Category Archives: Science

Show Me the Data!

Too many decisions are made with questionable–or worse, self-serving–data. Even worse, they are made for us rather than by us.

In Washington, DC there is a five cent charge for each plastic bag you use at the store. I, like almost everyone else, am tired of seeing those bags stuck in trees, fences, etc. My family recycles about 95 percent of the plastic bags we receive, including the ones in which the newspaper is delivered. The other five percent are repurposed as litter bags, to wrap shoes before they go into the luggage, and for many years, to separate one string of Christmas lights from the others when the season was done.

The idea, I guess, is to use reusable bags, which require energy and raw materials (look–there goes the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) and reusable bags have microbes delivered  by the fresh fruit and vegetables. The microbes that remain in the bag have nothing better to do that to wait for the next shopping trip. Drop in an orange or two, a banana, and some grapes and the microbes are off on a reproductive orgy.

So, the answer, apparently, is to wash the reusable bags, but water is also a precious commodity in short supply. Is washing reusable grocery bags more ecologically sound than single-use bags that can be recycled?

I’ve yet to see definitive data on any of this to guide me in my decision. However, I do believe that there is a segment of the population who will discard the plastic bag, along with the various wrappers, skins, or bones of the initial contents inappropriately (i.e. on the ground somewhere outside the store).

They say you can’t legislate morality. Likewise you can’t make stupidity or callousness punishable acts. The people who care, will continue to care. The people who don’t, won’t.

In the meantime, can someone show me the data thata will tell me the magic combination for carrying groceries home?

Us vs. Me

 

illustration-of-human-evolution-ending-with-smart-phone-resize

“Wait, I need to take a selfie!”

Far too many events today are due to decisions by people who think only of themselves.

This is unnatural.

The hermit, alone in his cave, has always been an idiosyncratic caricature. The word hermit is derived from the word for desert or desert dweller. Deserts are not particularly attractive to people who depend on hunting and gathering. Deserts are more successful as after the invention of are air-conditioned houses and refrigerated food trucks. (Casinos, although optional, seem inevitable.)

Humans from earliest times sought out one another.  Our ancestors, the Homo erectus, (stop thinking dirty thoughts–it refers to having the ability to stand upright) or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis  tended to keep their families together, eventually becoming tribes. Some believe that the reason that there are no identifiable descendants of the Neanderthals is because the two groups combined and interbred, ultimately resulting in us, Homo sapiens.

We belong together, but sometimes are reluctant to admit it. As such, in order to survive and prosper, we must look at things in terms of the common good. Life is not a zero-sum game (if I win, you lose). It is a life-or-death struggle in which WE win or lose.

I could wax poetic for another 300 pages, which I might enjoy, but WE, as a totality, would not, so I’ll stop.

* Links courtesy of Wikipedia. If you use Wikipedia, then use PayPal to send them a few bucks–better yet, a few bucks a month.

Tithing

In ancient times, the Israelites, or if you prefer, the Jews, were expected to set the first ten percent of their harvest aside as an offering to God. Many of us–Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, have roots reaching back to that same practice. Of course, back then, they slaughtered animals, the priests took a portion for their services–after all, they did not farm or own herds–but the rest was burnt on the altar as a sacrifice.

Most churches today, wouldn’t know what to do if someone placed a lamb in the collection basket. Even worse, the children in the congregation would be traumatized by the idea that a cute little lamb (although they really are dirty and stupid creatures)  would be slaughtered (even though they might very well enjoy that same lamb–with mint jelly–if it were packaged on a Styrofoam tray covered with shrink wrap at the grocery store).

It’s a different world. Today, very few of us raise sheep (my friends in New Zealand excepted, of course), so that’s not what we bring as a sacrifice. So what do we offer?

  • Church goers often donate cash to their church.
  • Many people donate money or goods to various charitable organizations.
  • Some people donate time to soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless.

But their are other opportunities to contribute to the good of all, even if you can’t help out at a soup kitchen and wouldn’t know which end of a hammer to use for Habitats for Humanity.

You can donate computer time. and it’s painless.

