Go Quietly: The Nature Of Society, Medical Care, And Death

CT Angiography From Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ct-angiography.png


Last Tuesday night, I faced the cord-cutter’s dilemma: having consumed all 6 seasons of the Sopranos from Amazon Prime, which I had been grazing upon since March, I needed something new to watch. This is the moment when cord-cutting most resembles the old channel-surfing model, where one pokes around and finds something that one had not previously encountered. It can yield new information, despite the best efforts of Netflix, Amazon, etc to make sure that what you watch today resembles what you watched yesterday.

A source of new input, not surprisingly, tends to be the “newly-added” list, which on Tuesday featured a new movie called “The Widowmaker” prominently.

Image from IMDB.com



From the description, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the movie was a documentary, or a fiction, but it was compelling enough. “Starring: Gillian Anderson” it said.  Although I’ve never really been an X-Files fan, I tend to enjoy the projects that she chooses.  Maybe it was fiction. I craved escape, and if it was a documentary, I would just back out and try something else, I thought. But that’s not how it turned out.

The Widowmaker is a documentary about the development of a medical screening methodology called coronary calcium scoring, in parallel with the invention, development of the coronary stent and the growth in its use by cardiologists. The name is based on a nickname for the anterior interventricular branch of left coronary artery, which is intended to grab your attention, rather than to describe the content, but poetic license probably bridges the gap. It’s obviously designed to lead you to a viewpoint, and much of what is said is compelling, but it has the tone of something that, although reasonably well composed, needs to be verified by other means. To that end, I submit that my take-away from The Widowmaker pretty much matches the abstract from a study  I found on PubMed at the National Institutes Of Health:

[Computed tomography coronary artery calcium scoring: review of evidence base and cost-effectiveness in cardiovascular risk prediction.; Vliegenthart R, Morris PB., Department of Radiology, University of Groningen/University Medical Center Groningen, Center for Medical Imaging-North East Netherlands, The Netherlands. r.vliegenthart@umcg.nl]

The entire abstract reads (emphasis mine):

Cardiovascular risk factor-scoring algorithms may fall short in identifying asymptomatic individuals who will subsequently suffer a coronary event. It is generally thought that evaluation of the extent of the atherosclerotic plaque and total plaque burden can improve cardiovascular risk stratification. In the last decade, there has been an increasing interest in coronary calcium scoring by computed tomography. By determining the calcium score, an estimate of the total amount of coronary plaque is obtained. Numerous studies have shown that the calcium score predicts coronary heart disease. Recently, the calcium score was shown to improve risk stratification beyond cardiovascular risk factors, especially in those individuals deemed to be at intermediate risk. So far, only limited data exist on the cost-effectiveness of coronary calcium scoring in asymptomatic populations.

According to Ms. Anderson (who is, in fact, channeling Patrick Forbes, the writer/director of The Widowmaker), and also according to Vliegenthar, et al (the authors of the above-referenced study), there are individuals for whom the checking of risk-factors, like weight, age, cholesterol, etc. will not predict their coming heart attack. The movie goes on to say that EKG, or even a cardiac stress test (which includes an EKG) does not serve to detect impending “coronary events” in some patients, many of whom show no risk factors anyway, so they may not have had such tests.

It’s probable that your doctor works with you and chooses tests, treatment, and other actions based on what he assesses as your risk, using profile types that take into account such factors as your age, weight, smoking, high blood pressure, family history, etc. If you don’t match a certain risk profile, then the chance that you will suffer the relevant problems is considered acceptably small.

But there’s a problem with that.

Low-probability of risk isn’t zero probability of risk, and therefore, there are some number of people who will have the problem, even when their risk profile indicates that their risk is acceptable. These people have names, addresses, families and are people, who — no delicate way to put this — might be You. Somewhere, a guy who’s sporting the realized risk, that is, one of the acceptable-number-of-guys who is going to have the unlikely heart attack, based on his risk profile, probably has a doctor who’s doing the same risk assessments for him.

