Back to the Future

I’ve been taking photographs for well over 50 years – I started out with an Ansco Cadet box camera that used 127 roll film – 12 exposures and wait a week. Later on I switched to a Yashica 35mm rangefinder, and from 1981 to 1986 I was an SLR shooter. I started with a manual focusNikon FE and in the early 2000s switched to an autofocus Nikon F80 (N80 in the US.) I still have my F80 and a nice collection of old school AF Nikon glass.

However around the time I got my last film SLR, digital imaging started to take over. I followed the trend – my last great film based holiday was in 2006. It was my first cruise and I ran out of film in the middle of a port day in Oslo and had to scramble for some ISO 400 Fujifilm. Not gonna happen today when a memory card can hold close to 6000 image files.

Although I gradually migrated to digital, it was never with an SLR. The earliest Nikon DSLRs were a bit quirky – they couldn’t match the resolution of a film camera, they didn’t work as well with dedicated flash, there was the problem of a smaller sensor and “telephoto effect” – which multiplied a 24 mm wide angle into a 35mm wide normal lens. Worst of all was getting dust bunnies on the sensor which showed up in the images and were expensive and difficult to clean off. Who needed the aggravation?

So I made do – first with a Nikon digital rangefinder, then a Fuji bridge camera and most recently with a Canon S90. This last little gem worked great on the recent cruise and all the photos you see here were snapped with it. It’s surprisingly sophisticated considering it’s the size of a pack of playing cards. I’d never go on any holiday without it.

However, as good as it is, a tiny point and shoot like the S90 still falls short when it comes to serious photography. You can never get good photos of fast moving grandchildren with it, as it’s slow to focus and shoot. Also the wonderful rear LCD dispay still gets washed out in bright sunlight. It’s often a matter of rough guessing rather than precision when you take an outdoor photo. There’s no viewfinder of any kind.

So you guessed it – I’m coming Back to the Future with a new Nikon D5500.

I did my research, and at first I thought it would be cool just to get the digital camera body and use my collection of late 90s auto focus lenses from the F80. Nice idea but – in order to get a digital camera with a focus motor to drive the AF screw on these lenses I would have needed something very expensive, very large, very heavy. Also after all that I’d still have the “telephoto multiplier” unless I got a phenomenally sophisticated and expensive FX digital camera body. I have no intention of schlepping a huge camera and a bunch of heavy lenses any more – not after 12000 miles with the S90.

Besides, the camera and lens technology has changed so much it’s not necessary to have a whole bunch of lenses. Today’s cameras can dial up ultra high ISOs that were only a dream 10 years ago. Modern lenses have the focusing motor onboard, not in the camera. The new lenses have Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction – I enjoy that feature immensely on my Canon S90. It was cheaper and better to get a couple of new VR zoom lenses. They have good optics and you don’t need to worry if they are a bit slower, since uber high ISOs are now possible. Low light photography without a flash or tripod is now routine with the latest digital camera – lens combinations.

Best of all there is an ultrasonic cleaner on the newest cameras that blasts away the crud from the sensor.

Oh yes, my old Nikon glass will still mount and meter effectively. I have to focus them manually, but at least I can try them out. If I don’t like the results, I still have them for use with the film camera. Or I can trade them in on another VR lens I guess. We’ll see.

I’m looking forward to trying out the new technology in a new and interesting format. Back to the Future, indeed.




An Offer I Might Refuse

Recently I got an email about new Internet packages offered by my ISP who shall remain anonymous (Rogers.) Then just yesterday I got the same offer in a mailout. As usual they offer a 3 month discount window where you’d save $25 a month but you have to sign up for 2 years. I’m grandfathered in with a plan that was up to date two offerings ago.

So what exactly is Mr. Rogers offering me?

  • Supposedly a bit faster “up to” 60 Mbit download speed. I just checked mine with the “old plan” and I’m getting about 25 MBit speeds in the basement over the wireless N LAN. I have gotten over 35 wired in to the router upstairs. Not sure what results I’d get with the new plan, frankly.
  • 200 GB of bandwidth. Right now I have unlimited bandwidth in the “old plan.”
  • Hockey on my desktop and a SHOMI subscription. With the Game Centre Live and SHOMI features I supposedly get $300 /year extra “value.”
  • A new “Rocket” gateway with AC wifi capability. This probably would not be as good as my current Rogers DOCSIS 3 modem and D-Link N personal router combo. It would likely be incompatible with my wifi range extender and most of my equipment doesn’t support AC so I’d be back to N router speeds anyway.
  • I would have to pay $50 for installation and $15 to switch plans so that eats up $65 of the $75 “savings.” After that I’d be paying $10 more a month.

