Me, my life experiences, and interests

Currently ...

I am a full-time professor of Photonics, teaching exclusively into the photonics programs, both technician/technology and advanced-lasers certificate programs (and previously in the four-year Bachelor of Applied Technology degree program), at Niagara College in the heart of the Niagara Region in Canada. The region is steeped in history and in it's confines lies some of the finest agricultural lands (with a microclimate formed by the Niagara escarpment) allowing the growth of fruit trees and grapes resulting in the development of many wineries.


Teaching Photonics for over a decade and a half, I have written two books on the subject as well articles in trade encyclopaedias. As well as photonics, other interests include microcontroller and DSP programming and hardware. Once a career, and now relegated to "hobby" status, I have published a few articles outlining projects I have built (many of which are outlined on this site).

My latest book is 'Laser Modeling: A Numerical Approach with Algebra and Calculus' published by CRC Press in 2014 (ISBN 978-1-4665-8250-7). This book takes a rather non-traditional approach to modeling laser systems presenting both algebra- and calculus-based models to predict laser performance. Each technique is introduced alongside a practical, solved example based on a commercial laser.
I am the author of a book entitled 'Fundamentals of Light Sources and Lasers' published by John Wiley & Sons in 2004 (ISBN 0-471-47660-9). Focussing primarily on lasers, the text introduces background concepts necessary to understand lasers including the nature of light itself, blackbody radiation and atomic emission, as well as basic quantum mechanics. Lasers are covered in detail with practical, real-world examples found throughout. The last six chapters of the text outline various laser systems in detail including visible, UV, and IR gas lasers, semiconductor lasers, solid-state lasers, and tunable dye lasers.
As an invited author to the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology (2005), as well as the online edition, I wrote the section on Lasers providing an overview of lasers and related technologies. I have also recently completed the update (2015) of the same article reflecting changes in technology during the past decade (most notably, the shift towards solid-state lasers).
I was recently invited to author an article on lasers for the Ullmann Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, the oldest and most comprehensive reference work in applied chemistry first published in Germany in 1914. The new article will have a predominant application-focus (for example, applications such as multiphoton spectroscopy using femtosecond lasers)
I wrote an article in Circuit Cellar magazine outlining my Color Organ design along with a tutorial or the basic DSP technique of convolution (Issue #249, April 2011). Since developing a DSP course at the college a few years ago, I have employed such techniques for a host of applications, in this case to create three very high performance filters for audio separation. And since the DSP chip offers incredible speed, a constant-volume algorithm was implemented freeing the user from the need to adjust the gain of the device. Finally, a phase-control technique was implemented making the light output truly proportional to the audio intensity.
Most recently, I wrote an article in Circuit Cellar magazine outlining a recording accelerometer (Issue #266, September 2012). Employing an ADXL312 MEMs accelerometer from Analog Devices, this miniature device features a Microchip dsPIC33FJ processor and a 32Mbit ST Flash memory for data storage. Acquired acceleration data may be downloaded to a PC for later analysis. The device was tested on several rides at DisneyWorld - see the Physics@Disney page on this site. Oddly, since the demise of the Computer Engineering Technology program at the college, embedded systems development has become a hobby.

Red Laser WarningA physicist first, an engineer second, I was never sure, at a young age, whether I should become a physicist or an engineer - luckily, I've never had to decide. I have always had an interest in physics and especially in lasers, constructing, at a young age, a number of lasers which I have outlined on my Homebuilt Lasers Site and Science pages.

Current Hobbies and Interests

In reality, I have too many hobbies and given half a chance could find even more ways to spend what little spare time I have. As well as building electronics and microcontroller-based projects (many of which are outlined on this site), I also enjoy woodworking (specifically cabinetry), winemaking, and cooking.

My wife and I enjoy cooking, often experimenting to reproduce, and even surpass, recipes we have tried at various restaurants. One of our latest culinary adventures was the pursuit of the ultimate French onion soup. I have outlined, on my recipe page, several "perfected" recipes as well as a few hard-to-find ethnic recipes such as kifli.

