Tuesday, October 9, 2007

4 Classes of Linux Hardware

Sure, you can install Linux on a brand new PC, but my experience with it has been as a means to resurrect or at least resuscitate older hardware. I've found that when it comes to fixing up older machines there appear to be 4 basic classes of Linux candidates, namely:
(1) Gently Used
These machines tend to have a fast Pentium III, Celeron or AMD processor, lots of RAM, and a fairly decent hard drive and video card. It probably runs (or ran) Windows Me originally.
The likelihood of getting one of these at a garage sale or recycling depot is low. People still think they have value (they don't) so they are currently still in use or gathering dust in a closet for a few more years. The only ones I've encountered are my own rebuilt machine or one my neighbor was about to retire that I fixed for her.
These machines run just about any desktop version of Linux you want and play MP3s, have good graphics, and so on.
Verdict: A pleasure. I wish more of these were out there.
(2) Used
Here you'll get slow Pentium III or Celeron, not much RAM, barely usable hard drive and video. These machines usually ran Windows 98 and are slightly older. They are starting to show up in recycling stores or second-hand outlets. They were cheap when originally purchased (although the clones are better than name brands like Compaq.) To be useful they need added RAM - which is pretty cheap - and maybe a larger hard drive. It's not worth adding more than 256 MB of RAM though.
They'll run the more resource hungry desktops like Gnome and KDE plus browsers like Firefox, albeit at a more leisurely pace. They'll do better with a lighter Linux desktop like Xubuntu or Vector Linux.
Verdict: Generally OK but add some memory.
(3) Junk
These feature Pentium II or K-6-2 processors, poor video, and low RAM and hard drive. They usually ran Windows 95 although some have Windows 98 on them now. These are easy to get and harder to fix up.
I have a Compaq Armada laptop that falls into this category. I picked it up cheap at a recycling outlet.
It has a nice 20GB hard drive and a pretty LCD display, but needed 128 MB of RAM to maximize its memory capacity before it was worth installing anything. Even with maximum memory it cried out for a lighter Linux desktop so I installed Vector Linux, and now run it with Fluxbox ( a very light window manager). It now has a wireless card I got for $30 or so.
Verdict: Surprisingly OK if you know what to do.
(4) Real Junk
Here you'll have a Pentium 133 or less, low RAM that is expensive to upgrade and has a maximum that is 80 MB or so, crappy video and miniscule hard drive. Often these pigs don't even have a CD-ROM. These always run (or ran) Windows 95. You often get these at a second hand shop, but people should really pay to get them recycled rather than donate them to anyone.
I have a Fujitsu 735Dx laptop like this. It took a lot of research to find a version of Linux that could be installed on it without a CD-ROM, was very, very lightweight and yet useful. The only one I found that I like is called Deli Linux.
A machine in this class struggles to do anything these days. It won't play MP3s very well (if at all,) it barely has enough memory to run a modern browser like Firefox 1.5 (and version 1.5 isn't all that modern, believe me.) The other Deli Linux browsers that are lighter than Firefox - Dillo or Konq-E - don't display web pages very well.
Verdict: Interesting curiosity. Useful to learn about Linux but should not be given away to a normal computer user. Geeks only.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Lego Set

