The 3G Apocalypse

There are a number of topics that I’d like to blog about, but I’m afraid our current cultural climate doesn’t leave room for the kind of nuance they’d require. Things like our conflicted feelings about getting our youngest vaccinated. We’re pro-vaccine in this house, and 4 out of 5 of us got our shots as soon as responsibly possible once we were eligible. But our 10-year old, who’s already had and recovered from Covid, is a different discussion. It requires consideration and nuance — but saying such things out loud invites input from crazy people, waiting to seize any apparent endorsement of their anti-vac stupidity. If we were to admit some trepidation about vaccinating our youngest, that might somehow give credence to the horse-paste crowd…

Here’s another such topic: 5G cellular networks. I’m going to write about the cluster that is telecommunication technology at the end of 2021, but I don’t want my technical mumbo jumbo to be interpreted as any sort of nod to the “5G networks are a secret plan by Bill Gates to control the minds of people who got microchipped by the Covid vaccine” nut jobs. There’s stupidity, and then there’s conspiracy nut stupidity. I just want to talk about the first kind.

Here in the States, all of the big cellular networks are in the process of shutting down their 2G (aka “Edge”) and 3G infrastructure, to make room for more 5G coverage. On the surface, maybe this sounds like a good plan. I remember laughing at a distant relative still clinging to their “car phone” as Canada shuttered their analog cellular infrastructure late last decade. I’m sure I thought something snarky, like “get with the times, old man.” But sometimes there’s good reason not to rush into euthanizing old technology…

What most people don’t know is 5G is not a singular replacement for previous networks — and won’t be for a long time. In fact, there’s two kinds of 5G, and there will probably have to be a third. The network technology touted by your cell phone carrier as being “next gen” doesn’t actually work inside most buildings…basically at all. So all those cell towers out there, poised to be stripped of their 2G and 3G antennas, won’t be able to help you make a call or update your Instagram if you happen to be inside a building.

Instead, a second 5G infrastructure needs to be created, one that runs on a different frequency entirely and which can penetrate building walls. The unfortunate downside of these low frequencies is that the range sucks — they won’t work outside! So we need two 5Gs, two sets of antennas, two sets of hardware in our phones, and we need to seamlessly move between them. Seems simple enough, but wait!

Turns out there’s a third scenario: places that are partially enclosed so can’t be covered with long-range 5G, but are too big to be properly covered by short-range 5G. Outdoor shopping malls, stadiums, and even “urban canyons” — downtown areas surrounded by tall buildings. These environments may require a different infrastructure again; a “medium range” 5G, that needs different antennas and different hardware in your cell phones.

Now you start to see why they need to cannibalize the older, but still functional, 3G networks — they need room on the towers to run multiple kinds of 5G networks, they need more towers, and they need more people carefully stacking the house of cards that may eventually fulfill the promise of 5G’s faster speeds. Three of everything, and then it’ll be great!

But hey, time marches on, progress in inexorable, and we should just push through these challenges, so we can be better connected, right? We gotta have our Instagram stories as fast as possible, so “get with the times, old man” and all that…

Except there’s another problem. It turns out that millions of “field devices” that depend on 3G are being killed off. 2G or 3G-enabled medical monitoring devices that give patients freedom, connected car technologies that help send life-saving aid in accidents, soil sensors that help farmers make decisions to optimize crop yields, and pipe line and oil field sensors that keep our addiction to fossil fuels fed while helping avoid ecological disasters. All of these will have to be replaced with 5G-enabled devices — and maybe replaced multiple times, until 5G finally stabilizes. 5G won’t make things better right away, in fact, its going to make them worse for a long time…

But even with all these concerns, its going to happen anyway. AT&T has already shut down their 2G network, those customers are out of luck; their 3G customers lose service in December (including all 3 of our cars, which can never be upgraded to 4G). Verizon and T-Mobile will follow suit later in 2022. When you ask a carrier what’s to be done about your old equipment, their only answer is to sell you a new phone — despite the fact that consumer smart phones are only a part of the equation, all they can offer is to take your money for something you probably don’t need.

Smart phone upgrades haven’t been worth lining up for since 2007

And let’s talk about that, because selling you a new, slightly different phone every 12-24 months is big business. Stupid people, who don’t understand that technology evolution inevitably plateaus, are still convinced by Apple that they have to have the latest iPhone. And carriers are happy to help create that need. Our kids each have an iPhone 6s — a phone released in September of 2015. Its a great phone, has all the features they need, can be purchased for about $90 used, and the only real reason to replace will happen when our cell carrier refuses to support it.

My personal phone is a svelte HP Veer from 2011. Its a total of 4 inches diagonal, doesn’t track my location or report my data to Google, doesn’t wake me up with notifications or bother me with ads. And if it weren’t for the 3G shut down, I’d be the crazy uncle using that thing until the hardware falls apart.

Its too late to stop the Frankenstein’s monster that is 5G. Its not going to control your brain or give you cancer — but it will continue to be a mess of a roll out. There’s not much we can do as consumers to stop this one, but there is something you can do to help break the cycle: stop buying new things you don’t need.

The good news is that if your phone has 4G, it won’t be shut down, or rendered obsolete by 5G. Because of the crappy state of 5G, 4G is likely to be around for another 10 years. So vote with your wallet, and refuse to buy a new smart phone in 2022 — from any company. If your battery is getting old, $80 will fix that. If you drop your phone in a toilet, head over to backmarket.com or eBay and buy the same model used. Don’t be tempted by the dubious promise of “faster networks” or indistinguishable improvements to cameras. Technology isn’t jewelry or a fashion trend: its a tool. Insist on tools that work, that last for years, and that don’t trap you on a treadmill of constant replacements.

