating and Air Conditioning to Electrical Transmission.

One particular couple stands out. The husband leveraged his job as a Union Personnel Rep to train in Human Resources and got a job in HR management. The wife went through the Criminal Justice program, got a job as a Correctional Officer, started part-time studies in social work through a nearby University and ended up working with developmentally delayed individuals. Both liked their jobs better than working in the factory and they got to stay in their home town. Win-win, right?

Well, maybe. The two “new and improved” jobs paid them about the same as one factory job had before. In fact the research carried out by Amy Goldstein’s associates concluded that if you had gone into a retraining program you ended up making 33% less than before and – this is scary – 25% less than displaced workers who didn’t go to school at all.

The reasons for this inconvenient truth about retraining are not clear but some theories put forth include:

  • The workers who didn’t retrain kept working and simply had more hours where they got paid.
  • The displaced workers who didn’t go back to school sucked up the remaining lower skill jobs that were around while the retrainees were – well, retraining.
  • The folks coming out in a new field had to go into entry level positions and it would take years for them to catch up financially to where they were before.

Now it wasn’t all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns for the factory workers who did not return to school. Most of them ended up in jobs with inferior pay and benefits. The best off financially were the “GM gypsies” who left Janesville during the week to live and work in distant cities. The closest GM plant is 4 hours away, and closer Chrysler factories were not hiring. These weekly commuters managed to keep going but they certainly paid the price in family relationships.

I’m still a big fan of retraining – in fact I believe in lifelong learning. Nothing stays the same forever. But it is best to retrain while you still have a job.

In my career I worked in 6 different factories. One is a collection of small businesses today. Another is a warehouse. Another is still open but only half in use. Another went from a flavour company headquarters to a fish processing plant. Another was demolished recently. The one remaining one is facing an uncertain future.

An awful lot of factory workers lost their jobs in those establishments and honestly I don’t know how they all coped with it. I would like to think that if they retrained they found something satisfying and financially OK. But if Amy Goldstein and her associates are correct the odds are against them.

Oh, and in case you were wondering the Parker Pen Company doesn’t have a factory in Janesville either. They closed the final small operation shortly after GM left the town.

 

 

 

 

Dedicated

Having a Spotify subscription is sort of like getting a treasure map of music gold. And so it was that I rediscovered the remarkable vocal trio Wilson Phillips and their 2012 album “Dedicated.”

It’s over 25 years now that Sarah was starting high school and we were taking March Breaks in Arizona. Back then the “girl group”  composed of the daughters of Brian Wilson / John and Michelle Phillips were all over the FM top 40 stations in Phoenix and Tucson. Their debut album was the biggest ever by a female trio – bigger than the Supremes if you can believe it. Then they were gone from the charts as soon as they arrived it seems.

Flash forward to 2012 and these “girls” were now working moms in their 40s. They had reunited off and on since 1992 – and to mark 20+ years of collaboration decided to put together a tribute album to the music of their parents. They chose some of the great hits of their parents’ respective 60s groups, plus some more obscure songs they personally loved. It was more than a collection of covers – despite the fact that one song is a cover of a cover of a cover. No indeed; this was the music of their lives.

They have given these classic Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas songs their own personal touch, They pay homage to the original arrangements but don’t ever try to duplicate them – how could they? The tour de force on the album is the a capella version of Wilson’s masterpiece “Good Vibrations,” where vocal harmonies take the place of that signature theramin riff. Carney Wilson does a pretty good Mike Love impression too.

The result is quite wonderful – so good I hope to convince my son-in-law to play it for the grandkids (who are real oldies fans.) It’s time they got an education on the music grandpa loved back when – by a group their mother liked. How else to learn the history of Rock and Pop?

 

Impulse Purchase?

I read an article today about how Costco Canada was getting lots of sales through impulse purchases – like an instant massager – no, NOT instant messenger, instant massager.

