Learning to Fly


I’m learning to fly,

but I ain’t got wings.

…Tom Petty (1991)

The grandkids were out last weekend and they brought their bikes – minus the training wheels. As I watched Dave run up and down the street behind them, it struck me that learning to ride a bike is akin to a fledgllng leaving the nest for the first time. It isn’t an easy or instinctive thing – you have to figure out the physics of two in-line rotating hoops, how to stay upright, and to avoid obstacles. But once you master all this, you have a freedom you never had in your life before – the freedom of movement. It won’t be long before you are on to a parent’s greatest nightmare – your driver’s licence.

So in a sense riding a bike is a metaphor for growing up. You try, you fail, you fall, you cry, you get up and try try again.

As a parent you want to shield your kids from the bumps an bruises of early life, but once they are on a bike you realize the futility of doing it. We all made mistakes as kids – our parents couldn’t prevent them. We all suffered the prangs, the bumps, the bruises. Our kids and grandkids are no different.

It doesn’t make it any easier to watch though.

And comin’ down

is the hardest thing.



Living in A Trendy Town

The story of Ontario is largely a story of small towns, and we have been fortunate (?) enough to live in three that are really trendy right now. They weren’t necessarily trendy when we moved there, but it certainly worked out that way. When it comes to residence we always seem to be a bit ahead of our time.

So what makes an Ontario small town trendy? The three we have lived in have some things in common:

  • Each one is within convenient driving distance of a major city.
  • They all are located on a scenic river, and in one case right on the lake.
  • All have lots of well preserved and interesting Victorian architecture.
  • Each town grew and prospered because the railway came through it in the 19th century.
  • They were lunch-pail towns whose industry faded away in the late 20th century and were repurposed as tourist/day-trip destinations.
  • They have maintained their small town look and feel (downtown at least.) One of them is now holding on to it by its fingernails though.

Let’s take a look.

Port Hope (1972-1974)

We moved here in 1972 when Maria and I got married. Our choice of Port Hope was made easy by the fact we could get an apartment there in a newer building for a reasonable rent. We both worked in Cobourg – a few miles away to the east.

Port Hope was a bit of a backwater then – folks from Cobourg called it “No Hope.” But we liked it, got involved in the community with youth groups. We bought our first home in Port Hope and probably would have stayed a while, except I was transferred to General Foods in Montreal.

Port Hope was never a one industry town. The plants that located there were medium sized except for the uranium processor Eldorado Nuclear. Plants in Port Hope made metal files for carpentry, conveyor equipment, auto parts, bathtubs and sinks. Unfortunately, most of these factories were branch plants that suffered from the Free Trade agreement and closed. Port Hope took quite a hit in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

We were quite surprised to see the changes in the early part of this century. The town has become quite a gentrified tourist mecca, and many of its fine old homes have been remodelled by Toronto refugees who sold their places in the GTA and retired east of the city. It was really a pleasure to see such a fine town becoming trendy, and I have no doubt the trend has continued to this day.

Georgetown (1979-2005)

In 1959 Georgetown was a sleepy place of 3,000 located on the Credit River in North Halton county. Then Rex Heslop came to town and things really started to happen. By the time we moved there in 1979, the population was up to 12,000 and the first wave of development was complete. In the 1980s it was pretty quiet and Georgetown still had a small town atmosphere – a great place for my daughter to grow up.

Unfortunately, the town was too close to Toronto for such bucolic peace to last. The second wave of development began around 1990 and as far as I know has not stopped. The population is now around 40,000 and it is a very trendy place for the yuppies who want to get out of Brampton and Mississauga.

In its early days Georgetown was a paper mill town. Later on it had electrical equipment and auto parts makers, as well as an electronics firm. Some of this remains but by and large Georgetown is a dormitory suburb for Toronto. The classic Georgetown train station is now the center for GO Transit lines into the Big Smoke (or “The 6” as the rappers say today.)

