The Changing Face of TV Technology

I was just thinking the other day that in the nearly 38 years we have been married, Maria and I have had only 4 primary TV sets. Those 4 sets certainly highlight the changing face of television technology.
Set #1 from the early 1970s was a 20 inch Zenith Chromacolor (The Quality Goes In Before The Name Goes On.) It probably still featured handwiring and some tubes in the chassis. The set was hand delivered and set up by the local Zenith dealer. It featured a rotary dial tuner that could get 12 or so VHF channels and was connected by coax cable to an “over the air” antenna.
Set #2 from 1982 was a handsome 26 inch RCA (In Living Color) Colortrak wooden console TV. This time it took two guys from the Local RCA dealer to deliver it and one stayed behind to set it up. It had a remote control and was connected by coax to analog Cable TV that featured at that time about 30 channels.
Set #3 from 1999 (still running VCR and DVD in our rec room) is a 32 inch RCA Home Theater Premiere. This big heavy monster was again delivered by two guys and not much setup was needed. Eventually this set was connected by coax to a digital cable box and tuned into hundreds of standard definition channels. This was one of the Thomson Electronics RCA models and performed pretty well (still does.)
Set #4 from 2009 is a 37 inch Samsung series 5 LCD HDTV. It’s not a feature laden set but it does have pretty nice TV performance. Nobody did anything to deliver or set it up. I carried it home in the back of my Jeep and set it up myself, connecting it by HDMI cable to an HDTV cable box. In addition to the other standard definition, it gets an additional 35-40 high definition channels.
From vacuum tubes to solid state, CRT to LCD, standard def to high def, antenna to cable, analog to digital, 12 channels to hundreds – it’s been a long and interesting ride. Zenith and RCA are Asian brands today – part of television history. And so am I, probably.

I’m Hooked.

It’s no secret in my family that I’m not a big fan of little kids. I have been quoted in the past as saying: “Just introduce me to him when he’s out of diapers and understands logic.”
But I must admit that 3 week old Edward Vincent McLean has me wrapped around his tiny perfect fingers already.
We had planned for Maria to go down to Ottawa and help Sarah out the first week that Dave returned to work. However her sister was not well in Kingston so she had to go down there for a few days instead.
Grandpa had to pinch hit until Grandma could get back there on Wednesday. Not entirely confident in my attempts to do so, I advised Sarah upfront. “This is not what you’ll get with your mother…but I’ll try.”
I soon discovered that I still had the old baby magic though. I can get the most unburpable child to burp – just ask my favorite green Greg Norman sweater. Also I can walk and rock him to sleep just as effectively as I did with his mother back in November 1977.
The sights, sounds and smells of a three week old are irresistible too. Well some smells are at least. For more scatological needs I can still hand him back to Mom and Dad and never run the risk of getting shat upon – which Sarah did to me more than once (she was paid back for her crimes today.)
Grandma’s coming home tonight as she has to go to the optometrist and do her volunteer work tomorrow. So I’m going back to Teddyville. It’s my turn. I’m hooked.

Lower,Slower,Weaker

It seems that the decades old WinTel model of computer technology has been turned on its ear in the last year or so.
The concept of designing and building faster and more powerful processing capability, followed by a more complex and resource hungry software stack has been replaced by a sort of inverse Olympic model – lower (power consumption), slower (processor speeds) weaker (performance scores). The new standard seems to be “good enough” rather than “bleeding edge” in the majority of cases.
This is the thought that went into the Intel Atom processor and its associated chipset. The combination of a mini-processor and capable but undistinguished supporting hardware is driving the latest “netbook”‘ sales boom.
Let’s face it – the fact is that the majority of stuff most people use a computer for has not demanded increasingly powerful processing. Once you get to the point where you can surf the Internet, play music and videos without glitches, and do your normal office tasks, things are “good enough.” That point probably occurred around 2002 with the advent of the Pentium 4 processor and Windows XP. Everything that happened since then has been important to gamers, graphics designers, video editors – but not the general computer user.
Couple with that the fact that the hardware designers were running into serious limitations with processor speed, power consumption and just keeping the darn thing cool and it was obvious that something had to be done. The multicore processor has been the the solution for the power users; the simpler “old is new again” Atom technology has spurred on the development of a new generation of cool tiny Internet appliances. It’s as if Intel has been given the chance to go back and re-invent the Pentium processor knowing what they know now about miniaturization and nanotechnology.
The software makers have had to adjust to the new landscape too. Microsoft has the hardest challenge I think. The bloated Vista operating system is just not going to perform well in the netbook environment, and as a result Microsoft is stuck offering and extending support on an eight year old O/S until they get their Windows 7 out of the shop. The initial reviews are pretty good, but they are probably 6-9 months away from a saleable new product.
Well then, how about Linux? No problem. The combination of efficient design, low resource demand, no need for CPU sucking security apps makes it perfect for the netbook. I’m typing this post now on an 8.9 inch Acer Aspire One running Linux with only 512 MB of RAM. It’s a pleasure – fast boot from its solid state hard drive, all the software I need, excellent wireless support. It doesn’t look like Windows XP but it works.
I’m using Abiword – a smooth, full featured bloat free word processor. (Yes you can get it free for Windows if you want.)
The only problem Linux on the netbook has is – how do you get the average user to try it?