We make our own house wines a few times a year. My tastes have changed gradually from making purely whites (usually a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc) to making more red wines (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). In the past, we had toured many Niagara wineries discovering new tastes. And while beermaking was a flop (with my first batch resembling Newcastle Brown, and my second batch resembling "essence of worn sweat socks"), I enjoy experimenting (i.e. tasting) different beers (who doesn't :) in the summer enjoying lighter lagers like Sleeman Honey Brown and in the winter opting for heavier ales such as Guinness and Upper Canada Dark Ale (with all this 'winter beer' and 'summer beer' talk it begins to sound like a gasoline commercial doesn't it?). As a whole, my favorite beers are usually brewed in an English or Irish style (e.g. Boddingtons or occasionally a Hobgoblin). For a change of taste, I enjoy a nice little Saranac Black Forest, a beer I get when camping in New York state. Black Forest is a German Schwarzbier, a heavy lager similar to Köstritzer.

Over the years, some hobbies (such as skiing, scuba diving, golf, and playing guitar) have waned while other hobbies have become more important to me. When I retire, I'll likely get into model trains - I have always found trains fascinating and worked for CP Rail for a few years developing computerized train control systems. I will probably also have more time to spend on my small vintage computer collection.

I have a few special interests which I have highlighted on this site as well, including ...

History of Technology

Sir Adam Beck (I) Generator

A history buff, I have an interest in both 19th and 20th century history (Ironically, I was not a fan of history when I was a student but now find it fascinating), but my real pet interest is the history of technology. To that end, I have had opportunities to tour numerous old power plants in Niagara including the recently retired Canadian Niagara Power Company's Rankine generating station at the top of Niagara Falls, Sir Adam Beck I at Queenston, and the Decew Falls Plant (which is over 110 years old). None of these plants, when originally built, supplied 60Hz power - most were 25Hz except for the Decew at 66.6Hz! Other technologies I find interesting include Telephone Switching Technologies including the Strowger switch, Nixie tubes, and early steam engine technologies employed engines such as the Newcomen engine.

Another primary interest is military technology and military history (Some of this interest likely grew from growing-up during the Cold War). I find the application of technology in the military to submarines, the atomic bomb, and spaceflight intriguing. To this end, many of the books I have read for recreation are historical in nature (for example Failure is Not an Option which outlines, firsthand, the history of the early spaceflight program). I have also visited a number of museums concerned with military technology including the Military Communications and Electronics Museum in Kingston and the the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Camping and Other Family Stuff ...

DisneyWorld, Florida

As a family, our primary summer and fall activity is camping (teachers have one of the few professions where you can actually get use from a camper). We camp both for relaxation (i.e. "real" camping in wooded areas) as well as a vehicle for touring (for example, our three-week tour of the East Coast in 2006).

We are also certified "Disney Addicts", often escaping to Disneyworld, during the winter or spring.

How I Got Here

Born in the late 60's, I grew up in the 1970's at a time when lunar missions were just ending, and we still got home delivery of milk from Sunnyside Dairy via a horse-drawn cart (No kidding about the horse-drawn cart, I remember our neighbour running out to the street with a shovel after the horse had passed to gather poop fertilizer for his roses :). The vacuum tube was still king (but solid state was coming of age quickly), and my parents were one of the first ones on the block with a colour TV. The TV brought us images of space missions and of the war in Vietnam, and people seemed preoccupied during this 'cold war' period that nuclear war between the superpowers was imminent. TV, too, seemed preoccupied with the whole 'cold war' theme and spy shows like Mission:Impossible (a show I just _couldn't_ miss ... and in the days before the VCR that meant the world had to stop) were all the rage!

Ernie's Shoes Logo Dad owned a shoe store, Ernie's Shoes, on Main street and my brother and I spent a good deal of time there in the back while Mom and Dad tended the store. On weekends, we'd make trips to Preston, Galt, and Kitchener to the shoe factories there to pick-up custom orders. On the way home, we'd tuck ourselves into 'cubby holes' made between the boxes in the back (these were the days long before seat belts were mandatory). And on the way home, we'd often get a special treat, a hot hamburger from either the Knotty Pine or Gulliver's Travels restaurants! On weekends we weren't "on business", we'd go on day trips to places like Burgoyne woods in St. Catharines. Weekend trips were common and we'd go places like the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit as a day trip (leaving very early in the morning, and coming home very late at night).