Consider the Cardio Vascular Disease Risk Calculator at the National Institutes of Health web site. Below the calculator is information about what “good” numbers would be for each of the calculator’s fields. I entered all “good” numbers, and my age, 53. According to the calculator there would be a 3% chance that a person with “good” numbers would have a heart attack within 10 years. In other words, out of each 100 53 year old, non-smoking men who have “good” numbers for blood pressure and cholesterol, 3 will have heart attacks within the next 10 years. Using 2010 census data to estimate that there are roughly 2 million 53 year-old males in the US right now, that 3% is equivalent to about 60,000 heart attacks, or an average of 16 unexpected heart attacks per day, over the next 10 years, just among 53 year-old males.

The Widowmaker tends to paint the opposition to routine coronary calcium scoring as cardiac-stent-obsessed robber barons, who are promoting the application of expensive stents into patients for whom the stents have no benefit. The most mainstream-media-apparent expression of stent value in improving patient outcomes, the COURAGE Trial * , suggests that medical treatment, such as statin drug therapy, is as effective as stents in treating coronary heart disease. Unfortunately, statins have their own detractors.

The movie also asserts that hospitals have prevented bankruptcy by the revenue that stenting provides.  In the movie, as well as on the wide internet, there is a certain amount of that pooh-poohing and brushing-aside by doctors who seem to want to play down coronary CT scans for any purpose, often without completing their argument, leaving us to simply accept, “because a doctor says so”.

I think that doing what your doctor tells you to do is probably a good rule to follow, but if you assume that doctors speak candidly, without restraints from management,  litigation risk, and frustration at the endless barrage of patients who misapprehended something they read on WebMD, you would be doing so, perhaps, at your peril.

If profit-motivated health care service providers are in it for the money, why are the insurance providers reluctant to reduce the need for a $30,000 stent by paying for a $200 coronary scan? I admit that I am missing pieces in that inquiry, but in the movie it’s stated that they recognize that their customers don’t stay with an insurance company for more than a few years, and that screening would only benefit their competitors.

Society, that construct of which we are participants, creators, and victims, should seek to promote public health, and better probabilities for more of us, but it never seeks to monitor and manage the health and welfare of each of its persons. Even democracy, for all the marketing it has enjoyed in popular culture, will never be an inclusive model. The police protect economic stability,  rather than people. Broadband Internet initiatives serve people who happen to be near statistically-important parts of statistically-important cities. Free shipping promotions on e-commerce sites are great unless you live in Hawaii or Alaska. If your needs are not the needs of a majority, they aren’t worthy of consideration. The knack of living long and well, especially for those of us who are counted in the little slivers of the pie-charts of acceptableness, is to manage it ourselves.

Perhaps the salient point in all of this, the point that can negate the value of this inquiry, is in the question asked by one of the detractors in the movie (I paraphrase) “So you find out that you have significant coronary plaque. Then what?” Some of us will have a hereditary predisposition that  has decided our fates for us. Some of us will be unable to bear the thought of life without potato chips. Some of us will get stents, and/or statins. Some of us will adopt a healthy lifestyle, and some of us will drop dead. But none of us, without surgical procedures, will encounter a determination of whether what we did helped or hurt us, cardiovascularly. It’s primarily speculation.

Still, I’m willing to accept that our culture —

  • which paints itself as epicurean, but is in fact simply hedonistic,
  • whose participants eat for convenience, rather than for nutrition, and
  • who have come to equate “freedom” with the absence of accountability

may not do its best to promote personal health.

Mind you, it’s probably among the most survivable cultures in history. The post-smallpox, post-cholera, post-polio, world we enjoy is, by 1910 standards, astonishingly low-risk. But that’s due to the effects of applied public health, not individual health. One can’t really predict and prevent heart attacks, but one can manage weight, blood pressure, and refrain from using tobacco, among other things.

