Dr. R. D. Gordon (1936-2017)

When I was a chemistry undergraduate at Queen’s University (a lifetime ago) I didn’t have a lot of personal contact with my professors at the start. Probably this was a combination of respect for elders and their considerably higher credentials. Dr McIntosh – the Department Head – was himself the son of a distinguished Chemistry prof, and older than my mother. Some of the other profs were WWII vets (Drs. Breck and Wheeler) or they had worked in defence industries during the war (Dr. Moir.)

Things changed though as a new generation of younger assistant profs came in to teach the onrushing Boomers – one of them was Dr. Robert D. Gordon.

Dr. Bob Gordon was a graduate of McMaster and had gone to Imperial College London to get his Ph.D. He was a spectroscopist by speciality and he hung out in the grotty old Gordon Hall Annex most of the time. I ran into him in my 3rd year Physical Chemistry lab and was thoroughly impressed. He wasn’t a big talker – in fact he was rather quiet and soft-spoken – but he knew his stuff.

I needed to do a 4th year independent project and he was the first guy I approached. I wrote some computer programs to help him with his research, and did UV spectroscopy experiments on large aromatic organic molecules. He was interested in how these molecules transistioned to higher energy levels and how this was affected by their molecular motion. It was interesting stuff; the equipment was old fashioned but I learned something doing it – even if it ended up being a long way from my final job.

Dr. Gordon and I kept in touch over the years and whenever I had a chance to visit the Campus I would drop in to say hello. When my daughter Sarah became interested in Science I took her to Queen’s, introduced her to Dr. G. and he was kind enough to give her a great tour. We even ran into a bunch of the same profs I remembered. – although they were all retired by then.

Dr. Robert Gordon himself retired after 30 years service in 1996 and for the next 20 odd years he was a willing volunteer in the Kingston area – a generous collaborator feeding the hungry, helping others do their taxes, or working on conservation projects. He won a number of volunteer and distinguished citizen awards.

Sadly my favorite Queen’s professor passed away last week at the age of 80. A great man – kind, friendly, gentle, courteous and compassionate. They don’t seem to make ’em like that any more.

Want to Use Linux?


There are many reasons why you might want to use Linux – the best computer operating system you never heard of.

  • Linux is used in over 50% of the servers that run the Internet.
  • A version of Linux called Android is the #1 smartphone and tablet operating system in the world.
  • Linux powers everything from your Netflix box to the largest supercomputer.
  • You can probably do everything you now accomplish with Windows using desktop Linux – email, Web surfing, office tasks, music, photo management and editing, videos, even some games.
  • Linux doesn’t get viruses and malware and you don’t need to have security software except to avoid sending Windows viruses to someone else.
  • Linux is constantly updated to fix any problems that might occur.
  • Linux never slows down as it gets older – unlike Windows.
  • Linux and all its thousands of software titles are available absolutely free and with no strings attached. No licensing hassles, no cost.

So what’s the catch? Well, you have to choose a version of desktop Linux to try, and it’ll be a bit different from Windows when you start out. You also have to install it yourself, or get someone like me to do it for you.

Although there are probably 100 different versions (or distros) of Linux to choose from, as a beginner there are probably only two I would consider. One is Ubuntu, and the other is Linux Mint (which is based upon Ubuntu but looks more like Windows.)

To start using Linux, you download an image file called an ISO from the Internet. You burn the image onto a DVD, or make a USB stick version. You can actually run LInux off the DVD or USB stick and see how it looks, before replacing Windows. My advice is not to install on your primary Windows computer unless it is very old (maybe it runs Vista.) Instead find a second machine to work with, and install Linux on that. Here are a few ideas of machines that would be good Linux candidates:

An old desktop. This is how I got started many years ago. I had an old Dell desktop system from 2000 or so that I did not want to install a new Windows XP system on – too cheap I guess. Linux was free. I have always found that Dell makes an excellent desktop system to install Linux on. Today an ideal candidate would be an early dual core machine from 2006-2007 or so. You can just blow away Vista or XP if you still have that, and install Linux.