The more I work with Linux, the more I am impressed with how different it is in its approach to the user than Microsoft Windows.
Take for example the user interface. The Windows XP or Vista desktop is essentially a unified seamless block of steel, whereas a Linux desktop is more like a Lego set.
Windows provides a standard look and feel with its icons, backgrounds, window appearance etc. This is great if you have the hardware to run Windows well but what if you don't? It'll be slow or crippled or won't run at all.
Linux is far more flexible. A typical graphical user interface for Linux is made up of three interdependent components:
(1) X Window System - this basic means of displaying graphics in a window (it's called "X" generally) has been around in one shape or another since 1984. X is the standard way a Unix-based operating system displays stuff. However on its own it can't do much. It requires a manager.
(2) The Window Manager. The window manager tells X how and where to display its windows. There are a variety of these around and the combination of X and some sort of window manager is pretty much all you need to get things running graphically in Linux. One of the best lightweight window managers is called Fluxbox and I use it on my old Compaq laptop. Fluxbox is Zen like in its simplicity - no icons, no easy graphical way to set up a background. A right-click brings up a basic list of applications like your web browser, but that is it. To make the system more user-friendly, the window manager needs:
(3) The Desktop Environment. Add this in and you are really getting close to a Windows type of operating system. The desktop environment adds a file manager, icons, toolbars - pretty much all the eye candy. It comes at a price though. All the extra graphics requires more powerful hardware to run at a reasonable speed.
The two most sophisticated Linux desktop environments are called Gnome and KDE. Both of these look and feel great if you are running a powerful enough computer system. They are sort of like Windows XP in their system requirements. However both of them are bog slow on an old PC like my Compaq Armada from 1998. There is a third desktop environment called Xfce which is lighter and faster, but it's not optimal for really old slow machines.
I found that the best solution for the Compaq was to forget about a sophisticated desktop environment entirely and just install the window manager Fluxbox. Then I added in a file manager called Rox-filer. Rox allows you to set a wallpaper background and add a few icons on your desktop if you want. This Flux-Rox combination is perfect for an old slow computer and still looks good.
It takes a bit more time to roll your own desktop but this is the beauty of Linux. At the end you get a fast and responsive system that satisfies your needs and in the process you learn more about his interesting alternative to Windows.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Treadmill Music

For the past 15 years or so - in fits and starts - whatever exercise I've gotten aside from walking outdoors has come on a treadmill.
I'm on my second one now. My original analog-controlled Vitamaster ran (after a fashion) for 13 years and I left it behind in the basement in Georgetown when we moved to the Valley. Now I have a Horizon Fitness T62 - much smoother and more powerful with automatic incline adjustment and digital everything.
Aside from the machine itself, there is one indispensable accessory to keep me motivated and active - music to accompany the walk. The way I've played music has also changed dramatically since 1992 - and I daresay for the better. Here's a list of what I've used:
Stage 1 - FM radio on a "ghetto blaster".
This was my very first attempt and it was OK I suppose for a beginner. The advantage was quick and easy setup - just turn the radio on and dial up a classic rock station like Y95. Disadvantages were annoying though. I usually started my exercise section when the station had 10 minutes of commercials in between long sets of music. Then I'd usually get Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" or something else that wasn't really up-tempo walk rock. Time to move on.
Stage 2 - Cassette tapes.
This was certainly better as I got to pick the music - no commercials either. Disadvantages were that I had to tape the music myself, make sure I started the tape at the beginning so I'd have 45 minutes of continuous rock to exercise to. Also the dam' tapes kept getting stretched by the awkward mechanism in the blaster, or small sections were erased without warning. I was soon looking for a better solution.
Stage 3 - CDs on a better ghetto blaster.
This was my preferred music source for many years. The advantages were that the music stayed clear and clean. I had a CD burner by then so I made my own CDs from my collection just as I had with tapes. No particular disadvantage other than I had a lot of CDs kicking around the basement.
Stage 4 - portable MP3 player.
I adopted this method when MP3 players shrank to the size of a cigarette lighter and I could stick one in my gym shorts. The advantage was size and portability. No big ghetto blaster any longer. However I hated ear buds and even with a good set of mini earphones the dangling cord kept getting in my way. Also I had a limited selection of songs - my player was only 128 MB. Add to that the fact that the battery would often die in the middle of a walk, and I needed another way. Fortunately I didn't have to go back to CDs.
Stage 5 - MP3s on a Linux computer.
Sarah's old Dell Dimension 4100 was perfect for this. I set it up in the basement near the treadmill, installed Ubuntu with Rhythmbox and 700 MP3s on it. Now it blasts away while I walk and never dies, seldom repeats and never gets in the way. The only disadvantage is maybe I now have too much choice - but hey, I can live with it. I think I've found my long term answer for walk rock.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Silent Cal

