Down the Rabbit Hole

It’s been a week since we took a trip outside the house. In that time Almonte has morphed into an alternate universe, it seems. Covid-19 will do that to you.

The streets were mostly deserted as we drove over to the east end of town. A few people were out walking dogs or kids but that was it. The only real busy spot was Tim Horton’s drive-thru – the main coffee shop was closed.

We got to the small plaza and Maria headed over to the pharmacy to get her prescription. I went to the Pet Valu store, which had a sign that only two customers were allowed at a time. They had zero, so I went inside.

That’s where the weirdness started. I had to tell them what I wanted, couldn’t go past the entrance to get my own stuff. Since I wasn’t sure what they had this wasn’t easy. I managed to get a few cans of cat food that I thought I needed, but since I couldn’t see the shelf I probably missed a few items. The clerk brought my stuff to the front, packed it up and I used my debit card. No cash wanted.

Then I went over to the pharmacy. They had promised the prescription yesterday but it still wasn’t ready. Maria wandered around the store, picking up a few items of groceries and sundries. We tried to avoid contact with a few other seniors who were there. After we got the prescription (now limited to 30 days only) we went to the front where the pharmacy clerk scanned in our items but left it up to us to pack in our own grocery bags. Again no cash wanted.

On the way home, we stopped in the deserted downtown to recycle some old telephones from Maria’s mother’s place, then moved on to get the mail from our mailbox. The streets looked like a neutron bomb had hit them. Or maybe we were just in an alternate universe. Who knows.

We are back in the house now and after the weirdness of our shopping trip, social distancing is looking better than ever. And we made sure to wash our hands.

Keep Yer Distance

In Almonte right now we are not under quarantine – not even self isolation.

No, what we are supposed to be doing is “social distancing.” I suppose it’s easier to stay at least two meters away from the next person when you live in a house in a small town. No elevators, no LRT, no Blue Jays or Senators games.

I was just thinking of some of the places I’ve been in the past – Rome Metro, Piccadilly Circus, cruise ship buffet – and tried to imagine social distancing under those circumstances. It sure would be different than in Almonte.

Mind you I have to take notice of “6 feet” markers on the floor in the pharmacy, or be careful of standing too close in a supermarket aisle.

Today is a snowy early spring day so I wouldn’t normally be going anywhere. Our back neighbors are on their way home from Lisbon but they’ll be self-isolating for 14 days, so we won’t be visiting anytime soon.

We have to remember though that COVID-19 is out there. Some experts estimate we have 4000 folks in the Ottawa area that would test positive, but not everyone will (or should) be tested.

It’s the uncertainty that kills you right now. We know our cruising days are over for a while. But is it OK to go get cat food? Ay, there’s the rub.

No Cruise for You!

Well, it would have been nice. Last year at this time Maria and I booked a couple of cruises. Back to back actually. First from Tampa to Barcelona, and second on to Venice. A smaller Royal Caribbean ship, very restful. Stop in Bermuda.

Things started to unravel fast earlier this month. By March 8 it looked like we were going on a floating Petrie dish destined for the hottest COVID-19 spot in the hottest COVID-19 country.

Maria was freaking out and I was pretty queasy myself. So we decided to cancel everything. Since that time:

  • Canada has closed its borders to all but essential travel. That includes the US now.
  • Canadian health authorities advised no travel on cruise ships.
  • Things got worse in Spain and Italy.
  • Air Canada won’t be flying to Tampa after April 1. British Air won’t pick us up in Venice.
  • Royal Caribbean is in limbo until April 11. Our cruise would have been the first one after April 11. You want to chance that? I don’t.

We came out of this pretty well financially. We got a cruise credit for our cruise payment. BA charged us a nominal fee to cancel our return trip. We didn’t do as well with Air Canada but we are appealing their decision. The fact that the whole flight would now be canceled likely will weigh in our favor.

However, a few hundred dollars right now is the least of our concern, considering what might have happened to us. When the house is burning down, you don’t worry about a few bucks in your wallet as you escape.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been that nice, after all.