Over the years I have refurbished and installed Linux on many older desktop systems. Right now I wouldn’t do that unless the system in question has a dual core or better processor capable of running the latest 64 bit Linux. That pretty well limits them to something 10 years old or newer. The last Dell I worked on is a commercial grade Optiplex GX620 from 2005 and it is still chugging along in the office of my granddaughter’s pre-school.

A netbook. These basic machines were popular from 2008 – 2012 until the tablet changed the Internet appliance market completely. You may still have one in your basement somewhere.

The earliest netbooks made by Acer or ASUS were in fact designed to run Linux, and their rudimentary hardware did so fairly well. However Microsoft soon put an end to Linux pre-installed netbooks by essentially giving away Windows XP to the manufacturers. Most folks would prefer Windows given a choice, so the Linux based machines died – even though the Windows based ones were noticeably slower and more frustrating.

These early machines are quite obsolete now. They can run only the earlier 32 bit version of Linux, and 32 bit is being phased out and lacks a lot of modern features. I do have a couple of these dinosaurs around but they are mostly curiosities today.

A better bet is the later model of netbook made from 2010-2011. Toshiba made a nice one and I had a unit given to me. This one ran Windows 7 Starter (badly) but after putting in a cheap solid state drive and installing Linux, I have a nice little laptop to take away on holiday. This one can run the newest 64 bit versions of Linux – a bonus for sure.

The manufacturers eventually got the netbook right and it’s still around today as the Chromebook. People use Chrome O/S and don’t even think twice about the fact that it is a flavor of Linux.

An old laptop. Generally I don’t bother with refurbishing cheap consumer grade laptops as they are usually worn out, hard to work on, and not reliable by the time someone decides to get a new machine. However, a commercial grade laptop like a ThinkPad or HP Elitebook is usually a good candidate to refurbish with Linux. These machines are often leased by a local company and you can buy an “off-lease” one at about 1/3 the price it was when new.

Often these commercial grade laptops have all Intel parts – processor, graphics, wifi – and that is great for Linux. They are also quite easy to work on if you need to add memory or swap the hard drive. I would buy a new solid state drive, save the old drive that often contains Windows 7, and install Linux on the SSD. You then would have a machine that works like brand new for less than you’d pay for a cheap slow consumer based Windows machine.

A new “Windows-free” system. It is possible to buy a new desktop or laptop that has Linux pre-installed but the companies that do it are US based and although the quality is good they tend to be quite expensive. There are a couple of local alternatives for DIY.

In 2008 when I wasn’t that confident in my building ability I went to a local Ottawa clone maker and had them build a desktop system for me without installing Windows. Then I went ahead and installed Linux on it myself. This worked pretty well and in fact this desktop still runs effectively. I use it to play music in the basement “junk room.”

A few years later I actually specified and built the desktop shown above. I was able to choose hardware I knew would work well with Linux, and this is arguably the best Linux system I have ever had. It’s very powerful and responsive, and it was a relatively low cost machine given that I chose good value components and didn’t pay for Windows. I expect to use it for many years to come.

This works only if you are buying/building desktops though. If i needed a Linux laptop I would go the “off-lease” way above and install a new solid state drive that contained no operating system.

In the final analysis, Linux can work great for you if you want to geek it up a bit with an older system. The best advice I can give you is to not mess up your current Windows machine but do your experimentation on a second PC of some sort. Also if you know someone who knows Linux and can help you that is a bonus. Check for a Grandpa Geek or maybe ask around the neighborhood for a young person who knows a thing or two.

At the end of the day you’ll have something safe, secure, flexible – and free.



More Thoughts on Working Past 65


Now that I’ve turned 70 I don’t have to feel guilty about being retired. I don’t have to pay attention to all those economic pundits who keep saying that I screwed up Canada’s economy by retiring early. They maintain that productivity will suffer and we’ll all lose if all those hard working boomers stop at 65 or – God forbid – earlier than that.

In the US, a survey by Merrill Edge concluded that close to 65% of working boomers want to carry on past 65. But how many actually do? Survey says: (wait for it) 17%. All those folks who haven’t planned to retire – either mentally or financially – may be in for a shock.