When you are not using your computer, you can let it work for others. Calculations that once required a supercomputer are now divided up into byte-sized (sorry about the pun) chunks and sent to thousands of personal computers. Each personal computer is limited; a hundred personal computers has possibilities; a thousand personal computer is awesome.

A million personal computer working on a problem might just solve it.

If you participate, you can set your computer to work on such issues whenever you aren’t using it. There are sites working to track asteroids that threaten the earth, the cure for various diseases, the global warming issue–does it exist? What causes it, and what should we do?

There are a variety of other questions to be answered. Curious? Check out

boinc.berkeley.edu.

 

A Slight Diversion

Just an update —–

I’ve continued to work on my story, but there is my day job, and, because of my interest in electronics, I recently acquired a 3-D printer kit and assembled it over the weekend. That’s the problem with radio–it entices you to keep on wanting to learn new things.

SONY DSC

I’m working on learning the software, so I haven’t printed any three-dimensional thingies just yet.

Don’t worry, I consulted with the key characters in my story, and they approved. They told me it’s what they would have done.

Radio – STEM Applied

Too many things today, in my opinion, are observer activities rather than ones that encourage participation. The term “couch potato” was coined to describe the sentient state television induced on humans.  Commercial radio and television behave the same way whether we’re involved or not; I’ve never intentionally watched a soap opera, but they are broadcast nevertheless.

However, there are participatory activities; you can probably guess where this is going.

My favorite means of interacting with radio is Amateur Radio; why “amateur?” because ham radio operators, by law, cannot charge for providing communications via ham radio. Why “ham” radio? No one knows; there are dozens of theories, but none of them can be proven.

So why does amateur radio even exist, and how is it different from CB, Family Radio Service, or, for that matter, cellphones?

sam-cristoforetti-01-320

Samantha Cristoforetti (Amateur Radio Call Sign IZ0UDF) is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Italian Air Force pilot, engineer, and Star Trek fan. 

Amateur radio is a service, defined by federal law (the Code of Federal Regulation, Title 47, Subchapter D, Part 97). As a service, this places certain obligations and requirements on those who are licensed. The first portion of the law explains its basis and purpose; I’ll give you the condensed version.

First, amateur radio is valuable because it provides noncommercial communications, particularly during emergencies. As a friend used to say, amateur radio exists to support emergencies. If there’s no emergency—have fun.

When Puerto Rico got hit (twice) by Hurricane Maria, virtually every mode of communications was disrupted, and that means cellphones, internet, wired telephones, television, etc. FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Administration) and relief organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc. relied on amateur radio operators for communications. (one of my colleagues provided communications and has an excellent brief, if you’re interested.)

Second, amateur radio is intended to advance the art of communication. Make no mistake, it is an art; in far too many places,  it is a lost art.

The purpose of communications is, and should be, the means to share ideas. Far too often, though, it has been replaced by people who talk just to hear their own voice.

Third, the law addresses advancing skills for both communications and technical capabilities.

While ham radio uses voice for communications and Morse code, there are dozens of digital data modes, several ways of sending television, and some that use technology originally developed by a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, who just happens to be a ham.

Fourth, to expand the number of trained operators, technicians and electronics experts.

Amateur radio requires a license. However, having proven an understanding of electronics theory, rules, regulations, and proper operating procedures, hams can design and build their own equipment, able to transmit up to 1,500 watts. (By comparison, CB is 4 watts and cellphones 0.2 watts.)

Fifth, Continuation and extension of the amateur’s unique ability to enhance international goodwill.

Unlike the trolls on social media, hams are licensed and therefore not anonymous. In fact, standard practice is to follow up a radio conversation with a “QSL” card to confirm the contact. The card may be a physical post card, or it may be electronic; in either case, it includes the ham’s full name and address plus technical details. Hams collect this information and are proud of how may other hams in other countries they’ve contacted. .

