Friday, January 29, 2010

Just Coincidence You Say? I Wonder...

My wife doesn't drive so, each morning, at about 6:30, I drive her to work and I also pick her up when she gets off at about 3 pm. Since I currently work out of our home and don't have any particular start time myself, I'm sure this makes me a candidate for Husband Of The Year. But I've already talked about all that in an earlier post, so let's not dwell on it now.

What I do want to talk about is something interesting that I'd been noticing all last week. En route to Judy's place of employment, we pass a Pioneer gas station. Every morning last week, the posted price at this gas station was around 94 or 95 cents per litre, and every afternoon by 3 pm it fell to around 87 or 88 cents per litre.

Now, I don't pretend to understand the vagaries of the oil and petroleum market, but I'm pretty sure that the price of a barrel of crude hasn't been bouncing up and down like a ping pong ball, climbing by about 7% each night and gradually settling back down by the same amount during the day.

At first, I thought that maybe this was a quirk of this particular gas station so, one day, I drove to a nearby Sunoco after dropping Judy off, and noted that its price was also posted at about 95 cents per litre. Sure enough, that afternoon, the Sunoco's price per litre had also fallen to about 88 cents. So this wasn't just a peculiarity associated with one solitary gas station or even one particular franchise.

Call me a cynic, but I can't help wondering whether these price fluctuations might not have something to do with gouging the morning commuter crowd. It's probably a safe bet that most people tend to fill up their cars on the way to work in the morning, rather than on the way home in the afternoons. For that matter, most people aren't yet finished their work day by 3 pm. Maybe I should check the prices again between 5 and 6 pm. If they're suddenly back at 95 cents, I'm gonna have some hard questions.
As if it wasn't bad enough that they jack up the prices every long weekend...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Place Where We Used To Work

Former Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler once wrote a song entitled "A Place Where We Used To Live". It's about a man apparently wandering through an empty house or apartment that used to be his home. The lyrics lament that everything has changed.

Here in the dust
There's not a trace of us
Everything's gone

Those who read this blog regularly will be aware that the company for which I worked went bankrupt and closed down last November. By a strange twist of fate, I still work for that same company indirectly. They used to build product under license for Whirlpool corporation. Now that they're gone, Whirlpool has purchased the assets of the Ohio plant and continues to run it as a manufacturing facility, at least temporarily.

After being laid off, my old boss started up a small computer consulting company of his own and one of his first clients is Whirlpool corporation. It only made sense. After all, he knew the old company's computer system inside-out, and Whirlpool needed someone with the expertise to support it. Trouble is, he's not a programmer. That's where I come in. He's sub-contracted me to do development and support work. So I find myself working with the exact same system that I have been for the past ten years.

Of course, there are some changes. One of my first tasks was to clear the old company's data out of the computer files. Last week, I erased all transactional data prior to the start of this year. There was a lot of data to erase. One of the files was relieved of over 53 million records! That represented about six years worth of transactions. Six years of doing business. Had that data been erased while the former company was still a going concern, it would have been considered a disaster of almost biblical proportions. Now, it just didn't matter anymore.

I also turned off a lot of custom programs and reports that Whirlpool doesn't need. Reports that were considered crucial to the business's decision makers are suddenly obsolete and of no importance.

As I busied myself erasing data and turning off programs, I couldn't help but feel a little bit like Knopfler's mournful tenant. Everything's gone. Soon there will be no trace of the former enterprise. I thought of all the business meetings, the spirited debates, the hustle and bustle; shippers rushing product off the docks; Accountants poring over spreadsheets and financial statements; salesmen and service reps talking to customers over the telephone; it all seemed important at the time. What would we have thought if we'd known it would all come to this?

It's just a place where we used to work.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Other Halmanator Strikes Again

Last year, I mentioned on this blog that I've set up a Google Alert to notify me of any new references to "Halmanator" on the interweb, and that I learned, through a Google Alert, that there's another Halmanator out there; some sort of techno/rave DJ, apparently.