Shopping Spree

Like most Seniors in Ontario, Maria and I have been trying to shelter in place during the current COVID-19 situation – only venturing out for essential supplies. Today was one of those ventures.

We made a quick trip to Carleton Place to stock up on food while the chances of contracting coronavirus are still low. The town was pretty much deserted as we drove through.

We headed for M&M Food Shops to get some frozen goods but they are on reduced hours and were not open yet. So it was off to Freshco supermarket.

Freshco wasn’t too busy, and there was plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables on the shelves. We didn’t try buying toilet paper or paper towels. About the only things that were cleaned out were frozen french fries and other frozen veggies. No English muffins either, but we stocked up on those earlier. Lots of snacks and ice cream available though. It seemed weird to try to keep our distance from other shoppers, but we managed.

After packing up and paying for our stuff, we tried M&M’s again. It’s a small store so I waited outside while Maria went in. After a couple of folks came out, I went in to help her pack up our frozen food. We were done.

When we got back to Almonte, we learned that the Canada-US border had been closed to casual travel. No cross border shopping for us for a while. How this will affect food and other essential goods coming into Canada, I guess we’ll find out.

And so it goes here in small-town Ontario.

A Tale of Three Notebooks

In the past 10 years I have owned three 15 inch Windows-based notebooks -from three different notebook makers. All three have one thing in common – a thing that’s a bit unusual for a notebook. They each have featured an AMD mobile processor.

Now I’d be the first to admit that Intel is by far the market leader when it comes to CPUs – especially in portable PCs. But I have always been a bit of an AMD fanboi, and hence I voted with my wallet when it came to a new notebook. Have I always made a wise choice? Read on to find out.

During the time I have been in the notebook market AMD has always been a bit of a technical laggard when compared to Intel. In generation after generation of processors, Intel exhibited superior performance, longer battery life and possibly a cooler temperature profile than AMD. All of these things are important in notebook design.

Did this mean that in choosing AMD I ended up with a hopelessly inadequate machine? Not at all. For the purposes I need a notebook for – email, web surfing, video, office work – an AMD equipped notebook was/is perfectly fine. Each one of these machines delivered value for money. They were all a bit cheaper than a corresponding Intel machine. Let’s look at the good and bad features of each one.

Dell Inspiron 15 M501R (2010) For decades, Dell had designed and built its desktops and notebooks with Intel hardware. The M501R – while looking the same as any Dell Inspiron 15 inch laptop – was one of the very first to go with AMD instead. Outwardly the laptop featured the same solid look and feel of a Dell Inspiron. The AMD P920 processor was a quad-core nerfed version of its venerable Phenom II series – slower and less powerful to keep wattage low. At this point in time, AMD had not developed its APU technology so the laptop needed a separate graphics chip. It was a decent enough video solution but was soldered to the motherboard. The laptop was quite functional, although its battery life was low and it ran a bit on the hot side.

I used the M501R quite happily for close to 5 years. Then the design choices got in the way. Overheating caused a weakening of the solder that held the video chip on the motherboard. As a result, all video ceased and I just had a black screen. I was able to reflow the solder temporarily by wrapping the unit in a blanket and letting it get even hotter. This allowed me to get my data off of it, but it was essentially DOA after this. I managed to wipe the hard drive, and then it was off to the recycler.

Lenovo Flex2-15D (2015) This was my replacement notebook. It was a “sorta 2-in-1” design. You could use it as a normal clamshell laptop, or flip it around and treat it like a tablet using its touchscreen. Lenovo builds pretty good notebooks, although this one was not bulletproof like a Thinkpad. It was one of the last consumer laptops to feature a DVD-ROM drive.

By this time AMD had come quite a long way with its integrated graphics and APU technology, so the Flex2 featured a quad-core processor-video combination that was designed for either a tablet or a lower-end laptop. It was pretty effective and responsive. There were a few major glitches though:

  • The hard drive was large but it was a slow 5400 RPM mechanical type. It took a long time to boot Windows.
  • The initial operating system was Windows 8.1 – better than the execrable Windows 8 but still not that great. A free upgrade to Windows 10 solved most of the problems.
  • The wifi solution – a Qualcomm Atheros chipset – never worked all that well with Windows 10 and after a few minutes would crash and burn. All you could do was reboot and go through the slow startup process again and again.
  • At the start of 2020, I had had enough. The Flex2 went to the basement workroom, I installed Linux on it, and it seems to be a much better machine for the change in operating system. It’s still chugging along as a secondary laptop. But I needed something better.