Incidentally, the International Space Station has both a Russian and an American ham radio station. When their workload permits, astronauts schedule time to talk with children at their schools to encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Unfortunately, with the shuttle traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, conversations are short. At that speed, the shuttle is overhead for only about 8 minutes. However, to a seventh grader who gets to talk to an astronaut, what an exciting 8 minutes they are.

Want to know more? Try the American Radio Relay League , email me (steve@sfnowak.com) or add a comment; I’ll try to give a good answer that we can share with others.

All th best, or as we hams say, “73!”

Still Thinking about Radio

Why, you are probably asking, am I so fascinated by radio? While the media’s use of radio, television, and social media sensationalizes and encourages controversy, argumentativeness, and even violence, I find that focusing on the technical application of physics is far more enjoyable.

Back in the day, you could take things apart to see how they worked, and even try putting them back together. A mechanical alarm clock that was headed for the trash is a perfect example–all those gears. It was expected that when you tried to put it back together, there would be pieces left over, but it still gave you some idea as to how it worked–and that was without a Youtube video to explain it. Then there was the other direction–building things–anything–not huge projects, but small and interesting ones.

cat whisker

Did you ever  build (or even see) a crystal radio? A length of wire for an antenna, a second wound around a tube (such as a toilet paper tube), another wire connected to a ground—such as the center screw in an electrical outlet a galena crystal, and a set of headphones. By moving a flexible wire around the crystal, it is possible to tune in a station. In the Second World War, soldiers would build a “fox-hole” radio using a razor blade as the crystal and a pencil lead for the cat’s whisker. When I built my first crystal radio, I began to understand how a basic radio receiver works and was hooked.

I built my first computer, which arrived in the mail and consisted of a circuit board and a plastic bag full of parts. It initially had 256 BYTES of memory and had to be programmed using hexadecimal numbers (that’s where you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10). By the time I was done with it, it had 8 kilobytes, stored programs and data on cassette tapes, used a mechanical teletype and I programmed it using “Tiny Basic.”

Could I build a smartphone? No, I cannot, but then neither can you. I do, however, have a conceptual understanding—and can explain—how the various parts of a smartphone work and how those parts are integrated. When I’ve asked my kids if they understood how theirs worked, their expression seemed to indicate wonderment as to why anyone would ever want to know.

There’s hope, though, through the MAKE movement, which encourages young people–especially girls–to build, modify, and experiment. I hope they enjoy it. Al I can say is that over the years, my interest in radio and the electromagnetic spectrum has caused me to learn, but more importantly, to think.

I Like Radio

I like radio.

In fact, I’m fascinated by the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some consider it overreach to include direct current, like the electricity produced by a battery, but the AC electricity that powers most homes and offices definitely belongs. AC power oscillates, changing direction and then back again in some approximation of a sine wave.

sine

For most AC power in America, this occurs 60 times per second. For years, this was to as 60 cycles per second until the late 1960s when it was changed to “Hertz” (Hz). This name change was to honor Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves. Unfortunately, since Hertz had been dead since 1894, we was totally unaware of the honor. Perhaps the living physicists put their sliderules and partied to songs like John Mellencamp’s Hertz so Good. [I know the song was recorded at least ten years later, but physicists are not big partiers, so it may have taken them a while to pull things together.]

spectrum

There are radio waves as low as 3 – 30 Hz, referred to as “Extremely Low Frequency,” but most of us don’t notice them until somewhere around the AM Broadcast band. The spectrum continues through shortwave, or high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF), which includes television*, FM radio, and aircraft communication. Ultra high frequency (UHF) include a number of other radio services, including cell phones. Microwaves, which are useful for radar and reheating leftovers start around 1 gigahertz (GHz) up to about 40 GHz, are next.

Going up. Next stop includes infrared through ultraviolet; smack dab in the middle is visible light. I think it’s safe to say that visible light was the first segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to which humans were aware. In fact, to many people, “spectrum” is what you see with a prism or in a rainbow.