While Dave was camping in Algonquin Park, Sarah Maria and I spent the Civic Holiday weekend in Rutland Vermont.
After a day of outlet shopping we decided to immerse ourselves in a little Vermont history, so we went out to see the Calvin Coolidge Historical Site in Plymouth Notch.
I came away with a renewed appreciation of the beauty of rural Vermont, and of Mr. Coolidge himself.
History has not been kind to Calvin Coolidge. He has been portrayed as a taciturn, dour, pickle-faced politician who as President did even less than he spoke. In fact, he was a hard working, sincere, principled man who was rooted in the traditions of rural America from whence he came. He gave more speeches than any of his predecessors - wrote them himself, thank you very much. He would have had no difficulty spelling "nuclear" or "potato." He cut taxes, lowered the National Debt, and during his presidency the economy boomed.
If Calvin Coolidge can be faulted it's likely because he was old school - a horse and buggy Victorian in the age of transoceanic flight, jazz and radio broadcasts. No place could have been dearer to his heart than the tiny village of Plymouth Notch. He'd recognize it in a heartbeat.
The Notch is almost Zen-like in its beauty and simplicity. Modern fast food outlets and gas stations passed it by - it was never restored, just preserved in a time warp.
The Coolidge homestead is a rambling hodgepodge of living space, woodshed and horse barn all linked together. In its tiny sitting room Mr. Coolidge took the Presidential oath in 1923 - his notary public father administered it to him by kerosene lamp at 3AM.
Across the street is an 1840 Congregational Church, and next to the homestead is an 1890 era Vermont cheese factory. The rest of the village includes a general store, a restaurant, and some more barns and "efficiency cottages" for 1920s tourists.
In the tiny cemetery nearby Calvin Coolidge lies with his wife and sons. Cal Jr. died in 1924 while his father was president; John Coolidge lived into his 90s and survived Calvin by 67 years. The only way you could tell that Mr. Coolidge was president is by the Presidential Seal on his gravestone. That's the way he would have wanted it, I'm sure.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bridging the Digital Divide

OK, OK I give up - it's time to store away the film camera and switch to digital for vacations! I'm just too old and weak to be hauling a 35mm SLR and 4 lenses all over Europe any longer.
However, I didn't want to go to the expense of buying a digital SLR and a whole new set of lenses just so I could take a wide angle photo or two.
I found what I think is an appropriate compromise in the Fujifilm S6000fd bridge camera. It's cheaper than an SLR and while it lacks some of the SLR features it should do the job.
I got one earlier in July. I have been playing with it a bit, mostly taking pictures of Ottawa scenery while we've been down there cat-sitting for Sarah and Dave.
What I like about the camera so far:
(1) Nice crisp photos - a bit cooler than the Nikon CP5000 but very good clarity.
(2) Big solid well balanced camera, easy to hold like an SLR but lighter.
(3) Wide angle to telephoto lens gives 28-300 mm coverage in 35 mm film terms.
(4) Easy to use and setting is mostly through buttons, no need to go deep into menus.
(5) 6 MP sensor is fine for my use without huge file sizes and excessive noise at higher ISO.
(6) Uses normal AA and AA rechargeable batteries.

What I'm not so crazy about:
(1) It uses xD memory which is harder to find and a bit more expensive. Huge 2 Gb capacity is available though.
(2) The electronic viewfinder is dimmer and harder to see than a real optical display, although you do see the whole lens view unlike the Nikon CP 5000 I used until recently.
(3) No way to attach external flash, and the on-camera flash kept popping up when I didn't want it. I quickly learned how to switch it off.
(4) Can't go as wide as before, but I think it'll be OK. I shot at 28mm before I had a 24mm specialty lens and photos were fine.

The S600fd has face detection technology which is a neat feature for snapshots, and although it does not have vibration reduction/image stabilization built in I'm not too worried. I mostly take pictures of buildings and parks in good light and I can put up with high ISO once in a while for an indoor shot without flash.
After 25 years of using an SLR I never thought I'd shoot seriously with any other sort of camera. But never say never I guess.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

