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The Northern Spy
March 2015

It Just Works

Rick Sutcliffe

However Complex Technology may be on the inside,

the measure of its usefulness is usually directly proportional to its height of abstraction. The farther one gets from the grotty implementation details, the more useful the item to your average Josephine. One needn't know how to build a car or repair one in order to drive it. High level languages such as Modula-2 and C++ save a programmer from having to learn assembler, though this may be required of the compiler writer. The user of NisusWriter Pro, Scrivener, BBEdit, Excel, and like applications, is far more productive because she knows nothing about the programming. Just get to work.

Ditto computers themselves. We prefer Macs over machines from other guys partly because we want to know about malware, recovering from crashes, how to navigate a myriad of inconsistent user interfaces, manual configuration details, or deal with the far more numerous hardware breakdowns. The OS is more secure out of the box. Plug it in, turn it on, and go. Some things just work.

It's more difficult, more costly, and requires far more planning and testing to produce hardware and software with the modularity and high levels of abstraction that yield both ease of use and reliability, but worth it to the user in the end. There may be no software engineering silver bullet, but the principles of how to go about doing it right are well understood, and when a billion dollar project fails it is invariably because they have not been followed.

The OWC Thunderbolt 2 "Dock"

should properly be called a hub, for the computer doesn't physically dock with the device, but connects with a Thunderbolt cable. The Spy ordered these to reduce cable clutter on two desktops where the main machine is a portable. The hope was to reduce from six attached cables to two--power and thunderbolt-to-hub.

The units took some time to arrive and did so with weirdness on the part of Canada Post, but that rant can await another time. It was well packaged, but minimally supplied--external power supply and its cable accoutrements, but nothing else, not even a single Thunderbolt cable. The unit is sleek, nicely designed, and has no LEDs, switches or indicators.

The rear boasts three USB 3.0 ports, analog audio in-out, one each of FireWire 800, Ethernet, and HDMI ports and two Thunderbolt connectors--one in and one out. One side has two additional well-powered USB ports, but these are on regardless of whether a computer is active on the Thunderbolt in port or not, so are more useful for charging iDevices.

Configuration? None. Plug in, connect up, and it works, with no humanly apparent degradation of service versus directly connecting to the computer. (There must be some, but the Spy did not attempt to measure it.) Additional Thunderbolt 1 and 2 devices can of course be connected downstream, though the 1s should come after all the twos to avoid slowing throughput.

Drawbacks? Only two. There should be one more Thunderbolt port on the box so as to allow two such devices on the output side rather than one. And, in one of his desktop configurations, the HDMI port was not usable, because of a hardware provision that its use prevents mini-display output from the Thunderbolt port. This seemed so odd a restriction that the Spy felt compelled to test it. Sure enough, moving the HDMI cable from the computer to the hub cut off the Apple monitor with its Mini Display Port connection.

But the bottom line is still an enthusiastic buy, though OWC is at this writing heavily backed up on orders for the unit. The Spy had to wait over a month from order to shipment. Readers might want to consider the competitive Belkin Thunderbolt 2 Express "Dock". For about the same money, it has two fewer USB ports and no Firewire 800 port, but is otherwise similar. However, the Spy has not tested a unit and has no recommendation.

The Lensman

Hands up those who get that literary reference. (The Spy uses the latter term advisedly, despite once being told by the chair of English that Science Fiction is not part of the literary canon. It is if you have sufficient imagination to ask "What if?" with science as a character rather than without.)

To the point. The Spy has a Canon EOS 40D SLR camera. A few months ago, he chronicled the purchase of a new Canon 55-250 telephoto lens from a store doing clearance, but probably lacking the advice of anyone knowledgeable about cameras. He has yet to see even a fire sale price under $300, a big contrast to the $CDN120 he paid.

But he also wanted a fixed 50mm F 1.8 lens for portraiture. He'd had a 55mm 1.8 lens for his old Miranda film camera, and missed the speed. Since he buys occasionally on EBay (mostly small electronics and philatelics) he checked there on a whim, and discovered a Chinese knockoff of Canon's "Nifty fifty" lens from Yonguo, variously listed in the $US56-$120 range. Checking reviews, including some by people with the testing equipment to make fine distinctions re colour and spherical aberration, all proved positive, so he sent for one from a Chinese retailer operating under the eBay handle of besky, who was retailing for $US56.

The lens is AutoFocus but not ImageStabilized, and appears identical to the Canon version except for a different design for the cap and having a seven-leaved iris instead of five. The Spy thought he had a dud at first because the image was fuzzy, but then noticed that the lenses were protected by a plastic film that had to be removed, though there was no written caution to do so. This done, to his amateur eye, the pictures it takes are sharp and clear, the lens well worth the money. Very satisfied. Another buy recommendation.

However, be cautious when buying, using only eBay retailers with good reputations, reputable domestic retailers, or the genuine Yongnuo site referenced below. There have been less savoury operators working this space, including at least one fake website with a similar domain name.