Crucibles

Travel is a kind of crucible. Its a special set of challenges that not everyone has the stomach for, but it produces a kind of outcome that not everyone gets to enjoy. Air travel, in particular, is this unusual combination of stress and boredom, where everyone has to meet a schedule that everyone knows is never accurate. I’m not sure who invented the phrase “hurry up and wait” but I’m sure they were talking about commercial air travel…

Still, even with the packing and early mornings and uncomfortable seats and random strangers, and the pandemic additions of wearing a mask, having your mask fog up your glasses, worrying about the people around you who still don’t know how to wear a mask properly (it goes over your mouth and nose, folks!) the reward for putting up with it all is to experience something you wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — if you didn’t get up off your couch and get into the world.

Those experiences are something we want our kids to have — while they’re still kids. And Covid really did a number on our plans. Beginning with their 13th, we’ve told the kids that they won’t be getting any more physical gifts from us on their birthdays. Instead, we’d give them experiences — big ones on the big birthdays, and smaller but unique ones, on the others. For Ben’s 13th birthday, he got to visit Star Wars Land. For Abi’s, we’d planned a trip to Hollywood — which is close to where my office is (back when work travel was a thing!)

It came more than half a year late, but we did manage to make good on that promise this month. My first work trip since the pandemic was scheduled, then cancelled, but the opportunity for an in-person meeting in California followed quickly afterward, and we jumped on it. Nic, Abi and I masked up and got on a plane for LA, while Ben and Eli held down the fort (with some check-ins from grown-up friends in the neighborhood).

We took her shopping at the glamorous Century City Mall, where she was allowed to buy a few things, then hit Rodeo Drive, where we could never afford to buy anything. We hit Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and Abi got her eyes opened a little to what life is like outside her little rural Ohio bubble (there are as many homeless folks on that street as there are stars in the side walk), and we took a cliched tour bus to the Hills of Beverly to see where the rich and famous live. We only had one night in our hotel together (which wasn’t quite as nice as I’d hoped) but we got the next morning in beautiful Santa Monica, sipping mimosas and lemonade (as age appropriate) in a swanky brunch spot, and walking on the pier. I sent the girls home at the end of the weekend, and stayed on for a couple really fun and worthwhile in-person work meetings.

Ben also missed a birthday, plus at the beginning of a pandemic, a class trip to Chicago that he’d been really excited for. His wait was longer, but we managed to mostly restore what he lost as well, and this past weekend, he and I got on a plane for Chicago. By a wonderful coincidence (and a little planning) some sweet family friends — and Ben’s very first baby sitter — were in town too, where she was running a marathon. In between stops largely determined by the cancelled class trip itinerary, we were able to meet up with them, and cheer for her on her run.

At the top of Ben’s to-do list was the Cloud Gate, also known as the Bean, and an architecture boat tour, where we learned about the history of the Windy City. We had Chicago style hot dogs with friends, walked the River Walk by star light, took an elevator 103 floors to the Sky Deck of the Sears Tower, and visited the Museum of Science. Travel in the city was challenging, due to the marathon, but we got around by train, bus, bicycle, taxi, and about 40,000 steps. Our last stop was to congratulate the successful marathon runners over dumplings — a meal Ben was unsure of, then raved about the whole way home.

The contrast between a couple weeks of intense travel and nearly 2 years with barely any is a shocking one. My travel bag, carefully equipped to trade off weight vs essential gear, has sat neglected for so long that my shoulders still ache from the unfamiliarity (and the fact that I basically lived out of just it for most of a week). The added stress of Covid is very real, but the deal was supposed to be that if we all got our vaccines, life could go back to normal. Covid is not keeping up its end of the deal, and its not just because a certain percentage of the population continue to refuse to do their part to help end this. Sometimes it seems like there’s still no end in sight to this pandemic that has now occupied a significant percentage of our kids’ lives… but the poverty of staying in one place is not a good trade either.

Eli lost only a few Girl Scout trips. She was too young for the vaccine, and despite our efforts to protect her, she got Covid. We are grateful she got a very mild case, that it cleared up quickly, and left her with antibodies that are at least as good as (and probably better than) the shot. But we’re resolved to help her get some life back too, and next month she’s finally going on a Girl Scout camping trip.

We’ll continue to be careful and thoughtful about when and where we go out into the world. Ben and Abi’s trips were largely outside activities (malls are outdoors in California!) and airplane ventilation systems are some of the best ever created. But we won’t trade any more of our kids’ childhood for the unvaccinated or unconvinced any more. I have enough friends and co-workers that have decided against the shot or are opposed to government over-reach that I can have some empathy for their positions, but at this point, they’re choosing their own risks and I’m not choosing to shield them from those risks. I don’t want anyone to get Covid, but here in the US, I can’t stop them — and this won’t be over until it resolves in one way or another for the majority of the population. I can’t make people choose the same resolution as me, but I won’t bear their consequences any longer… and neither will my kids.

There’s dignity in facing challenges in the best way you know how (although I’d argue no one has much dignity on a ventilator). We helped our kids face the challenge of Covid the way we thought was best, and while its not over, they earned the right to experience some better things. We’re planning for more of those things for them — and we hope each of you find your best way past Covid, and that you can find the courage to get back out there in ways that challenge you and bring you joy again too…

Our First Electric Car

Five years ago I put a $1000 deposit on a Tesla Model 3. I was super excited that an affordable electric car was within reach of a middle class family: $35,000 was the promised sticker price, and I only had to wait a year or so…

A year or so later I asked for my deposit back. The long awaited vehicle arrived, with questionable quality assurance, and a price tag that was $10,000 more than forecast. I was disappointed, and frequently checked back to see if time would improve the quality and lower the price. Arguably, the quality improved. And the price did go down… a little. Today, you can get a base Model 3 for about $42k — but if you want enough battery range to replace a gas vehicle, you’re looking at $47k before tax. Maybe we could swing it, but it wouldn’t be a wise use of money. Not even with the gas savings.