Once you get above ultraviolet, there are X-rays and Gamma Rays, which have the ability to pass through matter and create an image that can be recorded. However, they also have an additional characteristic—they become ionizing, which means that they can change the electrical charges in matter. Ionizing radiation can cause cells to mutate. While comic book storylines propose that mutations result in superpowers, that’s just a STORYline. In actuality most mutations are bad; however, bad mutations can be useful, if applied to a confined area, such as a cancerous tumor. When the cancerous cells mutate, they often die.

To the best of my knowledge, the only thing above gamma rays are cosmic rays, but who knows what remains to be discovered.

Don’t touch that dial. I’ll be back soon with even more.

* I find it disappointing that many people do not know that with a simple indoor antenna your HD flatscreen smart television will receive the local television stations without cable. Picture quality is almost always better, because the signal doesn’t have to be compressed the way it is for cable. In addition, when television switched from analog to digital, they each ended up with three channels that fit in the same bandwidth as the old analog system. Since it’s “use it or lose it,” the other two channels tend to rely on shows that are far less expensive—so you may find Soupy Sales or Mr. Ed. Finally, since a smart TV connects to the internet through your wireless router, you can still access Netflix, Amazon, etc., all without the television being connected to the cable.

The CES and Other Illusions

Every year I read about the great new products at the Consume Electronic Show, this year held 8 – 12 January in Las Vegas. The products are marvelous. They’re amazing. They’re introduced amid a glamor of models, cosplayers, and celebrities. They represent the cutting edge of technology.

Unfortunately, most of us will see, much less be able to use most of them. Like, where are the flying cars?

Driverless cars, domestic robots, virtual 3-D that’s adult—NOT porn (I’m not kidding, that’s what they say), and (wait for it) the ability to see INSIDE YOUR HAIR! Now, given that I have much less hair than I did in my younger days, that just might be important to me. Can I stop by WalMart, BestBuy, or even Brookstone and pick one up? Not so much.

There are the latest video games (yawn)—but—wait! Here’s something special— a smart kitty litter box! Something practical—but it’s for the show, not the store.

Oh well.

I’d write more, but I need to go sweep up around the plain, old-fashioned, low-tech kitty litter box.

XMAS, Improved

My friend, Rick Martinez, with whom I’ve shared wonderful intellectual and philosophical conversations—as well as my writing efforts throughout the years—comments on some of my blogs. This is in response to my last blog, and is a beautiful thought for the season. I formatted it as a blog, but the thoughts and words are Rick’s, unchanged.

Thank you, Steve, for writing about Christmas—the Birth of Christ. No matter of all the “scientific” facts surrounding when Jesus was born and who believes what–there’s at least two general things we all acknowledge and accept as true. At the time and in the area of Christ’s birth, what was true 2000 years ago continues to be true today–some 2000 years later: There were believers and non-believers and warring factions back then as there are now. And–for Christians all over the world, the most tragic words ever written of our Lord are those set down by the Apostle John in the beginning of his Gospel:

He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Bethlehem had no room for Him when He was born;

Nazareth, no room for Him when He lived; and

Jerusalem, no room for Him when He died.

It’s Different for Some People

Nice shirts!

I noticed that the story about the UCLA jocks who were arrested for shoplifting in China disappeared pretty quickly. Some stories stay on the Internet news sites as “Breaking News” for weeks, but not this one.

I wonder why.

You had to love the press conference that was arranged for their public apology where they were all wearing matching UnderArmour shirts with the UCLA logo.

Do you think they all might have stopped to buy those shirts together at the campus bookstore? I’m not saying the company gave them to the school, who then gave them to the ball players. But, then again . . . .

What if, instead of jocks, this incident had involved science, technology, engineering and mathematics students? Would the President have gone to the Chinese leader and asked for them to be released?

Silly question:

  1. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba would never invite boring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students for an all-expense paid trip to China.
  2. Those are the kind of people who know that it’s wrong to steal sunglasses from anybody on any continent for any reason.

Finding Life

I’m sure that over the past ten years I’ve mentioned this—at least once or twice, if not more.

We’re having a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Friday. I usually contribute jambalaya, but this time I decided to bake bread—sourdough bread. In the 19th century, during the gold rush, someone discovered that there were microbes in the air near San Francisco that would not only leaven bread, but also give it a crisp crust and a savory almost sour flavor. Sourdough has been popular ever since, to the point that we don’t even realize that it is routinely overpriced.

