Apollo at 50

It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 launched, and its impact on my life has been profound. The Apollo mission was the most audacious engineering project since the Tower of Babel, and it inspired me in many ways.

The Apollo program is a powerful lesson about bringing together political will, the corresponding budget, and a lot of math and engineering. While the engineering was state-of-the-art for 1969 it is still so amazing that I meet people who think the challenge was so formidable that it was impossible, and was actually just a film set directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The history of designing the Apollo spacecraft is amazing in itself, and there is a beauty in the flow of necessity. The key decision was made to send 3 astronauts, to have 1 in orbit around the moon while the other two descended in the Lunar Module to land on the moon, then to launch and rejoin the orbiting command module. Once you know the mass of the astronauts, their living supplies, the weight of the spacecraft and fuel, the size of the Saturn V was “just math,” calculations that lead to the required velocity and power needed, creating the largest machine every built.

As a software engineer I have a great appreciation for the complexity of building a real-time computer in the 1960s when computers were the size of rooms, and the invention of the transistor was less then twenty years old.

Margaret Hamilton is one of my new-found computer engineering idols, who not only coined the phrase “software engineering” but also showed us by example the difference between computing science and software engineering. Science uses hypothesis and experiment and failure teaches as much or more than success. Engineering is about building things that don’t kill people even when something goes wrong.

Even though the Apollo Guidance Computer was state-of-the-art at the time, it had quite limited capability, something more like a scientific calculator that took input from sensors and a crude user interface called the DSKY. Margaret realized that it was possible for the computer to become overloaded if the sensors send data more often than they should have (an event that actually happened by mistake) and that by creating a computer task whose job it was to self-monitor, could decide to drop low-priority tasks in favour of the critical ones, which included monitoring the landing radar and calculating distance and velocities.

I may have only been 11 years old when the Eagle landed and became Tranquility base, but seeing that people could use science and technology to make a dream come true has been an inspiration for me ever since.

We might feel the same when people set foot on Mars.

Prinergy at 20

This May Kodak will sponsor their Graphic Users Association (GUA) a user group meeting founded by Creo the 1990s. It’s my honour to be a guest at this year’s GUA as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of Prinergy’s launch at Seybold San Francisco in 1999.

Not many products stay viable in the market for 20 years. While Prinergy started out to be 5 years ahead of the competition when we designed it, none of us expected it would still be around, and sold as a viable business and valued customer solution twenty years later.

In 2012 Prinergy won the first ever Legacy Must See ‘Em award of the annual Graph Expo trade show in Chicago, the print industry’s largest US show.

One judge commented, “Nothing else on the list went on to become as widely adopted and used as Prinergy.  It’s a bedrock technology that continues to evolve as it drives productivity throughout the industry.”  Another said, “This is still the most widely integrated and automated product on the market … it’s a fixture in the industry.”  Other comments described it as “robust” and “a complete success.”  Clearly, the Selection Committee felt that in consideration with other progressive MUST SEE ‘EMS winners since 1999, Prinergy was a standout with a significant long-term impact on the graphic communications industry.  

– Editor and Publisher Magazine, October 8, 2012

Many developers worked on Prinergy, and it evolved over time to match the needs of commercial printers as digital print, automation integration with mis systems, web-based job preflight, and color-accurate remote proofing all emerged as critical parts to help differentiate print against the onslaught of web-based content.

Above: Dave introducing Prinergy 1.0 at GraphExpo 1999 in Chicago
Below: Prinergy 20th Anniversary Event at Kodak GUA in 2019

Observations of a Tesla Owner

For those who know me, none will be surprised that we are the owners of a shiny new Tesla Model 3. We like being the early adopters of new tech, especially around sustainability. Tilly bought one of Vancouver’s first Prius’ in 2001, when you could buy “any colour you want, as long as it was sea-foam green”

Nikola resting in front of the house

When we got a phone call in June that our car would be ready for delivery in two weeks, we had kinda forgotten about it. After all, it was April when we put our deposit down on it, April 2016! We had agreed that we would give up our two cars, Tilly’s 2001 Prius and my 1996 Volvo station wagon and consolidate around one car. With so many transportation options around, from SkyTrain to Evo, Modo, Car2Go, and Mobi bikes, it seems a safe bet.

There are many blogs and youtube videos about driving the Model 3, so I’ll stick to the things that are part of our own story.

Tesla Superchargers, Coalinga California

Driving an electric car

Driving an electric car is a liberating experience. It has high acceleration, it’s very quiet, and there’s never that telltale smell of exhaust that always made me feel guilty.