That seemed rather weird to me. I mean, who wants to look for serendipity in a place where random shoppers conspire to block the aisles and play bumper cars with your cart, where you have to run the gauntlet of Zamboni-like floor sweepers and folks hawking all sorts of free food samples, where they move the kitty litter around the store every week or so, where you just want to buy your massive jar of dill pickles and get the heck out to the jammed parking lot?

I am the king of the non-impulse purchase anyway. Just give me a grocery list, send me out and I’ll get everything on that list and nothing else.

However upon reflection I have to admit that a couple of times I did make an impulse purchase in Costco. These were IT items:

  • My old D-Link router was obsolete and not giving a good signal in remote parts of the house. Costco had an excellent price on a new D-Link N router that actually targets the wifi adapter wherever it is located. That router has given excellent service and is delivering the signal I need to type this post.
  • I was in the market for a better monitor for my desktop – the old one had washed out color and was hard to read. Again Costco featured a really nice LG IPS monitor at about $50 less than I had seen it anywhere else. Voila!

So I went into the store not expecting to buy but did. Now I suppose you could argue I might have got something similar at Best Buy or Amazon, but the fact remains that Costco was in the right place at the right time. Be that as it may I am not about to go on a treasure hunt in Costco anytime soon for a set of steak knives or a Ronco slicer/dicer. No way.

The article also mentioned that Costco has tapped into some other basic consumer fears/motivations like scarcity, possible discontinuation of items, choice but not too much choice, the fact you have to pay to play. They treat their employees well and it shows when you check out.

But it’s still not the sort of place I’d visit for the sheer joy(?) of discovering that special item.

Nostalgia

 

 

I’ve been taking film and digital photos for close to 50 years now. I got started with a relatively primitive Yashica 35 mm rangefinder back in 1970. For about 15 years I concentrated my photography on slide film – which meant I needed a screen and projector to view my handiwork.

I later converted to color print film and most of the next 20 years are documented that way in photo albums. I was a late convert to digital photography and only threw in the towel on film around 2007.

Most of that reluctance to go digital was nostalgia I admit. Even when I got my first real high quality autofocus camera in 2002 I stuck with film. I have a fine Nikon F80 film camera setup now gathering dust in the closet as a result. The lenses can be used after a fashion on a modern DSLR but the camera body is toast for all practical purposes.

Consider the above photo taken in 1981 with the Yashica. Actually by then my technique had improved a lot and the lighting was good at the Tower of London that day, so the old 35mm camera did an OK job. In bright light I often got out of focus pics – never knew why – maybe just a bad photographer.

Sadly, film had other disadvantages that nostalgia cannot deny:

  • Loading and unloading even with cartridges could be fraught with danger. I had more than one film ruined by sloppy handling.
  • You only got a few chances to make a good image. You had only 36 shots with a cartridge of 35 mm color slide film or 24 with prints, so you needed to be perfect every time. I never was.
  • Film could and did get expensive over the years.
  • Color slide film was slow, did not have a lot of contrast to begin with and it tends to fade as it ages.
  • Color prints are difficult to store if you have a lot of them. Trust me.
  • You have to figure out some way to scan and digitize film if you want to display them today or post them on the internet. That goes for both slides and photo prints.

Above is one of the last color slides I took back in 1985. You can see some of the problems here even though by this time I had a quality manual focus Nikon FE camera and some mid-grade lenses for it. Contrast is a definite problem with a black steam tractor silhouetted against a bright sky. The sky is “blown out” even after white balance correction on the slide scan.

 

Here is a color print from 2003 taken in Italy. Not a bad scan, although I was at the mercy of the print provider to get the color right and then I could make a scan with the result. This was with a high quality Nikon camera body and Nikon lenses. so about as good as you can get with film.

Shortly after this I started to dip my toe into digital photography and either my technique got better or the digital cameras did. Either way I am I am much happier with the results.

Digital photography has advantages nostalgia cannot overcome:

  • Once you buy the camera, images are limitless and essentially cost zero. Take as many as you want.
  • You transfer your pics directly to the computer or the Internet.
  • The camera gives you much better contrast and huge ranges of film speed. Autofocus takes your bad vision out of the picture.