Downtown Georgetown was always a cool area that had perfect camera angles for motion picture photography, so quite a few movies were made there while we were residents. The old town is hanging on, but the suburbs around Georgetown have sucked away a lot of business and the small town atmosphere is gone forever. Pity.

Almonte (2005-Present Day)

When we moved to Almonte, the gentrification and trendiness of downtown was getting under way, but we had no idea what was coming.

Almonte was a classic one industry town from 1850 until 1985 with the wool weaving factories taking center stage. The old mills remain. Some are places for restaurants and condos, others have offices for high tech firms. The Victorian streetscape has been lovingly restored and this restoration is encouraged financially by the Town. Some local entrepreneurs have done a great service by building attractive boutique malls. Antique stores abound. Add in the festivals that happen year round, the proximity to Ottawa, and the general loveliness of the river, waterfalls and Mill Street and you have a recipe for success – and trendiness.

We have learned to do our exploration and treasure hunting in Downtown Almonte during the week. The weekends are a zoo – especially in the summer when a festival happens just about every week.

Almonte is the only one of the 3 towns that doesn’t have a railway running through it any longer. It used to be on the CPR transcontinental line, but that changed 50 years ago. The railway line was disused for a few years and finally was taken up in 2012. The railway bridge remains in place, and I am sure the downtown business group hope it can be purchased from the railway and turned into a spectacular walkway with superb views.

Living in a trendy town. It didn’t start out that way but it has happened to us. Three times.




When the Record Starts Spinnin’


60 years ago when Danny & The Juniors were getting ready to record “At the Hop,” IBM was spinning their own brand of records.

It was early days in the computer revolution. A business computer was room sized, its cabinets had thousands of cable connections and still used vacuum tubes. COBOL and FORTRAN were languages of the future. Programming was done in machine code, sometimes by plugging in jumper cables on a plugboard panel. But IBM’s major problem was storing and retrieving data in real time. Data was stored on magnetic tape or kept in boxes of paper punch cards and it took a fair bit of time to read it into the computer and get a report printed out.

IBM solved the problem with its RAMAC 350 hard drive unit. RAMAC 350 used metal platters not all that different from today, although it was the size of a refrigerator and had a total storage capacity of 4 Megabytes – about the same as a couple of JPEG photos today. IBM could have built a bigger RAMAC but its marketing department couldn’t see how they could sell more storage than 4 MB.

Along with the RAMAC 305 computer, the hard drive was a big winner for IBM – Chrysler immediately bought one for its parts inventory, and a RAMAC kept track of performances at the 1960 Olympics.

And so began one of the longest successful runs of any piece of equipment in IT – the hard drive got smaller and faster and by 1980 you could put a 3.5 inch, 10 MB drive into the early IBM PCs. Today the largest mechanical hard drive can store 10 million times as much as that 1980 platter. It’s hard to imagine our digital photo and video collections without one.

But all good things must end, and it now appears that the typical 3.5 inch desktop drive or 2.5 inch laptop drive will be phased out in the not too distant future. It’s successor – the Solid State Drive – either in traditional laptop size or the latest M.2 format which is the size of a stick of gum. The reason – seek time primarily.

Seek time refers to the average time it takes for a hard drive to find the data you need. RAMAC 350 had a seek time of 600 milliseconds. Today’s good desktop drives have reduced that to 9 milliseconds. Not bad in 60 years I guess. But an SSD has a seek time of 0.08 milliseconds right now – and it’s just getting warmed up. SSDs are so fast now that they have outrun the ability of cables to transmit the data, and they are now plugged into the motherboard of a PC just like a video card.

Mechanical hard drives are still useful when you want to store tons of data and you can put up with a bit slower retrieval – SSDs haven’t got the same massive capacity quite yet. And SSDs are still more expensive to buy. However the zippy performance and much greater ability to withstand bumps and bruises have made them the storage unit of choice in tablets, smartphones and increasingly in laptops. Even desktops benefit from using an SSD as a boot drive.