So I wouldn’t save anything after three months, pay more, get some features I don’t need and probably would not use, a gateway that isn’t an upgrade, plus give up my unlimited Internet. I could probably get by with 200 GB if we don’t stream a lot in a month but who knows?

Sounds to me like an offer I can pass on, thank you.

Gain (and Loss)

The online and digital revolution in music has obtained a lot of benefits – it’s hard to imagine how cool it is to carry thousands of songs round on a iPod or smartphone, or stream music videos seamlessly from the Web. But I can’t help thinking there have been some losses in the process. And I’m not just referring to the demise of the CD – sad though that may be.

It seems to me we’ve also lost that particular piece of artistry called the “concept album.” When vinyl started to disappear in the 1980s, the idea that you played an LP from start to end went with it. A CD can be just as much a random access device as a linear one. So away went the thought of a long playing record as a body of work put together with a purpose. Musical appreciation of a rock group became as vacuous as a “Greatest Hits” LP.

As an example of my thesis, I present the Moody Blues’ 1971 masterwork “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.” You have to listen to the tracks in order – especially note the way the Mellotron tour de force “Procession” (Desolation…Creation…Communication) segues seamlessly into the Top 10 powerhouse “The Story in Your Eyes,” and then reappears in “One More Time to Live.”

The great Philip Travers sleeve art that went with the LP was diminished when it appeared on a CD and probably has been forgotten if you just put a few tracks on your MP3 player.

I note the revival of vinyl in some quarters and while I am no fan of the “click and pop” of LP records, I do hope that the folks who have rediscovered the turntable will also rediscover the concept album and the way to experience it properly.

By the way, there is at least one way to “play through” an album on line and that is with Spotify. You can look up any album by the Moodies there and stream it start to finish. So maybe we haven’t lost as much as I originally thought.

The Technology Bin

I’ve been restoring and updating old PCs with Linux for nearly as long as I’ve been in Almonte. That is one of the great features of the Linux operating system – just about any old piece of junk will run it. When I first started these projects my starting material was 1999 or earlier stuff with low grade single core processors and massive CRT displays.

A lot of this detritus ended up in my basement computer museum. I got rid of the most egregious stuff a few years ago but not before I stripped the old machines of anything I thought would be useful in future builds. As it turned out, much of it was not useful – so yesterday I loaded it into boxes and today it went to a recycle depot. I’ll document some of this legacy crud below just to remind myself not to store it in the junk room again.

By the way if a used computer doesn’t have at least a dual core PC and DDR2 memory it isn’t worth keeping around today. My principal desktops are all quad core machines and so is my notebook. I do have a dual core or two still around but one is a jukebox and the other’s in mothballs. They both could run a 64 bit O/S as well. No point in 32 bit machines nowadays.

But there’s a lot more dead technology that I sent to the bin. Here are some examples.

  • PCMCIA boards – some old laptops didn’t have Ethernet or wifi connections so you needed one of these cards plugged in for Internet access. But that hasn’t been the case in the first decade of the 21st century, so..buh-bye.
  • Ethernet adapters – now obsolete as most motherboards have it built in. The oldest PCI boards don’t even work that well with modern modems and routers.
  • Parallel printer cables. You don’t even need a cable with a wifi printer now, let alone this dinosaur parallel port connection.
  • AGP video cards – old slow and obsolete 3D technology. Nuff said.
  • CD-ROMS and CD-RW drives – a far more capable DVD-RAM drive costs $20 new.
  • Low capacity PATA hard drives – when you can get a 64 GB thumbdrive for $30, who needs a bulky 40 GB parallel ATA drive in your PC? Even 160 GB PATA hard drives are questionable, although I did keep one around until the next cleanup. Got rid of a bunch of PATA cables as well. And don’t even get me started on VGA video adapters and cables.
  • PS/2 mice and keyboards – I had a bunch and they won’t plug into anything without an adapter. Besides most peripherals are wireless today.
  • Wired routers – even a basement PC needs wireless connectivity. You have it anyway for your laptop and tablet so why snake cables around the house?
  • SDRAM and DDR memory – nice if you want to fix a 10 year old PC but I don’t any more.
  • 56K dial-up modems – oh really? I have a real discrete 56K modem around here just in case there’s someone on the planet still using dial-up. It won’t be me.