When you think about a gas-powered car it’s incredibly complicated, and over the 110 years since the Model T, cars have become amazingly fuel-efficient. But they still run by exploding gasoline hundreds of times a second inside metal cylinders, then have chemistry to try to take all the noxious gases out of the exhaust. The engine is really only efficient in a narrow band of rpm, so there’s a transmission to link the wheel speed to the engine,  and the engine burns gas even when you’re slowing down or stopped.

Electric cars have a speed control you dial with your foot, and when you want to slow the car down, it turns the car engine into a generator that pumps that energy back into the battery. Brakes last a long time because you hardly use them except to hold the car at a stop light.

Test Flight #1 – Rossland, BC

One thing we were warned about is charging and range anxiety – the worry that you may run out of electrons before the next charge stop. To test this out, we have taken two trips, one to Rossland BC and the other to Los Angeles. Our trip to Rossland took us though the BC interior where there are no Tesla Superchargers, but it turns out to have many smaller chargers, most every town has at least one. Because we wanted our car sooner than 2019 we opted for the larger battery, which holds up to about 500km of range when fully charged. This is about 50 km more than my Volvo would take us on the highway with its 80-litre tank, so charging stations didn’t have to be any more plentiful than gas stations.

gas stations vs. ev chargers in Vancouver (Oct 2018)

One of the benefits of being early in this wave of electric cars is that it’s still a novelty, people are curious, and there’s still innovation in charging approaches. We found this EV charger at the Kettle River Museum in Midway, BC

Olde Tyme EV Charger at Kettle River Museum, Midway BC

While battery capacity is a key consideration in an EV, it turns out that charging is the bigger factor. Gasoline is 10x more efficient in terms of energy per litre than the fastest chargers we could find. You can fill an 80l gas tank in 5 minutes, but it takes far longer to charge a battery. Here are some speeds;

  • Level 1 Charging (home 115V 15A circuit)  ~7Km/hour
  • Level 2 Charging (Oven/Dryer circuit 220V 30A)  ~30 Km/hour
  • Tesla Superchargers  ~300-700 Km/hour

Here’s where you start to see the vision of a person like Elon Musk, despite his foibles, he understood that for EVs to really be touring cars over long distances, a charging infrastructure was key.

Since we planned a pleasant drive to Rossland, we used the Tesla Supercharger in Hope to top the battery up to 100% (you don’t do that often as it reduces the battery life) then planned on an overnight stop in Osoyoos. Being newbie EV drivers we stopped at many of the places that ChargeHub said had Level 2 chargers just for curiosity, and found a number of delightful restaurants and stops along the way that took us to more out-of-the-way places than we would have if we had just stopped for gas. Like the Copper Pit in Princeton, BC, and the Borscht Bowl and the fantastic Tastie Treat in Grand Forks.

When we finally did get to Rossland, they had a single working Level 2 charger and left the car there overnight for it to get back to our standard 80% charge. (430km / 30 km/hr = 14 hours)

Level 2 Charger in Rossland, BC

Our return trip was marked by charging at more luxurious locations, including the dedicated Tesla chargers at Burrowing Owl Winery, a Level 2 charger at the Eldorado Hotel in Kelowna, and the ever-appreciated Superchargers in Hope, BC (with a side stop at the Blue Moose Café)

Test Flight #2 – Vancouver to LA

Travelling 2,000 km really starts to show the difference between Level 2 chargers and Level 3. If your car can only charge at Level 2 chargers you basically have to find hotels and charge your car for 7-10 hours every 300km, but there are growing networks of private Level 3 charging hubs will make that more viable. Tesla installed their own network to ensure their cars were on highways and not relegated to being (expensive) commuter cars, to differentiate them from several other ev models.

The Tesla Superchargers are located in smaller towns, typically where there is a shopping centre or outlet mall. With the growing number of Tesla Model 3s being sold, we expected more congestion but travelling at the end of October mainly on weekdays seems to have reduced that worry. 

The Tesla Route Planning App (beta) in the car is very good – it considers the current battery level, the historic consumption rate of your driving, and upcoming distance and traffic as provided by Google, and calculates where your next Supercharger stop needs to be. We grew more comfortable as we drove that we could take the battery down below 10% and still be confident we’d make it to that charge point. When it once started to warn me we may no longer have enough power to make to it the next supercharger (maybe my fault – I was accelerating past folks on hills – so tempting!), the ChargeHub and PlugShare apps helped us out by showing us a Level 2 charger enroute where we could top up.

While the ratio of public charging stations to gas stations is about 1:3 today, evadoption.com points out that when you include the fact that pretty well every EV owner has a charging station at home, and there are about 0.29% of cars are EVs (of 270 millions cars!) there are already far more EV charging stations than gas stations.

