Category Archives: Technology

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.

 

Goodbye to the Newspaper

When I was growing up, almost everybody took the local newspaper. Many cities had several competing newspapers, although Toledo’s two papers–one morning and one evening–were owned and operated by the same company.

Journalism is dead, having given way to commentary. Many newspapers are moribund. In my area, so few people subscribe to the actual news that the newspaper distributes a free weekly printing of advertisements. They probably copied the business model of the US Postal Service, which became a model of financial success when junk mail became their most profitable business.

Many papers already rely primarily on the wire services for their content, which means that in the morning paper you’ll see the same articles you read online the day before. With reliance on wire services–of which there are basically two–the entire nation receives the information as perceived by one writer. While I don’t like this, I must admit that it is an approach that has worked well for Vladimir Putin.

News is framed so as to attract everyone’s attention–in other words, it must be sensational or salacious–ideally both. This results in the media altering our perception. Travel by airplane, for example, is very safe, which is why an emergency landing on a highway with no injuries is considered nationally newsworthy and causes some people to perceive airplanes as dangerous. On the other hand, automobile accidents are so common that it must involve a self-driving vehicle, have a dozen or so fatalities, involve over 50 cars.

It’s sad that most people don’t want journalism because it requires readers to think. It’s easier to find some online source that reinforces their existing position and biases than to have to think and possibly change their minds occassionally.

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.

Inferior Garbage

Image result for recycle symbol

At our house, we repurpose by donating things to Goodwill or K4AMG—a charity that helps kids learn electronics. We compost. We recycle. Some places I’ve lived, we had one bin for paper, one for cans, and one for bottles. Here, we have one giant container for everything, with the sorting done elsewhere after it’s picked up. A few years ago the paper included a story that two weeks after scrap cardboard was sent to China, it was headed back as packaging for new merchandise.

But wait.

The Chinese are complaining that there are too many imperfections in the material we recycle. (Please note that “we” refers to more than just my family).

The approved recyclables include bottles, cans and cardboard, BUT NEVER, EVER INCLUDE A PIZZA BOX BECAUSE THE GREASE FROM THE PIZZA RUINS EVERYTHING! However, some people have included more than what is on the list—bowling balls, deer heads, and——-you really don’t want to know.

Once American products set the standard for the world, but no more. Now we’re known for inferior recyclables.

So, how do we improve the quality of our recyclable garbage? Maybe the White House should appoint a recyclable garbage Tsar, but that would mean bigger, more complicated government.

On the other hand, there’s one group that knows garbage better than anyone—politicians. So, let’s make it one of the duties for any politically elected or appointed position to spend a couple of hours a week down at the recycling center separating the good recyclables from the bad recyclables. While they’re down there, sooner or later they’ll start talking among themselves, which would be a marvelous improvement.

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.

My Life in Guitars – Part 7 (the Penultimate Entry)

I confess, I often act under the delusion that if I get a certain type of guitar, talent will somehow rub off on me. It’s kind of like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone—KAPOW! He’s king! Therefore, if I pull a certain guitar from its packing crate—KAPOW! I’ll be an awesome musician!

Alas, it doesn’t work that way (dammit!).

Having always enjoyed Queen, I was lusting over a reproduction of Brian May’s “Big Red” guitar. Brian (Dr. May to you astrophysicists) designed his guitar and with his father, built it. The body was cut from an old (and in England, old means something different than it does here) mantel piece. He apparently designed and built the pickups himself. The best part—at least to those of us who are geeks who love music—is that there are three pickups and six slide switches.

With most multi-pickup guitars, there is a single switch that lets you choose each pickup, or a combination, thereof. In other words, they are added together. Brian designed his so that he could either add any pickups OR put any one out of phase so that one is subtracting tones from the other(s). I cannot tell you how cool I find that.

However, I couldn’t justify it at nearly a thousand, once you add a case (Sigh).

Fathers’ Day arrived one year, and my wife took me to Guitar Center so I could choose a gift. I was worse than she is in the handbag department; I tried this guitar, that guitar, another, etc., ad nauseum. I told them that I wasn’t a soloist; I was a rhythm player (at best). However, I did like that “spooky” sound from Big Red.

The guitar I kept coming back to was an Epiphone SG. The luthier at the shop, noting my comments, mentioned that if I wanted that sound on the SG, all I needed to do was reverse the polarity on one of the pickups.

Epiphone SG

Being electronically inclined, I knew I could do it, so the SG was duly adopted and brought home. I did reverse the polarity on one pickup, but within a couple of weeks, I had rewired everything back to normal. Sorry, I’m no Brian May; I play rhythm.

However, the SG is a great guitar to play. Mine’s solid body, unvarnished red. I’ll leave Brian May to handle Big Red, I’ll play rhythm, thank you.

P.S. Speaking of Queen, if you bump into John Deacon, ask him if he ever did anything further with electronics (his major at university). Being a geek, I often wonder about that.

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.

It Will Never Happen to Me!

For some reason, there seems to be a human proclivity for believing this.

I smoke, but I will never suffer from lung cancer.

My spouse will never know.

Global climate change is a myth.

My cellphone will always work.

Now that I’ve made it, I’m going to move into a beautiful home on the beach.

So, why, today, are people stuck in a giant traffic jam, headed north on Interstate 95, incommunicado, and out of gas?

It doesn’t matter, it will never happen to me.

P.S. I prepare for things that just might happen. I also try to help my community prepare, although much falls on deaf ears. Too bad—most people are capable of grasping the concept—they have smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and fire insurance even though most of us know few (or none) who have lost a home in a fire. Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes—it will never happen to me.