Well, it happened again. Last week, Google alerted me to a basketball site called Inside Now, you may wonder why Google Alerts would think that I might be interested in a basketball web site. I know I did, until I scanned the link more carefully and noticed the following snippet, buried inconspicuously among the rest of the miscellany on the site:

Unfortunately, due to limitations in Blogger's image handling, I was unable to make this legible inline. You can click on it for a much more readable view, though).

No, the "Halmanator" to which the above refers is not me. I'm even doubtful that it's the same DJ person named on the earlier web site. Could there be yet a third Halmanator out there? To paraphrase the Sheriff of Nottingham from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Ods fish! The very air abounds in Halmanators!"

Am I jealous of this Super-Halmanator who has apprehended Bin Laden, ended the Afghanistan conflict and brought peace to the Middle East for an encore? Certainly not! I have loftier ambitions. I'm working on getting the Leafs to the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. Top that, you poseurs!

Friday, January 8, 2010

The IBM PCjr. Puzzle

The first personal computer that I ever owned was an IBM PCjr.

For you young 'uns out there, the IBM PCjr. was IBM's ill-fated attempt to introduce a "lite" version of their popular IBM Personal Computer to the home market back in 1984. This was back in the day when a full-blown IBM PC sporting two 5¼" diskette drives, no hard disk and 640K of RAM (yes, I said "K"; not gigabytes, not even megabytes, but "kay", as in "'Kay, after my word processing program is loaded, I have enough memory left for maybe a three-page document") cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000.

Oh, the idea was sound enough. Since most home users at that time were unwilling to shell out those kind of bucks for a bit of fledgling personal computer technology, especially when the likes of Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack offered much cheaper alternatives, IBM decided to entice them with a lower-cost version of their popular desktop business machine. The most obvious advantage was that those who were already increasingly using "Junior's" big brother at the office would have a smaller, yet compatible machine at home that could run the same software that they used at work. The Commodore 64, the Apple II and Radio Shack's Color Computer couldn't run WordPerfect or Lotus 123. Even when versions of those programs were eventually released for some of those other home computers, they still couldn't read a diskette created by an office PC. The PCjr. could.

Yes, it looked good on paper. Then IBM killed a perfectly good concept by fouling up the implementation as only IBM can. Part of the problem was in the way that they cut costs. For example, rather than including a "normal" keyboard, the PCjr. came equipped with a lower-cost keyboard that featured ridiculously small keys that were roughly the shape, size and color of Chiclets (by which I mean the gum). In fact, the keyboard became known far and wide as the "Chiclet" keyboard. The keys didn't even have letters, numbers or symbols printed directly on them. Instead, these were printed above and below the keys, on the keyboard itself. People hated it. Even the humble Commodore 64 and Radio Shack Color Computer included normal keyboards.

Unlike the IBM PC, the PCjr. didn't use a plug-in card for its graphical display; instead it used a chip built onto the motherboard. Although this chip did the graphical processing work, it had no memory of its own, unlike the plug-in video cards of the day, so some of the PCjr.'s memory had to be allocated for the graphical display, leaving less for programs and data. This was even more problematic since the PCjr. initially shipped with a maximum of just 128K of RAM (there was also a 64K version).

Although the PCjr. used the same Intel 8088 CPU that its big brother used, it ran more slowly than the PC because it didn't include a DMA (Direct Memory Access) chip, so some of the CPU's clock cycles had to be reserved for refreshing the RAM.

The biggest problem, however, was IBM's bizarre decision to make all of the PCjr.'s plugs completely incompatible with regular PC peripherals. You couldn't plug an IBM PC monitor into a PCjr. because the plug didn't fit. The same was true of a regular IBM PC keyboard, printer or joystick. IBM built special monitors, printers and joysticks just for the PCjr., and Junior owners were expected to buy them.

During the PCjr.'s short heyday, IBM licensed the character of Charlie Chaplin as the Junior's official spokesperson which, in hindsight, was ironically appropriate. Trying to get anything done with the PCjr. often felt very much like trying to eat a shoe.

