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Thursday, 13 September 2018

An open letter to Tim Cook

I sent the following to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, yesterday.

Dear Tim;

I love Apple products. My first was a Mac 128, and I had a Mac SE on my office desk in 1989. I have owned a PowerBook 1400, an original blue clamshell iBook, a slate gray iMac, several MacBooks and MacBook Pros, and my beloved iPhone 4. My current slate includes a 2012 MacBook Pro (probably the best laptop you’ve ever made, your current claims notwithstanding), a 2011 MacBook Air, a 2008 iMac (still happily running OS 10.5), an iPad Mini 2, and a 2018 iPad 9.7.

My current iPhone is a 128 Gb 6, and while I like a lot of things about it, it is just flatly too big for my hand. I can’t operate it with one hand, which is critical for me; I am always dropping it or fumbling with it. I loved my iPhone 4, until it got so slow and so unable to run current apps that I had to retire it. I had high hopes for my 6 but... I hate it. It’s just too big for me.

Let me say that again: I, an Apple fan since the beginning, HATE an Apple product. I never thought I would say that. And the only reason I hate it is that it’s just way too big.

The 4” form factor on a phone is awesome for me; I can not use a bigger size. I appreciate that you try to continuously improve the customer experiennce, security and provide other features. But the short answer is that, as you make your phones bigger, my reluctance to use them increases.

Today, you announced a whole new range of iPhones in a bunch of X forms. Good for you. As an Apple shareholder, I appreciate you trying to improve the company.

But you discontinued the 4” form factor of the iPhone SE.

I was SO hoping you would continue it, and improve it. I would have been the first to buy one. But you didn’t. Now, the smallest phone you make is bigger, physically, than my iPhone 6, which is already too big for me. It would have taken nothing for you to introduce an iPhone SE based on the 7’s innards (much as it would be nothing for you to upgrade the pathetic processor and 7 year old technology in the Mac Mini — but that’s another conversation). You didn’t. You didn’t introduce a highly profitable, slightly better, moderately hobbled 4” iPhone for those of us who can’t stand bigger screens that make a phone impossible to use with one hand (your “double tap to cause the screen to move down” is a joke, you’ll have to admit). I cannot, and will not, buy a larger phone. From you, from Samsung, from anyone. 

So tonight, with the big announcement of your new XS, XR and others, do you know what I did?

I went on eBay and bought a 128 Gb SE. That’s practically no upgrade from my iPhone 6.  I bought it on eBay because, as of today, you stopped selling them. I would have happily bought a new iPhone SE 2 from you (or my local carrier) at some inflated Apple price. It is, after all, what I have been doing since the 1980’s.

But not today. As of today, you no longer make a phone I can use or now want. I would sooner have 6S technology in a form factor I can hold in my hand, than your state of the art technology, because the XS/7/XR/8 technology you offer doesn’t fit in my hand. Kinda basic.

I remain a shareholder. I think you will do well. After all, there’s more billlions to be made.

But, if I may make a suggestion or two: bring back the form factor of the SE and make it better. Upgrade the Mac Mini, finally. Keep the MacBook Air and make it better. Don’t take 3 years to make a Mac Pro. These are things that are SO simple, SO basic, and would be SO profitable, shareholders like me would appreciate them a bit. And users like me would appreciate them a lot.


Thanks for listening.

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Death of Greatness

As I wrote a while ago, I own a few watches. One of my faves that I have been using since I bought it in 1994 is my Avocet Vertech Alpin hiking/ski watch.

My trusty Vertech
As I wrote in that post:
When I moved to Houston in 1994, I took up flying ultralights, since the nearest gliding club was so far away. No ultralight I flew had any instruments, so I bought this watch on a lark: a Avocet Vertech Alpin, about $250 US when I bought it. It has an aircraft grade altimeter in it, and I flew with it for a year. It turns out this watch was designed for skiing and hiking, not flying. And it turns out I'm a skier and hiker. The watch records elevation, elevation gained, ski runs, and a bunch of other stuff. I have used it faithfully since I bought it 22 years ago. It's on it's second case and it's 4th set of straps (there's a strap for for winter and one for summer). Every 2 years I have to splurge ~$75 Canadian to send it to California for service and to put a new battery in it (it's gone for 4-6 weeks at a time when I do that). So since 1994, I've probably spent $800 keeping this watch running. Vertech sort of does but sort of doesn't make these anymore, so it's kind of irreplaceable. And besides, no other ski or hiking watch does what this one does.
My Vertech's battery died this year near the start of the hiking season (on the "bright" side, I'm not hiking these days because I'm broken, which is the subject of a separate post. So in July, I did what I always do when I needed a battery replacement: went to the Vertech website to download the latest info and form to send my watch in for service. Except...