ASUS Vivobook F512 (2020) My latest and state of the art laptop is really quite a step up. It takes advantage of the latest AMD APU technology – A Ryzen 5 mobile processor with much more responsive Vega 8 graphics. In addition to the APU, the F512 has an excellent Intel wifi solution, which is much faster than the one in the Flex2.

The F512 also has a very good display – full HD (1920X1080.) It’s also thinner and lighter. It is not a gaming laptop but it is more than capable of web surfing, email, music, video, office tasks and (of course) writing a blog. The keyboard is full-featured and has a nice tactile feel.

The F512 came with Windows 10 and I’ll keep it that way. I like to have both Windows 10 and Linux running on household machines so I can provide technical help with both operating systems.

The Vivobook F512 has given me great value for money – especially since I was able to buy it on sale. About the only disadvantage is that the power adapter cord is a bit on the short side. I’m hoping this notebook will be a long-lasting solution to my mobile PC needs.

So that’s the story of my three notebooks. In one way it’s the story of AMD’s technical evolution – from badly trailing Intel in performance to the development of the APU (combining central processing and graphics into one chip) to the current generation of Ryzen processors (which rival Intel in capability at a lower price.)

At the very least it’s the story of how I can be an AMD fanboi without any embarrassment nowadays.

Isolation

With the number of COVID-19 cases increasing daily, our provincial authorities are starting to get serious about “flattening the curve.” In other words, try to delay the onset of a serious outbreak enough that the Health System can deal with it.

Since there’s no vaccine the only way to slow things down is some sort of mutual isolation. The risks right now are low, but we are in a higher risk group. So it begins for us.

Social Distancing: This is the preliminary stage. We’ll try to limit our travel as much as possible. Avoid crowds, try to stand a couple of meters away from another person, wash our hands often, cough or sneeze into our sleeves or a tissue. We should be able to go out for a walk if the weather is OK, or do some grocery shopping. I have an optometrist appointment I plan to keep tomorrow.

Self Isolation: We’ll need to do this if things get worse. That would mean staying home for at least two weeks or until things improve. We have stockpiles of food and medication if we need to go into self isolation. Anyone who’s returning to Canada from an international destination will be more or less required to self isolate. Of course if we get the symptoms of COVID-19 we have to call our local Health Unit and probably get tested. Hopefully if we are careful it won’t come to that.

I remember as a child the terror that arose during polio epidemics, or of seeing a house in the neighborhood under quarantine for Scarlet Fever. I never thought in my wildest dreams we’d be back at that stage 65 years later. Yet here we are.

Bridge of Sighs

It was going to be a nice relaxing voyage across the Atlantic to Tarragona, Spain. From there a second cruise would have taken us to Venice and some day trips to Vicenza and Verona. All changed, changed utterly.

We’ve canceled everything as of last Friday. We just must admit that it isn’t worth the risk. We are getting on in age; we are in one of the higher risk groups for serious illness (or worse.) We were heading to one of the worst hotspots in a country that has been closed down.

And our choice of transportation has been acting more like a Petrie dish than a cruise ship lately. There’s no guarantee we wouldn’t be quarantined at our port of destination. Even if we were not, we couldn’t be sure whether any restaurants would be open or ground transportation options would be available while we were there. Not to mention flying back and getting quarantined in Canada. It would be a cruise from hell.

The cruise company has been good about it. We were able to cancel and get credit for a future cruise when things settle down. British Airways canceled our flight from Venice back to Montreal with minimum penalty. I doubt that they’ll be flying from Venice anyway when we were due to return.

