The End of Early Retirement?

I’m rapidly approaching the “normal” retirement age. The thing is, I’ve already been retired for 6 years.

Recently I read a newspaper article about how the concept of early (or for that matter normal) retirement is dead. Because we are all living longer, we should want to keep on with a fulfilling career after 65, and not retire as our parents and grandparents may have done.

There were some interesting examples of such paragons of industry, to wit:

  • A former psychologist now earning his bread as a renovations carpenter.
  • An ex PR manager who tried making it as a professional house sitter, but had to take some work in her former field as a proofreader.
  • A guy who formerly managed a major clothing retailing firm, now employed as a tax preparer / construction worker.

Maybe it’s just me but I don’t see these “ stimulating positions” as any reason to continue on in the workforce if you don’t have to financially.

I worked a couple of years after retirement as a volunteer for a small company in the coffee business, but eventually decided I didn’t want to get up early and work 10 hour days if I didn’t have to.

In addition to this, after my wife and I retired we had a bunch of life issues – illness and death of her sister, aging and deaths of both my parents, her mother getting older. These took up a lot of time and thought and I really don’t see how we’d have done it all if we were committed to earning a paycheck in our senior years. Besides, we’ve got grandchildren now.

I acquired some pretty significant IT skills over my years at work and I now put those to good use helping others in the neighborhood. Most of my “clients” are around my age, and they trust me as much as the younger geeks they’d have to deal with otherwise. I suppose I could make a few bucks charging them for my services but hey – I don’t really need to, and they really can’t afford to pay me for whatever value I bring to their problems.

I have a lot of sympathy for those folks who haven’t been able to save enough to retire and may have to keep on working into their 70s. But those of us who can retire should get out of the way of people who really need to work.

There’s plenty of stuff to do in retirement, and you don’t always have to get up early to find it.

A Technical Trip Down Memory Lane

On June 2, 1969 I left behind my university days and embarked on a professional career as an Associate Chemist with General Foods Ltd. Research in Cobourg Ontario.

I can remember getting my first Retirement Plan summary with GF and marveling that my normal retirement date would be November 2011. It seemed unreal that one could see 42 years into the future. It’s far less mind-boggling to look back over that number of years today.

The way of life I experienced then is gone physically now. The R&D department in Canada was eliminated in the early 1990s. The mighty GF plant complex in Cobourg closed a couple of years ago. And even GF itself disappeared as an independent company over 20 years ago – merged with Kraft, GF lost its corporate name by 1995. The lovely 60s era lab complex where I learned my trade is now an ambulance building.

Even in places where food company R&D remains in place in Canada, the entire activity has been so changed that one would no longer even recognize the same sort of work in the late 1960s – who did it, how we did it, how we got paid, how we were managed. Maybe it’d be fun to take a little trip down memory lane.

To begin with, food Research was an overwhelming male activity in those days. Out of a 40 person staff we had maybe 5 women, and only 2 would have been considered professional. One was a home economist and the other a pioneering food scientist from UBC. Today the proportion would be 100% reversed.

Most degrees in the lab were in Chemistry, not Food Science and the job titles reflected that fact. Today almost every food R&D professional would be a graduate of a Food Science program at Guelph, Laval, UBC, get the idea.

We were a paper based department. We wrote our lab notes and product formulations by hand into bound notebooks. Our work was read and witnessed by our peers and supervisors. Our formulations were written to three figure accuracy, then checked and typed by a special formula control department which created a second formula for costing that went to 4 decimal places. We could not sort our formula listing except mentally, we were not directly responsible for ingredient line declaration, and we had only a foggy idea of how much our creation would cost. I cannot imagine how any food technologist could work like this today.

Our communication was mainly by telephone, although nobody had a direct line to the outside. We hand wrote memos which were then typed (and often corrected) by our secretarial staff. If we were in a hurry we had a particularly vile method of writing called a SpeediMemo – three copies, carbon paper. One copy was to keep, two to send, one to get back.

We kept track of our time on cards which we sent to the Research Facilities Supervisor. Each of our projects had a name and number. We got paid once a week by paper check which we had to take to the bank. My first check was around $100 as I recall. My gross pay was close to $130 per week.

We had a 15 minute coffee and /or tea break twice each day. Our coffee was made for us and delivered to the lab by a nice lady. We were supposed to remain at our desks, you see. However the management did not object if we had coffee with co-workers in another lab space as this encouraged “cross-pollination” of ideas.

A typical lab was a large bright room where we had 4-5 desks set up around the walls and the rest of the area consisted of benches and counters where we could weigh, mix ingredients, run tests, etc. Our equipment was unfailingly analog in nature.  Balances and test equipment had moving visual displays or paper recording charts. Even digital results such as colorimeter values were obtained by rotating knobs and matching potentiometer needles. The equipment was specifically designed and built for food application – the Amylograph, Farinograph, Hunter Colorimeter, Texturometer.

There were no computers or calculators in general use. The analytical lab had a strange Friden mechanical calculating machine with knobs, switches and thumbwheels. This could do calculations to some accuracy if you could master its eccentricities. Otherwise you stuck to a slide rule or mental math.

The only computer application I saw in the lab was by an older researcher who used a COBOL database structure to file and retrieve his hundreds of competitive evaluation reports. He knew nothing of computers but he liked the logic of the database.