Menlo Park LabDad had an interest in history of all kinds ... he once said that if he had gone to university he'd have liked to have gone through for a history teacher. In keeping with that, as kids, we visited a lot of historic sites and places. My favorites were places like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn MI. The Henry Ford was a particularly interesting place as it featured many of Edison's labs including the Menlo Park lab pictured here. Another prized collection of the museum is one of the oldest Newcomen engines in existence.

A bit of that love of history rubbed-off on me and today I have an interest in the history of technology. The Niagara area, in what was the industrialized north, has a wealth of historical sites of interest including several generating stations which are 100-years-plus old! I have outlined several on this site.

OSC LogoI took an interest to electricity quite early - ever since Dad had build a flashlight on a yardstick using D cell batteries and a flashlight bulb. As a child, I'm told I liked to string extension cords all over the house and "wire it up" ... I found all things electrical interesting! As time went on, I started reading electronics magazines (both old amateur radio magazines from the 60's as well as Elementary Electronics and other contemporary magazine) and began building projects outright - some in kit form (like Radio Shack P-Box kits) and others from those magazines. Rather simultaneously, my interest in science also developed. One of my favourite places to visit for inspiration was the Ontario Science Center in Toronto (it was an annual trip) where I particularly enjoyed playing with the computers there (they had a large PDP-11 which played tic-tac-toe) as well as seeing the laser demo ... lasers were especially fascinating!

At home, there were a number of diversions including a large (8 foot by 8 foot) train set we had in the basement. As a kid, we'd swing by Niagara Central Hobbies on St. Paul street in St. Catharines - even when closed you could operate the train set in the display window via a capacitance-operated hand-shaped switch on the window. I liked trains, even as a child, and we'd often walk down main street to see trains crossing there (in the early 70's, trains frequently crossed through town on a multi-track main line which passed the busy Atlas Steels plant in the middle of town). There was even a neat wooden switch tower near that crossing.

Roller AlleyGrowing up, I wasn't a total geek (close to it, mind you, but not totally). One of my favourite pastimes in the late 70's / early 80's was roller skating. Welland had an excellent roller rink at the time (the Roller Alley) and I spent a good deal of time there. They played everything from disco to new wave ... I even had a "Roller Boogie" T-shirt so popular before the "Disco Sucks" backlash of 1979 which led to embracement of "new wave" (with acts like Devo, 'M', the B-52's, and Duran Duran). Roller skating died as fast as it arrived, and the Roller Alley sat dormant for years, eventually becoming a Fabricland. I enjoyed music since the mid 70's and that interest certainly grew. By the mid 80's I had migrated to more 'alternative' tastes such as the acts featured on Toronto's CFNY (acts like Thomas Dolby, Propaganda, New Order, and Kraftwerk).

Other diversions from my purely "techie" interests were provided by my older brother. A "car jockey", he also built dune buggies from old VW Beetles and seemed to take pleasure in getting me to drive them despite my apparent lack of driving abilities and usual difficulties involving a novice driver encountering a standard transmission (which resulted, one winter day in which I drove a Beetle around our snow-covered crescent, in placement of said Beetle on top of a large mound of snow requiring the digging-out of the vehicle). I owe a great deal of the "worldly" part of my education to him!

Growing up, I did OK in school (although was preoccupied with "fun" stuff that had nothing to do with my studies), and my interest in both science and engineering progressed (that was the "fun" stuff I mentioned). I migrated from basic electronics (like those P-Box kits, as well as building colour organs and other projects) to digital electronics and computers and in 1979 I got my first "real" computer, an Ohio Scientific Superboard. I spent soooooo many hours teaching myself the BASIC computer language and writing programs on this machine which featured 8K of memory (that's 8192 bytes) and stored programs on a cassette recorder. It was around this time, as well, that my parents bought me my first laser: a HeNe laser kit in which I had to assemble the power supply from a bag of parts and a schematic. Owning a laser, back then, was a bit like having your own interstellar spacecraft (or so I thought).