Chainsaws and computing, plus a cautionary tale

In teaching programming to beginners, the Spy uses the task of sharpening a chainsaw to illustrate high level program structure, and loops in particular.
File (tooth);
Rotate (chain)
UNTIL done;

This worked well until the year he was on sabbatical and taught at nearby SFU, where this lesson got blank looks from the class of six hundred or so. Finally he twigged and asked "how many of you don't know what a chainsaw is?" Most hands went up. City slickers.

Now, only apparently changing the subject, since that time, the advocates of renewable energy have successfully persuaded governments and oil companies to mandate the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Like many seemingly good ideas, this one had unintended consequences, the one most familiar being a bump in corn prices, and hence in all cereal grains, because of demand for feeding stock to ethanol plants. The big increases have settled, partly because more hectarage has been planted. But to the Spy's dismay, yet another unintended consequence has surfaced--too late to his attention for him to take evasive action.

Until recently, the Spy owned a workhorse Stihl model 260 chainsaw--a necessity to maintain a mostly wooded two hectare property, and you might say overkill, but this entry level professional saw was the lowest end model that would take a 50cm bar and chain. Recently, it became balky, frequently stalled in the wood, and hard to start, so he took it to a local Stihl dealer for a tuneup--such work normally requiring specialized computers that are beyond the means of a backyard mechanic.

"Sorry, Sir, but you've fried your machine. The cylinder is scored, and we'd have to replace that and the piston. For another $100, you're better off buying a new saw."

"What did I do wrong? I've always followed the oil-gas mixing recommendations."

"What kind of gas?"

"Regular marked farm gas."

Wincing. "Worst thing you could have done. It's too low an octane and contains ethanol. You need high octane gas with absolutely no ethanol."

"What does ethanol do?"

"Best we can figure, when the machine or the container are stored for any length of time, ethanol makes the oil and gas separate. It also binds with moisture in the air to introduce water, creating four layers. Store it over winter, without draining the saw and using a fresh mix, and you end up running pure gas at times, pure ethanol at times, and too much water. Engine overheats and the cylinder scores. Small aluminum two-cycle engines are the most vulnerable."

See, there was no ethanol in gas when the Spy bought the 260, and even when it was introduced, it took a while to discover this. When it was, no fuss was made in the media, so who knew? Good business for Stihl and Husqvarna, the Spy supposes, but he has to wonder whether the cost of the ethanol decision was worth it in view of all the countless small gasoline engines that ended up in landfill or recycling.

The moral of the story so far: Even if you're convinced something is broke, consider the consequences of the proposed fix. Gasoline with ethanol may be a good thing for automobile engines, and even the atmospheric environment, but its introduction without testing for other downsides caused enough collateral damage to make the decision seem at best a wash. Ditto compact fluorescent lightbulbs, by the way, which are in the process of rapid replacement with mercury-free LED ones.

Back to the story. The Spy sprang for a Stihl model 261, the direct upgrade replacement for his dearly departed saw. Superficially, from a little distance, there appears to be little difference. But, a slightly bigger engine, a much improved starting mechanism, and the jump to a properly working machine (with a new chain) makes all the difference in the world to cutting and bucking. Hot knife through butter. Diamond Bar Equipment of Aldergrove made a deal on the powerhead sans bar (the old one was salvageable) threw in a sharpen on his old chain and a jug of chain oil. In turn, the Spy bought some of the expensive premixed and stabilized Stihl MotoMix ethanol-free fuel, as he does tend to store the tool for lengthy periods between uses. Apparently ethanol-free gasoline is available in some grades at some stations, and if mixed 50:1 or even 40:1 and not stored overly long, ought still be the choice of professionals using the saw all day long.

The Spy has now processed several trees that volunteered to be firewood by falling down, and couldn't be more pleased by the saw's performance. It just works. A third "must buy" recommendation for this month--unless your world centres around sleeping weeknights in a city apartment while you earn enough money to finance your real life on seasonal trips to the beach or the ski hills.

A Conclusion of Sorts

This month's roundup illustrates several things about technology--first, that it comes in various sizes, shapes, levels of abstractions, and registers of usefulness; second, that technological change does interact with social mores and memes, in ways perhaps more subtle than mentioned last month; third, that it does not all have to be "high" or even electronic to be both sophisticated and profoundly useful; fourth, that what you buy in the way of tools depends on who you are--some people's useful necessity is another's mystery. Not everyone would need or want all three of these tools, but as the posties say, to each hizzone.

Oh, and a reminder to the column's faithful reader. If one of the syndicated publications doesn't carry this piece in a given month for reasons of space or editorial policy, it can always be read on the Spy's own site at thenorthernspy.com.

--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 nine alternate history SF 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

The Fourth Civilization--Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed.): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html

URLs for items mentioned in this column

OWC: http://eshop.macsales.com

Yongnuo: http://en.yongnuo.com.cn

Stihl US: http://www.stihlusa.com/products/chain-saws/

Stihl Canada: http://en.stihl.ca/STIHL-Products/0100/Chain-saws-and-pole-pruners.aspx

Diamond Bar: http://www.diamondbarequipment.ca

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Last Updated: 2015 03 02