The Northern Spy – Fall Miscellany and Question Time

The Northern Spy

The Webb Bang

No, that is not a spelling error, but a reference to the James Webb telescope, successor to the Hubble platform, and capable of producing images of long ago and far away. Initial results are disconcerting, as they seem to blow up long accepted models for the “early” universe, by revealing spiral galaxies much like our own, but at distances of sufficient light years that should in theory have revealed early post Big-Bang chaos from before such galaxies could have coalesced and organized. Much work must yet be done to refine the data, but some are already claiming the Big Bang theory has been debunked, and the universe Is not expanding as that model demands. Stay tuned for the more episodes.

Standards Matter

The Spy’s reader will know that he has a history of involvement with standards, having worked with and for the CSA and SCC (Canadian Standards Association and Standards Council of Canada on programming language standards). Without national and international standards, nuts and bolts would not thread together, electricity could not be exported across borders, banks could not function internationally, the Internet itself would be a collection of national connectivities, but with no interconnectivity, every country would have its own programming languages, its own internal trade but none internationally, its own laws, but no interaction with those in other countries to bring genocidal criminals to justice. Wind, weather, currency, publishing, manufacturing, education, and nearly every human endeavour that matters would be entirely subject to local whims, there would and could be no cooperation, or even effective communication.

That is why standards associations exist–to make trade and commerce across borders possible. Goods that are supposed to interact or interconnect actually do so, screwdrivers and wrenches fit standard nuts, clothing is designed in one country, made in a second, and sold in a third, because all can interact in a common way– speak a common language, have compatible goals, can interchange machine parts, participate in the same supply chain, manufacturing pipeline, and sales channels… …at least in mature industries and markets, something the so-called “smart home” arena is most definitely not, rife as it is with groups of incompatible products. If it were only a matter of hardware and software, progress toward what the Spy envisaged as a pseudo-intelligent home back in the 80s could yet be cobbled together from the disparate pieces. However, the competing systems do not even use the same radio connectivity, with Z-Wave, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and WiFi each the medium of choice for some market segment.

But now some 200 companies are working on “Matter”, initial name for communications protocol that uses Thread, Wi-Fi, ethernet, and Bluetooth to allow all the smart home products to talk to each other locally. No cloud needed, and everything just works with everything else. Has the nascent standard a chance? Given that Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, Nest, Wyze, Philips (Hue), Ecobee and numerous smaller players are on board, and short of a sudden power surge that lands one of the players the lion’s market share, this would appear to be a prime candidate for unification.

Yet another “M’ matters

and that’s Apple’s M2 chip, now selling with a few models. As his reader knows, the Spy bypassed the 2013 MacPro (aka “Trashcan”, now available at a fraction of the original price) as well as the 2019 model (aka “ExpensiveCan”), contenting himself with plenty fast and easily expandable 2008-2012 MacPros he hacked to run the modern OSs. In this he is not alone. Not only are the old towers still-useable pretty skookum fast computers, but legions of Hackintosh fans have built or bought pre- built their own inexpensive towers to do likewise–something cash conscious

Cupertino surely doesn’t like, but this is high class computing on a budget with a rock solid OS that unlike Wndws, just doesn’t crash, even when run on cheap or “obsolete” hardware. Apart from power failures, updates that demand a reboot, or heavy use of applications like Excel that leak memory and eventually slow everything down, one can work for months, even years with zero down time, whether the machine is officially supported by Apple or not.

But Apple’s new chips take computing hardware to a whole new level, one for which the Spy has deliberately waited ever since he realized (and forecast repeatedly here) that Apple’s logical next step must be to take control of its physical boxes by developing its own chips and throwing off the Intel albatross. Even the first iteration with the M1 chip blows people away with its high efficiency and low power consumption. No more “pants on fire” overworked short-lifetime laptop batteries, and welcome to a better computing experience. Several of the Spy’s students showed up at school with new M1 or M2 machines this fall, and so far are unanimous in their approbation.

For the time being, as in the transition from Power PC to Intel, the second Rosetta technology will ensure MacOS runs on older machines as well as the new. But once the whole lineup is switched over, it’ll be “out with the old, and in with the new”–sorta like when the electorate perceives its government gets old, tired, and out of ideas, and replaces one set of bums with another. Well, at least in some countries. You don’t want to try this in Russia, China or a host of other two-bit anti- democracies. (Warning: it could happen here; there’s no vaccine against stupidity.)