There are some things that have to go right for you – and some you can control, some you can’t:

  • You have to be in a job where you won’t age out – be a human resources person, a French teacher, something in STEM, a health care worker, a pharmacist – it’s not good to be a roofer or professional dancer.
  • Don’t work at something that can be outsourced, automated, or is becoming obsolete – not promising if you’re a letter carrier, a librarian or a linotype operator.
  • Stay healthy – there are a lot of physical and mental problems that can hit you in your 60s – or a loved one might need care as a result of something catastrophic.
  • Be an extrovert – these folks find the social aspects of their job stimulating and want to keep going – as well they tend to be more optimistic. Early retirement seems to be the goal of introverts, who will often sacrifice a lot financially while they are working to make it happen.
  • Hope your company doesn’t pull the rug out from under you. Every factory but one that I’ve ever worked in has been closed and all the jobs are gone now. Even a mighty research facility like Unilever Vlaardingen (seen above) will close in a couple of years. They won’t leave the Netherlands, but a lot of positions will be eliminated. You can bet they’ll be the older higher priced folks that get chopped.
  • If you still have a job – even if uncertain – you’ll want to stay in it. Leaving for retirement or to look for something part time is a guarantee you won’t be working again in your field. If you fancy a job as a Wal-Mart greeter, A&W cook or Home Depot clerk for sure get out there.
  • Maybe you can start a part time or even full time business – but do your research. Make sure you have a business plan that makes sense, or some secondary income. There are a lot of “consultants” out there doing diddly.

As for me – well I retired when it made sense. We’ve been OK financially and we’ve enjoyed our grandchildren.

I’ve had 12 years living in a great part of Ontario, and that is a bonus I would never have expected to happen. I’ve been lucky.

Maybe I’m not contributing a lot to the economy but I try to keep learning, write my blog, and help others out with their IT problems for free.

I think the Canadian economy can get by without whatever feeble productivity I could muster today. If not – God help us.


The End


There’s been plenty of news lately about the HMV Canada bankruptcy and store closing. As another record store chain goes down, it joins Sam the Record Man, A&A, and Music World on the way to oblivion. About the only record store chain I know of that’s still in business in Ontario is Sunrise Records, and it is a tiny set of establishments in a few scattered malls across the province.

Time was when music store retailing was a profitable if cutthroat business. A good friend worked as a Music World store manager for many years – he has lots of war stories. It wasn’t all that lucrative or stable a job but according to him the owner made out just fine.

Things are sure different today. According to recent polls the Boomers are the major cohort still buying physical media (viz. CDs – the Millennials are back into vinyl apparently.) But you couldn’t prove that from my purchasing habits.

I have a large collection of vinyl and CDs – no 8 tracks sorry – that I have accumulated over 50 years, but I don’t buy much anymore. Don’t play what I own all that much either. I did buy a few MP3s from the late Puretracks service – but I don’t do that anymore.

If I were to get a CD these days I wouldn’t be browsing in an HMV – Amazon and Chapters provide plenty of choice online. However, the real physical media killer for me and most younger folks is something called Spotify (streaming audio.)

Let’s take an example. Consider the 1967 Association album “Insight Out.” This LP/CD was recorded over 50 years ago. It’s likely paid back its production costs 25 times over. Its fabled prog rock producer is now 84. A couple of the key group members are dead. But if I wanted a CD copy of this obscure back catalog album, Amazon would be happy to sell it to me for $20.

In contrast, I can dial “Insight Out” up on Spotify with a couple of clicks. For that matter I can get all the Association early albums if I want. I can do it for free – or $10 a month if I want no commercials, local storage, and better quality streams. I don’t own a physical copy but I can play it anywhere Spotify runs – on my computer, tablet, TV via a Roku box, or even on my stereo by plugging in my tablet. I think I’ll listen right now – to “Wasn’t It A Bit Like Now!”

How can HMV compete with that? To be blunt, it can’t. My son-in-law summed it up  the other day when he said: “Nobody buys CDs any more, do they?” Well – no, apparently.