It seems in the foreseeable future that we will see a few things happening around electric cars. Most of them will have self-driving options, and owning a car will start to be less attractive then just calling one when you need it and having it take you where you want to go, and booking another for the return trip, auto-dispatched to your door. Freeways will have express lanes for self-driving cars that will whisk past the human driven ones, reducing the traffic jams that paralyze thousands of cars from one person’s poor judgement. Many of these are well-articulated by Terry O’Riley.

We’re very glad to have waited for the Model 3, enjoying the nice sound system and warmed seats. Next project is to put solar panels on the roof, and charge it from the sun!

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This Video Took Me Almost 50 Years to Make

Yes, I am very good at procrastinating. But that’s not the reason it took 50 years to make. Well, at least not completely.

Each generation marks moments of life with particular music, and by significant songs. Some of those songs aren’t memorable to others, but for many of us, certain songs bring back the emotions of a pivotal life moment. They become the soundtrack of our lives.

For me as a high school student in the 1970’s Edmonton, one of those artists was Elton John. Touched by the Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and sentiments of Your Song, Elton & Bernie’s music became emblematic of sensitive insight, and of celebrating life. Hearing his music even today reminds me of the nervousness, and excitement of those teenage years, full of potential and open to the possibilities that were ahead of us.

When I heard the song “The Greatest Discovery” from Elton John’s eponymous first album, its imagery played through my mind’s eye like a movie, and I imagined how I could actually produce that 4 minute film. I had by that time shot and edited two short films in Super 8mm. “City in Snow” was a series of sequences in and around Edmonton in winter, and technically challenging in learning how to create in-camera titles, and synchronize a cassette music track. “Doublecross,” done for a film course offered by the Edmonton Art Gallery, featured my friend Randy and his cousin David z”l in a short that involved a mocked-up newspaper headline and Hitchcock-like (so I hoped) suspense.

Both those films benefitted from my father’s advice and experience as a film editor and producer, but my vision for The Greatest Discovery was beyond what we could achieve at that time on 8mm film. Even beyond the technical challenge, was the problem of casting. It needed two small boys, one young enough to still wear pyjamas with feet, and be amazed by the arrival of a new brother, and of course, a new-born. And it would help if he had green eyes. I recall scouting friends of my parents to see if their children were a match and their house had the requisite frosty windows and stairs with a handrail.

It was kind of a half-hearted attempt, since the technical barriers presented by film technology at the time were beyond my budget to solve. Randy and I had recently taken a film course from Gene Topolnisky at Jasper Place High School and I was greatly influenced by the film “La Jetee” which in spite of being a motion picture consisted almost totally of still pictures. Another technique for film story-telling involved moving the camera during the filming of a still picture, an effect the documentary film-maker Ken Burns popularized in many of his historic retrospectives. To make a film like that that at the time required an animation stand, and painstaking process of moving the camera on the stand, taking 1 frame, then moving it again. In order to get the resolution I needed it would have taken a 16mm camera, and weeks of work, and if I told you about what it took to create black subtitles, let alone animated ones, we’d be here all day. Assembling this combination of equipment was appealing to me in principle, as it would recall my Dad’s early career with colleague artist Al Guest when they started a small animation house in Toronto, but buying that amount of film, having it developed, as well as the cost of renting the camera, animation stand and editor would have been far beyond my student budget. So the project languished.

I remember thinking to myself though: On the off-chance that I get married, and we have two boys, a few years apart, and maybe the elder has green eyes like his Grandmother Esther and Great Aunt Ruth, well that would be a pretty sure sign that I should make this film.

Funny how life works out.

Among many of her charms, I fell in love with Tilly’s blue-green eyes, and our son Sol’s arrival in 1990 changed our life. His brother’s addition in 1994 reminded me to take this project idea out of mothballs, and start it for real. Even in 1994 though the technology for making this film on a computer was just a glimmer of a possibility, with iMovie still 5 years away, but I nonetheless set the stage, and captured many of the stills that I imagined would make the story work, shooting by available light on my Canon AE-1 on 35mm Kodak Tri-X film.

Twenty-three years later, in preparation for Elia’s birthday, I scanned those old pictures, and sat down at our beautiful and powerful 5K iMac to finally pace and edit this video, leveraging several decades of technology development that made it simple enough to be able to bring this old vision into reality.

It only took 47 years.

So, in memory of Hans, Leni, Esther, and in honour of Dan, and most of all dedicated to Elia on his 23rd birthday, and to Sol, big brother and role model for all of us, here is “The Discovery,” inspired by the music of Elton John and the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.