Island of Misfit Toys

It dawned on me yesterday that I’ve become an Island of Misfit Toys, at least as far as cameras are concerned. I now have custody of a bunch of expensive cameras that need repairs costing more than the cameras are worth, but because the camera was originally an expensive item, I can’t bring myself to throw them out.

It first started with the Canon S70 point and shoot. I started underwater photography with a series of Canon Powershot S60s that were either flooded or stolen; when the last one was stolen in Bonaire, I decided to buy an S70 off eBay, as it used the same housing as the S60. It was satisfactory for a couple of years, and then developed focus problems, so I set it aside, and replaced it with a Canon G12 underwater. The housing and camera are sitting in a drawer somewhere. It just doesn’t feel right to just toss an expensive camera like that.

My first digital SLR was a Nikon D80. I got it because I’d become accustomed to digital photography but was bumping up against the limits of the point-and-shoot S60. I used that camera with considerable happiness for about 10 years, until it stopped working in Leicester Square during my first trip to London. I tried a variety of things to reset it, but it eventually became clear that it needed about $200 worth of repairs. This didn’t make sense to me on a 10 year old body, so I got a new Nikon D7500. The D80 is still sitting in a corner somewhere. It just doesn’t feel right to toss a camera that could be repaired, and would be a cheap way for someone to get into Nikon DSLRs

Yesterday, I’d taken my inline skates out of the closet to install a new brake pad, and realized I should clean it up before putting the skates back. I found an old portable typewriter, which mostly worked, but needed a new ribbon, and had some sticky keys. I also found my original pair of rollerblades, plus my motorcycle tank bag, the mounting straps for which were still on the Katana when I sold it. Those went into the trash.

I also found Dad’s old folding Zeiss Ikon folding rangefinder camera. It’s a medium format camera that folds up flat. Dad was really proud of it. I noticed when I tried using it that the shutter was stuck open. It just doesn’t seem right to toss a camera like this, that a camera collector might want.

Hanging from hooks along the sides of the closet are a pair of Polaroid cameras. One was for the type of film pack that you peel apart, one is a first generation SX-70 that I think my Uncle John gave to my father. Dad loved both cameras, and I remember being fascinated by the SX-70, a folding SLR camera whose pictures developed right before your eyes. I don’t know if these cameras still work; I don’t have any film for them. It doesn’t seem right to just toss them, though.

And finally, I found my old camera bag on the bottom of the closet. I had a complete Pentax K-mount system before I started using digital. My first was a Pentax K-1000 which I got as a college graduation present. All manual, but with a built in light meter, it was a big step up over Dad’s rangefinder 35mm camera – interchangeable lenses, and the ability to measure the exposure, rather than guess at it. The camera came with 50mm and a 135mm telephoto which was great for portraits, and a flash, so I was no longer dependent on having to shoot existing light, and I later expanded my system to include 28-85mm and 70-210mm zoom lenses. Once I had the lenses, I shifted to an LX body which had auto exposure, depth of field preview and a lot of other niceties.

When I looked at them yesterday, I found that the mirror on the K-1000 was locked up. I was surprised. It’s an all mechanical camera, and built like a tank. It was also a stripped down model, so it was a great camera to learn the nuts and bolts of photography with. I was reading that last night that jarring the camera might free the lens, but if that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do. It’s obsolete, but such a great learning camera, I’d rather not toss it.

The 28-85 zoom lens still seems to be working, but I noticed a while back that the Sigma 70-210 zoom seems to have leaked lubricant all over the barrel.

At least the LX seems to be working at least to an extent. The batteries are dead at the moment, but I suspect that they could be replaced. The shutter is manual though, and it does work through its upper range. But will I ever use film when I’ve grown so accustomed to digital? And I’ve had to repair it once because the focus had shifted — does it need repairs again? It seems a sin just to toss it though.

The trouble is that none of these are junky cameras. They all are, or were, high quality prosumer quality cameras, that all happen to be out of order. With the exception of the Powershot S70, they could probably all be repaired, or serve as a source of parts, or be of interest to a collector, but getting rid of them is a fair amount of work, either to sell them, or have them repaired. Tossing them seems wrong somehow, and so they sit, my personal island of misfit cameras.

