Chocolate Cupcakes

It’s what my younger granddaughter Susannah wants her Nonna to bake for her 8th birthday tomorrow. We have weekly celebrations in October capped off by Susannah’s birthday.

As with all the grandkids, it’s a pleasure to try to keep up with the child’s growth and development. At least it is for Grandpa who loves them more and more as they grow up.

Susannah celebrated her first communion earlier this year, and now she is happily back in her regular classroom at Good Shepherd school. She did fine in remote learning last year, but she missed her friends. She’s socially adept like her mother, and both she and her older sister are unhappy that they have to stay on their cohorts at recess, missing out on a wider circle of contacts. I guess that is something to look forward to as COVID recedes someday.

She still navigates her way expertly on a desktop computer I set up for her, but she’s recently turned the whole setup around so “nobody can look over her shoulder.” Privacy concerns at age 8. Who would have thought?

Susannah and Veronica are roommates, but they look forward to evicting the kittens from their upstairs room and eventually having their own personal space. In the meantime, they both enjoy carrying the long-suffering felines around like dolls.

As is usual at the McLean household a grandkid’s birthday is a multi-day festival, and Susannah will have a party with her friends on Sunday. Nonna and I are happy she’ll be able to fit us in on Saturday this year. Better get busy making those cupcakes, Nonna!

Happy birthday dear Susannah and I look forward to seeing you grow up to be a wonderful person. You have already made a great start.


Just Back from the Edge

My nine-year-old Acer Veriton desktop has sadly reached its end of life as far as Microsoft Windows is concerned. Intel is no longer supporting Windows 10 with its second-generation Sandy Bridge CPU. No amount of upgrading or configuration can fix that.

So after some careful consideration I concluded that there were 3 possible courses of action:

  1. Completely build a new system from scratch. I have done this before for a Linux-based machine but never with Windows.
  2. Buy a lower specd Windows machine and replace/upgrade parts as needed to get what I need. This was the approach I took with the Acer. It was a solid enough basic business machine but needed quite a bit of upgrading to run my Train Sim games.
  3. Just get what I need out of the box.

#1 is probably the most cost-effective way in normal times. But the times right now are far from normal. Good processors have been hard to source, and above all there is a critical shortage of graphic cards. Prices are through the roof.

#2 might work if I was willing to wait for months, but at the end of all the upgrades I usually have a bunch of leftover parts I replaced. It took years to get my Acer shipshape.

So option #3 – a pre-built system – seemed like the best way to go. But which make? Which model? What options?

There are many prebuilt machines out there – most come from stores like Amazon or Staples or Best Buy. In researching what was available I discovered that many of these machines:

  • Had a real gaming appearance with all kinds of LED fans and flashing lights. I didn’t want to look like a teenybopper using a desktop like this.
  • Either did not have enough memory installed, or had inadequate primary storage for games and the operating system. I would be upgrading from the get-go.
  • Were large and heavy. I have limited space on the small shelf attached to my computer desk.

So I wanted something fairly compact, fairly understated, with the option to customize a bit. All this led me back to Dell Canada’s website. And they were having a sale.

I ended up speccing out a Dell XPS 8940. I splurged a little but I think it’ll be OK. I won’t have to shop for parts and everything seems to fit together.

Let’s run down the stuff I got.

  • Case – you can see above it’s rather businesslike. It’s a small mini-tower and fits very well on the desk. It is lightweight and about 2/3 the volume of a typical case from 2012.
  • Processor (CPU) – something old, something new. It’s an Intel i7-11700. That is the latest Intel desktop design (the new) but it’s built on (the old) 14 nm fabrication process that’s been around for 5-6 years. It is the non-overclockable version so not exactly a gamer’s chip. My simulation games are not demanding, and this processor can run them capably while staying cool and quiet.
  • Memory – 32 GB DDR4 2933. Maybe a bit of overkill here as I had 16 GB before. However, I am future-proofed with this much RAM. There is faster memory out there, but I’ll never need it.
  • Storage – 1TB SSD (NVME) and 2 TB regular HDD. This is a perfect combination and was only available by customizing my machine. Glad I did.
  • Video Card – Nvidia RTX 2060 6 GB VRAM. This is Nvidia’s last-generation card but you cannot get the latest 3060 version at any price right now. It’s a solid card – better than what I had in the Veriton box.
  • O/S – Windows 10 Professional – I think if you are going all out on a machine like this, you might as well get the best version of Windows.

It took about 10 days from the time I placed the order for Dell to put the system together and ship it to Almonte. That is not bad for a custom config.