10 Great Things About Turning 60

Actually I already turned 60 in November of last year but it takes a while to start appreciating why. Here's my top 10 list so far:
#10 - I'm Retired
After a couple of years of volunteer work in Almonte I am now permanently retired and it is great. No more worrying about blue Monday morning, commuting in bad weather, kissing corporate butt.
We have decent cashflow and no financial problems so why not kick back and enjoy the leisure. I don't know why anyone would want to work after 65. I was through with it at 58 and glad to be.
#9 - Steam Locomotives
I love watching them work on tourist rail lines, and I enjoy seeing them when visiting railroad museums, but I'm old enough to remember when they were actually in use on the CNR and CPR.
#8 - Great War Veterans
Now that we're down to our last one I take pride in the fact that I grew up knowing some of these grand old soldiers personally. While I'm sure it's a great thrill for the kids of today to read about Vimy, I learned firsthand what it was like from a guy who walked up the Ridge that day. RIP George.
#7 - Rock and Roll
I can remember 50 years of the stuff from Elvis to AM rock radio to Woodstock and Psychedelia to Metal and New Wave, Synthpop, Grunge, and Garage Rock. My son in law just discovered how great Randy Newman and Steve Miller are. I knew that 30 years ago.
#6 - Technical Savvy
Unlike many of the folks who are 10-15 years older than I am, I worked with computers all my career and adapted with them. I can fix a PC, blog on the Internet, do online banking without panic. It's a skill I hope I can maintain.
#5 - Senior Discounts
I get my banking fees mostly for free and I'm now getting discounts on cruises, restaurant meals and lots of other goods and services. All right!
#4 - Pocket Watches
Got my first real one from Grandpa in 1953 and since then I've collected a few others. They are works of art and keep time better than modern mechanicals - almost as good as quartz if they are properly maintained. I can remember when people used them too.
#3 - Grown Up Kids
It's great to have an adult daughter and son-in-law. We can travel with them, help them when asked, give advice if needed - just enjoy their company.
#2 - Decent Health
At this point we're still good to go on vacations, walk anywhere, do just about anything we want. It's a good age to be.
And the #1 reason:
- I'm a leading edge Boomer.
All the advantages I had of being ahead of the demographic crowd apply now. The decisions we make today are mostly followed by the mob 5-10 years fom now.
There's no crowd of retirees competing with us yet for pensions, health care, spots on cruise ships or vacations in February. They are still raising kids and working their butts off. By the time they are ready to jam up the retirement/leisure market I'll be home and cooled out by the fire (hopefully).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Toughest Game

I caught a few innings of Major League Baseball's All Star Game last night. Aside from bringing back memories of The 1991 All Star Game in Toronto (a live event Sarah and I attended) this year's game reinforced my belief that baseball is the toughest team sport to play well at the highest level.
It's not as physical as football or hockey, doesn't need the conditioning of soccer, true. But it's got to be the toughest when it comes to hand eye co-ordination, timing and the mental element.
Both teams had an awesome contingent of offensive players, and a number of home runs were blasted out of AT&T Park. One even stayed in the park - Ichiro's inside-the-parker was the first in over 70 years of All Star games. However, the pitching - oh that pitching- is the reason baseball is so tough.
As a batter in an all star game, you start out hitting against the top pitcher in the other league - a guy you likely haven't faced much. This starter is only going a couple of innings so he's amped and just going to let it all hang out with his best stuff. He's followed by another guy just as good and unfamiliar.
In the middle innings the National League hitters had to contend with a hard throwing lefty, then the 100 MPH fastball and nasty slider of a guy who was coming off a recent no-hitter, then Johan Santana's change-up and 95 MPH heat. And after that they got a steady diet of the top closers in the American League. It's a testimonial to how good the NL hitters are that they made it close in the 9th.
The fact that a baseball all-star game is a tough low scoring affair also shows that it is a real game played for keeps - unlike hockey where a check is never thrown or basketball where they just run and gun for 48 minutes without any defense.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sammy at 8

Any cat owner has to bravely face the fact that your feline friend has a life expectancy of 15-20 years. At age eight our current pal Sammy is firmly into middle age. However even as an old timer, he still has quite a bit of life in him.
He's a big cat. Always a wide body type, Sammy probably weighs 18 lbs and frankly he could stand to lose a few. However he carries it well enough and still looks pretty good.
His coat remains silky soft and because he was gray to begin with he hasn't begun to show signs of age. He's a step or two slower and he enjoys his naps a bit more but don't we all.
He's very quiet - never meows unless he wants his dinner. Even then it's a tiny "mew". His best feature is an incredibly loud and deep purr that seems to get better every year. He can turn it on in an instant and keep going for half an hour.
He's kind and even tempered and loves to be with people. As I write this he's sitting at my feet, and that wonderful purr just started up again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

