The Northern Spy — Low and High Tech Reflections

The Northern Spy

A hot summer

gasps to an end in numerous western wildfires that spew smoke across the continent, the degree of Arctic ice melt is unprecedented, high temperatures and drought set records–all visual evidence that the climate is indeed changing, and more rapidly than even the worst pessimists once predicted. Meanwhile billionaires engage in a space race for publicity and pleasure, elected officials and influencers dispute whether election results, COVID, and violent insurrections are real or fake, vaccine deniers threaten their lives and those of their families and contacts, governments are paralyzed by partisan jockeying for the right to spend money they borrow from future generations or create out of thin air, and the Internet on any given day seems to contain more misinformation than the real thing. Give your head a shake, people, for, how shocking, there is such a thing as truth, and you will in eternity be held accountable for it, whether you believe it or not.

Moving on to the mundanely important

The Spy has purchased a Buffalo 16x desktop “Media Station”, their fancy name for a DVD/Blu Ray player/burner with high (to 128G on a Blu Ray disk) capacity and M-Disk capability. It works, in the technical sense, though the user interface is pitifully non-intuitive, and the documentation nearly incomprehensible. It would be nice if overseas manufacturers invested a little in writing documentation in the language of the marketplaces where they sell. Platters for such devices are readily available from Verbatim, and the goal is long term and climate-proof archiving of the Spy’s files. He won’t claim that all the 60K plus individual items on his “Files” partition are worth preserving in perpetuity, but he’s always been a fanatic about backups, and has recently begun a new book (using Literature and Latte’s Scrivener of course), so wants to insure himself against data loss. At a time when nearly all his work time is spent in his home office, it is easy to forget that his primary backups are largely concentrated in a single building, which is not a good strategy for anyone.  

So, a regular backup to a nearly indestructible and long-lasting medium which is then carried or mailed to his campus office has become the latest strategy to indulge his paranoia about mitigating the risk of data loss. He well recalls the time when a new faculty member came to him with an Apple ][ disk and tentatively enquired whether there was any way to retrieve deleted files. The Spy briefly twisted him in the wind by asking why he didn’t just use his latest backup before relenting, sitting down at his own computer, and “releting” the last three versions the individual had saved by employing a subprogram from his very own “Ampermanager” suite of Apple DOS 3.3 utilities, in those days marketed on his behalf by the A.P.P.L.E. CO-OP. Very likely the supplicant had come to the only person in the country who could have rescued his PhD dissertation from oblivion. Ahem.  

Another recent purchase 

was of yet another backup device, this one of a 2T platter drive in the Seagate “One Touch” line that he spotted for a decent price at a “Big Box” store (a local chain specializing in retailing freight damaged, returned, obsolete, liquidation, and otherwise non-saleable merchandise at its original price point.

The drive itself is nothing special. Housed in a pocket-sized enclosure, it comes with an A-Micro B cable and an C-A adapter for more modern machines (nice tough that–others take notice). Seagate touts its own mirroring software and security features (everything can be encrypted), but the user interface is so clumsy and nonintuitive the Spy elected to use the bare drive without any Seagate front end–a second example of why software for the MacOS should actually be custom written, and not merely translated holos-bolus from a clumsy, awkward, non-intuitive Windows prototype. Of course the prototype for this type of nonsense is MS Word, which one would never know today actually started out on MacOS.

On the software front, 

The Spy takes not of Bare Bones Software’s release of BBEdit 14, the latest update to the best ever code editor. If you don’t have it and use it, get it. You will not regret it. Check the new features for yourself.

The latest utility to join the Spy’s Swiss army knife of text manipulators is something called Snip, from MathPix. Accessed from a hot key or a menu bar icon, it takes screen shots. The big deal? It uses OCR to turn printed or handwritten formulae or equation images into such formats as LaTex, DOCX, Overleaf, Markdown, Excel, and ChemDraw. Free for up to 50 snips a month, and $4.99 up to 5000 per month for pros, this thing is simple in concept and execution and has high end has wow factor. Now if the Spy could only get an OCR for other handwriting that actually worked and didn’t cost a mortgage on his house, he’d really be ahead of his game on text preparation. MathPix does offer an API into a product that purports to do this and provides an online service to convert documents for a volume-computed fee, but The Spy has not yet evaluated this.

