The Northern Spy – Taking Tech’s Temperature

The Northern Spy

This month,

has some pretty important dates, and all in a row, starting with the fourteenth, fondly known by mathematicians as pi day. The Spy is unaware of a type of pie that would not be a favourite, unless someone makes it with kidney or liver. Moreover, pi philology has come a long way since “Yes, I have a slice.” There’s “How I love a drink, raspberry of course, after the heavy chapters involving quantum mechanics,” or “And, O, have a slice, fruitcake or raisin bread, but watch calories carefully, obesity threatens.” Alternately if you mix philology with theology, perhaps you prefer the Spy’s own contribution to the genre: “God I love, I first determine, on seeing grace, not works, produces salvation, forever redeeming, and he now empowers true living in Christ.”

‘Course, pi day is immediately followed by the ides of March, and who of the Spy’s generation could forget the Wayne and Shuster skit “Rinse The Blood Off My Toga” they performed many times in various versions, including on the old Ed Sullivan show, the one where Flavius Maximus, Private Roman eye, is tasked by Brutus to solve the case of who bumped off Big Julie. Following the line of “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, a bag of ears was thrown on the platform, and who could forget widow Calpurnia coming down the aisle through the audience lamenting in a thick Bronx accent “I told him, ‘Julie don’t go!’ (i.e. to the forum) “but would he listen to me, his wife?”

Returning to the theological for 316, the following day and who among we dweebs could forget that’s the title of one of world-renowned computing scientist Donald Knuth’s finest books–an engaging exposition of every chapter three, verse sixteen of the Bible.

The parade of consecutive significant days is latterly bookended by the seventeenth of Ireland, likely more vigorously celebrated here in Irish North America than upon the ol’ sod herself, and certainly of interest to the Spy, who claims significant Irish ancestry.

But he digresses, so on to the main event–his taking the temperature of a few items from several technology levels.

The Low

Somehow, while busily engaged in blowing away the most recent 28cm snowfall from in front of his igloo here in the frozen North, the vibration must have worked the oil cap on the motor loose, causing the oil to escape and of course ultimately halting the machine in a flurry of aches, groans, and excruciating metal-breaking noises. The poor old beast is in the shop even now, awaiting his knowledge of its fate. Is it, like (once upon a time) the Spy’s rotator cuff tendon, able to be screwed back together better than new, or does it need a new engine, drive chain, or a ring job?

Or, was that awful screeching, grinding, clattering death rattle merely a drive chain disintegrating in the heat of friction, like so many churches that switched from preaching the gospel to political advocacy, or was it more akin to the death throes of the governing Liberal Party of Canada from beneath its self-inflicted and burdenous mass of hubris, scandal, leadership vacuum, and mismanagement. To speak or not to speak, that is the question to ask the Prime Minister concerning what and when he knew about the Chinese attempts to ensure he won the last two elections but with a weak minority in parliament.

Hmmm. And how did the Spy make those connections? More Wayne and Shuster? After all, they once did a sketch of the Canadian Parliament that had the opposition accusing the government of “ignorance and apathy, and what do you say to that?”, followed by the entire government side standing and chanting in appropriate unison “We don’t know and we don’t care”. There’s too much of both that and extremely toxic partisanship these days, so the Spy has determined to have no further connection either with political parties or churches that manage to hitch their theology to partisan politics despite it being far outside their assigned mission.

The medium

…and by that, though prognosticator of modest success that he may be, he declines to reference readers of palms, tea leaves, astrological signs or crystal balls; merely the next level of tech.

His efforts to achieve modest automations of his lonely castle have been a little rocky, though so far reasonably successful. The Meross branded switches proved, as mentioned last month, rather difficult to install. Five or six had to be returned as entirely inoperative, and he complained to Amazon about Meross repeatedly sending out items other customers had obviously previously tried, found defective, and returned. The Amazon rep refunded his last purchase (one switch in the box rather than the two he ordered), said the items would be pulled from their listing pending assurances of policy changes by the vendor, and advised him to buy no more. Ya think? Shortly thereafter a new brand (Refoss) appeared on the platform, and he purchased four to finish the job.

When they arrived, in a same-sized but different coloured box bearing altered installation instructions, it quickly became evident that they were in fact identical to the ones he already had. Again, the three-way switches installed and worked just fine, but the first single-pole proved difficult, and it, along with the previous two like it, periodically check out of the network and have to be rebooted. Things did settle a little though, after he discovered his iPhone could access the switches on the 5GHz side of the network of the same name, even though they all must communicate on the 2.4GHz side. (That seems common in the industry, and is apparently because the slower of the two has more penetrability, not just more Humpty Dumpty inscrutability.) Tentative hypothesis: his 2.4 GHz side is either saturated, or is begging for a new router. Does he go to Wi-Fi 6? Hmmm.