During school (beginning in grade seven) and throughout high school I entered science fairs and this was the primary vehicle which drove my interest in science. Science fair projects allowed me to combine my love of electronics and computers with my interest in science and so was the perfect outlet for me. Not surprisingly, many of my projects involved lasers: starting with that HeNe kit I got and progressing to completely homebuilt devices including several gas lasers (argon and nitrogen) and dye lasers (both nitrogen-laser and flashlamp pumped). My science fair experiences reached an apex when I won first place in Physics at the 35th International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Columbus, Ohio. My Science and Lasers Page contains many personal reflections and memoirs including my experiences at the Niagara Regional Science and Engineering Fair (NRSEF) and International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) which shaped my interests.

After high school I avoided reality pursued academic excellence at the University of Waterloo and McMaster University for seven years earning a degree in honours physics (from the University of Waterloo) and later computer engineering (from McMaster University) ... I did mention that I was never sure whether I should be a physicist or an engineer didn't I? During my time as a student I had the usual summer jobs (like programming a custom POS system for a photo shop on a DEC Rainbow computer running dBASE-2). I went on to do more database programming and installing Novell networks which later spun into a business which helped put me through school.

Of course, it wasn't all academic work and along the way I "played" with the same kind of stuff I started-with years ago. As well as studying computers at University (I took several electives in programming), I learned how to program microprocessors (a Z8 microcontroller and later the Zilog Z-80 micro). With a few friends, we'd make a bi-annual trip to Toronto to shop the electronics stores there often scooping some great deals on computer parts. I even built an updated colour organ when in school (I'd built several, my first around 1977) - this time employing active filters using OP-Amps instead of insensitive discrete RC circuits. Along the way, I got involved in building a few high-voltage devices as well.

CP Rail Logo I did seven years of University and upon graduation as an engineer (can't be a professional student forever, I guess), I went to work for the control systems group at CP Rail developing train control systems, primarily a client-server based OCS (Occupancy Control System) running under OS/2. I learned a lot about programming at that position, including pre-emptive multitasking and inter-process communications (all under OS/2 while at CP). I became the 'comms' guy of the group specializing in communications systems (including RPCs). Long before that, though, I had a fascination with trains and specifically control and signalling systems, so this position was right up my alley!

I am a licensed Professional Engineer (P. Eng.) in the province of Ontario and a while back I 'moonlighted' as an engineer with VanDenTech Engineering specializing in embedded-systems solutions for industrial motor and power control applications such as large motors (up to 30,000 hp) and control systems such as PID controls.

Niagara CollegeIn 1994, long before the photonics programs were even conceived, I came to the college as a professor of computer engineering technology teaching, primarily, hardware design (REAL hardware, like address and data busses, I/O chips, and all that jazz). For years, I taught a project-based microcontroller design course in which students designed and built a project of their choosing, most involving control systems.

I have utilized many microprocessors in past projects including the 6502, Z80 (my old fave), Z8 (another old fave - I like Zilog I guess), and dabbled with the 68000. Nowadays I pretty-much exclusively develop systems using PIC (RISC) processors including the PIC18F and the dsPIC30/33 series of processors - both used in courses I previously taught. The new dsPIC processors are particularly exciting since they offer a 16-bit core coupled with a DSP processor featuring 40-bit accumulators. In many ways, the processor seems to have all of the best features of many of my favourite processors from the past including a register bank (W registers) resembling those of a PDP-11. On the software side I pretty much use C/C++ exclusively for programming on a PC, usually to support PC-based front-ends (e.g. the logic analyzer project which has a front-end that runs on a PC and was programmed in C++ ... a PC makes an excellent unit for graphics display).

I began teaching at the college in the fall of 1994 and was coordinator from the fall of 1994 until the spring of 2005. Originally coordinator of the computer engineering technology program as well as first-year coordinator, during my tenure I initiated the computer engineering technician program and from there I was coordinator of the computer engineering technician and technology programs. While I was originally hired to teach into the Computer engineering technology program, with the start of the Photonics program in the early 2000's (and the demise of the Computer Engineering Technology program a few years ago), I have come "back to my roots" teaching lasers.