Vertech is now officially out of business. As I type this, Vertech's website is now down completely. At least in late July, it was still shutting down. The repair dude -- Craig Maynard -- retired, and that was the end of the company.

I was lucky enough to get to Craig just before they disappeared. Here's what he told me:
Since I decided to retire, Avocet Service has closed it’s doors. Yet I am still servicing Vertechs for many long term customers.  The new ship to is:
Craig Maynard, PO Box 2288, Menlo Park, CA. 94026
Assuming you need just the basic service of a new battery, caseback o-ring and recalibration, the basic service is as before, $25 for USA residents* Cash or Check payable to me, which includes postage back to you. No credit card. Be sure to include your contact info including your ship to address, phone number, etc.  Also, let me know if you want it set for hiking or downhill skiing mode. 
*International customers, add $13.00. Canadian customers, add $10.00
The trick I see is that, as of this moment, if you're a "long term Vertech customer", you can't find Craig. All attempts I made today to find out how to get a new Vertech battery do not lead you to Craig, but to HTTP 404 Page Not Found errors. This is an issue, because to properly initializing and calibrating the altimeter, only Craig should be the one putting a battery in your Vertech.

Maybe you have a Vertech that just died and needs a battery. My hope in making this post is that it helps you find Craig, whom you can reach at vertechcraig[at]gmail.com

I understand why Vertech ceased to be. As killer an altimeter and watch the Vertech was, its technology has been significantly usurped by various GPS based wrist devices including Apple Watch. That having been said, my brother's Apple Watch barely has battery life to track a whole ski day, never mind 2 years like my Vertech.

I hope this helps other Vertech owners.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A Story of Friendship

When I was last in the Netherlands in 2011, I took the opportunity to catch a basketball game. You can read about it here.

It wasn't just any basketball game; two folks I knew from my Calgary Dinos team were playing pro in the Dutch league, and it was their two teams (Leiden & Groningen) playing in a playoff match. Our tickets were comped because we were crazy Canadians who came all the way to Leiden to see a game, Karen and I got interviewed and were on TV -- and that game was the indirect start of a wonderful friendship.

The next day, I blogged about groceries and houses and using pulleys to get things to upper windows -- all that normal stuff I blog about when I'm on vacation, that's only of interest to about 45-60 of you. On that post, I got a comment out of the blue from someone named Edwin.

Apparently, he heard about my blog from another Dutch basketball fan who somehow found and read my first blog about the Groningan game -- because Edwin's possibly Groningen basketball's biggest fan. Edwin said he liked my blog, and he started following me, providing really interesting insight to some of our Netherland questions and experiences.

For some reason, Edwin kept reading my blog after our vacation was over and we got home -- long after we got home. For the last 7 years, he's been one of my most faithful readers. I only occasionally post about basketball, so that hasn't kept us connected. Somewhere along the way, we also connected on Facebook (and Instagram and Twitter, too) -- there's more basketball stuff there, but not that much.

I started following his adventures with his young family. I learned of his two young sons (who were very young in 2011), and have watched him post his "proud papa" moments. I learned a little bit about his business of supplying bar coding & RFID equipment for businesses. We traded thoughts on politics from time to time, sometimes Trump and sometimes Brexit and sometimes just how the world was coming out. When I wrote my book in 2016, I autographed and sent one of my 10 free copies to Edwin. Social media created, and helped two people who had never met, cement a friendship.

Edwin was thrilled when he heard that my daughter was going to study in Groningen. Even though he lives ~2.5 hrs drive from there, Groningen's still his team, he still has season's tickets, and he gets up there all the time. He surprised her this spring and took her to a basketball game, much to her delight.

So meeting Edwin -- my dear friend of the last 7 years -- for the first time was a critical "must do" for us this trip. We arranged a day as soon as we arrived, one that worked around his family's camping trip to Tuscany (A CAMPING TRIP TO TUSCANY! I was SO jealous!). Edwin ever so kindly invited us to visit him at his home in Dinxperlo, a small town on the German border east of Arnhem. Karen and I were both pretty excited heading down on the train... but how would we find him?

I had seen many pictures on Facebook of Edwin, so kinda knew who I was looking for. But I'm not very photogenic and avoid posting pictures of myself wherever I can. We were less than 30 minutes away, and trading texts. I told Edwin that both Karen and I were dressed in pink. He texted back this from the train platform:
Edwin and his awesome son, Tim
Did I mention Edwin always looks cool? And I think Tim's looking even cooler.

Our day was wonderful. In addition to Edwin and Tim, we loved our time with Pelle and his wife Esther -- who was born and raised in Dinxperlo, and they live just a few doors down from where she grew up, surrounded by her family who also live in the town.