For a while it was claimed (and maybe even believed) that you could only make sourdough in the climate conditions found in the Bay Area. Fortunately, that’s not true.

I bought a sourdough “kit,” which included dried sourdough starter (which included some of the lactobacilli that make the magic happen), a crock for storing starter, and a book of recipes. That was in 1982, and I’ve kept it going ever since. This has not always been easy, especially with a few deployments taking me out of the home scene.

Nevertheless, the starter has lived long and prospered. Today it was combined with flour and water to make the “sponge,” the first step in making sourdough bread. As I write this, the  lactobacilli should have everything under their control. I have already returned  a cup of sponge to the crock to be the starter for the next batch and carefully placed the crock in the back of the refrigerator.

I’ve added more flour, water , and salt to the mixture, and tomorrow it will be formed into loaves and baked. I will literally “break bread” with my coworkers.

I see sourdough the way I view wine and cheese; it is what it is because we combine living organisms with the hand of man. Wheat is alive, we harvest it, and it dies, but when we add yeast–or better yet, sourdough starter, it lives again and morphs into something new and better. Then we share it, which is another living thing.

I’m told that there’s an old Russian saying, “Where there’s food, their’s life. Where there’s life, there’s hope.” You may not agree with their politics, but you must give Russian philosophers their due.

Pass the bread, wine, and cheese. Share life.

P.S. Most of this was typed one-handed because Alex the parrot claimed the other hand as her perch.

Spreadsheets

If you’re reading this, you probably have at least a basic understanding of computers—whoa! Don’t leave! Bear with me for a minute.

I used to communicate with others on NetZero dialup and write articles on a DOS (that’s disk operating system—pre-Windows for you youngsters) word processor. The first spreadsheet program I recall was Lotus 1-2-3, once a powerhouse, but now an answer to some stupid question on Jeopardy. We’re so used to spreadsheets that we have no appreciation as to why they were the first “killer apps.”

No, really! That’s how it was done!

Prior to the 1980s, complex production was tracked on the manual equivalent of spreadsheets. Seriously. We’re talking about blackboards (yes, real chalk boards—not whiteboards; you never got a buzz from chalk dust, just a nasty cough). Businesses would have huge blackboards mounted on the walls and/or wheeled stands—not one blackboard, mind you, but many. The blackboards were set up with grids, and if a change occurred in one variable, the person tracking it would go from blackboard to blackboard, updating the appropriate sections.

Maybe it’s easier with an example. If chairs usually cost $10, but the price changed to $12 and the company had orders for 15 rather than the usual 10, the human Excel operator would go to the place on the blackboard where chair costs were written and change it from $10 to $12. He (the male to female ratio of geeks was even worse back then) would then go to the place where quantity was tracked and change the 10 to 15; it could be the next blackboard or one in a different room. Next, he’d replace $100 (10 chairs at $10 each) with $180 (15 chairs at $12 each). A small mistake (is that 180 or 160? I can’t read my own handwriting) in one part of the blackboard jungle would cascade throughout, and might take days to correct.

Today, almost every computer seems to have Microsoft Office, which includes Excel, an extremely powerful program. I’m told that over 80 percent of Excel users are only able to utilize about 5 percent of its capabilities, but still are able to accomplish almost everything they want to do.

All that on one screen with no chalk dust.

The Brain? Abby Normal

foot

Aaron Hernandez (the late football star) is in the news because he committed suicide while in prison after he was sentenced for murder. His dead body provided shocking information that medical science was not able to discern; his autopsy showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Now, let me get this straight—it’s the twenty-first century, and instead of having flying cars (dammit!) we are just beginning to realize that if you hit someone in the head, over and over, it affects them. It impairs their judgement, causes mood swings, and inappropriate behavior.

Well, we’d better stop that—unless getting hit in the head is part of a professional sport that generates millions of dollars in revenue.