One Year Later

As the summer solstice nears again, I am reminded of the fact that one year ago today we were in Helsinki on our Baltic cruise. The days at the 60th parallel were truly long even in comparison with those in Ottawa at this time of year. I believe in St Petersburg it started to get dark around 12 PM and was brightening up around 3 AM - no wonder they call 'em "White Nights."
It was a truly memorable vacation and I have to thank Sarah and Dave for convincing us we'd really enjoy cruising. Great food, unpack once and take your hotel with you, visit a bunch of great Maritime cities including the magnificent capital of Czarist Russia - I mean how bad could it be? We didn't need Gravol once, either.
We're planning to do it again in November. Barcelona to Venice by way of Istanbul (not Constantinople). I can't wait.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Living With Linux

There appears to be a multi-stage process that takes place when one starts working with Linux on a PC.
It goes somewhat like this:
Stage 1 - Attraction
You need a new operating system for an old PC that isn't supported by Microsoft any more, or you are sick of Windows 98/Me crashes, viruses, worms, spyware. However you aren't ready to jump into the pool without a lifejacket.
At this point you can try a Linux distribution with a "Live CD" that will install and run the O/S from a CD-ROM. You may have to set up the PC so it'll boot from an optical disk drive but that's it. If you like what you see - and if you see anything at all at this stage it's a good sign the distro will work with your video card - you can move on to Stage 2.
Stage 2 - Installation
Here you actually install the Linux operating system on your hard drive. Although it's possible to get Linux to dual boot with Windows, I've always found it easier to blow Windows away and just reformat the hard drive and install Linux as the only option. This means you likely want to have a second PC available to play with, or a second hard drive you can swap in and out.
Some Linux distros have a very easy graphical installer; others are text based and more of a challenge for a newbie. No matter what, you'll likely choose the default installation and then find out that isn't the best way to set things up. No matter - you'll be reinstalling again (trust me).
Stage 3 - Aggravation
Here is where you find out that your video card drivers aren't quite right, or your wireless card doesn't work, or your printer is really just a Windows zombie, or you want to use WPA encryption and its a PITA to set up. You'll do lots of research and Google-ing, plus you'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about the Command Line and Linux file systems. Don't give up though.
Stage 4 - Experimentation
Here you'll discover that there are another 100-odd Linux distros out there and you can download them and install them if you want. You may actually find another one that's faster on old hardware, that looks cooler, or that's easier to configure. At one point you'll install and configure your Linux trial machine with about 3 different distros and I guarantee you'll cock up your original installation in the process. Now is a good chance to reinstall the right way with a separate partition for data at least.
Stage 5 - Maturation
You'll settle on the one Linux distribution that works best for you and just install that on your PC. You'll keep it up to date and learn to use it in preference to all the other ones. You might even get a text that deals specifically with your favorite distro. In my case it's Ubuntu, although I also use Vector Linux on a really old laptop I have. At this point you'll have arrived as a Linux user.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Retirement FUD

It kills me how much disinformation and FUD there is out there about retirement planning these days.
I just read another article from a bunch of Waterloo actuaries that says that today's boomers are not saving enough and will be in danger of working until 75 or so - probably flipping burgers at Mickey D's - in order to survive in their old age.
The facts of the matter are much better stated by Malcolm Hamilton of Mercer Consulting:
(1) Most senior couples who are retired have more disposable income than working couples with a mortgage and kids to educate.
(2) You need about 40-50% of pre-retirement income (not 70%) to get by modestly.
(3) CPP and OAS will provide a fair chunk of your post-65 income. You need to save a bit to make up the difference but you don't need $2 million or so.
(4) Those of us fortunate enough to save in defined benefit pension plans, or put away a fair bit in RRSPs will be able to retire early or start a second career in our late 50s if we want to.
Read some articles by Malcolm Hamilton. He's telling the truth while a lot of so-called "planners" are just selling you snake oil. We are living proof that he's right.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Triple A

