Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trains Reign; Trucks Suck

I have always loved trains.  But then, I am an engineer. I always loved seeing the train switching yards around my home town, and seeing them along the highway on vacations. Our Kindergarten class actually took a train trip and I recall being amazed (and a bit scared) as we passed over the High Level Bridge.

Growing up a bit, my Dad helped haul a 4x8 plywood sheet down into the basement to sit on trestles for my Lionel H-O railroad set, and saving up to go to Moro Craft to buy the very coolest thing - crossing lights that flashed when the train went by.

I took a year off between high school and university, armed with an International Student ID, an International Youth Hostel and the fabled Eurail pass, spent a few months traversing Europe exclusively by foot and by train. I took my son across Canada on the Via Rail train, a great way to see Canada.

Train travel is so much better than air or car or bus. Trains travel at human speed, or soul-speed as William Gibson explains in Pattern Recognition. But more importantly these days, trains are more efficient for moving goods than trucks, for a couple of reasons.

First, once a train is rolling, it takes much less energy than a truck, because of something called "rolling resistance" which is much lower for steel wheels on tracks than for rubber tires on asphalt. Second, when train rights of way are built, they are expensive because they have a low grade, that is - not many hills. So while it takes more energy and time to build a railway bed compared to a highway, every train that runs on that track saves energy, while on the highway, every truck and car has to use extra gas to climb the hills.

It is a shame to see so many tracks being removed and replaced by roads, and to see overgrown urban tracks fall into disuse and disrepair.  There used to be a very nice and inexpensive trip from Vancouver to Whistler, until the cars they used became so old it was cheaper to blow one up for an episode of the X-files.

I hope trains make a comeback.  Maybe it's time the economics will make this viable again.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wireless Keyboard & Mouse - Use Rechargeable Alkalines

Although we have both a wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, we only use the keyboard at this point, having gone back to the wired mouse. I like being able to move the keyboard around, but the mouse went through batteries too quickly.

Like many people, I bought some NiMh (Nickel Metal Hydride) rechargeable batteries and a charger but was disappointed with the few weeks of time I would get before they needed recharging. Then I read something interesting about NiMh batteries  - they have a rapid self-discharge time. No matter how little you use them, they will be discharged in 90 days.

That sent me looking through the junk drawer for our older-technology, rechargeable alkaline batteries from Pure Energy. We had moved away from them since they don't carry the amount of energy you can pack into an NiMh battery, but a wireless keyboard is perfectly suited to rechargeable alkalines - it draws little current, so a long self-discharge time is more important than stored energy density.

Anyway, the proof is in the pudding, it's been more than 6 months since I had to recharge the keyboard batteries...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This Might Be Our First American Car

Our family has never owned an American-made car. Just wasn't in the genes. My Dad had a few VW bugs that I grew up jumping around the back seat of, and I drove his VW "Square-back sedan," i.e. station wagon, to university with all the worldly possessions I owned in the back. My wife drove a yellow Chevy van (The Broom) for years but that was more an adventure-device than a car, and she learned to fix it herself.

Our immediate family have been pretty loyal to Toyota, currently with a 2001 Prius, my folks have a wheelchair-mod'ed Rav 4, and I love our mid-90's Volvo station wagon.

Not buying an American car has not about ideology, but about design. Large, heavy cars withpoor gas mileage, mushy suspensions, and window cranks that didn't work was our idea of Ford and GM.

That may change with the Chevy Volt. With most of our power being hydro-generated, and the fact that cars would charge at night when demand is low, I've been looking forward to an all-electric or plug-in hybrid, and it looks like GM may get to production before Toyota.

We're happy to wait and hope someone else comes to our market like these guys, but in any case, an electric-hybrid is on our shopping list.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sabbatical 2008 - Mid Course Evaluation

I'm on an extended vacation this year, thanks to Creo and Kodak, as my 15th year at the company and 50th on the planet.  It's taken about a month for me to relax enough to really feel that I have time to do things other than "be productive." Mind you, I did get a bunch of long-postponed tasks done, like fixing the drawer on the oven and other menial things that involve a car fetch trip and a couple hours, which seem hard to find time for on the weekend.

This year overall, I've endeavored to accomplish some other things I have dreamed of doing. My pickup band, Six Degrees, played a few gigs, including my 50th birthday party, and the Farmer's Market at Steveston, and after many years of being idle, had my Gibson SG Deluxe wailing away on solo's I practiced enough to play publicly, Play That Funky Music, and Sunshine of Your Love.