Here’s an example of what a Panasonic Lumix camera the size of a deck of cards can do. Taken in November at La-Seyne-sur-Mer, France. No blown out sky here on a dazzlingly sunny day. Easy to transfer and post.

At first when I went out to photograph my life, all I had was a smallish rangefinder camera and some packs of film. By the time I got to Italy in 2003, I had a camera body, 4 lenses, flash and even more film. Today I have the Lumix and that’s it. I have come full circle and I don’t feel nostalgic at all.

Desktop Environment – 1970

This is probably the first photo I ever snapped with my Yashica Electro M5 35mm camera back in 1970. Notable I suppose for historical rather than aesthetic purposes. Here’s my desktop back then.

I didn’t do much real development work here of course. I would do that at the communal lab benches and then repair to my desk to write things up. I was close to the fridge in case of emergency hunger or thirst – and it probably gave a touch of privacy to the place where I sat.

Note how analog a scientist  was close to 50 years ago. Aside from notebooks, a stapler, box of Kleenex, my slide rules and of course my “Executive Yo-Yo” – not much there. No Computer screen, no laptop dock, no smartphone. In fact I don’t even see an old fashioned telephone. Back then we probably had a party line phone in the lab. Nobody could call in without going through the telephone switchboard anyway.

I think I took this photo after hours because my desk looks pretty clean. I would have locked up anything proprietary before going home.

My lab was just across the hallway from the analytical laboratory, where we could get those folks to test competitors’ products if needed. I never worked in there and was glad of it. Not my bag at all.

The analytical lab had the only calculator in the Research Department and it was a Rube Goldberg device with lots of gears and numerical wheels. If I recall correctly it was a Friden mechanical calculator.

Looking at this photo I see a water bath on the far left (maybe used to control temperatures on a refractometer), a couple of Soxhlet fat extractor racks, and a gadget for drilling holes in rubber stoppers. Never know when that might come in handy. 🙂

The Soxhlet fat analysis method was already close to 100 years old in 1970. Some food science testing never dies. My daughter learned about it at the end of the 20th century. Of course Near Infrared spectroscopy is a common alternative to the classic Soxhlet method today.

And now you know the rest of the story.

 

Gerrit

Once in a great while a person comes into your life that leaves you far more enriched and enlightened than you may have thought possible. Gerrit Willemse was such a person for me.

Gerrit had a long and distinguished career with Unilever Research and during that time was the project leader for a technical effort for Unilever Canada. it was an ambitious one:

  • to come up with a new process to make the special “hardstock” that makes Becel Margarine so special.
  • to do this work in Canada making use of our existing fat fractionating equipment
  • to pioneer a dry fractionation way of getting the hardstock (no solvents -greener.)

Gerrit supervised the project with the help of his colleague Rob Bons. Rob is on the right in the photo above. It went from laboratory to pilot plant in Vlaardingen, then to production trials in Canada. This latter part was where I came in. I helped facilitate the three plus trials in the Rexdale factory and at the end actually made some Becel with the hardstock. In the process I learned a great deal about the thermodynamics and kinetics of fat crystallization, how to control it through microprocessors, and how to analyse the results. It was a highlight of my technical life at Unilever to work with this brilliant yet eminently practical scientist.

We succeeded but at the end never went into full scale production, because of changing economics and Marketing’s reluctance to tamper with a product of such importance to the company.

After retirement Gerrit, Rob and I kept in touch by email and in 2009 Gerrit and I had a reunion in La Coruna Spain. Maria and I arrived by cruise ship. Gerrit and his wife Janny picked us up and we spent a fine afternoon at the campground where they were enjoying their fancy new camper trailer.

This afternoon is how I’ll always remember him.

Gerrit was more than a scientist. He was an accomplished photographer – both in film and digital — and had exhibitions of his art at many craft shows. He was a devoted husband and loving father. I remember how proud he was of the fact that his future son-in-law cared enough to ask him for the hand of his daughter Aniek in marriage. His son Joris is a successful IT manager.

