About the author, David Lazar
These days Direct link to this section
Hydroponic farming. Who knew you could grow so much basil and parsley when it is snowing outside? Not me. Now I have so much, it seems I forced to preserve the bounty in pesto form.
Swimming! During these crazy days of lockdowns, the one constant has usually (but not always) been a visit to the local pool, where one can turn laps into both zen thinking, counting and exercising. Made my shoulders so hard, the poor nurse gasped as she tried to jam a needle in there. She had to apoligize, rear back, and try much harder a second time.
3D printing as a fascinating way to both re-wire the brain to think in 3D, force it to learn new software, and tinker with electronics and mechanical systems. Impetus was also to get to cleaning and organizing the garage to be a proper workshop after taking nearly seven years off of making things there. Now I have a proper workstation, proper desktop, and room to work on bikes, kayaks, wood, and things like 3D prints. The old stereo is hooked up, a heater keeps it comfortable, so that is a huge improvement.
1970's Direct link to this section
The 70's were awesome, banana seats, monkeybar handlebars, Star Wars, Jaws and Disco. Not that I was into disco too much. One day my friend Jarrett decided we should take the words of the DJ “Brother Jake” seriously and put Disco in the garbage. So we proceeded to play frisbee with my entire collection of records to date, not much for a 10 year old, but still. All of it ended up flying over the house and into the back bush.
I skateboarded a little as my neighbor Rob hand-built a half-pipe out of plywood, and he got me into the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. Nice change from the Disco, and that stuck with me. Hitting Junior High with the Ramones was not terribly cool at the time, but looking back, it sure beat the crap and mush other people must remember if they have to.
Up to this point in the 70's I had no real hardware or software experience. My dad, being Amateur Radio king VE4SL was talking up a storm in the basement using a homebrew transmitter, talking to chaps on Easter Island, in Mao's China and I do remember listening to Russian propaganda during their invasion of Afghanistan as they villafied the American imperialist invaders they were repelling. My dad did bring home an early computer with a hex-pad for entering code, and an LCD display. We programmed the Wumpus game. It was neat. Then, sometime in the year 1978 or early 1979, Dad brought home a TRS-80, Model I, with 4KB RAM. This was the start of my software hacking career!
We hooked this up to a cassette tape player to “cload” code, including the wicked Scott Adams adventure series of games. We augmented the system with an expansion interface that added memory in whopping 16KB increments. I had to program the Z-80 in assembler since no other language was really useful. Good lessons learned there. Memories of Marcus having one of these too, and a modem that could talk to the Source. We eventually added hard drives and kept upping the technology as possible. Epson MX-80 dot matrix printers, Teletype printers, 300 baud modems, 5.25 inch disks, double-sided, double-density. Amazing what 1MHz 8-bit processing could do in the day. Old subscription copies to 80Micro are probably recycled by now.
1980's Direct link to this section
The 80's were a time of Rotten Ronnie and punk rock music for me. An Computer Engineering degree too. Moving along with the Trash-80, I got to play with COBOL and develop software encoded on punch cards for digestion and processing on the high school mainframe. Talking about eating up reams of paper! We learned FORTRAN and flow charting at this time and I loved getting 10/10 on exams in those classes. The teacher could not really push me more with his knewledge as his computing abilities were tapped out at a superficial level. The school had some Apple 6502 based machines that could play Castle Wolfenstein, but I never took much of a liking to the Apple brand at that time. They were ugly and had keyboards that would be at home with the Flintstones. I was lucky enough to see an Apple Lisa in action, the pre-cursor to the Mac so many people flocked to in 1984. It was a Manitoba Hydro lab purchase and probably collects dust in some engineers basement.
Once High School was over, it was time to pick a study track at the local University of Manitoba. With 25,000 students and ample faculties to choose from, my choice was made without much real thought or discussion. I knew I liked computers, but I also knew computer scientists were the laughing stock of ultimate nerdiness. I was aping the punk rebel act and being labelled a nerd was outside my comfort zone. I blindly switched allegiance to Engineering becuase I believed Engineers were respected professionals and that Freshman were offered free beer during Frosh week. If only someone would've told me Engineering was all about math, physics and had as many hours in the lab per semester as most other Faculties had lecture time.