This summer I also finally mixed down our recordings of Sol's band Tusk to create a 4-song EP mastered and duplicated at Spin Digital Media. Our first CD!

I also had the chance to take a course on Jewish Mysticism from Rabbi Laura Kaplan, as well as having had time for several lunches with friends and old acquaintances.

This week sees the arrival of family from England, with 3 kids so we will have the pitter patter of little feet around the house for a while. Off to Tigh Na Mara for a quick visit...

For August: Clean out various caches of junk in the house, build my Peggy kit (thanks Wendel from Evil Mad Scientist), write an iPhone App...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garbage is Anything You Don't Want to Have to See

"Give me a lever and I shall move the world" is a quote attributed to Archimedes after discovering the mechanical advantage afforded by a stick and a rock.

My brain is always looking for levers - small things that would create big change. Here's one: Make the price of oil $500 a barrel and see how fast alternate energy takes hold. Oops, too late.

Here's another: Make it illegal to move garbage more the 5 miles. Unworkable? You bet. People stashing stuff in nooks and crannies, smuggling garbage around in their cars.

Maybe the first will take care of the second...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Letter to Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

I sent this to Starbuck's HQ last year. I got a very polite form letter from someone in PR.

Howard Schultz
2401 Utah Avenue South, Seattle, Washington 98134

Dear Howard,

As a Starbucks customer, I find myself planning to reduce my number of (numerous) visits, but as I have had hundreds of pleasant experiences and enjoyed many espresso cups over the years, I feel the need to tell you about my reasons, so that they might positively affect the company.

Just for background, I am in a demographic I heard disparagingly categorized as “cappuccino-drinking Volvo drivers”. Our family has two teen-age boys, and over the last 25 years I have been to Starbucks locations all over Canada, the US, and Japan, and spent thousands of dollars there. My formative coffee experiences included a visit to Italy in 1977, where after stumbling off the red-eye train from Roma to Firenze at 5:30 am Sunday morning, the train-station’s café was bustling, powered by a barista-owner with energy and a sense of humor inspiring to those of us dragging ourselves out of the train. She affectionately echoed our requests by ordering up “cappucio” – yes, without the “n”.

I brought back my love of the coffee and café culture, much as you did, but not being as entrepreneurial, had to seek out opportunities, nuggets like the Java Shoppe in Edmonton Alberta, where I learned the phrases “long-pull” and “short-pull” were literally about heaving the pressure arm on the Victorian-age steam-powered espresso maker. After that, you could find pockets of it in the folk-music-and-carrot-cake music clubs, like the one I went to “The Hovel” and first heard Leon Redbone.

But I ramble. If we had time, we would sit at a small table with an espresso and have a conversation, and I hoped to come close to it last month when you were in Vancouver for the 25th anniversary of the CPR terminal location. I was at that location earlier that day but could not stay for the event. Here’s what I would have said:

Number One: Bring back the coffee smell. Working as I do at a large corporation, I can almost hear your accounting firm point out the waste of money they saw in having open beans in drawers. Hard to account for; spoilage; mess; the occasional overage in filling up a customer’s bag; beans dropped, stepped on, kicked into corners, stuck in customers’ show treads, in the corner of the shelf. How much more efficient it would be to eliminate that mess, and just sell prepackaged beans. But what the shops have lost as a result of that is – serendipity, and aroma. The mix of wafts of beans, roasted and mixed, was for me like a bee drawn to a flower. I used to pop into a store, just for a whiff. But now, the coffee smell is missing,

Number Two: Bring back baristas. I imagine anyone can be taught to steam milk. You just read the temperature. But being able to measure, tamp, and pull a shot is a skill, a craft, perhaps an art. The auto-mech machines that are now sweeping the locations simply do not make as good coffee as the hand-made. I don’t even bother now getting espresso from shops that have those machines, and it’s getting hard to find a Starbucks without one. I am sure accounting has determined that the labour-cost per cup has now been reduced and can quantify the savings on the bottom line, but my dollar is going to disappear from the top-line. No company I am familiar with ever considers reduction in top-line revenue as a consequence of cost reduction, I believe because the cost-reducers do not understand the ephemeral elements of quality, and so ignore them when they are impacted by cost-cutting. It takes top-level leadership to avoid the erosion of these hard-to-quantify elements of brand equity, as you alluded to in your memo in February.