I’ve been running the new desktop box for a week now, and if I had to describe it, I would say it’s “just back from the edge” of technology. It’s not a full-on gaming machine, but it handles itself well. It can deal with any email, web surfing or office task easily. It’s great for photo editing. I have copied some large file folders with ease.

Some YouTube and Internet forum correspondents have criticized the 8940 for its Dell proprietary parts, less than robust cooling, and lack of upgrade potential. That doesn’t affect me; I have found it to be quiet and cool in the tasks I have done, and I have specd the machine pretty much the way I would want it now and in future.

I’m just going to enjoy the new computer experience and hope everything lasts. Given my experience with past Dell desktops, there’s a good chance of that happening.

Windows Shuffle

I have been using some form of Microsoft Windows at home for thirty years. I have been using it to surf the Internet for at least 25 years.

During a good deal of that time, I was forced to get a new computer every time the version of Windows changed. My old hardware just did not have the horsepower to keep up.

I still need to run Windows today as Maria, Sarah, and the grandkids are used to it. I have some games that require it. And my Income Tax and Photo Management programs are Windows only.

Of course, the only sane Microsoft version to be running these days is Windows 10. So far I have managed to avoid the old Windows Shuffle when it comes to hardware replacement. My current Windows desktop is from 2012 and started out with Windows 7 Professional. I have managed to upgrade it to Windows 10 Pro, plus copy it to a couple of SSD upgrades, and it kept on chugging away.

Alas, it looks as if my luck is running out. Although Microsoft is not changing the name of Windows 10, they are indeed changing the version. My older desktop is stuck at version 1909 and there have been two upgrades since then. My old desktop won’t update to either of them – I just get a “failed to connect” error. Other updates have installed but not the most important ones.

I think the reason for this is that Windows/Intel no longer supports the aging Sandy Bridge processor that is in my nine-year-old desktop. Although I’ve upgraded a lot of stuff in the desktop over the years, I can’t do much with the motherboard and processor.

The version of Windows 10 I use is nearing its end of life and won’t be supported for security much longer. I have to do something to fix the problem.

Now under normal circumstances, I might save a few of the parts from the desktop and build a new one. However, right now is a very bad time to do that, since many parts I’d need are hard to get or very high priced at retail. What to do?

Well dude, I’m going back to Dell. I ordered a new Dell XPS desktop which should arrive later this month. Dell is one of the few companies that still allows customization when you order, so I got improved storage and memory and it’ll be futureproofed a bit. I assume it’ll come with the latest version of Windows 10.

I have plans for the old Windows desktop too. As constituted, it is a vast improvement over the 2008 desktop I have set up for my granddaughter Susannah. If I install and configure Linux Mint on it, it should give her a faster and more reliable PC. It’ll have more memory and much better graphics. I’ll just do the IT and then switch it out for the 13-year-old antique she’s using now.

Aside from the monetary pain, getting a new Windows desktop means backing up and restoring a lot of data, re-installing a bunch of software, making sure all the games work properly, etc. At least I know what to do.

I guess I shouldn’t complain if I only have to do this every 10 years. Be thankful for small mercies.


It’s been a long time since I just had one computer hooked up to the Internet.

I suppose it was probably in 2002 – just before Sarah brought her stuff home after graduating with her Master’s degree from Guelph. Then the complication began.

At that time I needed to share my broadband access with her, so I bought a wired router, snaked an Ethernet cable around the periphery of the room, and installed her desktop system on the opposite side from my own. Those two desktops constituted my first local area network.

After we moved to Almonte, I inherited Sarah’s old desktop system. I wanted to install it in the basement, but I didn’t want to drill holes in the floor to run Ethernet from upstairs. I decided to try a wifi connection.

Now 12 years ago wifi was a nice to have, not a necessary service. Internet speeds to the home were relatively low, wifi itself was in the early stages, wifi radios were rather wimpy. I could get a wifi signal in the basement but it was pretty weak since it had to go through the floor.

I fixed the weak signal somewhat by getting a wireless extender. This was a second radio in the basement that repeated and amplified the upstairs signal. It was a bear to set up, and required all my networking skills – basically it set up a second network and I connected my desktop system to that. It worked OK as long as all I had was a couple of immobile desktop systems in my network.

Things have changed utterly since 2008. Now we have laptops, tablets, smartphones, wireless printers, Roku video streaming. They are all clamoring for wifi connections. Internet speeds have increased by an order of magnitude. With only two people in the house, we still have 6-7 devices connected to the wifi net. When Sarah and family come to visit they can easily bring another six devices with them.