So eventually, the Spy will bite and buy new–perhaps in a year or two when the MacPro with an M2 has been out a while, and if it seems affordable as the last computer he’s likely to own before he gets called home to a room in his Father’s house.

And, speaking of Excel…

…we were, weren’t we? The Spy recently moved to a different church to be with family, and promptly got drafted as its treasurer–figures since he did that at his old church and has been handling large sums of other people’s money for decades. For as long as bookkeeping software has existed, he has invegled against most of it as improperly conceived and constructed–especially for charities, which need to do fund accounting, and for which the commercial accounting packages simply do not provide, leaving users to implement it with ugly cludges.

He thought the set of Vena macros over Excel that he has to use at work was awkward, slow, and being in the cloud, inherently insecure, but they do work once you get used to them. However, for the church, he now finds himself using (by way of inheritance) Quick Books Online, which lowers software to new and extravagant depths of inconvenience, clumsy design, confusing and poorly organized menus, and hidden-at-depth (secret) ways to reverse errors. When the church’s new fiscal year begins in November, his own suite of custom designed Excel accounting sheets and macros (his previous version well tested in heavy use for decades) will replace the QBO albatross, and cut his time to do almost everything by two thirds to ninety percent.

Health Matters too

As his reader also know, the Spy is a strong advocate for vaccines. They have a high success rate (none is perfect), low risk of side-effects (apart from allergic reactions to carrier ingredients) and are one of the key pillars for managing modern preventative medicine (which beats managing pandemics of sickness and death by a long-shot). He grew up in an era when children still frequently died from a host of childhood diseases that were later eradicated, or nearly so, by vaccines. His eleven- year-old self nearly died of the mumps, and classmates rejoiced in tears when they lined up for the polio vaccine (“we aren’t all going to die after all”).

Thus his distress over the modern conspiracy theorist anti-science anti- vaccine movement fueled by anecdotal unsubstantiated rumours of side-effects (a few are surely true, nothing is perfect but God) and grossly exaggerated anti- government sentiment. Hey, in Western democracies, unlike the above mentioned “peoples” pretend republics, government errors are far more likely to arise from ignorance, apathy, incompetence, and narcissism. Look up the old classic Wayne and Shuster skit “question time” for an entertaining take on this theme. So, now we are faced with a resurgence of the old child destroyers like mumps, diphtheria, and, most recently the last pandemic killer, polio. Should the latter become endemic again, or worse by far, should smallpox, completely eradicated and for which we have not therefore been vaccinating, escape from one of the few high security (no security is perfect) labs still storing it, look out undertakers, you’ll be swamped with business.

But far worse than the deniers are the advocates of ‘”miracle cures” like the one about drinking bleach for COVID that was briefly endorsed by a certain former US president. Now the Ivermectin fantasy is making the rounds again, never mind that a horse (and sometimes human) de-wormer has no connection whatever with viruses, and unless its consumption is carefully administered and monitored by a health professional for its intended use, can be very dangerous indeed. Bear with him on this one. Suppose we “conspired” to start a rumour that COVID, the Flu, Mumps, and oh, say, Putinism/Trumpism could all be cured by downing a litre of hot salt water flavoured by a dash of Tabasco sauce, a pinch of black pepper and a few koala bear hairs, provided it was received with thanksgiving. If the Spy were a betting man, he’d be willing to believe such a rumour could not be constrained from itself becoming viral.

There is after all, as P.T. Barnum famously once observed, no limit to gullibility, and moreover, everybody knows that the Koala tea of merci is not strained.

–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 and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada's Trinity Western University. He completed his fifty-second year as a high school and university teacher in 2022. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He was co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (dead tree and online formats) since the early 1980s, and he's been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and other conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and lived in the
Langley/Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. from 1969 to 2021, where he now continues alone, depending heavily on family to manage.

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Cited here:

Wayne and Shuster’s “Question Time” (Enjoy the entire 50th anniversary
retrospective or watch just the skit mentioned at 01:07:37 There can be a lot of
truth in humour.:

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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

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.