Now I realize that I am a coffee snob. I always knew that Starbucks’ ability to continue to attract me would be at odds with the mass-market, good-enough approach that seems to be the sweet spot for public companies. I can imagine that as a company, Starbucks believes that the mass market is key, and consistency is more important than uniqueness or high quality. Still, I am saddened at the prospect.

My coffee indulgence has been moving back to the smaller, unique coffee houses in Vancouver, like Take Five, and Café Artigiano, both run by Italian families, where each cup is a little work of art, and I can be re-instated in the coffee culture of Italy that I came to love as a young man.

May I finish with a sincere thanks for bringing the coffee house experience and a wish for good luck with Starbucks, Howard.

David Kauffman

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Batman is Brückner

The movie trailer for the new Batman movie has an orchestral chord (in the last 30 seconds, over the title) that sends chills up my spine. After listening to it a few times, it started to sound familar, and after a few days of letting it roll around in my brain, I remembered where I had hear that before. It goes back awhile...

While a student at UBC, I met a friend who introduced me to classical music. While I had heard Beethovens' greatest hits and even heard of Mahler, the ones that I had never even heard of before were the last three symphonies by Anton Brückner. Like Mahler, these are big orchestras, with big, sweeping themes, and awesome brass sections.

Brückner's music you have to sit and listen to. You can't be doing something else. It ain't background music.  I have to physically prepare my space before listening, then need unwinding time after, with silence and no interruptions between. The music is that holy. I recall driving from Ottawa to Kingston for a rare performance of the 8th Symphony, and driving back in the silent glow of the event.

Even if you don't care to dive as deeply as I have, you should at least hear what might have inspired Hans Zimmer on this soundtrack.

Here's the link to Anton Brückner's Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, Movement 4 (Finale) on the iTunes Music Store. Listen with reverence.

Herbert Von Karajan & Wiener Philharmoniker - Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 - Symphony No. 8 in C Minor: IV. Finale: Feierlich, Nicht Schnell

Another rendition conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini on YouTube.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sixteen Channel Recording Studio in a Volvo

It had been many years since I did radio spot production and studio sound on analog Neve consoles and Ampex multi-track tape drives, so it was with some worry and excitement I agreed to record my son's 5-piece metal band totally digitally.  After researching a bit I bought a used ProjectMix IO since it had both 8 inputs as well a control surface that worked with Logic Studio (I can't really mix with a mouse, and was spoiled by those nice old consoles...).

To get beyond the 8 tracks a rented a Motu 896 from L&M and spent a few hours reconfiguring its MOTU Audio Setup app to send all 8 channels separately through a beautifully thin piece of glass optical ADAT into the ProjectMix to give me all 16 separate input channels into Logic. With that many channels available, I could run 7 mics on the drums, and paralleled DI with mics on the guitars, plus one vocal.

So armed with a few SM57's, an AudioTechnica AT2020 for vocals, a couple DIs, an Apex kit and pencil condensor overheads, I ventured into the practice space. (The Apex DP2 drum mics are just ok, but I was really impressed with the Apex 185 pencil pair for the price)

To say that I was impressed is an understatement. The sound quality I could get from a couple $G's of equipment is amazing, and it all fits in the back of the Volvo (wagon).  I didn't imagine I could carry around a 16-track studio in my car and record 13 channels of 24-bit audio onto a Mac laptop.

Having fun, but wonder if I am a n00b or a seasoned amateur now. This stuff was pretty hard to figure out, so even as an electrical engineer with some years of experience it took some effort to get all this to work together - is it easy for other people or hard?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Yellow Pages Beat Google

I've been in Las Vegas for the past few days for the Kodak Graphic Users Association conference, where we unveiled a new product called ColorFlow (no, not the one Google shows, a new one).

Having a conference during Passover poses a big challenge.  Not only did I have to forgo the myriad offers of beer, but the difficulty of getting Kosher for Passover meals was greater than I expected. While the Wynn hotel did make an effort to accommodate my request, they took about 3 days to figure out that Kosher for Passover is not the same as pulling a Kosher frozen meal out of the freezer.

Getting a bit tired of eating fruit, I figured I would use my trusted friend Google and Google maps to find a nearby Kosher restaurant and see if they are open for Passover.  But Google maps is quite a letdown, partially for its confusing user model, but more importantly because of a flaw in the web itself - the web gets stale.