On our way from Dotinchem -- the closest train station -- to Dinxperlo, we passed a house flying a Canadian flag for some reason.
Huh?
Dinxperlo sits on the German border. I didn't get any photos of it, but the border runs right down some streets and it marked with yellow X's. Street names and signs in Germany are in German, in the Netherlands in Dutch, but other than that, this is about as seamless as a border gets.

We enjoyed a genuine Dutch dining staple for lunch: chocolate sprinkles. You laugh. Tim and Pelle had to teach us how to make chocolate sprinkle sandwiches (they're called hagelslag). This is serious Dutch eats.
A photo stolen from the internet
Tim's technique is to take a crusty bun, poke a hole in it with a knife, swirl the knife around to make a hole inside, then pour in the chocolate sprinkles; Esther frowns on this. Edwin's more a "spread butter then pour on the sprinkles" kinda guy. Pelle liked milk chocolate, Edwin liked dark. Who knew there could be so many ways to eat this stuff?

It's a wonder the Dutch don't all weigh 300 lbs.

Tim showed us an exceptionally cool contraption that I have never seen here. He has a hoverboard; they're fairly common here. But he had this seat attachment for it that just looks wicked.
You can pull wheelies 
Boppin' at 40 km/hr...
I was tempted to try it, but let's face it -- I'm an old fart who breaks easily.

Edwin thought it would be fun to spend the day in Germany. First stop was the Schloss Watterburg in Anholt, an old castle turning into a high end hotel and private museum (all of 1 km as the crow flies from the border).
Entering the castle gates 
Let's hope those guns don't work 
The front door 
Edwin proving the original guards were not that tall 
Pelle doing his best guard impression
Next stop was the Rhine. In the Netherlands -- in reality, a country built on the Rhine delta -- the Rhine splits into 4-5 large rivers. Here, at Rees, just before the border, it's just one fast flowing megariver.
The promenade
I learned that the Rhine is not dammed all the way to it's source in the Swiss alps. Big snow or big rain can result in the river flooding, which it has done fairly often. There's a river gauge on the promenade, and a small plaque showing just one of the many flood heights. Even though I lived through a flood of epic proportions, I had trouble imagining the river being this high.
The water got to the little plaque to Pelle's left. That's 10 m above the river this day
Rees has very funky art scattered through town.
A bench on the promenade 
Just makes you wonder what he's looking at 
In a pond 
Pelle wondering what he's looking at
We had ice cream -- because it was a perfect day for ice cream, and why not -- and then, the ever handsome Pelle and Tim...
Cool dudes
... had to jump off a wall (and why not?).
Tim: Good height. Excellent arm placement. Judges rating: 9.6 
Pelle: More conservative. Safely executed. Judges rating: 9.7
Our final stop for the afternoon was Xantan (X is not a common letter in either Dutch or German). We were headed there to see the spectacular church and possibly the Roman ruins... but unexpectedly found the town a bit of a zoo, hosting a medieval festival. There were folks walking around wearing medieval garb...
Not typical Saturday wear
...on their way to jousting matches. Seriously. Right out of "A Knight's Tale".

The Church (St. Viktor's) was beautiful and a bit of peace in a town otherwise a little crazy. It's a biggie; the biggest north of Cologne, and was started in 1263, taking 281 years to build. 
The facade 
Exterior detailing 
Vaulted Gothic ceilings 
One of several alters 
Alter detailing 
The apse 
More of the cool ceiling
Tim had to take us to a candy store where he once bought a giant jawbreaker -- then proceeded to choke on it. His mom saved his life with the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Esther's not a fan of jawbreakers any more.

The candy store didn't just sell candy; it also was a duck store (what is with duck stores?).
Sure
The town is pretty and had interesting fortification walls and towers.
Nifty architecture 
We don't do pedestrian malls like this 
Town towers 

The other side. Imposing. 
Wall fortifications
They also have a windmill.
Very Dutch in Germany
Edwin told me that this area of Germany used to be part of the Netherlands hundreds of years ago, and shows lots of Dutch history.

We ran out of time to see the Roman ruins, but seeing Roman ruins wasn't why we came to Dinxperlo, so it didn't matter. We finished our day with a wonderful Mexican dinner (Mexican food in the Netherlands? Why not) with even better company.

Edwin, Esther, Tim and Pelle are wonderful folks; kind, gentle, generous, friendly, and pretty much everything else I've come to know about the Dutch. Edwin speaks something like 6 languages (I'm sure Mandarin's next), Pelle's, Tim's and Esther's English is excellent (seriously, Esther: take Italian lessons just for fun!), so we had a lot of fun trying to improve our pathetic Dutch pronunciation (no, Tim, I'm convinced we will never pronounce Scheveningen correctly. Groningen's hard enough!).