After 50 years of interest in the game, two World Series, spring traning junkets, visits to numerous major league venues, etc. etc. - I finally attended my first minor league baseball game last night.
Sarah and Dave took me out to see the AAA Ottawa Lynx against the Durham Bulls. Crash Davis and Nuke LaLuche did not play for the Bulls.
Some brief observations:
(1) The Lynx are history in Ottawa. A stadium which can hold 10,000 people had barely 500 on a steamy June evening. Admittedly the weather was threatening, and a violent thunderstorm washed out the game after 6 innings. We got rainchecks for another one his year. Better use them quick.
(2) Lynx stadium is OK - nothing special about it except cavernous dimensions. It's built for speed and defense - a real pitcher's park.
(3) AAA baseball looks like the real thing - a step slower, a few miles per hour off the fastball - but pretty good. There are no real stars of the future at this level though - the hot prospects are honing their skills at AA. Mostly it's guys on the fringe of the majors - late 20s early 30s, hanging on for another shot at The Show.
(4) Kids love getting up close and personal with the players and coaches. Not a bad deal getting an autograph from Gary Gaietti, something that would not have been possible 10 years ago except with a lot of effort.
(5) Why is it that every pitcher from San Pedro de Macoris looks like the Martinez brothers? The Bulls had one last night - Tony Peguero. Tall and skinny with a lot of hop on his fastball.
(6) The triple is still the most exciting play in baseball. Ottawa has a talented and fast catcher named Jason Jaramillo. He smacked a two run triple to right center last night that won the game for the Lynx.
(7) There's just something special about the little things that makes baseball so great. The pitcher gets set to throw his last warm up pitch, jerks this thumb towards second base. The catcher shoots the ball down there, the infielders toss it around and back to the pitcher. So familiar, so appropriate, so ...well, baseball.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Antique Surfer

It cost over $3000 when new, at a time when laptops were expensive curiosities for corporate executives. It was obsolete the day it was built. Its processor is at least 4 generations away from leading edge. It is maxed out at a now pathetic 160 Mb of RAM.
In its heyday it was designed as a standalone workstation, running an operating system that had internet access as an afterthought. It did not feature an ethernet card, let alone a wireless connection.
It's incredibly heavy, built like a tank. It has a great keyboard with a solid feel and a bright 13 inch TFT display. It's my 1998 Compaq Armada 1700. And I'm typing and publishing this post right now using it wirelessly.
I found it a few months ago in a recycling depot near Almonte, sitting on a battered old desk and selling for $50. A close inspection showed that it had a nearly new hard drive and everything else worked. At the time it was still running Windows 95 with a few glitches. The modem didn't have proper Microsoft drivers but I didn't care. I brought it home and the transformation began.
A trip to Nepean later, I had a used 128 Mb RAM module which I installed in the machine. I also got an ethernet PCMCIA which I plugged into the Cardbus slot. Then I got rid of Win '95, reformatted the hard drive and installed Vector Linux 5.8 Standard. This nifty operating system is perfect for old hardware - it even got an ancient ISA sound chip working. For a total of $100 I had a working notebook PC and a cable connection to broadband.
Later on I took a gamble that I could get the old Compaq to be wireless. I picked up an refurbished D-Link wireless PCMCIA card on eBay and after some configuration of Vector Linux, it works!
Now I can work wirelessly on an antique from the Clinton administration - a machine so outdated that Windows Me would have trouble running on it. Thank you Compaq for building such a quality machine, and thank you Vector Linux for bringing it into the 21st century.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Grandpa's Home

It was 1976. Trudeau and Levesque were debating the future of Canada. Jimmy Carter was squaring off with Gerald Ford in the US. Disco-mania and the leisure suit were rampant. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. And I finally realized a lifelong dream and got a grandfather clock.
It was hand built by my uncle's old friend Luther Gaylord - Luther was about 68 at the time and had retired from a long career as a cabinetmaker. My uncles delivered it personally to my home in Beaconsfield. They're all gone now, I'm an old man but the clock remains.
However, the heart and soul of the clock - a Kieninger A60 Westminster movement - had fallen upon hard times. It received an extensive rebuild and re-bushing in 1998, but after 31 years its plates were worn, its bushings were bushed, its cogwheels had all kinds of play in them, it didn't chime all that well and lubrication by a local clock repair guy couldn't fix it. After consultation with the repair expert, we decided the movement must be replaced with a new one.
So after six weeks, an order to Germany, some slight modification to a 31 year old pendulum and a week of test bed running, grandpa is back.
Luther was a sensible man with an eye for value, so he chose a reputable and established clock manufacturer for the original installation. Kieninger still makes new movements to this day. In fact it's now part of the Howard Miller clock group. The fact that Kieninger is still around made replacement relatively easy, actually.
So here's to Luther - craftsman and overall good guy. I'm sure he'd be glad to hear that after a heart transplant his good old clock is ticking like the well oiled machine it was, is, and hopefully will be.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Let It Be...Naked