Our laboratory library had a couple of interesting Information Retrieval systems. One was called the McBee card and was used to find the oldest research reports we had in the company. Some of these went back to the early 1940s. You stuck a long needle through a stack of cards. You then gave the deck a shake and the cards that you might be interested in were notched and fell out.

The McBee system had been replaced by some sort of Termatrex app for more recent reports. With Termatrex you placed a bunch of punched plastic sheets on a light viewer and if the light shone through in the right spot you were getting somewhere. I never figured this system out, and to be honest I never saw anyone else use it effectively either. One of our secretaries was pretty good with Termatrex and she could find things if you really needed it.

One last word about our management structure. It was heavily hierarchical and deep. I figure there were at least 4 levels of management in Research alone and probably another 3 up to the President of GF Canada. This doesn’t include all the lateral supervision we had in formula control and time reporting. It’s really amazing we got anything at all done under such a suffocating system.

In spite of all the strangeness above, it was a great time in my life. I was doing some interesting practical work, I learned a tremendous amount from eager young technical colleagues and the veterans who made up the backbone of the laboratory effort. I have never regretted the 5+ years I spent learning my craft in Cobourg Research. Long may it live in my memory.

It’s The Hardware, Stupid

When I first got involved with Linux – discovered Distrowatch and the joys of downloading and burning CDs – I thought the whole Linux scene was about the software. Man, all those different desktops, music players, office programs…choice was so cool! At one time I had a testbed system with 7 different distros on it, all chainloaded. Oy…

I’ve calmed down a bit since then. My current way of thinking is that the hardware you are working with determines not only what Linux distro you use but how you use it. Here are some examples taken from my computer museum at home:

  • Antique and Ancient Hardware. This stuff probably ran Windows 98 or even Windows 95. Installing Linux on the oldest machine I have was more a proof of feasibility than anything practical. For machines like this the lightest possible window manager and operating system is a must. Vector Linux has always been a good choice here, although I did have to use Deli Linux for my oldest junker.
  • Old but Still Useful. This might have a Pentium 4 and up to 1 GB of RAM. Maybe it even ran a primitive version of Windows XP, but I didn’t feel I wanted to be bothered maintaining all the security software. On these machines I just blow off XP and install Mandriva. They work fine for such uses as a music jukebox, or backup photo storage machine. Or one of them can serve as a main system for someone who doesn’t have a computer at all.
  • Netbook. I have one of these, and the look and feel is about the same as a 2003 desktop. It’s slow and underpowered – handy only for email or light Web surfing when on vacation. Linux is the only solution that makes sense for it, so I use Ubuntu Netbook Edition. Why anyone would want to run Vista or Windows 7 Starter on these types of machines is anybody’s guess.
  • Fairly New – Runs Linux Only. This is very nice cheap desktop system from 2008 that I use as a backup or alternate in my basement den. It has a dual core processor, lots of RAM and it’s never had anything but Linux installed. Right now it  screams along with Mandriva. Fast, powerful, safe, secure, free – what more could you ask?
  • Aging but Powerful. This is my main desktop system – Pentium Dual Core from 2005 with 3 GB of RAM. It was quite a machine in its day, and I got it as an off lease desktop in 2009. It runs XP Pro and I use it for a few things Linux is not quite up to as yet – tax software, my favorite photo management program come to mind. I do have this machine set up to dual boot with Mandriva, but to be honest I just use XP most of the time. It isn’t worth the aggravation to shut down and reboot to switch operating systems unless I want to rip/burn CDs. I prefer to do that in Linux.
  • Lights Out. A good description for my newest machine – a notebook with quad core processor, gobs of RAM, huge hard drive, 64 bit Windows 7 O/S. On this machine I’ll never dual boot. It’s not needed at all, since it has the muscle to run virtual machines all day long. I’ve installed Oracle’s VirtualBox and three different Linux distros to play around with, although my principal O/S here will continue to be Windows 7. Virtualization will likely be my way of the future with Linux on the latest hardware.

The Evolution of a Linux User

It’s been close to 5 years now since I first started experimenting with the Linux operating system. During that time  I’ve learned quite a lot – about Linux itself, and about me as a Linux user. Thought I’d reflect on that a bit today. Some random thoughts:

  • I’ve gone from user to geek and back to user. This transition was necessary at first. When I first began to install Linux, it was on older systems that needed a new O/S. I also wanted to have wireless capability as these older systems were in my basement and I wasn’t anxious to run cables through the floor or the walls. The Linux distros at the time were not particularly wireless savvy, nor were they always friendly to the type of wireless hardware available to me. I had to figure out how to use the command line, make wireless configuration files manually, even build a few modules to get things to work. Then around 2008 everything changed. It would be very rare today to install a Linux distro that didn’t have working wifi. Wireless hardware is also far more compatible than it used to be. So is printing and scanning, especially with HP printers.
  • My choice of Linux distro is far more limited and certainly not particularly geeky. Basically I stick to a mainstream system that just works (Mandriva), one for netbooks (Ubuntu Netbook Edition) and one for older hardware (Vector Linux.) I have not gotten into the real enthusiast’s type of Linux like Slackware, Arch, or (God forbid) Gentoo. I like Gnome or Xfce for a desktop environment.
  • I try to use the Linux O/S in a few different ways depending on the hardware I’m working with. More on that in my next post.
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