It’s funny. On many previous trips to the US for mini holidays, Syracuse was just a city that was easy to bypass using I-481. Lately however it’s become a family friendly destination in its own right. We visited again last weekend.

It all starts in DeWitt with a very friendly and comfortable Holiday Inn Express. The grandchildren love the pool and the fresh baked cookies waiting in the lobby. The lady who looks after the HIE breakfast room is a jewel. I hope they realize how special an employee she is.

There are shopping malls and restaurants nearby including everyone’s favorite – Friendly’s. It’s been 35 years since I first visited Friendly’s in Princeton NJ and I still like it a lot.

And Syracuse is a compact city. In 15 minutes you can go from DeWitt to the Zoo, the Museum of Science and Technology or the massive Destiny USA shopping center with lots of kid friendly attractions.

In the summer it’s a short drive to Auburn and the Finger Lakes if you want a day trip outside the city limits.

Best of all it’s a comfortable 4 hour drive from Almonte so you don’t waste a lot of time getting there and back.

Syracuse was a well diversified smokestack industry city that suffered a lot from de-industrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s. Major employers like General Electric, Carrier and Rockwell closed their factories. Other companies like Smith-Corona made products that became obsolete in the office of today. Syracuse and environs have had to re-invent themselves as a service and tourist driven city. That’s not always easy but they are trying. We’ll certainly visit again to help them succeed.

Big Iron

This is what we used to mean if we used the term in computerese. Mainframe units that required their own air conditioned room.

These days with a lot of folks surfing the Net on a smartphone, I’d argue that “big iron” probably refers to a desktop system. Call me a dinosaur but I still think there is a place in my online world for the big unit.

  • Nice big keyboard with easy typing.
  • A mouse – no fat finger pointing.
  • 21 inch screen or larger.
  • Gobs of memory.
  • High speed processor and powerful video.
  • Plenty of storage space.
  • Speakers that actually sound good.

I have two of these behemoths in regular use at home.

My primary desktop is a commercial grade Acer Veriton M. Assembled in the USA with quality components, it has a 2nd gen Intel i5 processor and a 1 TB hard drive. Since I use this machine for my Train Sim games I have increased the memory and added a discrete Nvidia video card. To do that I had to replace the power supply which was the only weak point in this system. So it’s a modified commercial machine I guess.

My other desktop is one I built from the ground up as a Linux only machine. It has a gaming case, AMD quad core Trinity chip which combines video and processor, a solid state drive for the operating system and a large regular hard drive for photos and documents. This particular machine is very fast and powerful since it runs Linux. As a home built unit, it has quality components and didn’t cost all that much to put together.

The joy of big iron. Some days it isn’t bad to be a dinosaur.


A Vanishing Career

I began my career in the Canadian food industry over 45 years ago as a newly minted chemist. During the course of it I worked as a product developer, basic researcher, quality assurance analyst, and laboratory manager.

I worked for 3 major food conglomerates and the best flavor and fragrance company in the world. And if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t be able to.

To begin with, entry level positions in my line of work go to graduates in Food Science rather than Chemistry these days. They likely would require a Master of Science degree as well.

Second, there has been a quantum shift in the industrial environment in Canada since the late 1960s.

  • My first company (General Foods) closed its Canadian Research facilities in 1992. No jobs there any longer.
  • My second company (Standard Brands) merged with Nabisco and Kraft. No R&D done here any more.
  • My third employer (Firmenich) lost most of its Canadian ingredient customers and closed its Canadian operations in the late 2000s. Its lovely facility is now owned by a fish packing company.
  • My final company (Lipton then Unilever) still has a nominal technical presence in Canada but its scientists have been reduced to product deployment staff – they introduce products to the Canadian market that have been developed elsewhere. Most of my creative colleagues have retired and I’m not sure how many were replaced. The long term prognosis for the Canadian group is not good.