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.

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.

To Err Is Human—To Really F*** Up, You Really Need a Computer

I admit that life demands a place over blogging. I admit that faith, family, friends, work, and keeping up with laundry, mowing, etc. get in the way, too. However, over the past few weeks, I have actually written a few blogs, but my computer would not let me post them, and then they disappeared.

Eventually, I realized the truth.

Whenever I arrive home—early, late, whatever—Louis (our dog) expects to eat. Whenever Adam, my son is gone, his cat demands attention from me—lots of attention—just so long as I don’t try to actually pick her up and hold her.

OMG*, my computers have developed similar traits. If I don’t pay them adequate attention, they act out—obvious passive aggressive actions.

First, it’s a slowing of all functions followed by lost files. Something like:

Me: “Open blog May 2, 2017”

Computer: “                                                                                        Huh?

Okay.”

Then the computer moves to:

“I can’t locate the file.

What application do you want to use to open the file?

The file is corrupted and cannot be opened.

Ooops! The dog ate my files—I mean file not located.”

I’ve been busy looking at new computers online—using the offending computer—but it has such an inflated opinion of itself, it doesn’t seem to care. It just might be in for a big surprise. Feel free to castigate my offensive hardware.

 

 

*Others May Question (my sanity)

 

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.

Fixing Healthcare in America

First in a series

To correct healthcare and get costs under control, we must first acknowledge, then change the healthcare industry’s unique and outrageously dysfunctional business model.

  1. Physicians and other practitioners who decide which resources will be used in a hospital are often neither the direct provider, the one who pays, nor the beneficiary of the service. Basic economic rules, therefore do not apply. Medical tests, which are intended to provide information that will in some way impact the patient’s course of treatment, don’t. Many test and other procedures are ordered even when the outcome of the test will in no way affect the treatment of the patient or its results.
  2. Medical products and services are priced without any rationale. Often, prices are set artificially high in order to allow large discounts to insurance companies. This means that patients without insurance can be charged list price; eighty dollars for an aspirin or $100 for a BandAid®. Hospitals, which were once a ministry, stewardship, or public service have changed their priority to the bottom line. Some hospitals now own and operate their own collection agencies augmented by a small army of lawyers to guarantee that they collect what they have billed. This is why it is not uncommon for a small-town hospital to have millions of dollars in the bank—and still retain their not-for-profit status.
  3. And the insurance companies that get those big discounts? The hospital needs a staff of trained bureaucrats to generate the paperwork that is sent to the insurance company in order to receive payment. Payments may not be received for several months (for the MBAs out there—remember the first rule of finance—a bird [dollar] in the hand is worth two in the bush [accounts receivable]). When payment does arrive, administrative staff must reconcile the payments and file additional paperwork as necessary. All this adds to the hospital’s costs without adding any value. The insurance companies, on the other hand, are usually quite profitable, even after spending a lot of money on lobbyists. But just like Don Corleone said, “It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business.”

So, what do we do?

First, it would be valuable to have the physicians evaluate how tests really affect the outcome for their patients and develop appropriate protocols. Malcolm Gladwell relates an excellent example in his book, Blink. The cardiology staff at Cook County Hospital was able to reduce tests while simultaneously improving patient outcomes.

[Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown.  ISBN 0-316-17232-4 (Especially the chapter on Cook County Hospital Cardiologists)]

Second, revise medical pricing so that it reflects reality—and that must include adequate margin to offset costs for necessary but expensive services. Emergency rooms are expensive to operate while an intensive care unit for patients suffering from burns is actually cost prohibitive. However, hospitals have an obligation to the community to provide necessary services—either directly or by affiliation—to the community. The community, in turn, must ensure the hospital is resourced to provide a wide range of services. If hospital prices reflected cost plus a reasonable margin to offset other costs, and everyone paid the same price—patient or insurance company, it might lead to more rational decisions—outcomes first, but economics as a consideration. If Grandpa—God love him—is a 96-year-old heavy smoker with high cholesterol and other morbidity factors who was hospitalized because of a stroke, a battery of tests that will not affect his quality of life or his longevity are not appropriate, and the insurer should not be expected to provide carte blanche payments. However, if the prices are realistic, the family may decide that they would be willing to pay for those additional procedures on their own.

Third, emphasize cooperation over competition. Is there any other business, other than hospitals, that would allow someone to work in their facility AND directly compete with it? Radiologists have their competing imaging centers, surgeons may have their private surgery centers, etc. Should specialty practitioners be entitled to benefit from the hospital’s patients and compete with the hospital for those same patients? It should be the practitioners’ choice—one or the other, but not both.

Two excellent resources for these issues are:

Brill, Steven (2015), America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System. New York. Random House. ISBN 978-0812996951

Rosenthal, Dr. Elisabeth (2017). An American Sickness, New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594206757

If you want to fix American healthcare, pass this along to your friends, neighbors, doctor, etc. I’ll get a lot of hate mail, but we need to have the discussion.

More to follow.

01 Swodniw

You have got to hand it to Microsoft. No matter what version of Windows you’ve used, sooner or later it builds up enough junk—leftovers, temporary files, etc. that the system needs to be completely reloaded.

Windows 10 has done that to me on two computers so far. The latest one is telling me that the main disk is locked, which makes me believe that a reinstall won’t see my registration and will want me to purchase a new copy of Windows 10.

Oh, gee! How unlucky! I guess I’ll have to reinstall Windows 7– one of the few versions of Microsoft’s operating systems that worked reliably. Woohoo!