The faculty of Computer Engineering, which I chose as my speciality was not even accredited when I signed up. Luckily, it was accredited the year I started, taking some heat off from my parents for choosing a degree where it might not even be recognized by any Engineering Associations. Computer Engineering was quite difficult for me. All the calculus and physics and statistics courses of the regular electrical engineering track, but without the study of motors, generators or hydro power generation/distribution principles. Instead, we few computer engineering students trundled over to the computer science faculty to study with the computer science geeks. The problem for engineering students was in how they fast tracked us! We had to cram a full year of computer science courses in half the time. That made some courses terribly stressful. I remember being really confused writing recursive descent parsers. In time though the studies became easier. I bought the first Amiga computer and a few generations of that line from Commodore. I loved having the most advanced graphical and sound capable computer possible during undergraduate days, a time when a typical PC could do no more than 16 colours and the speaker could only beep. The Amiga was great as a hacking machine and I remember a buddy tricking out his Amiga with a home brew screen capture card and his own networking card. That was some neat hardware engineering coupled with software. I finished my degree successfully with an image processing thesis developing and testing an algorithm that could see differences in atomic structure. Lots of statistics and C code to carry the day and earn that B.Sc. Queue the end of the 1980's. A punk rock music loving educated computer engineer with no real work experience.
1990's Direct link to this section
The 90's opened with my first real job working for a small R&D company based in the National Research Council of Canada building in Winnipeg. The company was the brainchild of Nabil Bassim, a mechanical engineering professor convinced he had solved a very difficult problem in monitoring the growth of fatigue cracks in steel. Fracture mechanics analysed by transducing acoustic signals into electrical signals and trying to pinpoint if a crack was growing by the sound it made under load. In the world of non-destructive testing this was called the study of acoustic emissions or (AE). Our equipment was pretty much all built by hand by the small team of engineers and technicians. The transducers were from California and produced by the genius Hal Dunegan. Small low-noise op-amps fed signals down coax to Z-80, Forth language signal analysis computers. Data collected was filtered and graphed and Nabil would declare it to all be patented perfection.
Monac had a contract to test railway bridges with AE, to determine if cracks were benign or growing. As an engineer, I was developing C software to process data, but I also had to learn to do field testing, setup tests, learn about bridges, stress, strain, fracture mechanics and how to travel vast distances in a van full of expensive gear to towns with one restaurant and one hotel, and cities with ten million inhabitants like New York. We once built a complete system for the city of New York and I was lucky enough to drive the system there, and teach them to use it on the likes of the Queensborough and Brooklyn Bridge. Speaking to a room full of their best structural engineers was humbling in that my provided materials were more mystical in nature than practical, and I sensed some doubt by the engineers in the crowd that our machine was worthy. Working on the New York Hell's Gate Bridge was amusing on the day they rented me a truck with a boom on it that could reach 110 feet in the air. I was like a kid in a candy store with that toy to place with!
In addition to AE, the company branched into structural analysis too, and one fine day we learned that we had won the right to build a custom strain gauge monitoring system for the fabled Montreal Forum. It was built with a bridge to support the roof but with a lot of snow in the winter and travelling rock shows suspending thousands of pounds of equipment from the roof, they needed quantitative numbers to assure them the roof was capable of supporting the loads. Apparently a Metallica concert rolled into town, suspended their tour from the roof trusses and bent the structure enough to make heads swivel. So we set about building accurate strain gauge amps and connected it all up with monitoring software. In the days before Internet we used the telephone system to tap in to the data. I remember a day when I downloaded data from the system, graphed it, and could pinpoint to the nearest minute when a snow storm hit Montreal all the way from my desk in Winnipeg. We tried to focus the company on selling more of these roof monitoring systems, but alas, preventative maintenance products and systems are a tough sell and we only managed to sell one more, to the Lethbridge arena where their Junior hcokey team plays.
The company moved to Montréal and I moved with pleasure to one of the best cities in North America. Culture, fine food, entertainment, a decent climate with longer summers than Winnipeg. I tested over 100 rail bridges and other structures before carefully deciding that I needed a change from working for a small R&D company constantly trying to prove AE worked, or that preventative maintenance was necessary. I started with C programming, learned Matlab, C++, VB, became an expert with Excel analysis of data. I was an MSDN subscriber and believed I knew enough to try something else.
2000's Direct link to this section
I rented an office with some friends and with the money we were offered by clients, we were able to establish some decent contracts for a period of time. We created an email marketing platform that worked wonders well before anything like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp. We dumped VB and Microsoft ASP for PHP. We crafted pretty cool database driven e-commerce sites and developed some niche software for industries like freight forwarding, tradeshow/event logistics, tradeshow display manufacturers and many CMS based systems with Drupal and other programs for clients.