First, about google maps. My use-case is pretty routine. I search for the place I am currently at, and look for stuff around there (here) and directions to it. Google maps though has no concept of "I AM HERE", which they need to know is NOT the same as "Home". Hey Google, I know you have orchards of keen, smart, A.D.D. programmers who are looking for cool things to do. How 'bout you take them out of their cubicles, and take them to the mall, and skip the Apple store and Video game shop and show them the map of the mall. See the "YOU ARE HERE" red dot? Google maps needs that.  'Nuff said.

The bigger issue for me was that while google shows 3 restaurants within the radius of the Wynn, and happily will provide the directions to them, all three of them are out of business and no longer exist.

Yet, their web sites continue to expound on the excellent Kosher cuisine, convenient hours, and mouth-watering customer testimonials.

So I turned to the Yellow Pages (tm). Yes, the big book in the drawer of the desk that low-and-behold, was exactly not there.  The good thing about the Yellow Pages compared to the web is that it times out. You have to renew your ad every year, and it is expensive enough to be worth your while to keep it correct.

Domain names are very inexpensive, if you can find one at all that isn't 75 characters long. When you buy a domain name, like I did, you often get a few Mbytes of web space, and if you are not web savvy, you get your sister's nerdy son to put up a web page for you. Like most things, domain names are cheaper the longer you commit, so it's typical to buy a domain for 3-10 years.

There are likely hundreds of thousands of web pages that are obsolete, or stale, or forgotten. But Google will serve them up according to its patented backlink techique with complete disregard for whether the page is real, updated, or dead.

Google folks, let's get back to your core competency - the world's best search engine. Stop for a minute figuring how to add more ads to every page, and think about search. I'll give you a couple ideas;

1. Time
2. Space

These things have been around for a while, like about 13 billion years, plus or minus.

Time: Let me rank the Google hits by how recently the page has been modified.
Space; Show me sort Google results by proximity in earth-space. Google maps could help.

At least, now am home in the warmth of my family, and can get matzah when I need and hugs aplenty.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A moment for Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke's soul has moved on to its next step in the great journey. He is best known for writing 2001:A Space Odyssey, which I saw in amazing 70mm Cinerama in 1968. Less well known, he promoted the fact if satellite were placed in orbit around the earth at a height of about 22,000 miles, it's orbital period is about once a day, so appears to be stationery compared to a point on the earth's surface. Now there are so many satellites there for media and rebroadcast (and spying) that they threaten to bump into one another.

For me, I will remember Arthur C. Clarke more for the first book I read of his in school: Childhood's End. I think this book planted the mind-seeds of both my interest in science but also in mysticism. The book alludes to an OverMind, a much less personal conciousness that pervades the universe than I had learned about in Sunday school, and one that continually resonates with me when I see the amazing diversity, complexity and interdependency of the universe.

Thank you, Dr. Clarke, I hope you are part of the OverMind now.

Take the Blue Pin...

Yes, I said "Pin" not "Pill". You are not going to be transported into the Matrix, you're just going to find out where Google maps thinks you are.

And damn if they aren't right.

I coughed up the $20 for the new iPod Touch apps and hacking around showed a "My Location" button in Google maps. "Ha!" I mocked, "That's only for iPhone users whose phones can then triangulate from the nearby cell towers. That would never work for a device like this that ONLY has Wifi!" So I pressed the button anyway, expecting an error message.

I didn't get an error message. Instead, I got a blue circle completely pin-pointing our house. Freak me out! How could they know that?

A few frantic minutes of googling later, I found Skyhook, who seem to have created an entire database of locations of what must be millions of wireless routers. Somebody had entered our Airport into Skyhook's database. Without my permission! "Well, what can you expect?", I berated myself, "You decided to broadcast your network's id. You didn't click the little 'make my network private' button that would have hidden its identity from roaming Skyhook trolls."

But it is pretty useful to get Google Maps to draw my route to a destination from wherever I am. Means postponing that GPS gizmo I was going to buy...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Grook

This term was coined by Piet Hein for his clever poems that provide the kind of pure and simple insight that both delights and educates.

I came across one I wrote about 30 years ago:

It came to me in a twinkling,
That I'd never really thought about thinking,
That the things I believed
Were merely conceived
Just before I required their inkling.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bad Trailers and Great Movies

Interesting perusal of my iGoogle pages today. On one hand, David Pogue pointing out a new completely bogus practice of including shots in a big-budget action movie trailer that never appear in the actual movie.

On the other hand, Sol showed us Once, and like many thousands of others fell in love the with timeless story, the genuine (and well-recorded) music, and the great sense of possibility created not just by the movie's story itself, but by the fact that John and his mates made this movie for a low cost, on digital video.

That's a good news story.