Watching The Widowmaker, even though I see the need to question the veracity of something that’s obviously a “hearts and minds” pitch, has had an immediate effect on my daily habits. My FitBit One is currently preparing for shipment from Amazon. Even without it, the Android FitBit App tracks my activity, logs my calories, and graphs my weight (entered manually), and I have to admit that I want FitBit, inexplicably, to be proud of me. The occurrence of boredom-snacking in my diet has ceased. My waistline has been pushing the limits of my wardrobe this last year or more, and just the consideration of my own risk factors has given me a long-sought handle on the problem.

There are few, if any, coronary calcium score detractors who go so far as to say “don’t ever get one under any circumstances”. The argument is more aptly paraphrased as “it has no value if you’re not in a 50% or higher risk group”. Meaning that even if you haven’t been told that you need one, there really isn’t anyone who’d object if you wanted to pay for one yourself.

Question is: who would offer such things in a world where the scan is largely not used? Or put differently, in a profit-motive-based health care industry, who has the proit-motive to offer cardiac CT scanning? Well, stand-alone radiology service providers, of course.

Although I don’t presume to have invented Recreational Radiology as a pastime, I do see the allure. It appeals to the techno-fascinated nerd boy in me, as well as my lust-for measurement engineering side.  I called Ko’olau Radiology on Thursday, after a day of hesitation. I expected to be told that there would be an appointment available in 3 or 4 weeks, but the lady said “any time starting tomorrow morning is fine, cost is $418″.  After that declaration, I found the view from the precipice atop my warm, cozy denial bracing.  A mere 19 hours later, I was inside the GE Lightspeed CT scanner, with my arms over my head, and EKG pads on my chest. CT scanners are to be found in pretty much any modern radiology provider, but the cardiac program probably requires that the scanner be equipped with a program to image the heart at rest between beats, by taking the EKG as input. I speculate that adding that capability to a CT scanner isn’t cheap, since nothing is in the world of high medical tech. (Reference the cost of CT scanner maintenance training from GE.)


Their largest radiology-wear was barely big enough. Take the hint.

The results will arrive in the mail. A benefit of Recreational Radiology is that I get all the results, without omission, and no doctor can keep them from me. I chose, at no extra cost, to share them with my GP, and with my aviation medical examiner (who is a cardiologist), primarily because I want them to be included in both medical records, and secondly because no matter what either doctor thinks of it, I will have exposed him to it. I may benefit by my own test, others may benefit from my doctors’ exposure.

The pending results have the potential to be the most valuable medical results I had ever received, the one that delivers The News. Or it could lack any worthwhile guidance. The crux is, perhaps, “conclusive results are bad, inconclusive results are less bad.”

I felt that it was important to blog this during the blessed interval between having the test and getting the results.  When you think about it, the best course of action really doesn’t depend on my coronary calcium score. I am 53 years old, about 50 pounds overweight, with treated/controlled high blood pressure. I have serious doubts that most doctors would have discouraged any cardiac screening test, based on my risk profile.

Of course, Denial is waiting, just beyond the firelight, to creep back in. Hopefully the re-calibration-of-denial is lasting.

The substrate of personal health is outlook. One can’t act to live longer when one feels as though one is already beyond help, but as I said, this is a speculative undertaking. Your lot in life is largely what you declare it to be. The whole “count your blessings/stop and smell the roses” thing, as trite as it seems, could be the key to long life. You count yourself lucky, or you count yourself out.


Despite my readiness to wax Pagliacci-esque over the news when my calcium score came, my score turns out to be zero. This is, of course, encouraging/disappointing, and it doesn’t mean I will live longer, but perhaps makes several other modern-day causes of death budge into the foreground of my personal health inquiry. Still — outlook is the way to go, as well as perhaps a few celebratory potato chips.


Cobblebot build: 28 wheel assemblies

The first procedure in the Cobblebot build is about putting the wheels together. I watched Mike Kopack’s video where he used pliers, to good effect, and then in the month since, have wondered a few times whether one couldn’t just tighten the nut and push the bearings in that way. I came up with an alternate way to get the bearings in, using a 5 mm t-nut. The bearings have a sticky grease/rust inhibitor on them, so you may want to get a piece of paper or cardboard to work on. Probably best not to rub your eyes or eat finger food while you’re working with the bearings.