Some of these shortcomings were eventually fixed, or at least worked around. The Chiclet keyboard was so reviled that IBM eventually gave in and released a more normal-looking keyboard for the PCjr. They even offered to replace Chiclet keyboards that had been shipped up to that point with the newer ones at no cost. Third party and after-market manufacturers eventually created upgrades that added more RAM and a DMA chip as well as adapters that would allow Junior users to plug regular PC peripherals into their machines, but these still had to be purchased separately. All in all, it was too little too late, and the PCjr. became the Edsel of computers.

In spite of its shortcomings, I liked my PCjr. It did have some cool features not found in a regular IBM PC. For example, its graphics chip was capable of displaying more colors than the IBM PC, which generally used a CGA graphics card and could display only four colors at a time. The PCjr. also had a built-in three-voice sound chip capable of playing harmonic music that sounded much superior to the PC's tinny, single-voice beeper. Computer games which specifically supported the machine looked and sounded better on the PCjr. than they did when running on its big brother, although they often ran more slowly.

My best friend, Mart, and I buy each other gifts for our respective birthdays and at Christmas time, being best friends after all. Over the years, we've sometimes given each other "gag" gifts, chosen with the intent to elicit a laugh or at least to raise an eyebrow rather than for their practical value, like the time that I gave Mart an audio cassette tape featuring sixty minutes of whale song.

"Whoa there, Halmanator," I hear you exclaim, "You've gone and started next week's post without finishing the last one!" I can understand why you might think so at this point. That's just because you don't know about the present that Mart sent me for the Christmas just passed. He sent me a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle promoting the IBM PCjr. I don't even want to know where he found it. Here it is:

Yeah, that's right Mart. I assembled it. Go ahead. Click on the picture. Get a nice, close look. Didn't think I'd do it, did you? But you forgot something. I'm out of work! I have all the time in the world on my hands! Go ahead! Gimme your best shot! Send me a model of the Eiffel Tower made entirely of match-sticks! I'll build that too! Muhahahahahaaaa!

You're goin' down, pal! Oh, you just wait until your birthday! Better clear that shed of yours, 'cause you're gonna need a large storage space, preferably with a lockable door! Nobody one-ups The Halmanator!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Well, 2009 is gone and I suspect that most of us are happy to bid it a fond "Good Riddance!" Here's hoping that 2010 is an improvement.

We've seen some hopeful signs in the past year. Economists and politicians tell us that the economy has turned a corner and is back on the upswing. I take that with a grain of salt, especially when I hear the unemployment numbers and remember that I myself am now contributing to that statistic. As I review my investment portfolio, however, I can't deny that the values of my various retirement investments have generally pulled out of their year-long nosedive and seem to be trending gradually upward again; an admittedly promising sign.

The United States, not to mention the rest of the world, was finally relieved of the poisonous and inept Bush administration, which was replaced by the much more promising and seemingly well-meaning Obama administration.

The H1N1 pandemic proved to be far less deadly than it might have been. Governments, working with the pharmaceutical suppliers, were able to immunize those at highest risk with impressive speed.

While the total failure of the participating nations at the Copenhagen Summit to agree on any sort of strategy to deal with global warming may be disappointing to many, at least they didn't commit the world to an ineffective plan, as Gwynne Dyer has pointed out in his writings. Doing nothing is still better than doing the wrong thing. As a Canadian, I feel compelled to add that I'm dismayed at Canada's lack of vision and leadership on this crucial global issue.

The world continues to face serious challenges. The billions spent by the developed nations in order to prop up their largest corporations have plunged these economies into debt that may take generations to repay. The countless dollars and lives wasted in the needless and ineffectual wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing to quash the threat of terrorism, as evidenced by the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Global warming remains possibly the biggest threat to the well-being of the world today, with no solution in sight.

All is not darkness and despair, however. We've seen glimmers of hope. What we need now are leaders with the vision to place the interests of the common good before narrow, short-term self-interest presiding over citizens willing to do the same. Here's hoping it begins in 2010.