Netbook Networking

My daughter has decided that it’ll be difficult to sit at a desktop computer and multitask with all the stuff she’ll need to do to keep Teddy fed, changed and happy. However, she doesn’t want to completely lose contact with the online world either.
The solution is some sort of wireless laptop – specifically a netbook. These lightweight Internet appliances are perfect for travel activity – either moving around the house, researching restaurants in a hotel room on a motor trip, or even emailing on a cruise ship.
Sarah’s a demon touch typist, and I was concerned that the typical 7 or 9 inch netbook keyboard would be frustrating for her. We found the solution I think. It’s a Dell Inspiron Mini 12 – larger 12 inch screen and an almost full size keyboard. It weighs a bit more than a kilo and is as thin as a Macbook Air. She ordered it from Dell and it should arrive next week.
These netbooks have state of the art wireless hardware but otherwise are solid 2003 technology. The Mini 12 has an Intel Atom Z530 processor and a Poulsbro chipset – low power, slow 1.6 GHz single core processor, maxed out memory at 1 GB. The original models ran Vista Home Basic and it was painful to watch. The second generation Mini 12s offer a step back to Windows XP or a step forward to Ubuntu Linux.
If you choose XP it costs more to buy the netbook, and you can only get Microsoft Works installed on your machine. You have to buy and install Microsoft Office or download and install Open Office. Of course Ubuntu comes with all the software you need right out of the box. Ubuntu is also a great choice for a netbook because it’ll boot faster and use less resources – no need for CPU sucking security applications. The final advantage is that Sarah will have the opportunity to learn and use Linux – one never knows if and when such a skill will come in handy at the office.
Of course Grandpa the geek is all ready to provide whatever IT assistance is needed.

On Being a Grandpa

Well, my grandson Teddy is 2 1/2 weeks old now so maybe some grandfatherly comments are in order:

(1) I am really proud of my daughter and son-in-law. Sarah coped with hours of labor and natural childbirth with great courage, and has been up to the challenges of two difficult weeks as Teddy adjusts to life in the real world. Dave will be a natural dad – he’s jumped right into all the tasks of parenthood with enthusiasm, support and good humor.

(2) Maria has been a great help to them – in the right way. She cooked and cleaned house for a week so that the new parents could bond with the baby and concentrate on his needs.

(3) Teddy appears to be an even tempered little guy that is dealing well with the ups and downs of early childhood. He cries when he needs you, but otherwise he’s pretty laid back and calm.

(4) I haven’t forgotten how to hold and burp a baby although it’s been awhile.

(5) It’s amazing how fast kids grow and develop. You see a change even in a couple of days at this age. I’m looking forward to the first smile in a couple of months though.

(6) I really don’t feel any older being a grandpa. It’s a stage of life that feels right to me now, just as being a dad felt right when Sarah was born.

Transatlantic At Last

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is take a sea voyage across the Atlantic. This dream is set to come true this April as I’ve finally convinced Maria she can do this with me – with lots of bonamine packed in her suitcase.
We’ll be flying from Ottawa to Miami and then it’s a two week cruise with the first 7 days at sea . We’ll go to the Canary Islands, Spain, France, Great Britain and end in Amsterdam. After a few days in Holland we’ll fly back.
Actually a cruise like this is a bargain because they have to take the ship over there anyway, and not everyone chooses a transatlantic cruise as their first experience of ship travel.
The ship is Celebrity Century – large enough to be comfortable, small enough to enjoy great service.
One more lifetime ambition to check off my list.