My story isn’t unique – many other companies like Kellogg, Nestle and General Mills have reduced or eliminated technical staff. Nor have my colleagues who worked in quality control or factory management been spared. Former General Foods plants in Cobourg and LaSalle QC have closed. Nestle shut down a plant in Chesterville ON a few years ago, Hershey eliminated the Smiths Falls candy factory. Kraft closed the Christie cookie plant in Toronto. Unilever shut plants in Baie d’Urfe QC, Belleville and Peterborough ON, and will soon close a large factory in Brampton ON that houses the Product Deployment group as well.

What’s been happening is a hollowing out of the Canadian food industry that is controlled by multinationals. Today’s Food Science graduates have to take jobs with smaller homegrown industries, or consider academia or government service. That’s what my daughter did – she has an M.Sc. in Food Science and works for the Federal Government.

As a young chemist today I could likely work for a miner or oil extractor, but any chance for a career in the food industry seems to have vanished into the haze of yesterday. As for my grandson – if he wants a technical sort of career I’d advise him to become a pharmacist.

More Lessons in Appliance Failure

I believe there is another Appliance Failure Law that says:

  • If an appliance has been in use for approximately 10 years there is a 90% probability of a major meltdown.

The latest casualty at home is a rather unsung piece of metal in the basement called an HRV unit. This is something that is needed in well insulated houses in Canada during the cold weather. It is a heat exchanger that draws in cold outside air and warms it a bit with the warm humid inside air it’s exhausting from the inner space. It keeps the humidity at a decent level inside and is far more heat efficient than opening the windows. It’s great when it works.

Right now it appears to be broken though. I’ve tried rebooting it and checked the circuit breaker and power supply to it, but the motor’s not running.  The electric dampers open and close so I think the control board is OK. The repair adviser at the furnace service company thinks the motor may be toast – he’s replaced a bunch of them already this fall.

Without the HRV the windows fog up, and Maria gets grumpy. Gotta get it fixed.

All it takes is money. Not as much as replacing the fridge, but expensive enough. The repair person’s on his way this afternoon.

Update: The service company sent Adam – our favorite technician. He had the old motor out and a new one in – in 20 minutes. No more fogged up windows. Maria is happy.



Starting Over

I am a watch collector of sorts. Mostly I collect the old stuff – pocket watches made before World War I and wind-up wrist watches from the 1930s to the 1950s.

I got started back in the 1950s myself when my grandfather gave me one of his old pocket watches. I still have it; it still runs pretty well.

About 10 years ago I joined an online watch forum. I was later appointed a Moderator for the Vintage and Pocket Watch section. As time went on I gave more time and effort to the forum, which grew to be the most successful and most visited one online. There were about 50 other volunteers like me.

Then the owner sold the site unexpectedly. The buyer was an Internet forum aggregator – a company interested in making money from site advertising and sponsors but not interested in watches. We went from working for an owner we liked and respected to being unpaid labor for a faceless corporation.

That did not sit well with me so I resigned. So did a number of the other Moderators. We’ve decided to start up our own site – for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts. It has been a lot of work so far – especially for the IT guru who’s spearheading the effort. We haven’t even got the forum open as yet, But at least we are working on something for ourselves.


Blog Versus Website

When I first began to establish an Internet presence there was really only one practical way to do it – build a website.

Those were the days of online communities like GeoCities or Angelfire and many millions of online users picked up a bit of HTML and established a place on the Web. If they were like me, it was strictly amateur hour.

I’ve done lots of coding over the years, and in the late 1990s I learned enough HTML to be dangerous. My old website is still up there as a reminder of how bad things used to be. HTML is only one part of the picture – to be a serious website developer you need to learn Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript. My son-in-law – who is nowhere near as much of a geek as I am – put in the time to learn CSS and he made some quite passable sites compared to mine.

The other major problem with a website is that it’s static. You do a page. Then if things change, you redo it. If you want to write about a new topic, it’s a new page. You have to worry about navigational links. And you have to write the code correctly and with some creative flair. The means is more important than the end, frankly. It’s fun if you just want to be a geek I suppose.

A blog didn’t really exist in its current form back when I built my site 15 years ago. A blog is dynamic. You write an article and it appears at the top. Older posts move down. Instead of having to sign a Guestbook, your readers can comment on a post with ease.

