No More Pencils, No More Books….

 

Today is the last day of school for my grandchildren for the 2015-2016 year. They were pretty excited about bringing all their work home and taking the summer off. Who isn’t?

It struck me that the last day of school – and more significantly the first day of school in September – occupied a central position in my life for about 50 years. Here’s my timeline:

1946-1952 – blissful ignorance

1952-1965 – wend my way through the educational system

1965 – 1969 – attend university

1969-1972 – blissful indifference. I’m working with no ties to the school system.

1972 – marry prospective teacher

1972-1982 – teacher goes to school

1982 – 1996 – teacher and daughter go to school

1996 – 2002 – teacher goes to school and daughter attends university

2002 – 2005 – teacher still goes to school after daughter gets on with her life

2005 – present day – blissful relaxation. How sweet it is.

I don’t want to count how many anxious days before school starts, how many moves and counter-moves, how much school stuff purchased, how many vacations taken at prime time for cost and and airport congestion. It’s over now – except if we want to take a holiday with daughter, son-in-law and grandkids. Then it’s deja vu all over again. Or will be when Teddy and Veronica get a bit older. No missing school in their future.

It’s funny how much I used to look forward to the summer. Even if I spent the time working, the rest of the family were enjoying low stress days kicking back by the pool. Now it seems kids are all over the place and former teacher and I look forward to Back to Pencils, Back to Books…you know the rest.

 

YASTAH

 

I think I’ve probably always had a slight hearing disability. When I had my first formal hearing test as a young professional, the plant nurse reported that I had some hearing loss in my left ear. At the time I put it down to ill-fitting headphones but she was probably right.

It was 34 years until my next hearing test, and sure enough the audiologist reported that I had a weak left ear, and my right ear was normal. By then I’d spent half a lifetime in and out of noisy plant environments. I got a hearing aid for my left ear only, and it made a fair difference in my aural acuity. I could hear birds again, and I knew where they were singing from. I also got to hear whining disk drives, refrigerator compressor noise and other cool stuff I hadn’t really missed up till then.

Well fast forward another dozen years, my wife’s complaining I don’t hear what she says anymore and I have trouble picking up all the grandkids’ talk. So it was back to the local hearing aid center today. This time I found out I have pretty good low frequency response (although the dam’ left ear is still worse) but rather profound decline in both ears as I go to higher frequencies. My verbal acuity can use a little help too.

Now two (count ’em) hearing devices are indicated. I have never liked the beans in your ears sensation I get from my 2004 era hearing aid so that prospect didn’t thrill me.

The Hearing Instrument Specialist looked at me as if I’d just stepped off the boat from nowhere. It seems that technology has advanced slightly in the past 12 years. Now they have a little unit that sits behind your ear, a small wire runs down to your ear canal and the receiver works off that. Completely open, no plugged ears. And man are those units awesome – they can be programmed to boost the missing frequencies, cut out background noise, and even help with tinnitus if you have it (I do.) I couldn’t believe the difference these little suckers made.

So now all I need is money. The costs are equivalent to a nice Caribbean cruise per ear. My provincial health plan helps out but only a little. I suppose it’ll be worth it if Maria doesn’t have to shout and repeat stuff three times though.

So this year I’ve already found out I might need cataract surgery in a year or so, and now YASTAH – Yet Another Sense Takes A Hike. Good thing I don’t taste for a living any more. That’ll probably be next. Getting old sure ain’t for sissies, as Bette Davis once remarked. And she had the eyes for it.

 

 

 

 

Our Pal

It was a year ago today that I met Mr. Oates. He was a sad little shelter kitten who had lost his family home and was sleeping rough in the adoption lounge with about 50 other cats. The Arnprior Humane Society folks really recommended him though. He was a bit younger than I wanted but otherwise he ticked most of the boxes – never been an outdoor cat, friendly, had all his shots up to date, good looking ginger tabby.

So the next day Maria and I brought him home. He was really freaked out by the car ride, and as a result it took him a couple of hours before he owned the place in Almonte. After that – well, he was sleeping on our bed the first night.

He’s lost his kitten ways and is a young adult now, although he still has bursts of incredible energy – especially at 5 AM. He loves his cat toys, but unlike a kitten’s 100 miles an hour chase tactics he has mastered the art of stalk, hide and ambush. His favorite spot – aside from his cat bed – is next to the patio door to keep an eye on those pesky robins and grackles. He outgrew his first little bed so as an anniversary present we got this larger one. Maria put an old sweater in the new bed to make him feel better. He’s not giving it back.

He doesn’t have the incredibly soft fur or wonderful purr of Sammy the Magnificent One, but he’s vocal and engaged like our first cat – Brio the redoubtable Siamese. Smart too. He loves Maria with every bit of his 12 pound being. Nothing like a nuzzle and snuggle at 2 AM to prove it.

No new cat can ever replace a pair of much loved lifelong friends but Oates is doing his best. We’ll keep him.