I’ve become far more critical of what sort of hardware I’ll resurrect with Linux now so hopefully I won’t have another clean-up like this in my near future. No guarantees though. Technological time certainly flies.


19 Years Online

I read a good article recently about the death and possible (partial) resurrection of the Prodigy Online Service.

It got me in a nostalgic frame of mind because when I first got a PC capable of online access, Prodigy was the first service I tried. This was in early 1996 so I have been online for 19 years.

Prodigy (or P* as it was known to the insiders) predated the World Wide Web as we know it today. So did its principal competitors – Compuserve and AOL. Prodigy had its own proprietary protocol (not TCP/IP but NAPLPS,) its own server network and special client software you installed on your PC. It was sort of a parallel Internet at the time. Later on Prodigy developed a special browser so you could venture out into the WWW, but most of its content remained closed inside the NAPLPS cyberdomain.

To access P* you needed an account (which charged you by the minute) and a PC equipped with a dial-up modem. My first computer had a blazingly fast 14.4 Kbit browser. My current broadband speed is about 2500 times as fast as that and it really isn’t a speedburner compared to the FIOS connections out there.

Of course, the PC I had then would never have been able to handle those current speeds anyway. It was a Packard Bell desktop with a 100 MHz Pentium processor, 4 Megs of RAM and a 1 GB hard drive. I have 16 times as much RAM in my current desktop as I did hard drive space back then!

Needless to say I didn’t do a lot of digital photography or YouTube video in 1996. I hung out in mostly text based forums such as P*’s “Canada and Friends” and also the chat rooms for real time action. Prodigy provided some rather lame graphics to go along with it. Sounds wonderful, right? Right. To keep costs under control you could sign on, download your messages from your favorite forum and read them offline. Even I find it hard to believe I actually did this 19 years ago!

However the presence of information online revolutionized my work and leisure life. In 1995 I planned a trip to London and to see what shows were playing in the West End I had to buy a week old copy of The Telegraph. In 1996 I planned another trip and when it came to London Theater, I just looked it up online. We take online access for granted today but it was quite an information upgrade when it happened.

Sadly, Prodigy could not compete with the burgeoning Web and disappeared from Canada in 1998. In 1999 (citing possible Y2K issues with its aging technology) the venerable Prodigy Classic service disappeared from the online scene completely. Only a standard Prodigy Internet Service Provider remained and it’s gone today. I believe it was part of Yahoo for a while but you won’t find Prodigy as an ISP today.

Canada and Friends migrated its P* community to Delphi Forums and is still going today, after 20+ years.

19 years online and in terms of performance and activity it seems a Millennium away.

A Tale of Two Sims

Simulator games attract the most fanatical of enthusiasts, and train simulators probably appeal to the hardest of hard core fans. You can include me in that category since I have two of them.

Arguably the two most popular train sims are the ones I own – Train Simulator 2015 is the latest in a long line of developments which started with Microsoft Train Simulator back in 2000 or so. And Trainz: A New Era (Beta) is the successor to Trainz 12. Trainz launched initially about the same time as Microsoft’s TS game. I’ll just call them TS2015 and T:ANE if you don’t mind.

I have many hours of experience with TS2015 and recently I got a good deal to buy T:ANE in its pre-release format. The actual retail launch won’t occur until May 2015. I have played around a bit with T:ANE – enough to see the differences from TS2015. Hence this blog post.

So why have two train sims? There is a difference between them for sure and each one has its own group of fanboys. I’ll try to go over each item in point form and give my opinion as to which one works best for me. You may see things differently. Let’s get started.

