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The Northern Spy
August 2013

Geek Roundup

Rick Sutcliffe

Another geek purchase

was in the Spy's cards this month, as he added capability to his new Amana high efficiency/heat pump combo. The base unit came with a Honeywell RedLink controller and wireless thermostat (the de facto standard brand in furnace controls), and a read through the manuals revealed the existence on an Internet gateway product for the system. So the Spy enquired, only to learn the typical price in the frozen north was about CDN$300. Ouch! A search of online sources, revealed the going rate on eBay and Amazon was US$70-$85, or with exchange, about 5% added in $CDN these days. (Prediction not to be acted upon: par will again be reached and exceeded later in the year.).

So he bit, and ordered a unit from Amazon, delivered as for many Canadians, to Package Express, a typical package handler just the other side of the border in Sumas WA, as most technology products cannot be shipped by Amazon to Canada because of restrictive marketing territory agreements designed to preserve the RO (rip-off) factor for distributers in this country. Drive down, pick up the package, and show your passport again on re-entry. For invoices under $75 per person in the car, it's not worth the trouble for Canada Customs to charge duty.

Setup instructions were designed for a technician, so were simple for this homeowner to follow. Connect power and ethernet cable, put the RedLink system into "discover" mode at the furnace, tell the new unit to respond by pressing a button on the bottom, and watch everything link up. Then create an account on the Honeywell site, confirm it by clicking on the email link they send, go to the account and add the MAC address and ID of the new unit to the account. After that, the house thermostat (and any others you enable--at the office or cottage) can be partially administered from a mobile app or web browser.

Once on line like this, the owner can override the temperature settings or mode (off, auto, heat or cool). This allows the furnace/heat pump to be turned off or on from anywhere in the house without purchasing a $90 remote, or from the first or last hotel stop on vacation, or from any iInternet access point or iPhone, as wanted. However, the app is limited to these functions--the thermostat's program cannot be edited remotely, just overridden. Still, this gateway is cool (sic) gadget that works as advertised. Recommended for the true geek, but of less value for the average homeowner. Perhaps the latter is why there are plenty of used units available.

More practical but of lower geek index

is the Bosch 18V Lithium battery-powered portable tool system the Spy bought into a couple of years back when he spotted a sale at KMS tools and picked up a drill-driver combo. This is a high-end professional member of the crowded cordless space, one that boasts entries from every tool-maker brand, even though many of those brand names are owned in groups by just a handful of companies. But the Bosch impact driver has the highest torque in its class, and makes for a quick and portable way to spin wheel nuts when changing tires, though often they still must be started with a breaker bar.

Likewise the drill has replaced his cordless almost across the board. While helping eldest son rewire most of his house, he used it to drill 3cm holes through multiple layers of hard old dimension lumber, and it worked flawlessly and without hesitation every time-a job for which even a 3/8 corded normally must give way to a 1/2 inch heavyweight corded.

Later, as sales and birthday gift certificates permitted, he added an additional charger, a heavy hammer drill, two more of the larger size battery (marked down from $150 to $50 for a week) and a very impressive jigsaw, that has easily established itself as the best such the Spy has ever owned.

Noting that the reciprocating saw in the series was on sale at Rona, he hinted to his wife it would make a good Father's Day present, but when that wasn't forthcoming, he bought it himself, only to discover that she had indeed purchased one, but for his birthday two weeks later. A little lack of communication on his part there. Officially he returned the one he bought, though actually it was the other, for the first was by now well used. What for? Tree pruning. Yes, the unit is slightly heavy for this use case (all these Bosch tools have a healthy heft), but for many such jobs, cranking up his Stihl chainsaw (also a super product BTW) is overkill. Besides, it isn't altogether safe to climb a tree, start up a chain saw, and begin lopping some branches while standing on another. The Bosch unit does the job like a charm and is much safer. Oh, but do remember to buy a specialized pruning blade.