A couple other things have happened since I got that deposit back,though. I got a job where I work from home most of the time, and occasional business travel hasn’t been a thing for almost two years. In fact, most of our driving is the 25 minute round trip run between home and the nearest town for school or sports or church activities. Turns out a Tesla probably would have been overkill. So after researching and hunting for a few weeks, we got one of these instead…

This is the BMW i3 REX. They retail for around $50k new, with a nice feature set. But if you hold out for one that’s 5 years old, turns out you can get one for about $17k — including tax. That’s a price tag that makes a little more sense.

Now, I’ll grant you, its a kinda funny looking. And the range and performance are not in the neighborhood of a Tesla. But 155 miles combined range is not nothing: that’s more than 7 round trips into town — 4 without the range extender.

That’s the “REX” in the name. Battery range is about 85 miles, on the most economical settings. The range extender is a little gasoline engine that kicks in if your battery starts getting low, and buys you another ~70 miles. We’ll likely never use it. A busy day might be 3 round trips, and while we don’t currently have a fast charger, we can almost recharge to that range overnight. The gas engine is just for backup, and makes for an anxiety-free way to learn about having an electric vehicle.

Right now we have more cars than drivers — although we’ll have a new driver as early as next summer. There’s a Saab resting in Ontario, and mine still has pride of place in the garage as the rarest (and sexiest!) hunk of metal I’ve ever owned. Likely one of them will have to go at some point, but since we have only a few payments left on the Volvo, and own the other three outright, we have some time to decide which setup will be best for our two teenagers to start learning on. After checking it out today, the BMW is the kids’ current favorite…

2021 Post Vaccination Road Show

Our big travel plans for 2020 were cancelled for obvious reasons, so we set smaller goals for this summer. Primary of which was seeing as much family as we could manage. A road trip on the way home was a stretch goal. Fortunately, Covid — and Canada — cooperated with both.

We started the summer off resuming our tradition of Family Camp, a beautiful spot on Lake Erie owned by our church’s denomination. For most of the time we’ve lived in Ohio, we’ve managed to coordinate with another family, and have loved watching our kids interact at least annually as they grow up. We pulled off a modified version last summer, but it lacked the structured faith-building activities that we value so much. On a previous year we bore witness to a baptism service in the lake, and Ben’s heart was set on the same setup for his own public confession of faith. We celebrated with him with great joy this year as he finally got to demonstrate his faith in a place that’s been so important to his walk with God.

Before and during camp we went for Covid tests (an activity that Abi distinctly disliked) so that we could arrive at the border with the necessary evidence of health. Combined with vaccination records for 4 out of 5 of us, we were allowed into the country — and straight into line for yet another test. Because Eli is too young for a vaccination, they instructed that she would have to quarantine… but the rest of would not. Exactly how to quarantine a 10-year independent of her family was not specified, so we were somewhat left to our own discretion. Fortunately, Eli was perfectly content to stay at the happy place that is Nana and Papa’s house. A pool, zip-line, and a big yard full of tiny off-road vehicles to ride around didn’t hurt. The rest of us generally stayed isolated for most of the two weeks anyway — although Nicole and I did manage to find some time to ourselves and to make a few connections with friends. (Apparently the Canadian government has since realised that quarantining a 10-year-old is silly, and have lifted this requirement for kids too young to get vaccinated.)

Eli earned her freedom with one extra Covid test and the completion of her two-week personal lock-down just in time for the next set of family to arrive. My parents made their way from Grand Cayman, via Ohio for their necessary testing, and my sister bravely made the flight from Calgary with her two little ones. It had been 3 years since this set of cousins was together, but it was wonderful! We were so glad they were able to make some memories together.

After 3 weeks in Ontario, it was time to start our trip home — via the scenic route. Aside from being desperate to see some more of the world, we had purchased an awesome road trip vehicle not long before Covid hit, and had yet to really stretch its legs. 2100 miles of Eastern Canada the the US made for good proving grounds…

Our first stop was north-east of Toronto, in Prince Edward county, where we visited old friends in their summer getaway spot on Lake Ontario. The next day, at their advice, we took a ferry toward Ottawa, where we paused in traffic only long enough to take a few photos of the seat of our government.

We spent more time in Quebec, enjoying a posh stay in Montreal one night, and an afternoon exploring Quebec City the next day. Both were highlights, but Quebec City and surrounding area were absolutely stunning. Our plan for the next night did not work, and the kids got to experience their first roadside motel — it was clean and safe, but we didn’t linger the next day, and pushed straight for New Brunswick.

In Fredericton we met up with some more friends — 2 out of 4 sisters, all of whom we think are pretty special. One, a former travel companion, the other a former babysitter who played an important part in our kids’ lives when they were young. We loved the little city of Fredericton, but loved even more reconnecting with friends, and watching our 3 kids love on their former babysitter’s foster kids!

The next day we headed for the border to cross into Maine. Apparently that was a mistake, because while they were very nice, and repeatedly assured us that all our paperwork was in order, they had no idea how to process our status, and we ended up sitting in silence on a hard wooden bench for 90 minutes while they pulled out giant binders that described the procedure for letting us in. When we finally were approved for re-entry, we drove straight for a walk-in clinic… then to a second one, since the first wouldn’t see me, for long overdue diagnosis and care for an ear infection that had been plaguing me since before we hit the road. (For the record, an ear infection is NOT a symptom of Covid, no matter what the dumb receptionist at a walk-in clinic tells you!)