For many years I ran a separate modem and router combination to get wifi. Then a few years ago my Internet provider required me to get a very high-speed modem to deliver speeds of 200 Mbps and greater. This modem came with its own router built-in, and since it had superior specs to the router I was using at the time, I junked my older router and just went with the all in one solution.

This was a fine system for upstairs surfing, but I still had the problem with weaker signals downstairs. Some of my wifi devices in the basement suffered from low speeds, and – what was worse – dropped connections and disconnects. This would not be good for updating files or videoconferencing.

I didn’t want to set up another range extender. A second network is a real PITA if you have mobile devices. You have to disconnect and reconnect to a new network if you take a smartphone or laptop downstairs.

Fortunately, home wifi itself has come a long way. The answer to my problem was to go back to the future.

I am once again using a separate modem-router combination – but this time it is a mesh system.

A mesh router system uses a couple of units – one (the parent) connects to the modem. The second one (the child) sits in the basement. Both of them are mini-computers. They communicate with each other to decide which one connects to say – a smartphone, But unlike the clunky range extenders they behave as if they are on the same network. It’s a smart router rather than a dumb router and extender.

Many networking equipment makers have mesh systems including non-traditional ones like Google and Amazon. I went with Linksys – a long-trusted brand.

The parent router is the rather geeky looking black box shown above. It has a tiny white rectangular child unit in the basement to work with. Both provide excellent signals with (so far) no drops or loss of data. Speeds are great in the basement, and of course superb with the more powerful router upstairs.

Sarah will be coming out to Almonte for a few days to work remotely on her theology seminar. She’ll need to use Zoom without problems and I am confident she won’t crash or lose contact at any point.

From a wifi point of view, I have really moved into the 21st century. From meh to mesh – what a transformation!

In the Cloud

Since 1982 I have had some sort of “local computing” capability. Mind you the earliest stuff was pretty primitive. Limited software, limited storage, slow processing. But it worked.

I couldn’t really get into “cloud computing” at that point because the Internet did not exist then. That didn’t happen until I got online in 1996. And then it was the cloud’s turn to be primitive. We had mostly text-based stuff that we downloaded and read offline (emails, forum posts) and our connect time was expensive and restricted.

Well I don’t have to tell you that times have changed. Now we have broadband Internet, Google Drive, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, high speed routers, smartphones, Roku…you name it. We’ve been online 24/7 for years.

The main difference between local computing and cloud computing is the way you do stuff – write, calculate, store photos. If you still do that on your home computer you are a local user. If you do it through a Web browser you are a cloud user.

My grandkids are cloud users for sure. Their school provides them with a Google account and GSuite – a bunch of calculation, writing and communication apps they use through Google Chrome. They can work anywhere, on any computer – even a cellphone if Dad lets them.

In Grandpa’s case, it’s a bit more complicated. Things like this blog have to be cloud-based – I don’t want to host an Internet server in my house. We store our email on the provider’s servers.

But I don’t use a cloud model for photography. I still download my photos to my main desktop and back them up locally. I upload what I need to my website or to Google Drive. The main reason for this is I have a lot of photos and my upload speed to the cloud is very slow compared to download, Each photo would take a couple of seconds to upload and that is a lot if you have a couple of hundred to store.

I also prefer to use my own software to write documents, do calculations and – to a much lesser extent now – make slide presentations.

Do I anticipate a move totally to cloud computing in my future? Never say never I guess. But right now I believe that I get faster speeds and more security by keeping things local. It will take quite a massive increase in upload speed before storage on a remote server can match the speed of a hard drive, let alone a solid-state drive.

Now if we ever get speeds like some fiber-based ISPs in the US. 1Gb down, 1Gb up…hmm.

Does It Matter?

My great-uncle Eddy spent his working life shoveling coal, or wrestling with the controls of a variety of steam locomotives. When he passed away in 1956 his favorite loco was a dinosaur, on the way to the scrap heap after 40 years of service.

Uncle Eddy’s job survives today, but his fireman and brakemen are gone. The conductor doesn’t ride half a mile away at the end of the train, but sits beside the engineer. All changed, changed utterly.

I’m sorta like Uncle Eddy today – the job I had when I began 50+ years ago has gone the way of those old steam hoggers, shacks and tallowpots. I just heard that another brand I was proud to work on – Ragu – has been pulled from the shelves in Canada. In that half-century, 6 factories I worked in have closed – another has had half its lifeblood taken away and is hanging on by a thread. Its products are now marketed by a different company.