Poor old Danny and his Juniors. The DJ At the Hop in 2016 would likely play their song as an MP3 from an SSD. Doesn’t quite have the same lyrical feel does it? “When the Drive starts Flashin’..” Uh…no.


You Can’t Take It to the Bank

Like many fine Edwardian buildings in small town Ontario, Deseronto’s town hall started out as a bank. BMO had the building constructed in 1904 and occupied it until 1932 when the branch was a victim of the Great Depression.

In 1905 Standard Bank arrived, and constructed a smaller but still solid edifice on the opposite side of Main Street. Standard merged with the Canadian Bank of Commerce and later became CIBC. But that original branch is still functioning after 111 years. Unfortunately it won’t be in a couple of months – and the town’s last bank will be history.

CIBC’s Deseronto branch isn’t a victim of the 20th Century’s Great Depression, or the 21st Century’s Great Recession. Closing it down results probably from a combination of obtuse corporate greed, and the disruption of the Internet.

I remember getting my first bank account with that branch over 60 years ago, and I was a CIBC customer for quite a while. A move to Montreal in the mid 70s left me with no convenient Commerce branch to bank in, so I was forced to change to RBC.

When I first banked with CIBC, if you had excess cash you had to take it to the bank. I saved my allowance there – well some of it. The lady kindly took my little passbook, wrote in the amount I was depositing, initialed the deposit and handed it back. I felt like a real financier. This is a story I’ll have to tell my grandkids, as they already think I led the most primitive life back when I was their age.

Today we have telephone and Internet banking, check our balance online, transfer funds and pay our bills with a couple of mouseclicks or finger taps. You can photograph a cheque (if you ever get one) using a smartphone and the bank will deposit the funds for you.

The banks don’t want to see you for deposits and withdrawals any more. They want to sell you insurance and mutual funds, or draw up a mortgage or Line of Credit for you. It’s all about relationship building and not at all about transactions, thank you very much.

Well what about the relationship they built over the decades with the oldest seniors? You know, the ones that are not computer literate and depend on cash that they get from visiting the bank and using a teller. The ones who maybe can’t drive 10-20 Km to a bank in a neighboring town. Let them fade away, says the person in charge of whether a branch lives or dies. CIBC doesn’t even intend to leave a bank machine behind when they get out of town.

I don’t bank with CIBC any longer, nor do I live where I grew up. But if I did I would be looking for a new bank today. Not only can’t I take it to the bank, when it comes to CIBC I won’t be.

The Netbook – Life, Death and Resurrection

The netbook (2007-2012) can probably trace its origins back to the Toshiba Libretto of the late 1990s but it was heavily influenced by the One Laptop Per Child project of the early 21st century. OLPC – a largely academic project – had the goal of making a cheap and rugged small laptop for distribution in the third world. The computer makers ASUS and Acer took the OLPC concept a bit further and by 2007 had come up with the first generation of netbooks. The basic netbook design had the following features:

  • Low power processor (Intel Atom 32 bit)
  • Onboard graphics to match the processor capability
  • No heavy extras like an optical drive
  • Low capacity solid state drive (enough for the operating system and some basic programs)
  • Wifi connected
  • Relatively low power consumption
  • Smaller and low resolution display
  • Smaller keyboard layout
  • Low RAM capacity with some RAM chips right on the motherboard

These were made by a variety of manufacturers.

The netbook – at least the OLPC version – was born to run Linux, and it can’t be denied that Linux should have powered all the early netbooks. Linux can work well with limited hardware resources and doesn’t have to run CPU sucking security programs.