Pic above shows everything you need, minus the hex 3mm hex wrench, which I forgot to put in the pic.


I was able to get one of the two bearings in by just pushing it in with my fingers.



Put the wheel with the one bearing onto the 5mm screw.




Don’t forget the washer between the bearings.



Place the second bearing on the screw.



Spin the t-nut onto the screw, flat side down, until it is snug against the top of the bearing.





Seat the head of the screw onto the end of a hex wrench.


Use a 10 mm open-end wrench (or pliers, or a Crescent wrench) to turn the t-nut, which will push the bearing into the wheel.


An example grip to hold the whole configuration while you’re tightening the t-nut. Also, the tightened t-nut and the seated bearing.


Remove the t-nut (use it again for the others). Finger tighten the lock nut onto the screw, place with the others.

Repeat 27 more times.

I had some trouble getting the pictured hex wrench into the heads on 3 or 4 screws. The hole in the head which accepts the hex wrench was really tight. When I tried a different hex driver, a cast-formed bit for my electric driver, it was much easier to get into the disagreeable screws.

(I think that the folding hex key set as pictured is made by stamping into a die, and the wire that they put in the die needs to have just enough material to fill the die, without being too much, which is a hard balance to strike, especially for screws like these M5 guys, which have really close tolerences on the drive hole, which is good. The casting process used on the driver bits (I have this set)  puts the right material into a mold, so it’s a less finicky process.



Cobblebot, I Unbox You (part 2)

The remainder of Cobblebot came on Friday, right before the 3-day weekend, even though USPS tracking predicted Tuesday after Memorial Day. I did a thorough inventory, comparing to the parts list in the instructions, and found that it is all there, AFAIK, with a few extras not listed in the currently-released build instructions.

On Saturday, I spent time with the electronics, not to build them, but to test them and make a few videos about how they work together. Unfortunately, I’ll need to upload those on Tuesday. I started to upload them from out here at the Lake Cabin, but the Internet connection becomes unusable for other things, and it would take about 12 hours, anyways.

Some unboxing pictures:

IMAG1184-obf IMAG1189 IMAG1190



I did a complete count, there were a few extra nuts and what-not, but nothing missing…



Hot Water From Heliatos EZ system

Amongst the lore of our family is a story, one of several, of my Uncle Smiley, who stated: “When we were living in Florida, we bought 100 feet of black garden hose, and spread it across the roof of the house. We never spent another penny heating water.”

When I got a look at our electric bill for August – $193 – I realized that there was probably good reason to seek out a new way to make hot water. So I followed the vision of the abundant garden hose.

How might one connect The Hose to one’s tank heater? I wondered. This inquiry led me to the Heliatos bottom feed connector (PDF), which led to an appreciation of the EZ system.

For about $1100, including the tools and accoutrements to be PEX-capable, I  got it up there on the roof. The roof offers southwest and southeast faces, I chose southwest, because our hot water needs tend to occur in the evening, and because it puts the panels over the garage, where a leak would be considerably less worrisome.

I actually received the 4 panel EZ system in September, but then I had two out-of-town trips coming, so doing new plumbing seemed unwise. I hate getting a call about something gone awry at home when I’m away, and when I do, it’s better when I am not the direct cause. An additional advantage to waiting was that my wife was leaving town for two weeks, November/December, and the prospect of having a no-hot-water interval at home during the install was easier to bear with her somewhere else.

I got the bottom feed connector installed the evening of Thanksgiving Day (after enjoying a lovely buffet at the Hale Koa). I had sort-of-dreaded this step. Existing plumbing doesn’t always follow your plans, especially in the humid salt air of Hawaii. Luckily, this water heater is only about 6 years old, and everything’s still pretty shiny. I had let the tank cool for a couple of days, which gets showers down to about skin temperature, to avoid flushing too much money down the drain, before draining the tank. In retrospect, I should have planned to do a proper clean and flush, by removing the bottom heating element and spraying the mud in the bottom of the bottom of the tank, but there’s no reason I can’t still do that.