This is Why You Teach History

Back when we could get together, one of the things we would do as a family is play a game called “Salad Bowl”. It’s a group game; each person writes the names of 10 people, real or fictional, living or dead, onto slips of paper, folds them up, and drops them into a salad bowl. Then you divide into teams. Each round, one person from each team draws slips from the bowl, and try to provide clues to their teammates so they can guess each name. The team that’s able to guess the most names wins. If you know who the person is, it’s a lot easier to give clues than if you don’t. Part of the strategy of the game is picking names that your teammates will know, but will stump your opponents.

We were playing a few years back, and I decided to throw “George III” into the bowl. I frankly figured it would be a gimme – who doesn’t know the British king the American colonies rebelled against during the American Revolution?

My nephew, that’s who. At that point, he was a high school senior, and had no idea who George III, and wound up using my brother’s middle name as a clue. Apparently they teach social studies at his school, not history.

History does repeat itself. It repeats itself because we’re human, and human nature doesn’t change. And this is why I was leery of Donald Trump even in 2016. in “How Did We Get Here“, I wrote, “Trump really worries me. I do see the parallels to the rise of Nazism in Germany in his campaign.” The demonization of an outside group, in this case, Muslims and immigrants, the creation of a cult of personality, the appeal to nationalism; these are all parts of the Nazi playbook.

Right after the 2016 election, I was hopeful that Trump would tone things down, and recognize the rule of law. He didn’t. He doubled down on the incendiary rhetoric.

And finally, came the 2020 election. I don’t think everyone who voted against him disagreed with his more mainstream positions. I think there were a fair number of conservative people, like John McCain’s widow, who held their noses and voted against Trump, because they perceived that he was a threat to our democracy. If you had learned about the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, it was pretty easy to see the parallels.

And so it proved to be. He continued to spout lies about the election, and I think a fair part of the populace, disarmed by a lack of historical knowledge, bought them. If you didn’t have the historical grounding to see through it, if your only grounding in civics is social media, it was easy to be duped. And this is how the assault on the Capitol happened.

I don’t know how this will play out. The night of the riot, there was clearly a sense of norms having been breached. Twitter has cut Trump off, as have other social media outlets. There were a lot of everyday people in postwar Germany who had to live with the fact that they had been casual Nazis, and were horrified once they saw what they ultimate conclusion of that was. I hope that’s what happens here – that the scales fall from the eyes of the Trump supporters, and they see what a petty, narcissistic, possibly even delusional man he is. But I’m not confident. We had a really close shave this time. Will our institutions withstand the next assault on them?

It’s up to us.

The Christmas That Isn’t

It’s Christmastime… but it isn’t. Not with COVID it isn’t.

Normally we would have a big family get-together Christmas Eve. Not this year. Last year, we weren’t able to, with Mum in rehab for her strokes. I was really hoping at the beginning of the year that we could have our get-together again this year. Nope. We’re going to have to content ourselves with video calls this year. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it in 2021.

We’ve gone up to Rockport most years for the past several years, to shop the stores on Bearskin Neck, and see the decorations. Mum was very fond of the Christmas pageant, because it was a re-enactment of the Nativity. Even if we wanted to take the risk, it’s just not feasible this year.

I’ve gone Christmas shopping every year since I was in college. This year, I ordered a couple of things off Amazon, and that was it. (To be fair, most of this is due to the fact that none of the nephews and nieces are little anymore, and most of my siblings agreed long ago not to do packages.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted to do a tree this year. I’m frankly not feeling it much this year, and I was concerned about laying out the living room — Mum now spends most of the day in her chair in the living room, and whatever I did, I would need to ensure that there was room for the chair and room for her to maneuver with the walker.

Most years, I like to make an occasion of putting up the tree, but not this year. I was also aware that I’d be doing most of the work of putting it up and taking it down. In the end, Mum wanted one, and I realized I did too, so I picked up a relatively narrow tree.

As it happened, there was a gash in the bark about 4 inches from the bottom. We had this a couple of years ago, and ended up with a tree that dried out pretty rapidly, so this year, I made a new cut above the gash, and cut off the lower branches. This had the benefit of making the tree smaller overall — both narrower, and shorter. I was able to use two fewer strings of lights. This meant I was able to skip the older LED lights I’ve been using for the past couple of years. My first set of LED lights were too blue for my taste; eventually, I found a couple of strings of warmer colored LED lights that I like much better. With only the warm LEDs and one string of mini-incandescent lights, this year’s tree is much more pleasing to me. And I was able to fit the angel on the top easily for the first time this year.