The food scientist in industry has vanished from the Canadian landscape it seems. Unless you want to work for the government, be an academic, or start your own little food company your chances of having a successful food science career in Canada are close to zero today.

Back when I was a young and aspiring scientist, it was considered a badge of honor to apply your technical knowledge to make foods, safer, better, and more convenient for the customer. Companies like General Foods had a stable of interesting brands – some venerable (Jell-O, Maxwell House) and some new and interesting (Freeze-dried coffee, Cool Whip, Shake n Bake, Tang.)

Now if you can’t make a mint, you divest the brand. Or you make a leveraged buyout or conglomerate out of the company. And above all, you centralize R&D in one country. That country is not Canada.

Sometimes I wonder if my 35 years in the industry made any difference at all in the grand scheme of things. I’ve learned a lot…how much of it applies anymore?

Some sad thoughts on a cloudy cool August day.

Fan Free Baseball

The above photo was taken in July 2003 – during the SARS pandemic. There were a few fans present at Skydome / Rogers Centre that day. Won’t be happening this year though.

It’s not just the Blue Jays that will experience COVID weirdness. I watched the opening day baseball game in Washington DC last night. World Series championship banner raised with no fans in the park. Vacuous player introductions. Massive home runs clanging off empty seats. No broadcasters in the park – Matt and A-Rod were in a studio with appropriate social distancing. The coaches wearing masks. Canned crowd noise – sorta like a comedy laugh track, but less stimulating.

The most exciting thing was a huge thunderstorm that washed the game out in the 6th inning – Yanks win! Yanks win!

Honestly, I don’t see how baseball can possibly hope to keep viewers with such a depressing spectacle. Do they think that a live crowd. has nothing to do with the atmosphere?

I contrasted the live broadcast with a televised Sportsnet replay of the 1993 World Series game 6 – yes folks I was there. The crowd went crazy after Joe’s home run, but the atmosphere was electric all night long – and I don’t mean lightning and thunder.

Now I hear that major league baseball will expand the playoffs this year – even more games in empty ballparks.

It’s great if you want to watch bad umpiring without crowd reaction, or see a hanging slider go 460 feet to die on an outfield concourse without anyone to catch it. But it sure ain’t baseball. You can look it up.

Distance Education

Some 30 years ago when Maria was taking courses in Computers for Schools there was already a lively debate going on about the future of PCs in the classroom. Not to mention the future of technology on teaching and teachers.

As far as I could see at that time there were numerous logistical and personnel barriers to this Brave New World everyone was speculating about.

First of all was the cost. A single computer back then cost thousands of dollars. Many families couldn’t afford them. They were desktop models so the kids would have to share at home or in school. No school board could put 20 desktop computers in every classroom.

Then there was the question of standardization. Most PCs were Windows-based back then but a lot of schools used Macs. What’s a family to do? Get more machines?

Then there was the problem of technology. Networks were wired and difficult to set up and use. Even if a school had a computer lab with internal connections that is as far as it went. There was no Internet so homework would have to be sent home on a floppy disk back then. Ever heard of computer viruses? Scary.

Maria was learning about a Mac feature called Hypercard. I thought this was a dumb idea. Hypercard allowed you to connect your document to another one on your computer by means of a hyperlink. I thought for this to be of any practical use one would need incredibly powerful processors, unheard of graphical capability, and massive amounts of storage – preferably network storage. None of that was possible in 1990. Just a gimmick, I thought.

Last of all was the state of the people involved. Our generation struggled with computer tech; the younger one was adapting as they got access. But it seemed a lot of expensive training would be needed.

Fast forward to 2020. The oldest teachers have retired. The current teaching group is well versed in technology – at least as far as Pinterest and Facebook are concerned. We have the World Wide Web – which is Hypercard on steroids. We have desktops, laptops, smartphones, Chromebooks, Google, Skype etc. etc. The world has changed. Had classroom instruction with computers changed all that much?

Up until March 2020, I would have had to say no. But COVID-19 changed everything. Not only were students and teachers forced to use computer-aided instruction, they had to do it while practicing social distancing.

The kids were ready for it. The current generation have not only adapted to IT, they are immersed in it.

My grandkids are out here this week. No sooner had they got here than Veronica was setting up a Google Meet with her dad back in Ottawa. Teddy has a morning enrichment session with his classmates that went on after the official end of school. All of the kids have Google accounts set up through their school board, with their own Google Drive setups. Teddy keeps track of his Pokemon collection on a Google spreadsheet. Kids copy and paste into their browser like demons.

I have to admit that after 50 years of IT experience, my competence with online tools is roughly equivalent to that of my nine-year-old granddaughter. And I like to think I am pretty with it still. Go figure.