The installation of the BFC was, in fact a little dicey due to the fact that the only part of the internal nipple assembly visible outside the insulation was the threads on the union, so I had to devise a way of turning the thing to acceptable tightness without hurting the threads. I put several wraps of teflon tape on the boiler end and turned it in, first with a piece of leather between the pipe wrench and the threads, and later just turning gingerly with the wrench teeth on the threads themselves. Luckily the boiler threads were pretty clean and easy to turn into, and also the type of union used in the BFC has a rubber gasket that acts as the water barrier, so nicking the threads on the union isn’t quite the problem it would be on regular tapered pipe threads. Somehow, the BFC fits inside the water heater closet door, without modifications, something I spent time assessing and worrying about.

The interconnection of panels, per instructions, took probably a couple of hours, and I did the better part of half of the work downstairs, by finishing the left side of each connection, leaving only the right side to complete on the roof.  At one point, my skim of the instructions left me with the impression that the connectors on the last end of the last panel should be connected together, but it turns out that they need to be capped. If I had made that mistake, the panels would have been curiously ineffective, and it probably would have been frustrating to diagnose and fix. The design of the panels relies on the water flowing bottom-to-top through the panels, which is a slightly more resistant flow path than a pipe, so adding a pipe on the end would effectively bypass the panels. I think that ideally things should flow bottom-to-top, since the heat-diffusion-based flow of the water in the panel would assist, and I think that if you reversed the pipes, the detrimental effects might not be noticeable.

I thought and read a lot about panel mounting, and I finally ended up just squirting a pillow of roofing sealant into each mounting bracket and then deck-screwing through the sealant, shingle, and roof boards. I was blessed with two days of hard rain immediately following the install, which produced no drips.

One flurry of squirreliness occurred around the installation of the PV panel. They give you the panel, some wire nuts for the pump motor end, and 25 feet of wire. The connection for the panel end, however is neither well thought out, nor easy. There are two solder points to connect the wire, and two screws holding the little metal tabs to the panel body. The connection point is covered by a little plastic slide cover, which allows enough room for, well — nothing. One could try to simply use the screws with crimp-lugs, but the screws are inclined to thread in once, and any removal and re-install makes a not-very-connected connection against the metal of the tabs. I ended up soldering the connectors, and then smooshing a ball of Coax-Seal into the connection box, to exclude water, which seems to have worked. I also ran a bead of roofing sealant along the top of the panel to direct water around the panel when it rains.

Plumbing the panels with PEX turned out to be relatively uneventful. I decided to route both pipes up the same side of the water heater, because that side of the closet is less likely to get stuff stored in it. Having a brass elbow on either side made a convenient isolated temperature sensor point (more below).  I slid the foam insulation onto the pipe end-wise, rather than opening the perforation on the side, in order to keep it from opening on the turns. IMG_20141129_173632_955






There is an Intermatic mechanical timer which turns on the electric to the water heater from 5 PM to 7 PM, the idea being that if the tank is below about 105 degrees F at 5 PM, the electric will boost the temp for evening showers. If the tank temp is above 105, the built-in thermostat will prevent the electric heaters from turning on.

Thermal Sensors

I had already done various things with DS18B20‘s and Raspberry Pi, it’s an easy, reliable way to instrument something for temperature. For the water heater app, I put sensors on the water lines to and from the panels, and on the wall of the tank, which can be accessed through the heating element access panels on the water heater. YOU SHOULD NOT WORK INSIDE THOSE PANELS BECAUSE YOU WILL LIKELY GET YOURSELF KILLED. Take that advice seriously. You cannot work inside the access panels on the water heater without contacting the electrical connections. Unless you understand completely what I am saying, and how to remedy the situation, don’t screw around inside your water heater. If you’ve got a gas heater, you are on your own.