Yeah, yeah I'll admit it. Like most late 40s boomers I have a copy of "Let It Be" in my vinyl collection. However it's never been one of my favorite Beatles works, at least when compared with "Sgt. Pepper" or the White Album. It's got a collection of mostly great songs but it just didn't sound like a Beatles concept record to me when I first got it. Never has. Until now.
I just received a copy of the 2003 remastered and re-engineered "Let It Be - Naked" and it blows me away. I know it's a tricky proposition to redo a 1970 classic but it has been done beautifully. The sound is crystal clear, the murky Wall of Sound expunged completely. The between tracks chatter has disappeared. Two real pieces of crap are gone, replaced by the John Lennon composition "Don't Let Me Down". The order of songs is changed so that "Get Back" opens the compilation and "Let It Be" closes it.
The Beatles minus all the strings and voices sound like well, the Beatles - with an uncanny sort of basic energy that would be right at home in the New Wave to come 10 years later.
It's probably naive revisionist history to assert that this is the "director's CD" - the one the Beatles really wanted to make. After all John and George are dead, and we know how much Paul wanted to redo "The Long and Winding Road" without all the dreck. Maybe this remixed CD is a bit of a nod to Paul's ego - but you know, he was right. "The Long and Winding Road" comes out as a thing of beauty when it gets naked.
I don't think you could get away with such radical surgery on a truly great Beatles album like "Revolver" or "Magical Mystery Tour" but it certainly has worked with "Let It Be."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good Enough

I remember in the 1980s and 90s when PC technology seemed to be improving daily, there was always a reason to get a better computer system:
(1) Processor too slow or obsolete.
(2) Replace tape drive with floppy drive then mini-floppy drive then hard drive.
(3) Hard drive lacking capacity.
(4) Move from text to graphics interface.
(5) Graphics card or graphics interface obsolete.
(6) Monitor too small.
(7) Move from 14.4K to 28.8K to 56K dial-up, then broadband.
(8) Move from Windows 95 to Windows 98 to Windows Me to XP.
Finally, in my world the "era of good enough" arrived around 2001. A machine of that ilk is good enough to run office applications and broadband Net stuff - even Quick Time with enough memory. I'm not a gamer so an obsolete AGP video card is adequate. When Windows 98/Me became obsolete all I had to do was boost the memory on my old PCs up to 512 Mb. That's plenty to run Linux or XP well. No need to buy a new machine to run Vista.
As long as my hardware holds out, I don't see the need to ever get a new PC. Even if it doesn't, I can search for a 2004-2005 era used one, or buy a cheap "ready to go" whitebox unit and install Linux on it.
It must really suck to be a mainstream PC maker these days. What can you offer besides a lame new operating system that really isn't needed?

Hanging 'Em Up

After 39 years in the food business, I've decided to retire completely.
After I left Unilever and moved to Almonte, I kept busy a couple of days a week working as a volunteer in a small fairtrade coffee company called Equator.
However it became a fairly large physical and temporal commitment and I really need to think about doing something else.
Yesterday was my final day at Equator and in the food industry, a career I began as a summer student in May 1968. It's been a good run, but even "The Phantom" had to close eventually.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

This Goffin - King masterpiece was first charted as a #1 hit by the Shirelles in 1961. Since then it's been remade a few times - by Carole herself, the Bee Gees, Roberta Flack, Laura Branigan, Cher, Melanie, Dusty Springfield, Joe Walsh, Bryan Ferry, Neil Diamond, Shawn Colvin, and Red Hot Chili Peppers to name a few.
But the best remake in my view is Dave Mason's rendition from his underrated and out of distribution 1978 album "Mariposa de Oro."
Late 70s purists will hate it; it's one of the last of the great "Wall of Sound" hits before the New Wavers brought rock back to the basics.
However for those who appreciate the New Romantic sounds of the 1980s, this lovely recording is a must. It's got it all: 12 string guitar melding into silky strings, electric organ, doo-wop harmonies, Mason's straightforward vocal, a superb electric guitar solo, and a brilliant conclusion where the famous question is repeated a couple of times and then morphs into a bittersweet minor key. This great song by a great artist is available on "Dave Mason's Greatest Hits" and is well worth a listen.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Kids Are Alright