You can start blogging in five minutes if you sign up with Google Blogger or WordPress. Even if you want to satisfy your inner geek and have your own domain, you can install the WordPress blogging software with a couple of clicks and maybe it takes 10 minutes before you write your post. If you want a little different look than standard WordPress Twenty Fourteen you can choose from thousands of professionally made themes and choose something that’s right for you. This Bayse theme I’m using is specific for personal blogs and storytelling.

The blogging software is slowly converging with website creation software and the hybrid product is called CMS (Content Management System.) At this point CMS makes a nice website that looks vaguely like a blog. So I think there’s a way to go before blogging software takes over the Web.

In my view the difference between a static website and a blog is similar to the difference between a computational computer program and a spreadsheet. The program gives you more flexibility but you have to learn all the nuances of coding to make it really cook. The spreadsheet just lets you get on with the job.

At this point in my life I’m probably a better story teller than a programmer so I’ll stick to blogging.

The Most Annoying Object In The World

It’s a child’s car safety seat. We have two of those in the Jeep as a rule, but today I needed to take the winter tires in for mounting so the seats had to come out.

First of all they are bulky objects to put in or take out of the car. You need to get the doors wide open in the back, plus the rear hatch has to lift up, so no way you can do this inside the garage where you are out of the wind. Oh no. It’s outside you go.

Next you have to loosen up the rear tethers which were pulled taut by a super strong son-in-law. After that it’s on to the seats themselves. Unthread the rear setbelts and then it’s time for my favorite part – releasing the seat latches.

One of the seats takes about 10 seconds to release – push a red button on the latch hooks and out they come. The other one takes ten minutes of fumbling between the rear seat cushions trying to depress a springy and sharp strip of steel, push the latch hook further back into the seat until it releases – and then and only then can you finally get the darn seat out. Then rinse and repeat with the other latch. Whoever designed this particular seat should have a particularly hot spot in Perdition pre-arranged for early entry.

After storing the seats away you then have to put the rear seat flat and load up the winter tires and rims. Then after the tire switch is done, unload the summer tires (outside in the wind naturally.) Then after putting the seat upright again, it’s time to complete the safety seat Re-Re exercise.

The first seat goes snap-snap – latches attached. Thread the seatbelt, attach the tether. A 30 second job. The second one requires you to consult the manual to see how to thread the latch straps, go back to fumbling for 5 minutes trying to reattach the sharp and springy thingies, thread the seatbelt and finally attach the tether. After all this I am sure the seats are too loose and will require the super strong son-in-law to reef them tight before any kid can be placed therein.

As I said earlier, the world’s most annoying object. Especially seat #2.


A Prayer in the Cemetery

When my daughter was here on Sunday she wanted to go over to the nearby Catholic cemetery since it was All Souls Day. So we did. When we got there, I told her some of the history of the place (It’s actually the 3rd Catholic burial ground in Almonte, although in use a long time.)

I showed her the graves of four priests who served the diocese a century ago. She asked if I knew anyone buried there so I took her to see where a lovely couple who died in 2011 and 2013 had their place of rest.

She asked if I wanted to pray for anyone in particular so I chose Rupert and Rita. She said she wanted to pray for my great-aunt Bridget who tragically committed suicide in the 1920s. We held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer for Eternal Rest.

In that place of death, with my current struggles with institutional Catholicism, I found my daughter’s faith quite life affirming – life giving, in fact.


Grandpas through the Years

My grandson came over for a visit yesterday. That got me thinking about the relationship I have with him, and indeed the relationship I had with my own grandpa.

This  is a picture of me with my grandpa circa 1955. I was a bit older than Teddy and Grandpa Hawley was probably 80 at the time. Fashions have changed a bit but the relationship is still fresh in my mind.

In fact I would say that many of the same principles apply today that applied 59 years ago.