I suppose it’s a question of value. The value of a CD is determined by its content. With streaming, and for that matter the existence of cloud based MP3s, that content value has become vanishingly small. No rational person will pay $20 for it online, let alone drive to the mall and look through the racks in HMV for it. It must really suck to be breaking into the music biz today.

Goodbye HMV – it’s been a nice ride but it’s over.

This is The End, beautiful friend…This is The End, my only friend, The End.



Making It Last


If you recently got a new laptop from a big box store, you can count on 3-5 years of use before you’ll be back for another one. It might be the nature of the beast – cramped layout and poor cooling results in overheating, smaller and weaker components – whatever the reason, it is what it is.

Now if you already have a monitor and speakers, for the same money you can get a robust and commercial grade desktop – ideal if you work in one place and don’t need portability. This is the one I got in 2012 – Acer Veriton M6610G.

Assembled in the USA, the Veriton M has a bunch of features that made it an excellent purchase:

  • Nice mid sized case – small enough to fit on the side of a computer desk but wide enough and deep enough for easy maintenance.
  • Quality components.
  • Modern technology supporting fairly up to date memory, storage connections, and expansion slots.
  • Windows 10 Professional – most home users don’t need the added features, but it’s nice to have the better security and additional memory access if desired.

You can probably count on a desktop of this quality to last twice as long as a laptop – so right away you are on the road to making stuff last. And there’s more. If you have a desktop unit, upgrading it to make it even better and longer lasting is a definite option. I have done numerous upgrades to the basic box over the years and I now anticipate even longer useful life. Let’s take a look at the possibilities, but first what have I NOT upgraded:

DVD-ROM Unit – I could get Blu-Ray I suppose, but with so much video streaming going on it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The basic DVD burner works well, and I am not really making that many CDs or DVDs anyway what with the advent of USB flash drives.

USB 3.0 – the motherboard supports USB 2.0 but I could install a USB 3.0 card in it if needed. However USB 2.0 seems fast enough for me at this point in time.

Motherboard and Processor – The processor in this machine is a solid Intel “Sandy Bridge” processor that was about a year old design when the Veriton M was new. It’s quite obsolete now but Intel has concentrated recently on making its processors smaller and more power efficient as opposed to faster. The Core i5-2320 in the older desktop still runs just fine for everything from web surfing to videos to games.

As for the motherboard, it’s a quality item and supports current (if not leading edge) technology so an upgrade isn’t needed. Replacing motherboard and processor is a major job and you might as well buy or build a new machine if you need to do that.

Looking at things I HAVE done to make the desktop last longer I would list the following:

Memory – it’s cheap and easy to add, and there’s plenty of room on the motherboard. I maxed the memory slots and went all the way up to 16 GB of RAM from 4 GB. That is a lot, but I’ll never have to worry about how much memory any program needs, nor will the machine ever need to swap stuff into the hard disk because it’s memory is full. Stuff runs faster.

Video Card If there’s a weakness this desktop had it was video – Intel’s integrated graphics is not that great anyway – it’s OK for basic office work I suppose. But I want to run my Train Simulator games, and that takes a bit of 3-D capability and muscle. I soon added in a mid-grade video card and things were a lot better. But that meant another upgrade was needed.

Power Supply – The desktop was not over specified when it came to a power supply. The power supply was good enough in quality but delivered only enough wattage to run the “stock” configuration. It did not have the necessary connection to plug into a video card to get that upgrade working. The motherboard was completely standard in design so it was easy to drop in and connect a higher capacity power supply before adding a video card.

Storage – The hard drive in the Veriton M is a fast and robust Seagate 1 TB capacity unit – plenty of room for all my pictures and programs. It’s now 5 years old though and time to think about replacing. In the meantime Solid State Drives have dramatically come down in price and increased in size to the point where an upgrade is quite possible. An SSD vastly improves boot time and performance of the computer – in fact it’s the best upgrade you can make right now.

Because it’s a desktop I didn’t have to replace the old drive with the SSD – I was able to add the SSD to another bay in the case, get Windows 10 working from it, then use the old drive to store my data. This way I can make sure Windows will run well for years and if the older drive fails – well it’s not the end of the world because I have all my data backed up elsewhere.