We again settled for bare minimum accommodations for the night, and woke up early for more sight seeing. Portland, Maine, and surrounding area, have some definite charm — but don’t quite live up to the hype in my estimation. We took in what we could, including some lunch, and headed for Boston to visit some more old friends. Our second last night ended in Poughkeepsie, NY for no reason other that it was en route home.

At this point we were all a little road weary, but we managed a driving tour of historic Gettysburg, before landing at a comfortable hotel outside Pittsburgh. Thanks to Facebook, we made one more connection with an old friend for lunch, before splitting up to two different conclusions to our roadshow. Nicole and the kids headed home to pick up a new crop of baby chicks, and I stayed on in Pittsburgh for my first in-person work event since Covid hit, as a guest speaker for a smart manufacturing boot camp.

There were some allowances made for the state of the pandemic: we wore masks everywhere we went (even when we were the only ones doing so!) and our trip wasn’t quite a leisurely as it might have been if our month wasn’t squeezed by two weeks of unnecessary quarantine. But with these adjustments the trip felt safe and… almost normal. We got to reunite with family, we got to connect with friends, and we got to explore places we’d never been before. I might have some additional thoughts on the dual insanity of America’s lack of love for neighbor and Canada’s fear-based government over-reach, but in the end, we managed to make life work in the middle of a pandemic, and I think that means things are getting better. Here’s hoping next summer’s adventures can be even more… adventurous!

Maintainers of Lightning – Part 2

When I was a young computer nerd, back in the early days of a consumer-friendly Internet, formal computer education in high school was limited to whatever rudimentary understanding our middle-aged teachers could piece together for themselves to pass on. But there was one tool that taught me more about web development than any book or class or teacher ever could: View > Source.

View Source MenuYou can do it now, although the output is significantly less meaningful or helpful on the modern web. Dig around your Browser’s menus and it’s still there somewhere: the opportunity to examine the source code of this, and other websites.

It was from these menus that I learned my first simple tricks in HTML, like the infamous blink tag, and later the more complex capabilities offered through a simple programming language called Javascript that increasingly became part of the Web.

Javascript and the web’s DOM (Document Object Model) taught me Object Oriented Programming when my “college level” computer science course was still teaching procedural BASIC. Object Oriented Programming, and the web as a development platform, have defined my career now 25 years hence. I owe an unpayable debt to the View > Source menu. It was the equivalent of “popping the hood” on a car, and it allowed a generation to learn how things work. Your iPhone doesn’t do that – in fact, today’s Apple would prefer if it people would stop trying to ever open their hardware or software platforms.

This, I assert, is why people fell in love with the Apple II, and why it endures after 40 years. It was a solid consumer device that could be used without needing to be built or tinkered with, but its removable top invited you to explore. “Look at the amazing things this computer can do… then peak inside and learn about how!”

As soon as our son was old enough to hold a screwdriver, he was taking things apart to look inside. I’m told I was the same way, but as parents Nicole and I had a plan: we’d take our kid to Goodwill and let him pick out junk to disassemble — rather than working electronics from around the home! I consider it a tragedy that some people outgrow such curiosity. Dr. Buggie has not – in fact, in my brief conversation with him, I think curiosity might be one of his defining characteristics…

Have PHD, Will Travel

Some time in the early 70s, Stephen Buggie completed his PHd in Psychology from the University of Oregon. Finding a discouraging job market in America, Buggie decided to seek his fortunes elsewhere. The timeline from there is a little confusing: he spent 12 years in Africa, teaching in both Zambia during its civil war (he vividly recalls military helicopters landing beside his house) and Malawi. He was in America for a sabbatical in 1987, where he saw computers being used in a classroom, and at some point in there he taught at the University of the Americas in Mexico, who were early adopters of the Apple II for educational use. His two sons were born in Africa, and despite their skin color, their dual citizenship makes them African Americans – a point he was proud to make. He taught 5 years in South Carolina, before joining the University of New Mexico on a tenure track. He maintains an office there as a Professor Emeritus (although rarely visits — especially in the age of COVID) and still has his marking program and years of class records on 5.25” floppy disks.

Apple II Classroom Computers – Seattle’s Living Computer Museum

Buggie found community amongst Apple II users in the 80s and 90s. Before the World Wide Web there were trade magazines, Bulletin Board Systems and mail-in catalogs. Although there was no rating system for buyers and sellers like eBay has today, good people developed a reputation for their knowledge or products. As the average computer user moved to newer platforms, the community got smaller and more tight-knit. Buggie found a key weakness in maintaining older hardware was the power supplies, and scavenged for parts that were compatible, or could be modified to be compatible, and bought out a huge stock – one he is still working through, as he ships them to individual hobbyists and restorers decades later. His class schedule made it difficult for him to go to events, but he did finally make it to KansasFest in recent years, and still talks excitedly about the fun of those in-person interactions, and the value he got from trading stories, ideas and parts with other users.

To be certain, Buggie’s professional skills are in the psychology classroom. He doesn’t consider himself to be any sort of computer expert — he’s more like a pro user who taught himself the necessary skills to maintain his tools. And maybe this is the second theme that emerged in our conversation: like the virtue of curiosity, there is an inherent value in durability. This isn’t commentary on the disposable nature of consumer products so much as it is on the attitudes of consumers.

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

My dad worked with wood my whole life. Sometimes as a profession, when he taught the shop program at a school in town. Sometimes as a hobby, when he built himself a canoe. Sometimes out of necessity, when my parents restored our old house to help finance their missionary work (and the raising of three kids.) His tools were rarely brand new, but they were always well organized and maintained. He instilled in me a respect for the craft and in the artifacts of its execution.