Christmas tree and Mum
Christmas tree and Mum

Even though it’s smaller, it’s still a pretty nice tree. And there’s still room for Mum next to it.

Leaf Peeping on the Charles

Fall foliage is such an ephemeral thing; one moment all the leaves are green; then in August, the first “traitor trees” start turning color, then one day, most of the trees are in full color – they still have most of their leaves, but they’ve turned color. Then, a few days later, the bonds holding the leaves to the trees start to break, and the leaves start to fall, leaving the trees barer and barer, until nothing is left except the oaks, grimly holding onto their dry brown leaves.

This weekend was pretty much peak season around here, and the weather was pleasant, so I took the kayak out for a trip along the Charles in Dedham – I didn’t have time for a longer trip as I had to get home to make supper. It was gorgeous.

I put in at the landing by the Dedham Recreation Center, and paddled downstream through Motley Pond, down past the Route 109 bridge to just short of the Bridge Street bridge. Along the way I saw a bunch of young mallards; the heads of the males were a deep rich green. Judging by their size, I’d guess this was their first time in adult plumage. On the way back, I spotted a snowy egret and a bunch of painted turtles by the entrance to Motley Pond.

Motley Pond is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more like a spot where the river spreads out a bit. Unlike the Basin, between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles is pretty narrow here, no more than 15 feet in some spots. At Motley, the river widens out; there is also a sandbar island in the middle, and you can often spot waterfowl there.

I haven’t been on the kayak much the past year. It was great to take the boat and the camera out for a few hours.

Forty Years

Forty years ago this morning, I was on my way to start my first day of student teaching. I took the Riverside Line out to Newton Center, and as I passed through the Longwood area, I looked out the window, and got a glimpse of the distinctive Deaconess Hospital garage. I’d been there several times, visiting my father, who was dying of cancer.

I made it to the school, checked in with the secretary, and was just talking with the cooperating teacher before the kids arrived, when the principal came in, pulled me aside, and told me that my Dad was gone. My uncle Kip was on his way to pick me up. I vaguely remember hugging Mum when I got home, and I think there were a couple of officers from the Boston Police there to offer their condolences and pick up his gun and badge.

I still wonder if I was passing by his hospital at the moment he died.

Five years ago, I wrote “Hard to Believe, and Not Hard to Believe“. This anniversary feels different. It has been a long time, and there has been more water over the bridge. Mum had her 80th birthday three years ago, and her stroke a year ago. Dad’s older brother George died this spring, at the age of 94. I still have all the memories of that horrible summer, but they’re more distant somehow.

In any case, when I remember, I prefer to remember the time before. I remember going downstairs to watch him paint. I remember him explaining how he created the roundedness of the ship sails by curving the edges and adding shadows in the corners.

I remember him passing along his love of photography to me. My uncle Tom sent back a set of darkroom equipment from Japan while he was overseas; Dad helped me set it up. In hindsight, I wonder if Tom had sent the equipment to Dad, and Dad gave it to me. Dad taught me how to use his cameras, how to set the aperture and shutter speed; and how to use the rangefinder, and him letting me use his cameras. (I also remember him blowing up at me while he was trying to show me how to use the Polaroid; I had trouble seeing the frame marks at first).

I remember the weenie roasts up in the Blue Hills. He must have set up half a dozen sites over the years before settling on one that he liked by a small brook. The weenie roasts were quintessential Dad, combining his love of the outdoors, how great he was with kids — and it wasn’t just his own kids, there were often neighbors and/or cousins along — and his disregard for rules.

I remember helping him in the garden. For the last decade or so of his life, he was really into vegetable gardening. He dug out a small plot by the porch, and enlarged it a couple of years later. The soil here isn’t great, so he added bags and bags full of cow manure, and took great pride in his tomatoes.

I really wish he had lived to see his grandchildren. Dad was so good with kids.