Which reminds the Spy

of the year he spent on sabbatical at SFU writing the first edition of his book on ethics and technology on contract for Merrill. There, he guest-taught the first year programming (class of hundreds instead of the forty or so he was used to) but that university was using his Modula-2 textbook, so it was an easy assignment. However, while using his canonical example of sharpening a chainsaw to illustrate the concept of a loop, he noticed a sea of blank faces. Eventually cluing in, he finally derived the wit to enquire, "How many people here don't know what a chainsaw is?" Nearly half the hands went up. He'd forgotten they were mostly city folk. Lesson learned: know your audience. And, what is technology to some people is magic to others.

Last month's mention of

his "aging John Deere tractor" may have been overheard by the machine he slandered. Halfway through cutting about a quarter hectare of lawn, the engine raced, then belched a vast cloud of blue smoke. Suspecting the worst--blown cylinder rings--he called first the dealers's service department to come fetch it for a proper diagnosis, then the sales department to discuss options in the expected event the coroner confirmed its death after a mere twenty-one years of life. Turned out the problem was a sheared carburetor pin, but that had not quite been sucked into the engine--cost including transportation, a mere $550.

The Spy had both sons and their families over that weekend for camping in the backyard, so he finished the grass with his 40-year old Honda self propelled walk behind mower, and when everyone was present put the fix-or-buy question to a vote. Fix was the unanimous choice, so the old Deere he never expected to see again is back in its comfortable spot in the garage, apparently recovered from its near death experience, but still awaiting its first full mow test. Some technology just lasts and lasts. That's why you buy quality in the first place. Hey, the Spy still has a working Apple //gs as well as several 7-12 year old Macs, all of which still work. They haven't changed. His needs have, so he's bought newer. By contrast, many brands of PC fail between three and five years old.

Which brings him back to the Mac Pro

No, the Spy hasn't changed his mind--he still wants one, and will likely buy one, not just for the geek value, but because (a) his uses tend to be heavy and demanding, and (b) the 15inch retina Mac Book Pro he got a year or so ago seems underpowered to be a true desktop replacement.

However, he cannot help but wonder how many others will buy the new Pro, wicked-fast innovative though it may well be. See, iSteve was in his later years so preoccupied with owning the consumer market that he allowed the Pro to languish to the point that many heavy users soured on Apple and left the platform altogether. Yes, the unit may sell well at first to those who stuck, but ongoing sales are going to depend on (a) Apple's commitment to change course a little here and keep the platform upgraded, (b) a new community of aftermarket partners to turn out peripherals, and (c) effective messaging to potential pro users to bring them (back) to the new hardware. Let's hope Apple has a substantial internal unit tasked with and resourced for making all this happen, or the new Pro could find itself an orphan in very short order.

Easy vs Hard

There was a time in the very early days of computing when both hardware and software could be home brewed. We built our own boxes, programmed them in Assembler with front panel switches, and later with paper or cassette tape storage and perhaps in (ugh) BASIC. A breakout box was essential when connecting peripherals, as there was nothing standard in serial interfaces. As computers became more sophisticated, it became more difficult to build them in a basement. After all, who can fabricate a five-layer motherboard or a custom chip with home facilities? For a while, though, programming remained easy, because text interfaces (though often not easy to use) could be written with a minimum of skill, and this is still true on the web.

But the advent of the GUI changed everything. Computers became more difficult to build, but far easier to use, meaning that anyone could profitably own one. On the other hand, they became much more difficult to program, and unlike the web, such tasks are largely beyond the capability of an amateur. Programs are vast and complex, with user expectations for working software very high. Producing a product takes extensive planning, coordinated professional teamwork, proper software management, and exhaustive testing. Doing it right requires deep and sound knowledge, and considerable experience at blowing away one's initial laughable attempts.