I may be wrong but I think this recent burst of distance learning is going to revolutionize the classroom – for better or worse. The stuff we only dreamed about in 1990 is here now, and the kids are spearheading its adoption. I only hope the current generation of teachers can keep up with them.

Fifteen Years Later

Paul Martin was Canada’s Prime Minister. Dubya was in the White House. If anyone said Donald, you thought of Disney’s cartoon duck.
Maria had just finished her teaching career, and I was 6 months into retirement myself.

We had never cruised at this point. We had no grandchildren. It was a world away from now. No pandemics to worry about although SARS was a recent memory.

This is what my computer setup looked like. No smartphones, laptops, or Linux.

On July 5th we finished our packing and loading and locked the door for the final time at 56 Pennington Crescent, Georgetown. As I recall it was in a heavy rainstorm.

We drove as far as Peterborough, stayed overnight in a tiny motel, and next day arrived in Almonte.

It was quite a leap of faith, moving to a small town we’d only visited a few times. But Sarah and Dave weren’t far away. Closer to Kingston too.

It’s worked out pretty well. We’ve used Almonte as a base for global travel. Lots of flights and ship voyages. We’ve met lots of great people both in Almonte and on the seas. Had our share of joys and sorrows to be sure. And we’ve grown old.

Our kitchen still has the porcelain cat cookie jar, but the fridge, dishwasher and coffee pot have expired. We have a new roof on the house, and the heating and cooling plant is getting a bit long in the tooth. That’s what happens when you spend some time in one place.

Winters can be vigorous here but we enjoy the clear air and dark skies full of stars.

We are well away from urbanity but we haven’t avoided the COVID-19 situation. Many old folks in an LTC home died right in Almonte. We are aware of our fragility and so we social distance. Traveling is a still recent memory and a long to be delayed future dream – if it happens at all.

At one time I contemplated spending the rest of my life in Georgetown. Didn’t work out that way. But hey, it’s been pretty cool to be here for 15 years. And the grandkids are coming out next week. They love it here as much as we do.

Not a bad thought for an anniversary, is it?

Upgrading in 2020

I have done a lot of refurbishing and upgrading of personal computers over the years, but the parameters have changed lately.

When I first started out, my typical upgrade candidate was an older desktop with an obsolete Windows operating system. Usually it ran badly – the primary reason was insufficient memory. It was easy to open the case and pop in a second stick of RAM. Then I usually installed Linux. It was free, no licensing issues and for most folks it was just as good as Windows. Job done.

Things are different now. First of all the machine that needs upgrading will be an older laptop. A typical example is this HP 4730s from 2012 that belongs to my son-in-law. He used it in his business for years but he recently got a new machine. This one was handed over to the kids. But did they want to use it?

Most desktops are worth upgrading but not all laptops are. Some were cheap and underpowered when new, and aren’t worth the effort. This HP Probook is a different matter. It is big and heavy but solidly built. It has a decent processor and a 17 inch HD screen. It was even running Windows 10.

Its major problem was (as usual) barely adequate memory capacity and a slow mechanical hard drive. with Windows and all the security programs it needed, the laptop was taking about 3 minutes to start up. The kids hated it. Who could blame them?

Turns out the laptop was very easy to work on. I didn’t have to tear it apart to get access to the memory slots and hard drive. Bonus!

I had a spare stick of laptop RAM here, so I put it in. This increased the memory capacity to a maximum of 8 GB. Not bad. But it really needed a new solid-state drive.

A 500 GB solid-state drive is pretty cheap these days. I got an entry-level ADATA one from Amazon. After removing the old drive and installing the new one, I decided to go with Linux Mint for the new operating system. The kids won’t care – they use Chromebooks at school and Linux Mint is pretty similar. Plus LM is lighter weight and faster.

I kept the old mechanical drive as is so if my son-in-law needs to retrieve any data from it he can do so.

Everything is working now and the 8-year-old laptop runs like a new machine. It starts up in less than 20 seconds, and programs like Google Chrome launch in under two seconds. Even an impatient kid will be happy with that. Linux provides all the kid-friendly apps like Steam and Spotify – just like Windows.

The main difference between upgrading now and 10 years ago is that you’ll likely have to work on a laptop, and the first thing you’ll want to do is get rid of the old hard drive and install a solid-state one. memory upgrades are still good, but not as essential.

Anyway, the old Probook has a lot of life in it now, and the kids will have another machine for homework and games. They might even want to learn about Linux someday – who knows?

cww trust seal