  • Grandpas are a link with the past. My grandfather was born in 1875 – close to two human lifetimes ago. He grew up in the woodstove, coal oil lamp, horse and steam traction era. He had personal memories of the Boer War, Victorian and Edwardian society, World Wars, the Depression. When I studied some of this in history at school, he was there to give a personal interpretation. In the same way if my grandson studies the 1950s, the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the turbulent 60s, Woodstock, the Vietnam War – I’ll be able to do the same for him. Plus I remember all my grandfather’s stories so I can at least tell them secondhand.
  • Grandpas are a treasury of stories. My grandfather was a farmhand, a teamster (with horses even), a garbage collector for the town, a rural mail delivery guy, a factory worker. He had many stories about growing up in a log cabin, walking miles to go home from the farm, working with mules, horses and ponies, steam threshing, railway operations, and on and on. He even had stories about his parents, uncles, even his grandparents. I never got tired of hearing them. Some of these stories will stretch back 6 generations for my grandson.
    For my part I can tell Teddy about growing up without TV (and then watching black and white stuff on 4 channels), worries about polio and smallpox vaccinations, getting the measles (no vaccines then), seeing my first computer which was the size of a room, the end of steam on the railways, doing math without a calculator, etc. Not quite as cool as my grandfathers muleskinner stories but interesting enough for a 6 year old.
  • Grandpas have the time. My grandfather was over 70 when I was born and spent a lot of time with the grandkids. I’m not living in the same town with Teddy but I’m close enough to see him once a week and I have the benefit of Skype which my grandfather did not. We always have time and we (usually) have the patience. I spent some time yesterday getting whipped in a Hot Wheels card game and I plan to teach Teddy how to play cribbage someday.

There’s a special love between grandpas and grandsons, largely because even a grandpa is a little boy at heart. The lack of pressure to be a totally adult presence (that is Daddy’s job) lets the little boy come out. One of my Grandpa’s favorite poems was called “I’m only a boy”:

I’m only a boy with a heart light and free;
I am brimming with mischief and frolic and glee.
I dance with delight, and I whistle and sing,
And you’d think such a boy never cares for a thing.

But boys have their troubles, though jolly they seem;
Their thoughts can go deeper than some people deem.
Their hearts are as open to sorrow as joy,
And each has his feelings, though only a boy.

Now oft when I’ve worked hard at piling the wood,
Have done all my errands, and tried to be good,
I think I might then have a rest or a play;
But how shall I manage? Can anyone say?

If I start for a stroll, it is “Keep off the street!”
If I go to the house it is “Mercy! What feet!”
If I take a seat, ’tis “Here! Give me that chair!”
If I lounge by the window, ’tis “Don’t loiter there!.

If I ask a few questions ’tis “Don’t bother me!”
Or else: “Such a torment I never did see!.”
I am scolded or cuffed if I make the least noise,
Till I think in this wide world there’s no place for boys.

At school they are shocked if I want a good play;
At home or at church I am so in the way;
And it’s hard, for I don’t see that boys are to blame,
And most any boy, too, will say just the same.

Of course a boy can’t know as much as a man,
But we try to do right, just as hard as we can.
Have patience dear people , though oft we annoy,
For the best man on earth, once was “only a boy.”

To which thoughts I can only offer a profound “Amen.”


Turning Back the Clock(s)

Well it’s done. Tomorrow we shall be on Eastern Standard Time here in the Valley so tonight we had to adjust about 20 timepieces in the house – not counting a bunch of wrist and pocket watches and self regulating units like cable boxes and computers.

Most of them are easy – clock radios, coffee makers, microwave ovens and small mantel clocks scattered around the place. Some are tricky – like a big mechanical grandfather clock – just stop it and come back an hour later and get the pendulum swinging again. Others are difficult – like an inaccessible quartz wall clock in our utility room or a tiny clock in the laundry room that requires you to climb up on the dryer to reach it.

Then there’s the downright nasty – a big, bulky, quartz powered Bulova Whittington chime wall clock that requires you to take it off the wall, open up the back, fumble behind the pendulum to find the adjustment control, make sure you have the time set accurately for the chime, put the back on again, climb up a ladder and position the blasted clock back on the wall so it hangs properly on its fastener and is level. We leave that one till last.

And the wristwatches and pocket watches? Just wind ’em and set ’em when you want to wear ’em. Easy-peasy. That reminds me – better set the one I have on my wrist right now.

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