Sounds curiously like the justification for the gladiators fighting to the death in the Roman Coliseum. That, of course, pleased the crowds, but was barbaric.

We’d never stoop so low today, but, if it has major network coverage, instant replays with everything coordinated to accommodate commercial breaks, and attractive cheerleaders, it’s okay. Hell, we’ll have a dedicated section of the newspaper every day!

Hmm.

Being surprised that repeated head trauma causes problems is kind of like the medical logic that “if you shove an ice-pick up somebody’s nose far enough so that it reaches the brain and you wiggle it back and forth, they act differently afterward.”

Is it just me, or are we missing the blazingly obvious?

Maybe I should just shut up and bang my head against the wall repeatedly, until it makes sense.

Autumnal Equinox

Throughout the year, the time allotted to daylight each day changes. Longer times of daylight coincide with summer, which is different north and south of the equator. Summer is when the earth’s tilt favors one hemisphere or another.

Near the poles, summer daylight gets so long that at its peak there is no night; the sun just makes a circle above the horizon. Of course, in winter, that means that there are l-o-n-g nights. Even here in North America, within the lower 48 states, the difference between sunrise in Maine and sunrise in Florida on any given day can be significant. Add the difference at dusk, and you find that sunny Florida gets a shorter amount of daylight than chilly Maine.

But there are two days a year, the vernal (spring) equinox and autumnal (fall) equinox during which the amount of daylight and dark are approximately equal—approximate because you have to allow for variations due to refraction, etc. It doesn’t happen on the same date each year; the autumnal equinox, for example occurs anywhere between 21 September and 24 September.

Incidentally equinox is constructed from the Latin words for equal and night. I have to wonder why they didn’t call it equal day. Perhaps day was time for work, but the parties and other fun happened at night.

Friday, 22 September, is the autumnal equinox, when light and dark are pretty much equal. Maybe we should take some inspiration and focus on where we could be pretty much equal. For example, spending the same amount of time listening and thinking about what was said to match thinking of what we’re going to say and talking. (Don’t forget to include the time to think).

If everyone did this, it could be a celestial event of astronomic proportions.

Mother Nature and the Odds

I live in an area that has experienced hurricanes, but not since 2011. Some around here now feel that we’re free of that threat. There might be some truth, at least for a while, given that current weather trends tend to have wind shear that trim the tops of hurricanes, weakening them, and there is a natural pattern that tends to push the storms back out into the Atlantic.

We’re good, right? After all, once a weather pattern occurs, it doesn’t change—does it?

Long ago, in statistics class I was taught an interesting fact. You flip an honest coin 100 times, and it comes up heads each time. What are the odds it will come up heads on the next flip?

Fifty-fifty.

We’ve blamed el Nino, la Nina, butterflies in Africa, etc. I don’t think we’ve quite figured anything out.

Pondering the Eclipse

solar_eclipse_nasa

Today’s eclipse – courtesy NASA

In ancient times, an eclipse was a terrifying event. It was often interpreted as God, god, or gods anger. It was a message for people to repent and change their ways.

Naturally, we’re far too sophisticated to let a predictable passing of the moon between the sun and earth concern us. We understand science and math, physics and astrophysics.

But, then again, if you look at the state of the world today, maybe it would be good to repent and change our ways.

Football In the Future

Football Hall of Fame Re-opens

Newly remodeled Football Hall of Remembrance opens to celebrate Traumatic Brain Injury.

SATIRE AFFILIATED PRESS
CANTON, OHIO 11 September 2035

Although American style football has been banned, the Football Hall of Remembrance—formerly the Football Hall of Fame—is still a popular tourist attraction. It’s remodeling was recently completed and the familiar football roof is now surmounted by an artist’s conception of traumatic brain injury. Over the front door, the entryway features a bronze relief of a player being carted off the field after, as they used to say, “Having his bell rung.”

While the exhibits still include trophies, helmets, jerseys, and other game paraphernalia, it’s the preserved brain tissue and MRI scans that are today’s favorite. Visitors can view the pathology, then try to guess to which famous player the brain once belonged. Pressing a touch screen, the player’s name, teams, scores, and number of concussions is displayed. Original plans included videos of interviews with former players, but many could no longer communicate, being content to babble incoherently, or stop mid-sentence with, “What did you just ask me?”