One of the cool things about getting old and having adult children is watching them make those lifestyle decisions you had to make 30 years ago, and vicariously reliving the moment.
Dave and Sarah have been looking for a house near Ottawa for a few months now. They wanted a place close to town with public transit available. They decided to concentrate on a community just east of downtown called Blackburn Hamlet.
This enclave of mostly 60s and 70s homes is quite self contained, closer to the city than similar locations in the west end and best of all - surrounded by Capital Region greenbelt. No new development means lots of parkland, but basically what you see is what you get- limited supply and high demand. Only about 40 homes a year go on the market.
After viewing about 10 homes, they saw one they liked. It was an OK two storey with 4 bedrooms. They tried an offer but a bidding war ensued and they lost out.
They continued looking and I must admit we were advising them to broaden their horizons. It didn't seem that anything would come up in Blackburn Hamlet. Then about a week ago they got what they were looking for. Side split, 4 bedrooms, parklike setting - a real home lovingly maintained by the original owner. Their offer did the job and they are homeowners as of August 15. Well done kids. You showed me (again) that Father doesn't always know best.

Still A Dinosaur

I've been using Nikon SLR film cameras for 25 years so you'd expect I'd have switched to digital with a D50, D80, or D200 camera body by now. You'd expect that, but you'd be wrong. When it comes to SLRs I'm still a dinosaur.
Oh I have a digicam alright. It's a Nikon Coolpix 5000 from 2001 or so. Takes nice 5Mp pics for my computer or email. And it works with my older Nikon Speedlights.
However a DSLR is another matter.
First of all, there's the question of crap getting on the sensor. That's no problem with a sealed digital camera like the Coolpix, but dust and dirt is a fact of life with a digital SLR. Cleaning off the sensor is about as appealing to me as washing a speck of dust off my eyeball.
Second, a DSLR has a crop factor that effectively multiplies the focal length of interchangeable lenses. Almost every one of my compact and fast fixed focal length lenses gets hosed. My 50 mm normal lens becomes an 75mm telephoto. What's worse, my 24mm wide angle becomes a 36mm equivalent lens. To get wide angle capability back with a DSLR I'd need to buy a 12-24 DX zoom lens - another $1200.
Third, my Nikon Speedlights are incompatible with a DSLR. I'd have to get a new one for $400 or so.
Finally, I'd need more CF cards, batteries, chargers and adapters to take the DSLR to Euope or any other overseas holiday.
Net cost to go digital with an SLR is close to $2500. That is a lot to pay just to do what I can still accomplish with film.
No, as long as 35mm film can be purchased and processed, I'll stick with film for holiday photography. I just get a CD made from the negatives when the prints are made, and I'm all set with both analog and digital.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Achilles Heel

This post is being written and published wirelessly from a laptop running Linux - which in itself is a minor miracle of sorts.
If there is one area where Windows kicks Linux butt it is in wifi - especially if the wireless uses WPA encryption.
My son-in-law came over a few weeks ago with his XP laptop and wanted to connect to my router. I gave him the encryption passphrase, he typed it in and 15 seconds later he was connected and surfing the Web.
To get this Linux machine to do the same thing:
(1) I needed to get a proper PCMCIA card that is compatible with Linux. There are many wifi adapters that are not - you can usually wrap up a Windows driver so it'll work with any given card but that takes a bit of programming. Or you can build a driver using Linux source code (assuming you can find it). In my case I planned ahead and bought the proper card.
(2) I needed to teach the machine to recognize the fact that my router is sending out WPA encrypted wifi information. Again some programming of configuration files in Linux was needed.
(3) I then had to tell the machine to get a local network address for the wireless connection when it starts up. More programming was needed.
Steps 2 and 3 required some additional research to figure out precisely how the programming needed to be done and where the steps were placed in the Linux configuration files.
The result is that a 30 second connection in Windows required a day or so of research and futzing around in Linux. And that's with a wifi adapter that works.
Until Linux development gets this stuff sorted out better, most folks will just want to use Windows for wifi. If Linux has an achilles heel it is wireless.