  • The Object of the Exercise
    Nothing illustrates the difference between the two sims than the basic game objective. With TS2015 your goal is to drive a train – in fact a lot of trains – on some very professionally made routes. It is possible to make your own route but you have to invest a lot of time and effort into getting the route builder to work properly. Most TS2015 users leave that to the content creators.
    Trainz began its life as a model railroad simulator and hence the primary goal here is to do your own route design and construction. There are some prebuilt routes to be sure, but the real fun begins when you start making your own world. The route builder has a lot of complex tools but the basics are easy enough – even if you do end up with a model railroad at the end of the day.
  • Hardware Requirements
    You will need a robust system for either sim. I have an i5 quad core desktop machine with an Nvidia GTX 650 Ti Boost graphics card and that enables me to run TS2015 smoothly on a 1920×1080 monitor. T:ANE will have a new graphics engine that takes advantage of multicore processors and DirectX 11 technology so my system is barely in the recommended range for the new program. It seems to work OK so far – we’ll see when the developers get things finalized.
  • Under the Hood
    The basis of any video game is the program set called the Game Engine. TS2015 uses an old technology game engine based on DirectX 9.0c. DX9 dates back to the early days of Windows XP but the graphics engine in TS2015 still works pretty well. It also received some enhancements called TSX in 2012 so it’s pretty good with rain effects, shadows and lights from loco headlights. Dovetail Games (the maker of TS2015) have announced that there will be a future version of Train Simulator that will use Unreal Engine 4 as its basis. This newer engine will update the game to DX11 support. Further details are unknown at this point.
    T:ANE has its own graphics engine called E2. This new engine supports DX11 and is supposed to enable vastly improved graphics for the Trainz series of games. The developers are still working out the kinks. E2 also brings further enhancements such as multicore processing support. On paper T:ANE should have the advantage if its full potential is realized.
  • What You Get
    With TS2015 you get 3 basic routes – one American, one German and one UK. Each route has a few scenarios you can try or the possibility of just picking a train to explore a route. If you owned previous versions of TS you get a free update to TS2015 and your older routes will work. The locomotives and rolling stock are limited to the routes you buy so if you want more you’ll have to make use of Downloadable content (DLC.) More on that below.
    T:ANE comes with quite a large collection of locomotives and rolling stock, plus a lot of other stuff like buildings, turntables, switches. You’ll need this to build your own routes. You also get a couple of US routes, a UK one and an Australian one. This routes are nice but not as sophisticated as the ones in TS2015.
  • Downloadable Content (DLC)
    This is where TS2015 really shines. There are many available routes, lots of locomotives and rolling stock available from Dovetail Games via Steam (online game archive and cloud storage), plus a number of third party creators have stepped up with additional locos and carriages, plus sound and visual enhancements. You have to pay for it though. It can really add up if you aren’t careful. Fortunately a lot of this stuff can be picked up in sales from Steam or the content creators. If you get interested in UK steam the possibilities are mind boggling with TS2015.
    Trainz has a facility they call the DLS (Download Station.) You buy a pass to the DLS and in theory you can get over 250,000 free items – routes, locos, buildings, etc. So far I haven’t tried this because T:ANE is stll in Beta and I don’t know how much of the old content will be compatible. Time will tell.
  • Realism
    Let’s face it – no simulator that runs on a computer can give total realism. However some can come closer than others. There are many facets to giving a “realistic” experience on a train sim – the look of the cab, the “feel” of the controls, how realistic the physics are in starting and stopping a train, the look of the train models themselves, the ambience of the surroundings, rain and sky effects, etc.
    Perhaps it’s because I have more experience with TS 2015 but I get the impression that it just does this realism thing better than T:ANE right now. Certainly the look and feel of the trains and the cabs are much better to my eye and ear – some of the TS2015 steam locos are good enough to satisfy the most demanding “rivet counter.” I just don’t see that with the Trainz locos – they look more like models and less like the real thing – almost cartoony in some cases.
    Driving controls seem more realistic in TS2015 too – both sims have a realistic mode but TS does it better. The easy mode in Trainz is called DCC and it looks like a model train controller. There’s nothing like that in TS2015, although it does have a beginner’s mode.
    Shadows and lightings are getting better with T:ANE but at this point they haven’t pulled ahead of T2015 – even though T:ANE has a more up to date game engine.
  • Artificial Intelligence
    Although my experience here is more limited I have to give the edge to Trainz: A New Era here. The Trainz signalling system seems more robust, and it’s possible to run around the track with 5 different trains at the same time if you want – let the computer do the stopping and starting. You can even have multiplayer sessions with others on the Internet.
    In TS2015 things are more scripted – you meet AI trains on your journey but you don’t have them on the same track with you. The signal lights are more “show business” and don’t actually do any controlling of the traffic. TS2015 is strictly a single player game.
  • The Bottom Line
    It simply comes down to this: If you want to play with trains – TS2015 is the clear winner. If you want to play with train tracks – Trainz: A New Era is the way to go. I’ve had fun with both of them, but if I had to choose just one it would be Train Simulator 2015. The driving experience is far better and the steam engine models are superb – especially those from the third party content makers.