Taking a page from big tobacco’s playbook, the industry insisted for years that football was not dangerous; eventually there were too many injuries at the high school, university, and professional levels to ignore. Professional teams found that medical insurance costs exceeded revenues—even if the revenue from sale of team products like hats and jerseys are included. With the profits gone, most owners took their investments elsewhere. Unfortunately, this left many cities with substantial debt for stadiums they built. Many are crumbling and have been condemned because of the degree of deterioration; there’s reason to repair them and no money to tear them down. Universities initially expected a huge financial crisis, but found that the sport had actually not been a money maker, in terms of real cash, but a huge annual loss. Without football many universities were able to improve facilities and pay teachers better.

Football, is gone, but not forgotten—except by those who played the game and had their bells rung too many times.

Only a Loan

Mother Nature loans us many things, but we need to remember that they’re only a loan.

Hurricane-Katrina-FloodingNorfolk, Virginia has much of its downtown built on filled in waterways and swamps. The area already tends to flood with nor’easters, and tropical storms, but with rising sea levels, flooding is expected to happen more often. Since there are people and businesses already established in the area, government officials are exploring possibilities such as levees, flood walls, and whatever the latest technology offers to prevent loss of life and property.

I understand. Where I live used to have a moderate risk of flooding, but as more of the area was developed the waterflow reversed. Low-lying wooded areas were clear-cut, raised five feet, and houses built so that instead of absorbing the rainwater, it now flows into my neighborhood. Bummer. Maybe if I replace my lawn with rice it will work better.

Mother Nature only loans us geography. I used to live in Louisiana. Mother Nature wants to move the Mississippi River west into the Atchafalaya basin. The United States Army, Corps of Engineers have been tasked with keeping the Mississippi River where it is. They’ve been mostly successful, except for the occasional world-class disaster like Katrina. History has shown that if weather doesn’t satisfy Mother Nature’s requirements, the occasional earthquake will. The New Madrid Fault in the early 19th century caused the Mississippi to flow backward for several days and reroute itself.

These issues are not unique to Norfolk and Louisiana. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, which is built on what was the Black Swamp. Part of Downtown Chicago is built on the rubble from the great Chicago Fire, which was tossed onto the shore of Lake Michigan. Enough of Florida is built on drained swamps, or the equivalent, and so much groundwater is extracted that sinkholes routinely swallow cars or even houses.

Mother Nature loaned us these areas. I hope she doesn’t want them all back too soon.

Goodbye to an Old Friend

Long before my time, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann started a business to cater to the new field of wireless—specifically, amateur radio. They called their business Radio Shack.

rs

Why? Ships were among the first to adopt wireless communications, and since early transmitters created a signal by generating a huge spark, there was the risk of starting a fire. To minimize risk, the radio equipment was placed on the main deck, in a separate small building, which came to be called the radio shack.

Ham radio operators (no one knows for sure why they’re called “hams”) tended to call the place where their radio station was located as the radio shack, or ham shack. Amateur radio was shut down during both world wars, but hams returned to the air as soon as it was legal to do so. The end of the Second World War provided an added advantage with huge selection of inexpensively priced military surplus radio equipment.

When I was a youngster, there were a few radio stores around town where you could buy components or tools. However, periodically the mailman would deliver a catalog from Lafayette, Allied, or Olsen Electronics. The Sears Christmas toy catalog couldn’t compete with these for the pure lust they generated. I remember building a set of Knight Kit walkie talkies, purchased from Allied.

In the late 1960s, Allied began opening stores in malls, outcompeting most the other companies, which gradually faded away. Allied purchased Radio Shack, but the combined Allied-Radio Shack was determined to be too monopolistic, and the two companies were split up. Allied became the industrial supplier while Radio Shack stayed as the retailer in the malls. Radio Shack sold things that you couldn’t find elsewhere. The TRS-80 computer was one of the first personal computers. They introduced a pocket-sized computer and one of the first laptops. Radio Shack had a niche market—the nerds—but nerds were paying $2,500 for a radio shack computer before the general population knew personal computers existed.