I wish he had lived long enough to go shooting with me with my cameras. I think using an SLR instead of a rangefinder would have been a revelation for him. And interchangeable lenses! I would have loved to have seen what he could have done with a telephoto. And now digital. A couple of years ago, I was in the hold of HMS Victory, taking pictures with existing light. He would have loved that whole day — the ship visits, the photography, everything.

Two years before he died, he and Mum had their twentieth anniversary, so we decided to have a surprise party for them. I used his camera to take pictures of the party. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the flash, so I had to use existing light and a slow shutter speed. I got a couple of pictures of them opening packages:

Dad opening package
Mum and Dad at their twentieth anniversary, as Jimmy and Philip look on.

AOL and Me

At the 1988 AppleFest, Apple demonstrated something cool called “AppleLink – Personal Edition”. It was an online service for Apple II users, providing chats, libraries, forums, and access to Apple technical documentation. The latter, especially, appealed to me, so after a couple of months, I joined. It was a small enough community that while I wasn’t able to get the screen name “Ted”, I did get a pretty low number tacked onto it, and I’ve been Ted38 ever since.

Apple and the company running the service, Quantum Computer Service, parted ways a few months afterwards, and the service was rebranded America Online shortly before the Macintosh version left beta. While the Apple tech docs disappeared, the Apple II Forums remained, with their message boards, chat rooms, and software libraries staffed by volunteers. I found myself spending more and more time online, even though it was expensive at $5 an hour for off-peak usage. At first I was a lurker, then I started becoming active in a couple of forums, and started attending chats.

My favorite part of the Apple II Forums was the “Across the Boards” message board. It was a message board available from all of the Apple II Forums. It was a place for non-technical discussions of Apple, Apple and AOL, and how both companies were (mis)treating the Apple II. It was a place to talk about rumors, ways the Apple II could be promoted, and what Apple wasn’t doing for the platform. It was our back fence. The biggest contributors were the forum staff — those wondrous people with the fancy AFL (forum leader), AFA (forum assistant) or AFC (forum consultant) prefixes on their screen names.

Eventually, in early 1990, I think, a Forum Consultant position opened up in the Apple II Art & Graphics forum, and I got my very own spiffy AFC screen name. Oh the joy! And an overhead account too, meaning I didn’t have to pay for my online time anymore. I really enjoyed that job. I got a glimpse of the behind the scenes areas of the system, and got to moderate message boards. When the forum assistant was called to active duty during Operation Desert storm, I took over running the library.

It was fun for a couple of years, and then a couple of things happened. First, Apple II usage dropped — partly because the Apple IIGS AOL software sucked, and partly because Apple was actively steering people away from the Apple II and to the Mac. Secondly, I switched locations for work, and was working later in the day, and spending large amounts of time online was less fun. For the last 10 months or so, they consolidated most of the Apple II forums under two forum leaders, and I actually got to moderate Across the Boards.

At the end of October 1993, AOL discontinued Apple II service. By that point, I myself had gotten my first Macintosh, and was mostly accessing the service via the Mac at that point. The software was so much better. I was offered a position with the Apple Beginners Forum (ABF), and took it reluctantly.

The ABF experience for me, was not a great one. I’d been kind of auditing the forum quietly for a little while, trying to decide if I wanted to join, when the forum assistant, who was a friend, recommended me to the forum leader, and I didn’t feel I really had a choice anymore. The job there was to answer questions from beginners, so I’d been contributing to their forums. I was pretty new to the Mac myself at that point, so mostly what I could contribute were directions for getting to the proper forum where the user could get help.

What I didn’t realize until too late was that the forum leader, Sandy, who was a wonderful person, one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever met, would also solicit emails from new users. “Confused? Email me, AFL SandyB, and I’ll help you.” She would then parcel out the emails to her staff to answer, in addition to message board duty.

I quickly became overwhelmed. Remember, I was now getting home relatively late, and I was now getting a bunch of questions that had to be answered very painstakingly, because new users are both easily confused and easily hurt or discouraged. I don’t know if Sandy ever realized just how artificial the voice I used for answers was for me — I had to strip out every little bit of sarcasm and snark, and most of the humor from my prose. I laughed hysterically one day when she asked me to write something, and said something to the effect of “Don’t spend too much time on this, just let it flow…” I think she would have had a heart attack if I’d done as she’d requested…

One thing I did enjoy was doing graphical help screens. These were little graphics explaining various concepts like navigating via keywords or uploading /downloading:

diagram explaining uploading and downloading
Uploading and downloading explained.