This topic may be revisited in future when I’ve had some experience with the T:ANE retail release, and the Trainz DLS content.



A New Era?

I am a big Train Sim fan and especially like Dovetail Games’ “Train Simulator 2015.” I have a lot of routes and content for that particular game.

However there is another very popular Train Sim game out there called Trainz – it’s made by an Australian developer called N3V Games.

The most recent stable release of this game is Trainz 12. However N3V is working on the next generation of train simulators called Trainz – A New Era (TANE.) They are having some issues and keep pushing back the final release date. However you can get a good deal on a prerelease order at Steam (20% off with lots of promised extras.) So I decided to give it a try. There is a beta version you can play with while waiting for the final release and I have done so.

The next generation of Trainz will have a fully capable graphics engine that uses DX11 and multicore processors (unlike Train Simulator 2015 which is about 5 years behind the times in this regard.) It’s said that there will be a lot more eye candy with TANE (shadows, rain effects, more realistic scenery.) I suppose we’ll see.

Right now I see some very different characteristics between Train Simulator and Trainz. Train Simulator appears to concentrate more on driving locomotives and Trainz is more of a route building and model railroad type of game. As an example I outline how to choose a QuickDrive operation in each simulator. That’s just using a train to explore a route.

In Train Simulator 2015:

  • Choose a route
  • Choose a train
  • Drive

In Trainz:

  • Enter Route Building Mode
  • Lay some track
  • Choose a locomotive and cars and place them on the track
  • Use the Consist selection tool to name and save your train
  • Save your test route and exit
  • Enter Drive Mode.
  • Choose a route
  • Find your consist in the New Trains window
  • Find a spot and place the train on the track
  • Choose a driver (a number of fake people are available)
  • Drive

Just a bit more complicated. Once you drive, Trainz has the option of an easy or realistic mode the same as Train Simulator. The Realistic modes are slightly different but Trainz has some excellent driving tutorials to help with this.

Right now I would say Train Simulator still has the edge. Graphics are better even though TS uses an older graphics engine. There is a lot more download content available for TS 2015 – either from the developer or third parties. It’s more realistic although in both cases you know you are dealing with virtual reality.

Both simulations require a powerful computer. I have a quad core i5 and a pretty good graphics card and I just barely qualify for the “recommended” setup in both programs.

I’m looking forward to the developments in Trainz – A New Era and I can also learn a bit about model railroading on the PC so I figure getting TANE at a discount was a good deal. I’ll still play Train Simulator though.


Income Inequality

It’s been over 45 years since I started my career in industry as a newly minted graduate chemist, but it seems a world away in societal terms.

I began work in a research department of a major food company that was located right next door to a big bustling food factory. The products we developed were upscaled and produced right there.

Many of the folks working in the plant were moderately talented and educated individuals (Grade 10 was common, a few finished Grade 12.) Yet in most cases they were earning a larger paycheck than I was after 4 years of a tough university regime. Some of my professional colleagues resented this fact but I never did. In the long term I knew I’d do better, and besides these people paid taxes and built up the community the same as I did. It was good for the town and good for business.

Today both the R&D facility and the factory are gone. The opportunity for a decent blue collar income went with them. The story is much the same in many cities and small towns in Ontario and Quebec. If you consider that these jobs made up the foundation of the middle class in Canada, it’s no wonder this class has been hollowed out.

I recently read a TD Economics report about Income Inequality (and Wealth Inequality for that matter.) It’s a sobering document.