You could find all the parts to build a stereo from tuner to speaker wire. How about a multimeter and a soldering iron? They sold CB radios, of course, but also some ham radio transceivers. Most everything was manufactured by someone else, but carried one of Radio Shack’s brand names.

If you were working on a project and need a 47 ohm resistor (usual price, 10 cents—Radio Shack price, two dollars) you could drive to the mall on a Sunday and finish your project before dinner, even on a Sunday afternoon. Yeah, their components were overpriced, but the convenience made it worth it.

Then, one fateful day, the brainless
pencilnecks management of Radio Shack decided to sell the same products (e.g., cell phones) that you could buy for less money at Best Buy, WalMart, RiteAid, etc.

I’ve been told by Radio Shack managers that the really profitable part of the store was the parts section with those overpriced resistors, capacitors, and semiconductors. You know, the ones you could buy whenever you needed them? The parts selection went from a large section of wall to a metal cabinet with multiple drawers. I think the cabinet got smaller, but in any case, there were fewer and fewer parts available. Cell phones—no problem. Parts? Sorry.

I hear that Radio Shack is still sort of, kind of, in business, but you couldn’t prove it by me. The last local store is now empty. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, you only hear about someone who knows someone whose brother-in-law saw one. It’s too bad—they could have coasted a few more years just on what I spent there.

Medical School Rationing

Fixing Healthcare – Part 2 — Doctors

I’ve known many intelligent, talented, committed young people who aspired to become doctors, but couldn’t get into medical school. Some were resigned to their fate and used their degree in biochemistry to become medical technologists; others made arrangements to attend medical school outside the United States—primarily in the Caribbean. In one case, in order to study at a school in the Caribbean, the aspiring medical student’s parents sold virtually everything to finance her education. She’s nearly complete with her rotations back here at US hospitals and plans on serving rural or tribal underserved areas.

While we don’t have enough graduates of United States medical schools, we grant 85,000 special visas to foreign medical graduates every year because it’s a “critical shortage.” Today, roughly one quarter of all practicing physicians are foreign medical graduates. I’ve worked with many, and while their initial desire is to return home, after about six months the sports car and the arm-candy significant other appears. When I ask if their plans have changed, I’ve been told, “If I return home, I will be paid in chickens and melons. If I stay here, I will be paid in dollars. I like dollars better than chickens and melons.”

So, we import thousands of non-American doctors every year even though we have many Americans who want to study medicine but are turned away.

A decade or so ago, when more students wanted to study law, the educational industry had no difficulty in adding seats—even if they had to build new schools. Why won’t (not can’t) we do the same for medical schools?

Some claim there wouldn’t be enough residency opportunities if we graduated more doctors from US schools, yet foreign medical graduates can and do get residency positions at US hospitals. In any other industry, this might be viewed as restraint of trade.

I suggest that the goal of US medical schools should be to increase their capacity so that by 2030 ALL US residency openings can be filled with US citizens who graduated from US medical schools.

Next, I would change the entry criteria to include the following:

  1. Accepting students with a commitment to actually practice medicine; better yet a commitment to practice whatever type of medicine is in short supply, wherever needed, for at least three years. After that, every accommodation should be made to place that individual in a residency or fellowship of their choosing for which they have the talent, without a decrease in salary.
  2. While academic achievement is important, the ability to work as a team is critical. History is full of brilliant people who didn’t succeed because they could not work with others, and medicine is now a team sport—whether the person with MD or DO after their name likes it or not, they are teammates with the nurses, technologists, therapists, etc. No one is a superstar.
  3. Children of doctors or other elites should have to prove themselves more—not less—than other medical school candidates. They’ve grown up exposed to the field, often in an environment of privilege, so they should demonstrate their desire to serve, not their pedigree.

In short, we need more doctors, but our current method of selecting them is less than optimal.