Computers are tools too – multi-purpose ones that can be dedicated to many creative works. When we treat them like appliances, or use them up like consumable goods, the disrespect is to ourselves, as well as our craft. Our lack of care and understanding, our inability to maintain our tools beyond a year or two, renders us stupid and helpless. We cease to be users and we become the used – by hardware vendors who just want us to buy the latest versions, or credit card companies that want to keep us in debt, or by some imagined social status competition…

In those like Dr. Buggie who stubbornly refuse to replace a computer simply because it’s old, I see both nostalgia and virtue.

The nostalgia isn’t always positive – I’ve seen many Facebook posts from “collectors” who have storage rooms full of stacked, dead Macintosh computers that they compulsively buy despite having no use for, perhaps desperate for some prior stage of life, or to be able to claim a part in the computing revolution of yester-year that really did “change the world” in ways we’re still coming to grips with. There is a certain strangeness to this hobby…

But there is also virtue in preserving those sparks of curiosity, those objects that first invited us to learn more, or to create, or to share. And there is virtue in respecting a good tool, in teaching the next generation to steward well the things we use to propel and shape our passions or careers or the homes we build for our families.

Fading Lightning

I joke with my wife that our rec room is like a palliative care facility for dying electronics: my 1992 Laserdisc player is connected to a 2020-model flatscreen TV and still regularly spins movies for us. I still build apps for a mobile platform that was discontinued in 2011 using a laptop sold in 2008. In fact, these two posts about the Apple II were written on a PowerBook G3 from 2001. Old things aren’t necessarily useless things… and in fact, in many ways they provide more possibility than the increasingly closed computing platforms of the modern era.

In an age where companies sue customers who attempt to repair their own products, there is something to be said for an old computer that still invites you to pop the top off and peer inside. It says that maybe the technology belongs to the user – and not the other way around. It says that maybe those objects that first inspired us to figure out how things works are worthwhile monuments that can remind us to keep learning – even after we retire. It says that maybe the lessons of the past are there to help us teach our kids to shape their world, and not to be shaped by it…

Thanks for visiting! If you missed Part 1, check it out here!

Maintainers of Lightning – Part 1

Of the subset of people who are into computers, there is a smaller subset (although bigger than you might think) that are into vintage computers. Of that subset, there’s a significant proportion with a specific affinity for old Apple hardware. Of that subset, there’s a smaller subset that are into restoring and preserving said hardware. For that group of people, something like a Lisa (the immediate precursor to the Macintosh) or a NeXT Cube (Steve Jobs follow-up to the Macintosh, after he was kicked out of Apple) holds special value. Something like an original Apple I board holds practically infinite value.

If you are in this sub-sub-sub-group of people, then you have undoubtedly come across the eBay auctions of one Dr. Stephen Buggie. You’ll know you’ve purchased something from him, because whether its as big as a power supply or as small as a single key from a keyboard, it comes packed with memorabilia of either the Apple II, or his other hobby, hunting for radioactive material in the New Mexico desert. Hand-written, photocopied, or on a floppy disc or DVD, he always includes these small gifts of obscura.

Last year, after the fifth or sixth time one of his eBay auctions helped me rescue an Apple II machine I was restoring, I reached out to Dr. Buggie and asked him if I could interview him for my blog. His online presence outside of eBay is relatively small. Of of the few places you can find him is on YouTube, presenting at KansasFest, an annual meeting of sub-sub-sub-group nerds entirely focused on the Apple II line-up of computers. Not all of these folks are into restoration. Some are creating brand new inventions that extend the useful life of this 40+ year-old hardware. Some have been using the hardware continuously for 40+ years, and still live the early PC wars, full of upstarts like Atari, Commodore and Amiga, gearing up for battle against IBM.  Many still see the Macintosh as a usurper, and pledge more allegiance to the machine that Wozniak wrought than the platform that begot the MacBook, iPhone and other iJewelry that all the cool kids line up for today. If you search really hard, you may even find references to Dr. Buggie’s actual, although former, professional life: that of a world-traveling psychology professor. What you won’t find is any sort of social media presence — Facebook and Twitter don’t work on an Apple II, so Dr. Buggie doesn’t have much use for them.

The 5 Whys

What I wanted to know most from Buggie was why Apple II? Why, after so many generations of computer technology had come and gone, is a retired professor still fixing up, using and sourcing parts for, a long-dead computer platform? I don’t think I got a straight answer to that: he likes bringing the Apple //c camping, because the portable form-factor and external power supply make it easy to connect and use in his camper. He likes the ][e because he used it in his classroom for decades and has specialized software for teaching and research. But as for why Apple II at all… well mostly his reasons are inexplicable — at least in the face of the upgrade treadmill that Intel, Apple and the rest of the industry have conspired to set us all on. He uses his wife’s Dell to post things on eBay, and while still connected to the University, he acquiesced to having a more modern iMac installed when the I.T. department told him they would no longer support his Apple II. But if it was up to him, all of Dr. Buggie’s computing would probably happen on an Apple II…

OK, But What is an Apple II?

It’s probably worth pausing for a little history lesson, for the uninitiated. The Apple II was the second computer shipped by Steve’s Jobs and Wozniak in the late 70s. Their first computer, the Apple I (or just Apple) was a bare logic board intended for the hobbyist. It had everything you needed to make your own computer… except a case, power supply, keyboard, storage device or display! The Apple II changed everything. When it hit the market as a consumer-friendly device complete in a well-made plastic case, with an integrated power-supply and keyboard, that could be hooked up to any household TV set, it was a revolution. With very little room for debate, most would agree that the Apple II was the first real personal computer.

Apple I, with aftermarket “accessories” (like a power supply!)