Cooling – nothing fancy here, I just added an extra exhaust fan at the rear of the case to take away the extra heat from the video card and second drive. The mounting holes were all pre-drilled and there were plenty of spots to power up a second fan on the motherboard.

I suppose one might argue that with all this upgrading I would have been better off to build the machine the way I wanted at the outset. Of course hindsight is 20/20. The upgrades took place over a five year period and each one enhanced the original package – which up to that time was trucking along at its various tasks. Only one item was actually replaced – the power supply – and that might have been necessary anyway. Power supplies are one item in a desktop that could go bad over time. If I do need to build a new machine in future some parts will be reused (power supply, video card, SSD.)

At the end of the day, the objective to make something last longer has been accomplished , and there is one less piece of electronic gear that has to be recycled before its time.






The Gazette

There are lots of news articles out there about the loss of journalism in the Internet age. Most of them deal with the disruption and shrinking incomes of major dailies like the New York and L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. But there’s another aspect to the story – the vanishing local paper.

Above you see a copy of the front page of the Almonte Gazette as it looked a couple of days after I was born. At the time the Gazette had already been publishing for 79 years. It would go on to serve the local community for 142 years.

When we moved to the Valley in 2005 we actually had a weekly subscription to the Gazette – but it was already on its last legs. In 2005 the Gazette was sold by local conglomerate Runge Publishing to Metroland – a Toronto Star subsidiary – and by 2009 it was dead. The carcass was later folded in with tabloid freebie EMC and today it’s just something to deliver the local Freshco and Independent flyers. Oh, you can read a bit of it online if you want.

Of course this Metro-ization meant a lot of editor, reporter and publisher jobs went away and it happened all over Ontario. When I was a young chemist in Cobourg I made friends with a young lady who was starting out as a junior reporter with the Cobourg Sentinel-Star – quaint, old school, locally owned. Mandy devoted her working life to local issues, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Metroland came calling. She still writes a few articles for the Metro version today – but nobody could have her career in Cobourg nowadays.

So what’s happened to all the local color that used to appear in these pages? Check out the front page from November 1946 – Blacksmith retires, Archibald gets shot, Tramp attacks local woman – wow. I doubt that stuff showed up in the Globe and Mail – but it was locally relevant I suppose. Well, in a lot of towns that history doesn’t get recorded any more. You can research the whole history of Almonte up until 2010 online – it’s all there in the digitized pages of the Gazette (and it’s searchable.) So the Internet gives, and it takes away.

Fortunately for our local community there’s the Millstone News. It’s strictly an online entity – it was founded by legendary Toronto newsman Val Sears when he retired here, and now it’s carried on by a panel of volunteers. I doubt that it makes anything at all as far as revenue goes – but it sure is a handy thing to keep up on local issues. The bullies that vandalized our first waterfall to make themselves rich get held to account, even if the town fathers can’t stop them. I think the old Gazette publisher from a century ago would have been proud.



Time was when if you bought a desktop computer, it was totally obsolete and ready for the recycler in about four years. Either it would not run the resource hungry next version of Windows, or it couldn’t cope with broadband Internet, or its memory was meager, slow and outdated, or the storage capacity of its hard drive was exhausted. Well no longer.

I have two desktops here – one is an industrial grade Acer that runs Windows, the other is a home built machine that runs Linux. Both machines are far from new, and their technology wasn’t leading edge when I got them. But they still work just fine for anything I want to do.

Desktops are said to be on their way out, but for a retiree who wants a big screen and isn’t a road warrior any more, they undoubtedly are the way to go. The  2 major manufacturers of desktop processors have shrunk their die size and vastly improved their power consumption but as far as observable performance goes in the last five years – pfft. It’s easily possible to upgrade memory and video cards in a desktop to keep it relatively current and away from the recycler. Windows 10 isn’t a heavy resource hog, and Linux has always been a lightweight and friendly option for trailing edge hardware.

And lately the best upgrade of all has become an affordable option – replace the old rotating hard drive with a solid state disk.