IMG_20141202_205025_950I used more Coax-Seal to stick the sensors to the tank, and electrical tape to hold them on the first brass elbow away from the bottom feed connector. I originally put two sensors on the outer extents of the hot and cold sides of the BFC, but there was insufficient thermal isolation, and considerable thermal inertia in that big piece of metal. Sensors on the BFC gave the impression that the cold side was warmer than the hot side, whereas the first elbow on either side, set apart from the BFC by about 6 inches of PEX, shows that the hot return from the panels is always warmer than the cold to the panels. This is a great source of comfort. Another probable advantage of measuring at the elbow is that it may benefit from some turbulence on the turn, which breaks up laminar flow and gets a better thermal coupling to the temperature of the water in the pipe.

After doing a project with DS18B20’s and CAT5 networking cable, I shifted to 18 gauge thermostat cable, which I got at Lowe’s in a 500 foot roll for about $80. I placed each sensor on the uncut cable by middle-stripping it as shown in the pic, and then hooked the ends of the sensor’s 3 legs to wrap and solder onto the cable. I insulated the result by threading electrical tape between the conductors, but I think that when I plan ahead more, I will use epoxy on each sensor. I tend to work things so that I can put the flat side of the TO-92 case on the thing to be measured, although any side is probably as good.


A sample graph above — you can see that the lower tank, somewhat counter-intuitively, stays warmer than the upper tank, after the day’s solar heating, and the first shower (~21:00) causes a drop in the lower tank, because that’s where the cold water supply enters the tank. The apparent temperature inversion could be in some part due to laminar flow of buoyant warm water inside the tank, Of course, the hot output is drawn off the top of the tank. The second shower, at about 01:30, is considerably more voluminous (not to mention names), and causes a precipitous drop in lower tank sensor temperature of 18 degrees F,  while the top sensor only declines about a degree or two.  The above shows two partly-sunny days in a row, without any really aggressive solar heating.

The Raspberry Pi reads the sensors once per minute, during nominal daylight hours, and once per 5 minutes when it’s dark. The graph shows some interesting changes, probably due to thermal diffusion, which leads to siphoning, etc. Heat loss from the tank seems to be in the range of 2 to 3 degrees F over 6 hours, which of course varies proportionally to the differential between inside and outside.

The solar loop began operation in early December, which is of course, in the northern hemisphere, probably the least effective time in terms of sun angle on the panels, and also among the least sunny times of year in Hawaii. The sunniest day so far brought the upper tank to about 115 deg. F. It’s likely that by March the yield will be significantly higher. A contigency plan is to add a thermostatic mixer valve on the water heater output, to regulate the scalding potential on the output. Solar water heating in Hawaii can sometimes be too effective…




Cobblebot, I Unbox You – Part 1

Today, I got the first shipment of parts from Cobblebot.

The contents are:

One Hexagon hot-end with little bits and a couple wrenches

Five AT KL17H248-15-4A NEMA 17 stepper motors

One YDS12-360 12v 30A switching power supply.


After reading about a couple of folks having power supply damage, I paid particular attention to the PS. Mine has a slightly bent tab on the chassis, hard to say what shock it took. If it tests good, I’ll call it a power supply. Note that you can test a switching PS with a multimeter, but you may have to load it to turn on the output transistors, otherwise there you might measure not-12V output on a perfectly good power supply.

Additional note: the input voltage selection switch on my PS is set to 220V. In order to use it in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, or Japan, it needs to be switched to 110V.

Now we wait for shipment 2…

An unboxing gallery:


The Cardinal Sins Of Web Site Design

I realize that somewhere, probably multiple somewheres, there is a blog post, or webzine article with this same title, which espouses the opposite opinions from mine. The great thing about a free society is that being wrong is not illegal. Actually, being wrong is seldom illegal, not nearly illegal as often as being correct, but let’s let that dog lie.

I am compelled to rant about the things that bother me about web sites, and although some are perfectly understandable, they are still disagreeable. So here is my list of things that I hate, when arriving at your web site. Please correct them.