In 2002 Gerrit was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of prostate cancer. He retired early because his prognosis was poor. Nevertheless he soldiered on for another 15 years with courage, grace and dignity. He lived to see his three grandchildren.

Gerrit passed away at the age of 69 on March 28, 2017. He will be sorely missed. Thank you Gerrit for your influence on so many lives. You leave this world a better place for your being in it.

 

The Scanner – Part Deux

So the scanner has arrived. It’s not made by Nikon or Canon – not even Panasonic. Its brand name is (wait for it) Jumbl. Jumbl is a company that markets different electronic gadgets that are no doubt made in China and co-branded for them.

No matter. The darn thing works pretty well. You can scan in high res in about 5 seconds. In fact the hardest part about the scanning was that we couldn’t find the old slides. Poor Maria spent an afternoon searching through the basement alcove and finally located them right at the front of a pile of boxes under the stairs. I was going to help but she soon got me out of the way.

So I started with a bunch of photo slides taken in May 1981 when I went to Geneva and London with Firmenich – my employer at the time. Here is the way the ski resort town of Zermatt looked back then.

Then I moved on to a bunch of slides taken in 1984/1985 – just before I switched to color print film.

Here are a couple of Cabbage Patch kids from that era.

And here is Sarah in historic Philadelphia ca 1985 – visiting the Liberty Bell.

And finally a picture taken at Sarah’s First Communion with her Nonna and Nonno.

Color slide film can have some weird color casts so I am sure I shall have to do some post scanning work to get every pic looking OK. But I am pleased with the results so far. I have scanned over 200 slides in an afternoon.

And I can’t resist ending with something from my own younger days. This is “Lucky”, our dog who lived from 1961 to 1976 – a photo here taken by my late stepfather Jack Selby that is over 50 years old if it’s a day. What a great pal Lucky was – to everyone.

Slide Scanning

What I learned about photography I picked up from my Uncle Howard. He used the ugly little Kodak Signet 50 (pictured above) for 25+ years and was living proof that it is not the equipment that makes the photographer. He could make that old manual fixed lens viewfinder just talk. I’ll never make as good images as he did.

Uncle Howard was a 35 mm color slide guy – Kodachrome mostly. So when I could finally afford a decent camera I followed his lead. Starting around 1970 and up until 1985 that’s how I took photos – first with a Yashica Electro M5 viewfinder and later on with a Nikon FE SLR. If it hadn’t been for the desire to have family vacation albums with actual prints, I probably would have used slide film up until the advent of digital.

As a result I have boxes and slide trays of stuff now going back close to 50 years – early work days, meeting Maria, getting married, Sarah’s early childhood. There are some photos I’m really proud of –

like this one from our honeymoon on PEI. Others, not so much. But it’s all there. Hundreds of exposures and they aren’t doing much good sitting in boxes in the closet.

Now I did make an attempt to digitize some of these images back in the day. In 2002 I bought a Minolta DIMAGE Scan Dual III film and negative scanner. I used it to scan a number of slides back then but I am not anxious to use it any further because:

  • The scanner was compatible with Windows 98. Minolta is out of business; there is no scanner driver for Windows 10.
  • There is scanner software that might work but it costs close to $100 Canadian.
  • The scanner scans in BMP format and I had to convert it all to JPG for viewing and upload.
  • The scanner is very slow in high res mode. It would take close to 4 minutes to scan one slide. I did most of my scans in low res 640X480 mode and that’s no good on a modern computer monitor.
  • Technology has improved a bit since 2002. Today’s slide scanners don’t need a computer connection. They put the scans on an SD card just like a digital camera would. They do a high res scan in 4 seconds, not 4 minutes.
  • A new scanner would cost only about $40 more than buying the software for an old one. No-brainer.

So I’m looking seriously into a new scanner unit. If and when it arrives I plan to re-scan all the stuff I did 15 years ago in higher resolution – then I’ll move on to the scads of slides still in the boxes. After that I still have to despeckle and color correct all that aging Kodachrome. But I think it’ll be worth it.

 

 

 

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