As with any technology, there were multiple iterations improving on the original. But each retained a reasonable degree of compatibility with previous hardware and software, establishing the Apple II as a platform with serious longevity – lasting more than a decade of shipping product. As it aged, Apple understood it would eventually need a successor, and embarked on multiple projects to accomplish that goal. The Apple III flopped, and Steve Jobs’ first pet project, the graphical-UI based Lisa was far too expensive for the mainstream. It wasn’t until Jobs got hold of a skunkworks projects led by Jef Raskin that the Macintosh as we know it was born. By then, Apple II was an institution; an aging, but solid bedrock of personal computing.

The swan song of the Apple II platform was called the IIGS (the letters stood for Graphics and Sound), which supported most of the original Apple II software line-up, but introduced a GUI based on the Macintosh OS — except in color! The GS was packed with typical Wozniak wizardry, relying less on brute computing power (since Jobs insisted its clock speed be limited to avoid competing with the Macintosh) and more on clever tricks to coax almost magical capabilities out of the hardware (just try using a GS without its companion monitor, and you’ll see how much finesse went into making the hardware shine!)

But architecture, implementation, and company politics aside, there was one very big difference between the Apple II and the Macintosh. And although he may not say it outright, I believe it’s this difference that kept the flame alive for Stephen Buggie, and so many other like-minded nerds.

Image stolen from someone named Todd. I bet he and Dr. Buggie would get along famously.

That key difference? You could pop the top off.

I’ll cover why that’s important — both then and now — and more about my chat with Dr. Buggie in Part 2

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

My anguish over the state of the church in America is plain enough that some good friends suggested some reading material to help me cope. Costly Grace is by an American Evangelical Minister who came up in the Regan-era, bought into Christian Conservative politics, became an ardent leader in the Pro-Life movement, and eventually came face-to-face with the reality that the Republican Party is not actually a function of the Church, or a Holy institution mandated by God. He didn’t change sides of the aisle — he’s still a Conservative — but he did have to reckon with the fact that not all Conservative positions are Christ-like.

Rev Rob Schenck prays in the Capitol

Its a good story, made better by the documentary he was in, Armor of Light, that followed his exploration of how Pro-Lifers can also be Pro-Gun advocates. The mental gymnastics necessary to align the Second Amendment with the Gospel have always been fascinating to me, as a Canadian living in America. I’m not opposed to gun ownership, in general, but I am in favor of reasonable regulation and licensing, and I can’t seem to find anything in the Bible that would suggest not giving guns to people with criminal records or a history of mental health issues is sinful…

This middle position we’ve been in since we first moved to the States is rarely a comfortable one. Growing up in Canada, it never occurred to me that one of two available human political parties could be all good, and the other all evil. The fact that I’m aligned with some Conservative viewpoints, but not with others, renders me suspect to both sides. I take some solace in being in decent company: Bill Gates recently said “its lonely in the center.” But we’re not really sure what to do about it when friends and neighbors “unfriend” us for pointing out that Donald Trump is very obviously not Christ-like. Blogging about it is cathartic, but its not changing anyone’s mind — if you’re still reading this old rag, you probably already agree with me on the main points. Those who aren’t reading have already written me off as a liberal, or worse, apostate, because I haven’t sworn allegiance to America’s newest golden calf

Yup, they actually made a graven image of Donald Trump

We’re not liberals, though (sorry if you thought we were and now you have to dislike us…) We’re quite willing to listen to both viewpoints, and while sometimes the “truth lies in-between”, we can’t buy the whole Democrat package either. So what is a moderate Canadian family to do in the upcoming civil war in America?

Well, I’ll tell ya, we’ve thought about moving. Its not off the table. But Canadian politics are far from perfect either, and the economic timing is… well it would be disasterous at this point. While my skills are so marketable in the US that my immigration lawyer’s current strategy is a “National Interest Waiver” — literally an assertion that it is in the country’s best interest to keep me (a determination I’ll leave up to the powers-that-be) — in my home country, I can’t find any employer willing to match even 75% of my current salary with the 25-percent-less-valuable Canadian currency. And our 3000+ square foot house on 2.5 acres of property in Ohio is worth half what 2000 square feet on a postage stamp is worth in Ontario. We just can’t afford to give up the American Dream at the moment.

So that leaves us with the question, if we’re stuck here, is there anything we can do to make things better? And I think the Lord has led us to two conclusions:

First and foremost, we do not believe that America is strategic for the Kingdom in the way it once might have been. Maybe once a shining light on a hill, this country has defaced itself on the world stage repeatedly. No developing country will believe that a white missionary from America has a lock on moral truth any more — we are too compromised by decades of sin to be seen as de facto leaders in guiding people to the Truth. That doesn’t mean we can’t work along-side others, as servants, as fellow seekers, or even as guides within the context of a relationship built on trust and humility, but the day of Americans showing up to bestow American culture and beliefs on another country is over — and well it should be. This is a culture that stubbornly refuses to confess and repent of its original (and ongoing) sin of racism. This is a culture that is quick to make idols of celebrities and politicians and political parties. And this is a culture that is historically, and currently, prone to division and disunity.

These things are true wherever there are humans — racism is not unique to America, idolatry is not unique to Americans. But in the past, the success of this country lent its missionaries some credibility. That’s gone now, and humility must take its place. God has His people all over the world, and we have something to learn from cultures that haven’t made a religion of themselves, but are busy practicing true religion. For Nicole and I, that means re-prioritizing our giving outside of this country. This is not a small realization: giving is our primary ministry outside of our home, and the related tax benefits are significant, and a major part of our strategy.