The very first netbooks were in fact Linux machines but the makers dropped the ball when it came to installation of an alternate operating system. At the time Windows XP was the default personal computer O/S, and just about every PC user wanted a Windows look and feel when they switched on a PC. Instead the makers went with dumbed down versions of Linux that looked nothing like Windows. It was possible to dump these crummy Linux versions and get a real Windows like desktop, but you had to be a bit of a geek to do it. 99% of the initial netbook users didn’t want to do this. They hated Linux, returned the machines in droves and the manufacturers soon learned that in order to sell the puny laptops, they would have to offer them with Windows.

Microsoft – who had watched the introduction of Linux machines with dismay – was anxious to oblige. Unfortunately, their flagship O/S by this time was Vista – and Vista was too much of a resource hog to ever run well on a netbook. Microsoft was forced to bring the obsolete XP back from the dead and offer it to the manufacturer essentially for free. The makers had to replace the small SSD with a larger mechanical hard drive to accommodate the bulkier Microsoft programs and security apps.

The net result killed Linux on netbooks. That was to be expected. However the new Windows based netbook was a technical disaster and a marketing nightmare. Most consumers did not see the netbook as a low cost way to get on the Internet. They assumed it was just a cheap general purpose Windows PC. With low processing power, low memory, a slow mechanical drive and Windows XP the netbook was a total pig when it came to startup and operation. A lot of them were sold, but very few customers were satisfied.

There wasn’t much profitability for the makers either. Even with the benefit of an practically “free” Windows operating system, the margins on netbooks were low and the competition was fierce. This was the netbook market in 2008 and 2009.


Here’s a netbook hard at work in Fort Lauderdale. It was perfect to stick in a backpack and use in a hotel to catch up on your email. Still is.

By 2010 the netbook market was getting mature and technology had improved. The second generation of Intel Atom processors came out – these supported 64 bit operation – and AMD was getting into the act with its “Athlon Neo” line of mini-processors. Graphics were integrated more tightly with the CPU, power consumption was reduced and battery life increased. There was still a problem with profitability and performance – especially when Microsoft no longer offered Windows XP to netbook makers.

By 2010 Microsoft had moved on to Windows 7 and they were in no mood to give it away – not that it would have worked all that great on a netbook. Instead Microsoft sold the netbook makers a brain-dead “Windows 7 Starter” operating system and made sure that it went on machines that were so memory challenged that anyone who got such a unit would be unhappy. You could buy a netbook and increase its RAM yourself – but how many did? The reputation of netbooks as operational pigs continued – and was richly deserved by now.

Nevertheless 2010 probably marked the zenith for the humble netbook – technically and commercially. From there it was all downhill, until by the end of 2012 there was not one manufacturer making them at all. Two major things contributed to the sickening and decline of the netnook.

  1. Folks who really wanted a general purpose small computer realized that you get what you pay for. They gravitated to Macbook Air or Ultrabook laptops, which featured more powerful hardware that was capable of running Windows 7 itself – not a stripped down version. These units cost more but in my view were worth it.
  2. Folks who just wanted a cheap and lightweight unit to get on the Internet moved to that consummate netbook killer – the tablet. Whether it was an iPad or one of the Android variants, tablet computing totally displaced the cheap and cheerful netbook at the lower end of the market.

So what of the netbook today? Are any of the original units still around? Well yes. If you’re smart enough to dump Windows and use a netbook the way it was meant to be used, there’s still some life in the old beasts.

I have three of them now – two are older first generation 32 bit machines that are becoming museum pieces. Their operating systems are losing support, and they are slow and outdated even with a lightweight Linux distribution installed. They won’t run HD videos, and as for any type of game – fuggedaboudit. Web browsing today is becoming increasingly memory intensive and the older machines need a very lightweight browser to work well. They would be OK for writing and note taking I suppose. I have upgraded them as much as I can and I use them as testing machines for Linux that is designed for older hardware.