The magnetic hard disk has been around for 60 years now, and most PCs have had them since the late 1980s. They have gotten significantly faster and larger and cheaper over the years, and for videos, network attached storage or huge photo collections you can’t beat them. However the new SSDs vastly outperform in the stuff most computer users are interested in – boot speed, launching programs, surfing the Web.

The problem up to now has been cost and capacity. But the latest generation of budget SSDs like the SanDisk above has changed all that. You don’t need a bleeding age professional SSD to run in an older desktop, but even a cheaper one will drastically speed it up and make it like new.

I’ve been using an SSD to run my Linux box for a while. With Linux it’s easy since you have no licensing or Microsoft validation issues. Just install away and Bob’s your uncle. But it’s a different kettle of fish with Windows 10.

To install an SSD in a desktop you have to put it into an adapter bracket because it’s smaller than an old school hard drive. Then you have to fit it into the desktop case, hook up a SATA cable to the motherboard and power from the power supply. And that is the easy part.

Next comes the fun – it’s called cloning. Chances are – unless you are very rich – you will have an SSD that is smaller in capacity than the hard drive you are replacing. In my case I have a 500 GB SSD replacing a 1 TB hard drive (1/2 the capacity.) That is OK if you have less data on the old drive than the capacity of the new drive. You can then use a cloning program to make a copy of the old drive on the new one. The program I have is called AOMEI Backupper – it backs up data as well as cloning disks.

If you’re careful and follow instructions it takes an hour or so and then you’ve got a copy of your old Windows install on your new drive. Then you can disconnect the old drive and reboot and if everything is OK you’ll be back in Windows and Microsoft won’t be any the wiser. And you have future proofed your aging desktop for another five years.

The first time I tried the cloning process it didn’t work. A second try was more successful and right now I am typing this post as I listen to classic rock on Spotify. All on a solid state drive. Ain’t progress grand?


The Bible

Although I still had a couple of years of study ahead, I felt I had really arrived as a chemist the day I got my 47th edition of the CRC Press Handbook of Chemistry and Physics in 1966.

Although it had gone through a phase of shortening and abridging a couple of years earlier, the Handbook was still an impressive 1800 page volume. It was leather bound to last a lifetime of thumbing through it. It even had a little piece of Gold foil you could write on to personalize the front cover. (Imagine that in this age of ebooks and online databases!)

Most of us in the know referred to it as “The Bible” or the “Rubber Bible.” You see CRC (the publisher) was originally called “The Chemical Rubber Company” (don’t ask.)

It contained pages and pages of data – properties of Organic and Inorganic compounds, data on the elements, all kinds of phyiscochemical and thermodynamic tables, mathematical and statistical information, conversion factors. I don’t think I ever looked in this book for something useful and came away disappointed.

And of course in the pre-Google phase of science I used it a lot. Today I can find that the melting point of naphthalene is 80.26 C with a Google search. Not so in 1966.

Its IUPAC name? Bicyclo[4.4.0]deca-2,4,6,8,10-pentaene. Again from Google – but in 1966 I needed the Rubber Bible or an organic chemistry text to tell me.

My copy of the 47th edition of the CRC Handbook served me for close to 40 years and when I retired I generously left it behind for my successor in the Unilever Bramalea library. I guess whoever replaced me didn’t feel the same attachment to it though. I heard a few years later that all my books left in Bramalea went for recycling. So The Bible is probably an egg carton or Newegg shipping box today.

The funny thing is I can go on Amazon and get the same gently used volume of the 47th edition shipped to me for less than $20. That is less than I paid in 1966 dollars to get it new.

And yes the CRC handbook is still in print. They are on their 97th edition now, and a new volume costs around $200 and now has 2700 pages. March of science you see, although the old book would still have lots of useful data in it. You can get an ebook version for around $120 and most universities have a subscription to the online database – any student with a library card can access it on a laptop or tablet.

Will I get that old used copy of the Rubber Bible? Not likely. Google can give me most of the technical stuff I need as an old broken down chemist. And besides, with both an 1906 and 1954 encyclopedia set on my shelf I don’t think there’s room for another huge volume. Rubber Bible – RIP.




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