Secondly, we understand we are to “bloom where we’re planted.” By that I mean, if God put us here, we should do our best to act in our community in a Christ-like manner. Our community is, almost exclusively, Conservative Christian — and many of them are angry, suspicious and… in error. It would be easy to keep criticizing them, and pointing out their misapplication of Scripture (or science) as I’ve been doing on this blog for the past year. It would be even easier to break fellowship with them, and write them off as dumb Trump-supporters, conspiracy theorists, or right-wing nutjobs. But doing so does not help heal the wounds in this country, or help the Church behave better, or make Christianity more effective in showing God’s love. When Paul said the whole Church was one body, he knew about the assholes and the arm pits — he understood that not every part of the body is great all the time. But the body doesn’t work if one part says to the other “I don’t need you!

So ya, there’s a lot of smelly parts of the body right now — more than usual. And we could stand to clean up our act a little. But God knew that too; He knew He was entrusting His mission to a bunch of assholes, and He still told us to be about His business. So if we need each other, then we have to figure out how to help each other. For Nicole and I, that means we can’t disengage with the church or our conservative community, we have to be a part of the body — and maybe help rub a little “wisdom soap” and a “love loofah” on the parts that need to freshen up. I can help other Christians find verses in the Bible that challenge their political perspectives, specifically because I have empathy for those perspectives and some modest equipping and experience exegeting the Word we both hold as sacred… but only if I don’t alienate those people first.

It is when we decide that the “other” is irredeemable that we cease to function as a society — and as a Church. Fortunately, we have a God that looks on the lowliest of sinners, and sees none that cannot be redeemed. If He hasn’t given up on us yet, then we can’t give up on each other either.

Shaka, when the walls fell

I grew up watching Star Trek, and in one of the most meme-worthy episodes, the valiant Captain Picard and a strange alien are stranded together on a planet, and forced to figure out how to work together without a universal translator or any of the technology that makes these “first contact” situations easier. They learn to communicate through a shared language of stories and parables that resonate with their individual and cultural experiences — they find what’s common, despite their differences, and figure out how to talk to each other through it. Maybe its naive to think we can make things any better… but if we’re stuck as aliens in this strange country, maybe God would have us try to help His people communicate…

Gongs and Cymbals

Now that Trump has been defeated (then defeated again, and finally defeated again) and the prophesied storm didn’t come to save all patriots from the evil, child eating Democrats, we’re left to deal with the mess he made during his 4 catastrophic years.

For some people, the challenge to be faced lies in undoing his policy positions, trying to restore some modicum of dignity for America on the world stage, and scrambling to roll out a 12-month delayed response to a virus that the previous administration couldn’t really sustain any interest in.

For some, the new leadership means an opportunity to tackle environmental concerns, and revive green initiatives. For others, it means we can acknowledge the racial injustice that has plagued this country, and try to finally do something about it.

But for others, the most important problem to address? Well its the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, people don’t want to hear from white Christian conservatives any more.

For this group of people, there was little or no outrage about the attack on the capitol, a streak of unjust executions of black people, or a President so concerned with his own self-interest that he faces his second impeachment for crimes against the nation he was was supposed to lead. For this group of people, the single greatest problem that our new President needs to address is the fact that no one wants to hear from Focus on the Family any more.

This was my neighbor. I did not love him as I ought.

This man was named Jerry. He lived in one of the wealthiest cities in America. In the late 90s he was the victim of a random shooting on his way home from work. He was a blue collar machinist — one of those hard-working heroes that make up the “real America.” The doctors barely saved his life, but he was left disfigured and destitute. He lived another 20 years, on the streets, where he was well known for his positive outlook and recognizable appearance. By all accounts, he never tried to “game the system” — even though it failed him utterly and completely. He died alone, a victim of a gunshot and of a nation indifferent to its down trodden. It is a tragedy that the government programs and social safety nets couldn’t help him, but it is blasphemy that for more than 20 years, he didn’t come across a Christian — not a single a believer in Christ — who was willing to do what it took to get Jerry off the streets. He died without knowing sacrificial love. He died without knowing how much Jesus loved him.

There are two camps in Christian circles right now, those who want to move on from Trump (or who never wanted him in the spot to begin with), and those who still believe he was some kind of champion of the church and of Christian morals. I can have empathy for those in the middle, who recognized the sinfulness of Trump, but hoped God would use him for good anyway. I’ll even overlook the fact that the same people who positioned Trump in their mind as some kind of Nebuchadnezzar, are often the ones who hold that Obama was a secret Muslim, and Biden’s faithful attendance in church for his entire adult life was really a 60-year ploy to trick Christian voters.
But regardless of how they interpret the circus of the last four years, my admonition to all American Christians scrambling to defend conservativism is the same: shut. up.

Literally, the Republican party is the worst possible representative of Christ right now. American Christianity is so dirtied by its chosen political leaders, and in particular, the behavior of the last 12 months, that the absolute best thing we can do for our testimony is to voluntarily suspend our own Twitter accounts, let Parler fail, cancel Focus on the Family, exit stage left, and repent.

Jesus doesn’t need you to fight for your rights. Jesus wants you to care about your neighbor more than yourself.
Jesus doesn’t want you to take Twitter to court. Jesus wants you to feed the hungry.
Jesus doesn’t want you to lobby for less government regulation. Jesus wants you to walk the extra mile for the oppressor.
Jesus doesn’t want you to stand up against Covid-19 restrictions. Jesus wants you to bring hope to the hopeless.

You will not save the world by condemning it because it doesn’t share your beliefs. You will not win the lost by telling them how important your rights are. Stop it. Jesus promised hardship, and his Word tells you to count it pure joy — not to rise up against it.

To my Christian friends who think the time is coming for the church to stand up for what it believes: sit down!
To the Christian churches defying your government in order to keep the pews warm on Sunday: don’t just sit down, throw yourself on the ground at the mercy of a Savior who laid down His life for your arrogant pride — and for all the lost who are now angry with you, or worse: afraid of you. Christ did not call you to insurrection, He called you to sacrifice and to love.