If I am very lucky, we will have convinced them to come visit me and my mountains sometime soon. It would be an honour to take them hiking or maybe see dinosaur bones.

I'm proud to call Edwin my friend.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Megamarkets and Wharfs

We were in the Netherlands for a LOT of holidays: Kings's Day, Remembrance Day, Liberation Day, and Ascension Day. Karen was getting regular e-mail updates regarding events in the country and one mentioned a monster street market -- 5 km long -- that took place in Utrecht on Ascension Day every year. We had to check it out; Utrecht's only a 30 min train ride from Amsterdam.

The train station (which looks more like a high-tech airport) dumps you out into a shopping mall. After we got our bearings and sorted out how to get out of the mall, we arrived at the market and this:
Umm... crowded? More like packed,
The greatest market I know of in Europe is the Porta Portese market in Rome (read about that here). This is not like that. First, it's not 5 km long. It's 2.5 km long, which they doubled because there are stalls on each side. Second, Porta Portese sells EVERYTHING: shoes and clothes, to hardware, to leather goods, to leather-like goods, to sunglasses, to housewares, to coins and stamps, to toys, to used cameras, to mens suits and ties, to furniture, to "antiques", to used fake Rolexes to... well, darn near everything.

This market was interesting to us because it mostly catered to immigrant Muslims from North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, etc). My friend Edwin tells me there was a immigration push from those countries about 25-30 years ago, and all were speaking Arabic or Dutch (with a bit of English thrown in), and it was clear that there were a lot of Dutch born kids (and grandkids) among them. So rather than selling EVERYTHING, there were things I had never seen in markets before, including prayer rugs and traditional clothing...
Lots of dresses like these for sale
Material to make stuff 
African styling
...and north African foods (mostly desserts).
Lots of almonds
The market had its share of sunglass vendors, and one or two home hardware guys. There were several "used" (stolen?) bike vendors and one guy selling used laptops.
All in seemingly fair shape
But there was Dutch stuff, too, like the guy smoking eels.
Ready for the smoker 
Who wants to count heads?
I did well. I found a guy selling men's dress and golf shirts for €3.50 or 3 for €10 ($5 Cdn/shirt); I bought 5.

Generally, though, the market was elbow to elbow humans all creeping along, many pushing strollers or wheelchairs. It was difficult to move, hard to pull over to look at things, and an exercise in crowd maneuvering.

Unlike Port Portese that requires at least 4 hrs just to walk through, we did the whole market in less than 2 hrs including shopping time. Being early afternoon, we opted to walk through Utrecht's downtown and look around.

The canals in downtown Utrecht are unlike Amsterdam's. Between each bridge that crosses the canal, are wharfs down at the canal level.
Tranquil
From the wharf level
The accesses from the wharfs that go under the roads are the basements of the canal houses. Most are shops, restaurants (that connect to restaurants in the canal houses at the street level), and so the whole place has a very "festive" atmosphere.
The wharfs are street cafes not at the street level 
Most wharfs are all seating 
Lovely juxtapositions 
Very green, very enjoyable
The only thing we found a bit disappointing was that the bridges segmented the wharfs; you couldn't walk along them as you could along the roads.

The inner part of the city is very pedestrian friendly like a lot of Dutch towns -- aside from the bikes trying to mow you down.
A main square 
A large bridge that becomes a square
Nice chair
No matter where you go, there's this really tall tower dominating the skyline.
Bad camera settings, but you get the idea 
Tall 
Kinda dominates 
Bigger when you get closer 

Under restoration 
It just goes on up there
It's the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, topping 112 m. It was built between 1321 and 1382, and marks the spot where Utrecht was founded 2,000 years ago. It has 14 bells (the largest is 2.24 m across and weighs 8,200 kg), a chapel, and an apartment for the tower guards. It stands alone; the part of the church it was attached to fell down in the 1600's, so it's not connected to the current church (more like half a church), which is cool unto itself, with gothic flying buttresses.
It, too, is big 
Large windows
Buttress detail
Interesting brickwork at the back 
Also on the naves
We didn't have time to go into either the tower or the church, but we did walk through the church garden.
The rear entrance 
Side corridors 
Looking back at the church 
From the other corner 
Nice view of the church walls 
The centre fountain 
Spitting gargoyles 
Drooling lions 
The gargoyles that direct water from the eavestroughs
A sample one
We wandered back though the pretty streets to the futuristic train station.
Light and art: made up of hundreds of small LEDs
The station
We liked the feel of Utrecht. We forgot to take our guidebook so didn't know what to go look at. We therefore missed the old moated fortification walls of the city that were just a few blocks past the Dom Tower, plus some other stuff. We liked the wharf idea; kinda surprised that at least one or two canals in Amsterdam aren't like that.