The same forces that have devastated the middle class in the US apply here, namely:

  • Technological Change. There is a rotation from labor to capital when it comes to industrial production. That was easy to see even 10 years ago when I was still in the workforce. Productivity increases, jobs decrease with it. A computer replaces a machine operator.
  • Globalization. Do the R&D in North America but when it comes to production, move to a lower cost venue in Asia or Latin America. No factory jobs left in Canada.
  • Competition for top talent. The very high skilled jobs get paid more and this seems to be the way of the future. But there aren’t going to be many of them compared to what was out there in the 1970s.

So far Canada appears to be trailing the US a bit in these trends, but we are closely partnered with our Neighbor to the South so we can’t escape them completely. Our international companies will just relocate to “right to work” states in the US. I’ve seen that happen recently with Unilever as they are closing the factory in Brampton I worked in for 20 years.

One reason Canada has not had the same issues with income and wealth inequality as the US has (so far) is the fact that commodity production and real estate growth here have kept more of our middle class workers on the job. However both of those uptrends appear to be ending, or have ended.

TD Economics argues that income inequality has a bad effect on the economy and the underlying society – both in terms of current living standards for the majority, and the future opportunities for our children and grandchildren. I agree, but the solutions to the problem are not that easy to come by. Rather depressing thoughts on a cold January day.

Loco Fantasy

When my Windows 7 install crashed in December 2014 I had to reinstall all my programs including my Train Simulator 2015 files. I lost all my custom train consists, so I had to make new ones to play the game properly.

I took advantage of the disaster to create a few new trains that probably never existed in real life. Here we see a big ugly old LMS 7F freight loco sitting at Settle station. Instead of a bunch of coal wagons or boxcars, it is heading up a set of articulated teak coaches designed by Sir Nigel Gresley for the rival LNER. So wrong engine, wrong train.

Instead of a sleek passenger locomotive hauling these carriages at 70 MPH or more, they’ll be lucky to get up to 35 MPH with the freight loco doing the work. Sir Nigel would not be amused.


Just Another Day in IT

Since I moved to Almonte, I have embarked on a second career as unpaid IT technologist for the seniors in my neighborhood. It keeps my mind sharp and I get the occasional free coffee out of it so I suppose it’s worth my time.

Today was a typical day with a couple of my “Clients.”

Client #1 – Install new Photo Printer on Windows 7 All in One

This client had a small Canon Selphy photo printer which ceased functioning, so she sent her husband off to Staples to replace it, and he came home with a newer but similar model.

  • Client #1 had removed the old printer from the list and uninstalled the driver so that saved a bit of time.
  • I had hoped to use the old printer’s USB cable but Canon has changed the connection from conventional printer USB to mini-USB, so the old cable would not work.
  • Fortunately the new printer was wifi capable and Client #1 has a wifi network, so after some futzing around with SSID and passwords I got it connected.
  • Installed the Windows driver and after putting in the photo paper the printer did its job. Task complete.

Client #2 – Fix eMail and Subsequent Issues

Client #2 has a Compaq desktop from 2007 or so running Windows Vista. He was complaining that he got two copies of every email when he downloaded it using the Windows Mail program that comes with Vista. I suggested maybe he could just read the mail with his browser but he has two email accounts and likes to get them together with Windows Mail.

  • As I suspected the accounts were keeping a copy of the emails on the POP3 server after download so he got each email twice.
  • After removing the option to keep emails his personal account was downloading one copy of the email but his business account wasn’t downloading anything even though the mail was showing up in his browser.
  • Checked settings and his business email account was also set up to receive from his personal account. Changed the settings to reflect reality and now he is getting one copy from both accounts.
  • Noted a lot of crapware on his machine – Conduit Search, Ask Toolbar, Film Fanatic – so I ran a Malware Bytes scan and removed 400 pieces of malware. After getting rid of Film Fanatic from Chrome, it’s all good again.
  • Uninstalled a particularly dumb piece of software called HP Advisor that slows things down and puts an ugly dock at the bottom of his screen.
  • After all this Vista runs a bit better but I wouldn’t want to have to reboot it very often. Oy…

After all this I continue to believe that computers are too difficult for most seniors to manage properly.



cww trust seal