My third machine – which I rescued recently from a trip to the recycler – is a different proposition. It has a 2nd generation Atom processor and graphics, supports 64 bit operation and best of all you can replace its standard laptop hard drive with an inexpensive solid state drive. The SSD makes a huge difference in responsiveness. Although this machine is still a bit low on memory capacity it will do a good job as a travel machine where all you want it for is email and light web surfing. It cost next to nothing and it’s quite rugged with its new hard drive so I can pack it and tote it and not worry about theft or breakage. It’s one of those unfortunate machines that ran like a dog on Windows but is pretty good with Manjaro Linux or some other lightweight operating system.

One final point. The netbook which appeared to be dead as a doornail in 2012 is now back alive in a couple of ways. Tablets that feature detachable keyboards, or the Chromebook pioneered by Google are really netbooks redux – lower powered units for getting on the Internet to do stuff. Linux has even made a comeback as either Android (on tablets) or Chrome O/S (on Chromebooks.)

So there you have it. What was once dead lives on in a new form or through modification to what it should have been in the first place. Not a bad Easter tech story.


Shades of the Past

They were born in Victorian times. They were young over a century ago. They passed away in the 1960s. Nobody under the age of 60 is likely to remember them at all.

They don’t appear to have family descendants who are researching their memory. There’s plenty of info on the Internet about them but I may be the only person who cares enough to look for it. I have no connection to them other than I knew and liked them when I was a boy, and they knew and liked me. So here’s a post about them. They deserve that much.

Dr. Robert V. Hall D.D.S.

Dr. Hall was a gentle and kindly man who scared the hell out of me when I was about 11. He was an old school dentist with old school (slow, grinding, hot) cavity drilling equipment and no use of dental anesthetic. Getting a tooth filled was pure Purgatory back then.

I knew Dr, Hall was an older guy but I didn’t realize that he was still a practicing professional well into his 70s. I guess nobody retired in those days – and heaven knows we still needed his services in our little 1950s town. Anyway here’s his life story, courtesy of Ancestry and FamilySearch.

Robert Vernoy Hall was born in Toronto in July 1882. He grew up in the town of Hawkesbury where his father was a merchant. Later on he moved with the family to Hamilton. He was apparently a late bloomer as a student, graduating at the age of 30 with the 1912 dentistry class at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Hall married Nora May Tallman in 1920 but the marriage wasn’t a happy one. By 1930 Nora Hall was on her way to the USA  to live with an uncle in Tennessee.

Dr. Hall then practiced in Frankford Ontario for a long while and came to my town of Deseronto in the 1950s. He was still working there when he passed away in August 1961. Dr. Hall’s passing at the age of 79 left my family without dental care and it was quite a struggle for us to find a new dentist. It isn’t that way today, fortunately. Dr. Robert V. Hall practiced his profession for 49 years. Quite a guy.

Miss Myrtle Helena Johnston

She was in her 80s when I first got to know her, as she often came into my father’s grocery shop to buy fruit and vegetables. You called her “Miss Johnston,” thank you very much. Nothing else would have been appropriate.

Myrtle Helena Johnston was born in Prince Edward County south of Trenton in 1878. She moved with her family to Deseronto around the turn of the 20th century. She was trained professionally as a nurse – probably in Toronto as she was working there in the 1920s. She kept that aura of hard nosed professionalism well into her retirement years – God help any doctor who would have crossed her in her salad days.

One of the things I most admired about Miss Johnston was how she spent every winter in Jamaica. You have to imagine how she did it – a train ride to Miami, a ship’s voyage to Kingston every year. I think she must have worked down there as a volunteer nurse when she initially retired. There are immigration records showing that she did this trip during World War II, so it was more than a beach holiday for her. There was no SunWing Airlines Champagne Service in 1955.

Miss Johnston passed away in 1968 at the age of 90 – of course she never married. She’s buried with her parents in the old Ameliasburg cemetery near where she was born. Quite a lady.

Shades of the past. Gone – but at least in the case of a small boy’s memory – not forgotten.


cww trust seal