Rocket science is easy. Programming is hard, and only the best need apply. What I want to see in a student is a keen scientific mind combined with a creative streak a kilometre wide, an effective communicator and people person who can work in a team most of the day, knows how to document everything, can sling code in splendid isolated concentration when demanded, and has the makings of a dedicated software engineering professional who can produce bullet-proof code against hard deadlines with a crowd of QE people, Dilbertesque corporate executives, overzealous regulators, and fussy but inarticulate users looking over her shoulder all the while.

Not only are such people exceedingly rare, the dot com bust and ensuing bad publicity for the industry turned many people off the idea of entering high-tech professions, so after 2003, University CS enrolments plummeted, exacerbating the shortage of truly qualified programmers. The message that there really is a "there" there seems to have re-penetrated the thinking of High School juniors (forget targeting seniors; their career minds are already made up--temporarily), so said enrolments are again on the rise, and many once-suspended CS degree programs are being re-instated. This time around, universities are listening carefully to their own alum via advisory committees before re-tooling their moribund programs, because it is essential to turn out graduates not for the market as they see it today, but with a sufficiently adaptable mindset to survive a career of continuous wrenching change. You don't get into the necessary space by taking a course in HTML and PHP via the net or by hanging out in a dingy room over Joe's garage.

We've always tried to do things the right way at TWU, but on the next cycle have to be even more intentional. By contrast, any schools that merely turn out unilingual hackers with little knowledge of language principles, discrete mathematics, software design, management and testing, people skills, and extensive code slinging experience in team environments will fail both their graduates and the unsuspecting employers who make the mistake of hiring them.

The book of the month

is actually several--the incomparable David Weber's Safehold series. 'Course, the Spy is interested because the theme of a scientific revolution happening in a vastly different prevailing societal, ethical, and religious environment than prevailed in our Northern European version is also that of his own alternate history SF, now at nine volumes and counting. Weber's is set in the far future instead of an alternate past, but the fundamental issues he examines are the same--how do the broad working environment and the science/technology feed back on each other and effect mutual change? Will the developmental order for either be the same, or very different? And, can a single long-lived individual steer the course of events for the greater good and overcome seemingly more powerful forces of evil?

Weber has a new take on what in other SF is a mere cliché--the role of a corrupt and venal church in resisting change for reasons ostensibly doctrinal, but actually power-related. Too often, writers succumb to dressing up old myths about Galileo's conflict with the Catholic church, appealing to outrageous fabrications such as belief in a flat earth, or supposing believers intolerantly and uniformly adhere to a specific political agenda. Since these yarns are all false, books that subscribe to them assume an air of unreality that makes it difficult for knowledgeable readers to suspend disbelief and read the story.

As in the Honor Harrington books, Weber demonstrates he gets that personal faith, religious practice, and an institutionalized church entity are three very different things, and though his writing can be tedious at times (perhaps he has too many sub-plots to rotate among) it is incisive on such issues and their interaction with science/technology, and a most refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill treatment of such subjects. More, the broad cast of characters are well-developed, diverse, and believable as they engage his intertwined plots. Highly recommended for all readers who don't mind combining reading entertainment with thinking about issues on a deeper level. So is the Spy's own AH-SF, for the same reason, but mentioning that is a conflict of interest, so he self-referentially mentions the latter, too.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six+ novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:

The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:

Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca

Publisher's Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html

URLs for items mentioned in this column:

MacPro: http://www.apple.com/mac-pro/

Honeywell Redlink: http://www.forwardthinking.honeywell.com/products/wireless/wireless_products.html

Bosch Cordless: http://www.boschtools.com/Products/Tools/Pages/BoschProductCategory.aspx?catid=1003

John Deere Home Products: http://www.deere.ca/wps/dcom/en_CA/industry/residential/residential.page?

KMS Tools: http://www.kmstools.com/

SFU: http://www.sfu.ca

TWU: http://www.twu.ca

David Weber: http://www.davidweber.net/

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Last Updated: 2013 08 01