The Most Interesting Man…

No it’s not this Dos Equis dude. In my view the most interesting man I’ve heard about lately is arguably Richard M.Stallman – or RMS as he is known in the IT community worldwide.

I will not publish Mr. Stallman’s photo here because he cares deeply about his privacy. You can Google or Bing him if you want.

Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation in the 1980s with the goal of making a Unix-like operating system that was free – and in the sense of freedom from restrictions, rather than free of charge. Think free speech, not free beer – libris not gratis. The name for this new operating system was GNU. He and his colleagues had completed a fair number of the necessary programs by the early 90s but they were still missing the Kernel – the program that interacts between the user programs and the hardware itself. RMS and his co-workers had a kernel program in mind – it’s called The Hurd. Their design  – while elegant and sophisticated – was very hard to debug, and as a result took years longer to get operational. Even in 2016 The Hurd hasn’t achieved “production” quality although it works OK in virtual computing.

So what happened with the rest of GNU? Well, in the early 1990s Linus Torvalds produced a working Kernel program that ran on PCs. He made it available via the Internet, and a number of folks “discovered” the GNU tools and patched them into Linus’s kernel. The result?  RMS would like us to call it GNU/Linux but most of the world just chooses the name Linux. The rest is history.

GNU/Linux is a worldwide success and GNU/Hurd is still in the lab. And I’m sure deep down this really grates on Richard Stallman,

One should never minimize the contributions of RMS and his co-workers. In addition to contributing most of the GNU/Linux software tools, they wrote the GNU Public Licence – which outlines the rights and responsibilities of any user of GNU (free) software. The Linux kernel is also licensed under the GPL. The net effect was to energize a worldwide collaboration in software development which has taken Linux to another level.

Free software development soon led to the concept of Open Source. Open Source is a bit more pragmatic approach which uses the collaborative development process of Free Software but allows for the use of non-free (proprietary) bits like MP3 music compression, and video card drivers. This goes far beyond the scope of Richard Stallman’s work, he doesn’t agree with it and he gets really ticked off if people call him the father of Open Source development.

What is most interesting about RMS though is not his substantial contributions to the GNU Project (and by extension GNU/Linux) but his philosophy. To RMS software development using the Free Software model is a way of life, a community building exercise, something worth putting your name on and devoting your life’s work to. It’s rare to come across such a Don Quixote in the IT world. I respect and admire him.

Need you ask what he thinks of Apple, Amazon or Donald Trump?

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Today marks an anniversary of sorts, as 47 years ago – June 2nd, 1969 – I began my career as a food scientist with General Foods Research in Cobourg Ontario.

I was familiar with the lab having worked there as a summer student the year before. But now I was a professional as opposed to a technical employee. I had been a graduate chemist for all of 3 days at this point and it was straight to work. No gap years in Europe for me – I was broke.

I joined a product development team at the lab headed up by a GF veteran of 15 years or so. I was put to the task of changing the flavouring acid in Kool-Aid from citric to cold water soluble fumaric acid. Later on I realized that as the new guy they started me out on something rather low in prestige (cost reduction) but one where I had little chance of screwing things up (high profile new products.) But I drank the Kool-Aid, made regular trips to the washroom – and loved it. I was making the princely sum of $130.77 per week. Probably I get more today in my old age pension.

And what an analog world we worked in. Out balances and instruments had analog dials and paper output. Our analytical lab did its testing with “wet chemistry.” We used slide rule accuracy for weighing and did our calculations with slide rules. There was one mechanical calculator in the whole lab.

We wrote our formulations out by hand in a lab book. Costing was done for us so we had little concept of the economics of our work. To communicate we had a phone or we hand wrote “Speedimemos” using carbon paper forms. For real formal communication we had a secretary type out a memo on a Selectric typewriter.

Our lab staff was overwhelmingly masculine – only our home economist was a professional contributor, Today a food science lab would be 100% reversed as far as gender goes.

Although I knew the basics of computer programming, I never used it in my job until about 5 years later when mainframe time sharing became popular. One of my older colleagues kept his records of competitor products evaluation on paper using a COBOL type protocol. That was the closest thing to actual computers – except for our weekly paycheque which was printed by data processing at head office, and handed to us by the lab facilities supervisor. It was up to us to take it down to the bank and deposit it.

Our lab did not report to a marketing director back in those days. We were part of the Operations department – a completely different hierarchy that included plant management. We were located at the plant.

Oh yes – my fumaric acid project didn’t fly. I tested all the 14-15 different flavors with fumaric acid versus citric acid. The “cold water soluble” acid (it made use of surfactants to do the trick) wasn’t really all that soluble, didn’t taste as good as citric acid and looked scummy when you made up the product. Looking at the ingredient line of Kool-Aid 47 years later, it still uses citric acid. The developers who preceded me got it right the first time. Marketing killed the project – not the last time this happened in my career as a food scientist. But I got my feet wet in food technology (not to mention my tonsils.)

Years later drinking the Kool-Aid got a whole different vibe. But that wasn’t what it meant to a young chemist back in 1969.

 

 

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