Probably my favorites was a pair explaining good and bad online behavior:

Diagram explaining good behavior with an angelic Mac
Online don'ts illustrated with a devilish mean Mac burning in hell

I dithered for a couple of years. I wrote a resignation email one night and nearly sent it — and then the following week, AOL fired Sandy over a dispute about her mailing list, and made my friend Andy, the forum assistant, the forum leader. I stuck it out a little while longer, to avoid leaving him in the lurch, but eventually left. I was burnt out on chats, tired of answering questions I didn’t know the answers to, and not having any time to have fun online anymore.

I was also discovering the web, and starting to leave AOL’s walled garden behind, and frankly, AOL had less and less to offer. In the early days, when they charged by the hour, there was an incentive to provide content via libraries and message boards and chat. Once they switched over to a flat fee, the incentive declined. Also, back in the Apple II days, the service had been a small town, where everybody knew everyone, or at least, all the most colorful characters. Now the service was a big city, full of people, and some of them, not so nice.

Eventually, I got broadband access, and wasn’t reliant on AOL for dialup access anymore. I converted my account to a free plan, and kept the email address mainly for the sake of a few friends who were still using it. I haven’t really spent any time on the service or on the online portal in years, though.

I would have been content to leave it like that, but lately I’ve been getting a prodigious amount of junk email on my AOL account. A frightening amount of it gets caught in the junk filters, but not all, and it’s becoming untenable. I checked, and I haven’t had an email worth saving on that account in years. So Saturday, I deleted the sub-account I had, and in four weeks, I’ll be able to shut down the main account.

But before I do, I wanted to remember the good times I had, way back at the beginning.

Magical Thinking

One of the things I find most dismaying about the current political and cultural climate is the utter disdain for facts among some people. If a fact is inconvenient, just lie and say things are the way you want them to be.

Put more charitably, this is “magical thinking”. The fact of asserting something will make it so, or that if you can convince enough people, saying something is so will make it so. I find it maddening.

To be fair, there are times when magical thinking does in fact, work. It’s most effective when it’s directed at human efforts, because of the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If people believe something is so, they will work to make it happen. Over and over again, when you read about how something was done, you read that “If we had known how difficult this would be, we would have never done it” Or you see the person who fails because they gave up on themselves.

Steve Jobs was a notable magical thinker. He was able to envision how things would be, and had a “reality distortion field” to make others believe along with him. The original Macintosh was built partly on magical thinking — for both good and bad.

On the plus side of the ledger, he was able to get his team working 80 hours a week to create the first semi-affordable graphical user interface. On the other side, the original Mac only had 128 KB of memory, a laughably small amount of space for the work the computer had to do, because Jobs insisted on it. Within 6 months Apple had to admit it wasn’t enough, and released a Mac with somewhat more memory.

More critically, the physical world doesn’t believe in our magic. Thinking something will become so when it isn’t, doesn’t help with things like viruses or cancers or the atmosphere. When Jobs first found out about his cancer, he insisted on trying diet based remedies, despite the urgent advice from his doctors that surgery was needed. By the time he agreed, the surgery was too late, and his cancer had spread.

Magical thinking won’t make climate change go away. There has been pretty good scientific consensus about what’s going on for a couple of decades. I remember Isaac Asimov writing about it over three decades ago. The world is getting warmer, on average, than it was. Fall lasts longer into winter, and springs — not every spring, but on average — have been coming earlier. What we’re seeing aligns well with predicted models, and we need to accept that the climate is changing, and that the seas are rising.

Mitigation work, on the other hand, probably would respond to magical thinking. It’s unclear what it would take to update infrastructure to take the rise in sea level into account; a “can-do” attitude would help.

Magical thinking won’t make the corona virus go away. The virus doesn’t know or care what people believe, it just wants a host to infect. It’s just as contagious whether you think it is or not, and the effects on any one person are a crapshoot. Some people, will feel crummy for a couple of days. Some people will be respiratory cripples for a long time. And some people it will kill.