In a system vein, the Spy has now so many icons in his menu bar that they overflow the space on smaller monitors. A utility called Bartender fixes that problem for $20CDN by allowing items of the user’s choice to be selectively hidden (until one either clicks on the Bartender icon or navigates the cursor to the bar–depending on the version, which depends on the OS level). Fabulous concept, again simple and well executed. Now if it would allow multiple bars on the various edges of the screen…

In the low-tech arena

the Spy’s low-tech circa 1974 BCS-Mainline model 725 rototiller turned out to have a low-tech fix, belying the original diagnosis of engine failure. A replacement engine and adapter to European fittings would have set the Spy back over $2000CDN, but the replacement of a seal and starter spring, plus a carburetor clean out came to $225 instead. Kudos to Diamond Bar equipment for the diagnosis and fix. The Spy notes that the BCS line has changed little in nearly four decades. Would that high tech hardware was as durable in the light of software changes and the desire for manufacturers to obsolete equipment as quickly as possible to line shareholders’ pockets. Mind you, modern machines can do more than ones from ten years ago, but the Spy has MacPros from 2008-2012 running Catalina (and they could run Big Sur) and modern software as satisfactorily as most modern machines. Oh, an upgrade will come–but not until a MacPro has at least the first generation M2 machines on the market.

On that point, the Spy had once convinced himself that 7nm chip technology was the smallest possible due to quantum tunnelling effects when traces are too close to one another and the electrons in each therefore uncertain of which path they were on. He sees now that Apple’s suppliers are gearing up to mass produce 2nm silicon. Well, good on the engineers, but there is still a limit on how small this tech can get before it hits a wall, and an entirely different approach will be needed. That will be about the time quantum computers turn the whole industry upside down a few years hence.

Some limitations of technology

have become up front and personal in the Spy’s wife’s battle with ovarian cancer. The first course of chemo did knock the disease back a long way, but could not be completed because of the severity of the side effects (edema nd neuropathy). After a couple of months’ hiatus, a second course with a different intravenous chemical was tried, but it seemed ineffective in preventing pleural fluid build-up around the lungs, and she had to be hospitalized nine days to drain that. A mere two weeks after discharge, her breathing was so impaired she had to return, this time for a fifteen-day stay. 

The goal was supposedly to install a permanent drain on both lungs, but for technical reasons that remain unclear, this was not done and a temporary drain was inserted, this time on the left lung (the right had been the issue all previous times). Separately, abdominal fluid was also removed. The intravenous chemo was suspended and she was started on a ten-day-on/eleven-day-off pill chemo regimen, the first “on” cycle having ended a few days after her release. During her stay it became evident that taking blood samples and doing an IV (needed ultra sound to find a vein) was no longer easily done, so a trip back was required to install a permanent flushable two-way port into a vein. More permanent pleural drains are still on the agenda, with an order of weekly X-Rays to determine when there is sufficient fluid to warrant this. Diuretic pills meanwhile cannot keep ahead of fluid accumulation in her legs, which are gradually becoming unusable, as are her fingers (from trembling). 

Cancer is an ugly disease, and it should be evident from the saga above that the technologies to treat it are both crude and dangerous–the latter evidenced by the fact that during chemo, bathroom facilities cannot be shared, and afterwards all clothing and bedding need to be washed twice to remove toxins. Many cancers, including this one, are incurable and of unknown cause and origin (all abdominal lining cancers are called “ovarian” as their starting point is usually unknown). The Spy wonders why the COVID and election deniers don’t also doubt cancer’s existence, or perhaps that of death. But he also wonders why it is that sophisticated vaccines could be so quickly found for COVID when the state of cancer understanding, prevention, and treatment remains comparatively primitive and sledge-hammerish, and why major hospitals can be so pitifully understaffed.

See you all again next month–DV.

–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 fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. 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 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 ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

The Northern Spy Home Page:

opundo :

Sheaves Christian Resources :

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nameman :

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

Author Site:

Publisher’s Site:

The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ):

Other URLs of relevant interest: 

BC Government COVID site:


URLs for items mentioned in this column

Literature and Latte:

Buffalo MediaStation:

Seagate One Touch Drives:

Diamond Bar:

Bare Bones BBEDIT:

MathPix Snip:


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About the Author


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