If we get 4 years, or even 8 years, of Democrat leadership that doesn’t do a single thing in support of conservative positions, but during that time, we re-establish the Church as a place where people are loved unconditionally, and Christians as people who serve unselfishly, then maybe we will have earned back some of the moral high ground. If we can be the hands and feet of Jesus again, in a nation that is broken and hurting and trying to find a way forward, then maybe we will have earned the right to try again to speak with His voice — or our opinions.

Until, and if, we can humble ourselves enough to tangibly demonstrate love for our neighbor again, then every time a Christian opens their mouth to try to make sure their point of view is heard, the sound that we make is just a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal

Why not kick off 2021 with a coup attempt?

The predictable and inevitable outcome of 4 years of having a vile, sinful man, occupied only with his own self-interest, as the President of a country that has elevated its own self-love to idolatry, reached a violent and shameful zenith at the seditious urging of a sore loser, continuing to tailor his 4th grade speaking-level message to the most ignorant of Americans. These self-titled patriots stained the walls of their capitol with literal human waste, and desecrated their own country in a violent orgasm of obeisance to their sin, their leader’s sin, and the cheers of a so-called Conservative media, claiming Christian values — right up until they came face-to-face with the death that is the Biblically described consequence of that sin. At which point, they tried desperately to blame someone else.

Trump did not make America great. He made it the worst I’ve ever seen it. The values he championed, right until their violent ends, are not Christian — shame on any believer who has twisted the Truth in order to defend that man. We must do better in 2021.

So I Tied An Onion To My Belt – 2020 Edition

I write these annual re-cap posts every year, but never before has the gap between expectations for a year, and the reality I have to write about been so drastic. This past year, we’d planned a big trip west for the summer, visiting friends in Seattle, taking a ferry trip to Alaska, and stopping by to visit family and an old friend on the way back. None of that happened for reasons that are both obvious and less than. Forming a plan to get some portion of our family just across the nearest border proved to be enough of a challenge, once the pandemic hit.

If we’d known this was going to be our last big social gathering, we would have tried to squeeze more people in!

The year started fairly normally, with a couple nice highlights. Since Christmas 2019 was spent in Grand Cayman, we connected with Ontario family at Niagara Falls in February. We hosted our church youth group for the Super Bowl. And I started a trip to LA for a work event. When we looked back at the pictures of these gatherings, Eli remarked: “its strange to see us with other people and no one is wearing masks.”

It was on that trip to LA that we learned how much things would change. Of course there were inklings of it — I remember seeing people in masks at the airport, thinking they were over-reacting. It was on a stop-over in Minneapolis that I got the call: event canceled due to pandemic. I had no choice but to complete the trip to LA and try to schedule an earlier flight back — home and into quarantine. Like for most others, March through May were tough months: cancelled birthday parties, suddenly home schooling, trying to help the kids understand what was happening. As summer crept closer, and cases started dropping, we witnessed an even more upsetting change in our American life. Trump signs and flags appeared, while mostly white folks began complaining about their rights — apparently oblivious to the fact that a significant portion of America with an actual legitimate complaint was pleading for justice. The battles lines for the looming election were drawn: haircuts and backyard parties are part of the American dream, due process for minorities, and scientific decision-making are not.

The kids chose this picture, and wanted to point out that Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and everyone else who weren’t given justice in 2020 still matter.

Never before have we been so ashamed of where we live, or some of the people we considered close. We were horrified — shocked and in disbelief. We wanted to be a part of reasoned discussion, we wanted to insist on rationality. We went to a protest (before most of them turned unreasonable) and I blogged desperately and at length, trying to explain, trying to reason, admonishing the increasingly insane things that our neighbors, and even family members were saying online. But Trump kept on tweeting, and people kept on trying to explain, defend or even advocate conspiracy theories, unhinged medical recommendations, and a bizarre persecution complex emanating from the most undeserving, self-entitled Republican leader — and base — that I have ever witnessed. If COVID-19 wasn’t reason enough to withdraw, American politics sealed that deal. Our circle of people we wanted to be with in 2020 shrank dramatically.

Fortunately, some wonderful people and wonderful experiences were left:

We tapped our neighbor’s maple trees, and made maple syrup (and were reminded that there are still some reasonable and loving Conservatives left in this two-party nightmare.)

We learned how to throw a Zoom birthday party, met new people virtually, and connected with some far-away friends we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Our annual Family Camp tradition was cancelled, so in its stead, we took over an entire campground with two other families, and enjoyed a socially isolated weekend fishing, boating and singing songs about Jesus around the outdoor cookout spot.

Instead of long-distance trips, we raised chickens at home, worked on some fun projects, and explored some of God’s beautiful creation right here in Ohio — and did manage to get most of the family back to Ontario for quarantine and a visit eventually.

We even got to be a special part of a beautiful wedding, capping off a year that maybe wasn’t great, but definitely had some redeeming moments.

And I guess that’s a fairly good description of humanity right now. It is obvious to anyone who survived 2020 that we are a fallen people — we are not who God meant for us to be, and we cannot redeem ourselves; not through politics, not through discourse, and not through societal changes. We will always fall short. But every once in awhile, you catch a glimpse of something pretty great, and its a reminder that we were made in His image: a glorious, creative, thoughtful and beautiful image. And that some day, we will be what He intended…

No, 2020 wasn’t a great year — not anywhere on the planet, and especially not in America. But, we’re still all God’s kids, and we’re still growing up. We’re not ever going to get it right until He comes back, but that doesn’t mean we’ve quit trying. Only He knows what 2021 holds, but we got through 2020, and with His help, maybe we can all do a little better this year.