With that in mind, I think it’s really foolish and stupid and selfish not to take the warnings about social distancing seriously. We know it’s crazy contagious, and we know it kills. To believe otherwise just because it’s what we want to believe is magical thinking, and magical thinking doesn’t work with the physical world, and not recognizing that is the peak and pinnacle of stupidity. It angers me immensely that this country has so many stupid fools.

Things I Miss

Between the COVID-19 outbreak, and Mum’s stroke, things have changed. These are a few things I miss under the current circumstances.

  • Breakfast out on Sundays. I hope our regular restaurant will be able to recover, but I’m not sanguine about it.
  • Going into Boston on the weekends
  • Thursdays out with Kris, Paul, John and Rich
  • Having the surplus time and energy to do yard work
  • Buying plants
  • Going to the Apple Store to gawk at the newest stuff
  • Kelly’s Roast Beef
  • Going grocery shopping at a civilized hour
  • Not wearing a mask when I go grocery shopping
  • My crocuses. The neighbor mowed the lawn where they’re naturalized last year. (OK, can’t blame this one on COVID 19)
  • Feeling free to just disappear for a couple of hours on my days off
  • Going for a bike ride along the Charles
  • Country Kitchen doughnuts.
  • Window shopping
  • Going to a bookstore and just browsing
  • Dunkin Donuts blueberry muffins. Their coffee is so-so, and their doughnuts are now crap, but their blueberry muffins are fantastic.
  • Sleeping through the night.
  • Seeing people in person.
  • Not worrying

What do you miss?

New Job

I’ve started a new job.

Along with everything else going on in my life, all through the fall and early winter I was sweating out the health of the company. It was in the middle of a reverse acquisition that took much longer to complete than expected, which left the company badly cash starved. (Lawyers suck). Payroll was usually a month or so late, then they’d make a payment, then they’d be late with the next one. They got almost caught up in December, then fell behind again. For a while, it felt like work and my mother were double-teaming me — when she got worse, it seemed like there would be some good news on the work front, and when she got better, work started looking more dire.

The acquisition went through in the middle of December, and we had expectations of getting paid, then they emailed us right before Christmas that funding was delayed due to the holidays, and that we wouldn’t be paid until the first week in January. Come the day, and there still wasn’t funding, and we found out that getting the funding wasn’t as cut and dried as we were led to believe. That’s the point I decided it was time to update my resume on Monster. One of my concerns was the fact that Mum still needs a lot of help, and it was convenient on that count to be working from home, so I was trying to find someplace else where I could work remote.

It didn’t take long. The morning after putting my resume on Monster, I got an email from a recruiter looking to fill a position for a company called Andela.

Andela connects engineers in Africa with employment in the US and the UK. Their motto is “Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”. They were looking for someone to join their internal teams. They have engineers in Africa, headquarters in New York City, and a small group of people in the Greater Boston area working remotely. I talked first with the VP of Engineering, and liked what he had to say, and then had interviews via Zoom with the engineering team and then the engineering managers, and got an offer in early February.

It was a little bittersweet leaving appScatter — Matt, my immediate manager, has been very good to me, and I’m grateful for the chance to see London. But the situation had become increasingly untenable, though I will add that they finally did get caught up and I have been paid in full what I was owed.

I started Andela on February 18th. I spent the first two weeks onboarding — learning their policies, and getting to know their corporate culture. After that, I started getting to know the codebase. It’s Angular, so it’s been pretty easy to get into the swing of things. They’re very heavily into Angular Material, so I’ve had to get into the swing of things with that. Like appScatter, there is a big time difference — currently 5 hours, while we are on DST and they are not, and 6 hours in the winter. They’ve been very accommodating in terms of rescheduling things for me. I’ve been trying to be online around 7:30 in order to maximize the time overlap.

So far, I’m liking it a lot. Everybody there is very sharp, but everyone wants to help. A lot of how they do things has been unfamiliar, but not so unfamiliar that I’m totally lost and frustrated, but rather, I’m learning a bunch of new toys. They started using Angular later than I did, so they’re using some of the newer features of the framework that I hadn’t known about since I first learned it while Angular was at version 2. Best of all, it’s taken a little while, but I’m starting to get to know and like the people I’m working with.