Outliers

Thanks to Sarah (who lent me her copy) I was able to read pop sociologist Malcom Gladwell’s latest book on what it takes to be uber-successful.
Gladwell is one of the most entertaining writers of non-fiction I’ve ever read. Although I think he does better as a micro-sociologist (examining individual stories) than he does in the macro realm (trying to explain large scale happenings), his book is a thoroughly great read – in the same class as The Tipping Point and Blink.
At least I know now why I wasn’t that much of a worldly success – born in the wrong timeframe, and lacked the opportunity to grind it out for 10,000 hours in my choice of craft. However as a husband , dad, and hopefully granddad I’m doing OK.

Daylight Saving Time (from 2002)

Daylight Saving Time arrived today, and once again this year, a month too early.
I get up at 6 AM each day, and I had barely gotten used to a bright hour of rising. Today I was plunged into the gloom of February redux. Not that the extra hour of daylight did me much good. Today featured leaden skies and cool temperatures – not exactly outdoor weather.
In the halcyon days before 1986, DST came late in April, with the promise of some glorious May evenings. Now it’s still wet and cold in my part of the world, and I’d prefer a bit more daylight to start the day. Alas, nobody asked me.

Golden Age (from Early 2007)

I believe we are in a golden age of dumpster diving and recycling when it comes to personal computers.
Many laptops and desktops built from 1998-2001 have now become technically obsolete as far as Microsoft Windows is concerned. These Pentium III – and even Pentium II – machines are running Windows 98 or Windows Millennium and are no longer supported by Microsoft for security. They may be able to run XP but never Vista- never in a million years.
Most of these systems have plenty of horsepower to do basic email, Web and Office tasks, play music, catalog digital photos – if they can be given a new lease on life with a stable, secure and supported operating system.
That is where Linux comes in. There is a distribution of Linux for the lamest system around – although anything older than a Pentium II processor will be a S-L-O-W performer if you want a graphical user interface.
Here are some examples of PCs I have resurrected with Linux:
(1) Dell Dimension 4100 desktop from 2000. This machine belonged to my daughter when she was in graduate school. It was gathering dust until I upgraded its memory to 512 Mb, added a new hard drive, and installed Ubuntu 7.04 (the distribution Dell is now offering with new PCs in the USA.) It has a wireless card and runs as a second PC in my basement now.
(2) Compaq Armada 1700 laptop from 1998. This antique Pentium II 266 was running Windows 95 (badly) when I discovered it in a recycling facility near Almonte. It had a new hard drive and the leather carrying case alone was worth the $50 I paid for it. I added some more memory up to a whopping 160Mb, and got a used wireless PCMCIA card for it. Now I have a wireless laptop that works great with Vector Linux 5.8. Vector is especially good with very old hardware.
(3) Compaq Presario from 1999. My neighbor bought a new Vista PC and was going to throw this one away. I installed Ubuntu Linux, put in a wireless USB setup and her son now has a PC in her basement to check email and surf the Web.
(4) Dell Optiplex desktop from 2001. This one was too slow, and could not work on the network of a coffee company in Almonte. I put Ubuntu on it and gave it to one of the employees there.
(5) Whitebox midtower from 1999 – this one has a 1st generation Pentium III 500 and 256 Mb of RAM. It couldn’t even boot Windows 98 properly, and was about to be junked because its owners now have a new Gateway. I installed PCLinuxOS on it and gave it to a friend who didn’t have a computer. It’s doing fine in a new home, with a new lease on life.

Philip Gibbs (from April 2002)

I read some gripping prose lately, in spite of the fact that it was written 80 years ago and its author has been dead for 40. The book is called “More That Must Be Told”, by the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs (1877-1962). It is an analysis of the developed countries after World War I, and in its pages one can clearly see the seeds of the second global conflict. Gibbs soberly wrote of the great German war debt, the poverty of Austria, the vengeful mentality of France, the apathy in Britain, and the developing isolationism of America. He saw so clearly that the United States was the key to world peace, and hoped against hope for her participation in global affairs. Alas, his hope in 1921 had to wait 25 years to see fruition, until after another great war.
It is chilling to read current events 80 years later, when you already know how things turned out. I wonder what a reader in 2082 will make of our current events. It seems there is not much new under the sun.

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