There’s no escaping it though – we did lose money. Air Canada wouldn’t refund us anything beyond some air terminal taxes. That’s the risk you take with non-refundable flights. But there were far greater risks to going ahead with our plans.

I am at the depression stage of grief by now. No point in anger at the morons who caused this by wanting to eat bats or armadillos in Wuhan. It is what it is.

This is one time where planning well ahead for a holiday came back to bite us. But I don’t think a last-minute cruise or beach holiday would suit us either right now. I guess our long-running staycation called retirement will have to do as the weather improves.

At least I heard the robins singing when I put out the trash this morning.

Setting Up a New Laptop

My Lenovo Flex2 laptop has been getting a bit long in the tooth lately, and it’s gotten particularly frustrating in more than one regard.

The worst part about it is the wifi connection. It never has worked all that well, and lately you can’t use the laptop for more than 20 minutes before the connection drops off.

Then it is impossible to reconnect unless the machine gets restarted. Given that it has a slow mechanical hard drive and a processor that is better suited to a tablet than a laptop, you really can’t do much of anything with it.

This older machine was set up with Windows 8 (remember that?) and I suspect the wifi driver for Windows 10 just isn’t up to snuff.

So I finally bit the bullet, took advantage of an Amazon sale, and got a new ASUS Vivobook.

I’ve always been an AMD fanboi, so this is the third AMD based laptop I have owned in 10 years or so. It is early days but it looks like the best one.

The laptop is very fast – with a Ryzen 5 3500U processor and a solid-state drive. The new laptops are thinner and lighter, and this one has a brighter display with higher resolution. The wifi looks to be a trouble-free Intel model and is also much faster than the balky one in my old laptop.

That’s the good news. The bad news is it took most of the day to get the darn thing working the way I like. I am glad I don’t have to do this setup more than once every five years or so:

  • Plug in the beast and get it charged up.
  • Start Windows and let it get ready to run the first time.
  • Silence Cortana (Windows’ version of Siri) and banish her search box from the taskbar at the bottom.
  • Get all the Windows updates – software and hardware drivers.
  • Disable and delete McAfee security – every new PC has this it seems – ecch!.
  • Install and configure Eset Internet Security and Malwarebytes.
  • Install a bunch of non-Microsoft programs – Google Chrome, Firefox, Libre Office.
  • Sync Chrome and Firefox so they look the same as on other computers around here.
  • Install Open Shell to get back the Windows 7 look and feel.
  • Copy over the Pictures library from the desktop. This backs many years and gigabytes of photos up again.
  • Install ACDSee photo manager and change the wallpaper on the start screen.
  • Install Speccy (hardware info) and CCleaner (gets rid of junk.)
  • Install network printer and check it’s working right.

I probably forgot something, but I have the basic stuff done. I am safe secure and productive again.

And I haven’t entirely given up on my old Lenovo Flex2. I took it to the basement workroom, installed Linux on it and hope the wifi works better under Linux. If it does, it can replace an even older junker that has a broken hinge and worn out display panel. I wiped that machine’s hard drive and it’s off to the recycler later this week.

All this geeking it up has given me a headache. Time for a cup of tea.

Shoot or Shelve

My recent experiences with my Nikon F80 film SLR got me thinking about the hobby of collecting cameras versus actually using them. Here are some thoughts:

  • Collecting cameras has a lot more in common with collecting watches than it does with collecting Nippon china or silver thimbles. Both cameras and watches have moving parts that must be maintained if you want to use the object you collected.
  • Probably the same definitions apply to cameras as anything else. Collectibles are less than 25 years old, vintage more than 25, and antiques more than 100 years old.
  • There is a clear demarcation line between film and digital technology. No sane person would collect early digital cameras unless we are talking about rare prototypes. Film cameras provide more of an opportunity to display and use your collection successfully.
  • A camera collection is going to take up a lot of space if you really get into it.
  • You can choose to shelve (in which case the item doesn’t have to work) or shoot (in which case it does.) Appearance will be a big factor in shelved cameras. Light leakage and seals will be important in shooting cameras, as will shutter performance and film availability.
  • I think it’s important to have a theme and a budget in mind. It’s quite different to collect Nikon SLRs versus 100-year-old Kodak folding cameras.