In the same vein, Ecoline finally finished the work on his windows sufficiently to install his Louvolite-driven automated blinds, and he got that done too. That automation may help make the house appear more occupied when he is at work. Moreover, both the Federal and Provincial “green home” rebates came through to ameliorate part of the high cost of doing all that work, and a mere two days ago, he was cleared to remove all the stickers advertising the technical details, thus improving the look and feel from “installed but pending” to “functional”. ‘Course, he does not mean to imply Ecoline is finished, done, and off the hook. There’s still the matter of the missing window stops, the window that opens backwards, the missing pieces from the door lock, and the ever-missing service department. Ah well, it’s neither his first nor last troublesome encounter with things called “windows”.

The high

Lured by the prospect of a first laptop that promised the ability to drive up to four external monitors, the Spy finally blew off some of his saved-up Pro-D money to have the university purchase a replacement for his somewhat troublesome 2019 MacBook Pro. He sprung for an Apple M2 MacBook Pro with the idea that it would serve as both desktop (also phasing out his hacked 2010 and 2012 MacPro towers, which would then merely serve up their multiple drives for it). The new box is the 16 inch model, with M2 Max chip, 64G of memory, and the 2T SSD. This configuration is a little more than halfway up the ladder to being maxed out, for memory can be installed up to 96G and the SSD can go up to 8T, but the price would then be well over $11K for what would be an extremely high end work station, and/or a massively expensive status symbol. What he has is quite sufficiently high-end and expensive enough, but with potential to be a long-lasting workhouse.

So far, he has mostly moved in to the new box except for one thing. Parallels informs him that Microsoft no longer supports Windows 10 on that chip, so he has to switch to Windows 11, and he’s been chatting with the IT department about the best path forward (or is that backward) to achieve that–something he still requires to access the older VENA-enabled spreadsheets he references as a budget manager. Newer ones, BTW, have a version of VENA they pull in with them, so will run under Excel on the Mac without the need for Windows. Yes, yes, there is/was the option of using remote desktop on the Mac but that was never very functional and both it and the version of VENA used with it had to be reinstalled constantly–a pain.

He also uses the Parallels/Windows side for his personal domestic spreadsheet, for he has yet to replace the old-style macros it employs with the alternative data entry methods he wrote for his Church accounting work (getting there, but lots of code to re-write and new pages to drive it). Those old macros do not run on Mac Excel, though they still do on Windows Excel–two very different programs that are diverging farther apart and becoming more incompatible with every passing year. Do the respective development teams even talk to each other, much less have access to each other’s work?

Thus, so far, the Spy has only initial rough impressions of how well the M2 box measures up to Apple’s promises, as he has only superficially tested application compatibility, and not yet connected it to the three external monitors he uses at home and work to make it his day-to-day workhouse. Still, he can report that the dozens of applications he does use on a regular basis all seem to run. One major change he needs time to get used to is the entirely new organization, layout, and way of handling system preferences. This will take some time, as so far he’s had to do several Internet searches to find exactly where some preference panes are now located, as the organizational methodology is not yet obvious. Very nice look and feel though, especially in dark mode.

But so far, he does note obvious and long-needed hardware improvements: the Mag Safe-3 power connector, with its physically larger version of Apple’s classic white power supply that now dishes up 140W, the apparent ability to last hours longer on battery (not thoroughly stress tested as yet) the ditching of the useless touch bar for good-old function keys, the replacement of one Thunderbolt port by an HDMI port (will make connecting to one of the  external monitors simpler) and the addition of an SD card slot–all concessions to fix obvious mistakes Apple has been making on its recent models. 

One immediately apparent improvement though is over the heat & power issues. He had it on Zoom for four hours the other day with battery power, so it was working fairly hard, yet the machine stayed cool and no fans engaged throughout. Moreover, it still had half the battery capacity remaining at the end. The 2019 MacBook Pro might have come close to scorching his desk and would run empty after about 55 minutes. Moreover, it would have had a hard time managing even connected to and maxing out its 100W power supply. The 2015 version he owns outright would have run somewhat cooler and slightly longer than the 2019, perhaps eking out as many as 80 minutes in that situation. 

On an unrelated matter

The Spy’s go-to mail program, Thunderbird, suddenly stopped working on one of his IMAP mail accounts–the university one that he sends numerous messages through per day. He can still receive messages, but can no longer use SMPT, for some kind of connection issue is refusing his credentials, and hours of fiddling with alternative ports and encryption protocols have failed to yield a resolution. As an interim measure, he sends from another account with Reply-to set to the university one. Oddly, Outlook and Apple Mail can connect and send from the same boxes, and his POP accounts and one other IMAP account are unaffected. And no, it’s not one of his add-ons. He checked. Nor does it matter if he uses a different computer or reverts to a previous version of Thunderbird. Please don’t tell him he has to migrate to using Apple Mail after all this time. TB has a comfortable interface and handles the other eight of his email accounts very well, thank you. The IT department is looking into the matter, as it appears from the error log that its interface to MS Exchange is the where the refusal to connect originates.

Much more next month.

by which time the new machine should be hooked up and properly tested. So far, so good, though.

–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 latterly continues alone, depending heavily on family to manage. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

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General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

  • Author Site:
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Specifically Cited here:

  • Wholesale Blind Factory:
  •  Louvolite :
  • Meross:
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