Just as an example, let’s look into the topic of Nikon film SLRs. There are a number of sub-categories – even in this relatively specialized area. And we can look into the possibilities of storing them on a shelf versus getting out there and using them.

Early Nikon Pro Cameras (F, F2, Maybe F3)
These workhorses were the go-to cameras for news and sports photographers in the 60s and early 70s. Really advanced amateurs may have had them too. A Nikon F was the camera of choice for the research lab where I worked in 1969.
As a collectible: These aren’t that rare – close to 900,000 Nikon Fs were made. That said, the pros gave them hard usage so one in great condition could be pricy. The earliest models and ones with a black body fetch premium prices.
As a shooter: You gotta be old school. Some of the earliest models don’t even have a light meter. They are heavy beasts as well. The best glass for them is Nikon primes. Zooms weren’t that great back then.

Mid Grade Nikons for Advanced Amateurs (FM, FE, FM2, FE2)
These are late 70s early 80s cameras and Nikon made them for a lower-priced demographic. They over-engineered them though. When I was deciding on Nikon vs Canon in the early 1980s, Nikon seemed to me to be heavier, more robust and better built. I must admit though that Canon had superior technology. Nikon was always very conservative, and hence when Canon had full program exposure capability Nikon cameras had only auto shutter speed. Nevertheless, the FE served me well for 20 years.
As a collectible: Lots of these around at decent prices. The FE makes a great display camera, especially in the chrome finish.
As a shooter: If you like manual focus, film load, film wind, and exposure these are for you. The FM and FE models are ideal for aspiring photographers taking a course at high school or college. My son-in-law has mine and maybe my grandkids will use it someday.

Later Nikon Pro Cameras (F4, F5, F100)
Arguably the greatest film cameras Nikon made – huge, weather-sealed, built like tanks. They feature all the toys from the 80s and 90s – automatic everything from exposure to motor drive. The F4 has more knobs, the F5 more pushbuttons.
As a collectible: They are sold at a considerable discount these days, but displaying a brute like this is like having a mastiff in the house. F100 is a bit cheaper and smaller.
As a shooter: Can’t go wrong if you don’t mind the weight and bulk. I’d bring along a younger assistant though.

One of a Kind – Nikon FM3a
This jewel of a camera was made in small batches at the end of the film era. It is basically similar to the FM2 series but lovingly crafted for the manual user. Paired with the right Nikon glass it would rival a Leica for snob appeal and performance,
As a collectible: Very expensive still but its value is holding up. If I had to choose one modern film Nikon to collect and display this would be the one.
As a shooter: It probably doesn’t work all that much better than an FE2, but it has a few refinements that appeal to the purist. Those who love analog luxury will love it.

Plastic Fantastic Nikons – F/N 75, F/N 80, F/N 90
Oh, there are a lot of these models from the 80s to the early aughts. They are an N series in the USA, and an F series elsewhere in the world. These were Nikon’s consumer offerings at the end of film, and they anticipated the design of digital cameras that followed. They are surprisingly capable – matching the pro line in everything except durability and weatherproofing.
As a collectible: Unloved, unpopular, unwanted. They can be found for next to nothing these days. They are ugly ducklings really. No investment value at all.
As a shooter: They are wonderful for someone who is discovering film after a decade or two of digital shooting. They have auto film loading, ISO detection, film advance, programmed exposure, and some of them work with the latest AF-S and VR Nikon lenses. They have one major flaw and that is the rubberized plastic coating. Sometimes it can get sticky to the touch after some years. But if you can get past that, Bob’s your uncle if you want to turn back the clock to 2000.

In summary, no I do not anticipate collecting cameras as a hobby. I’ve had some great ones, and I continue to use a camera whenever I can. I intend to keep both my film and digital Nikon systems and use them both. Digital is my preferred way to go, though.

I haven’t got into lens compatibility as that is a minefield. If you want to make sure you can use just about every lens Nikon ever made. get an F4 or F5. Don’t blame me if you throw out your back carrying it around.





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