1) Your mobile version sucks. I came to your site to interact with the functionality I interacted with yesterday from my office. I don’t want your astonishingly-bad sub-subset of things that you think mobile users (clue: mobile users are the same people as desktop/laptop users) “want”. Your surveys are badly designed, your focus groups are helpless morons, who didn’t have an opinion until you asked them, and then only invented one out of the vain hope that their “voice” would be “heard”, and your mobile site is a worthless piece of crap. Get rid of it, and build a main page that works well in all the browsers you can find. I have a dual core smartphone with pinch zoom and I can use your “main” site just fine, unless you put some Flashy/Ajaxy/JScripty nonsense in there that don’t play on a touch interface.

2) I don’t want to install your app. I have an app to view your website, and it’s called “browser”. On my dual core smart phone, I have limited space, and I can’t remember what all the apps I already installed do anyways, I’ll be visiting your site with “browser”. Get over it. Stop pushing your app up my nose every time I visit your site.

3) I don’t care to read your rules for posting and the fact that I would have to sign up to post, or view anything beyond text, in the landing view. This is because I, like 99.999999% of your visitors, came to your site through a Google/Bing/DuckDuck search, to read this specific article, and if I don’t see it in about a screen-full of of scrolling, I’m gone. Swish. Outta there. I won’t remember your ugly little site, and I will be careful to avoid accidentally clicking on, or even reading your ads.

4) Don’t prevent resizing in your “mobile” view, it’s annoying. In fact, see #1.

5) Don’t offer me an opportunity to serve you by presenting an opportunity to let you serve me better by filling out a short survey. Your survey is un-answerable, full of leading questions to make me mis-represent opinions on things I don’t have opinions about. Your survey provider is raping you and stealing your money. Get rid of them, they have turned business into a bunch of self-obsessed teenagerish anti-personalities, and I decline to participate. Please don’t pretend that your survey is to “serve me better”. You can shove your survey.

5) If you run a chain of brick-and-mortar stores, offer a brick-and-mortar focus on your web site. Make it possible for me to find out what’s in the store, without having to pick through your on-line specials and — God forbid — your “marketplace” client-vendors who aren’t even related to your company. I would like to visit your store and spend money there, but I’m not even going to get to your store if your competitor shows me what I want first. I hope this happens, and teaches you a lesson.

6) Don’t pop up a “would you like to chat with a help person?” box in front of what I was reading. I was poking at your site, getting to know it. I don’t want to “chat” put that opportunity in a nav panel somewhere where I can ignore it (forever).

7) In fact, don’t put anything up, suddenly, in front of what I’m reading. I will do my best to avoid seeing what’s in the pop-up anyway, since I don’t reward bad behavior.

8) DO NOT EVER auto-play, especially with sound, your video content on your landing page. It compels me to frantically find the tab with your web page in it and close it immediately, and never visit your site again.

All that said, if you present a pleasant experience, I will totally click on your ads. It’s a good feeling to see something in an ad banner that interests me, and then give my click to a good web site. But if you annoy me, I’ll tab out and Google the advertiser.



Papua New Guinea Travelblogue

Which I shared only with friends for various reasons, now may be spread more widely…




Verizon Wireless Botches The DST Change In Hawaii

March 10, 2013 6:30 AM (give or take)

“It seems awfully dark for 6:45″, I thought, when the alarm went off. But it had been raining and cloudy last night, so I took it in stride. I got up and answered the Cat’s call for breakfast, set the coffee maker into production, and told my wife it was time to get up.

It took me a few minutes to notice the clock in the living room, which said it was 5:48. Having just woken up, I was skeptical that anything was amiss. It must be me. I looked at my Verizon smart phone, which had served as the alarm that woke me. It said 6:48. I decided that since Hawaii does not observe daylight savings time, I needed to consult a dumb clock, one that had no notion of DST. The bedroom alarm clock said 5:48, the kitchen range and microwave and coffee maker said 5:48.

Maybe I messed with the time setting on my phone, I thought. When I looked, it was set to “Automatic – use network provided values”, and time zone “GMT-10:00, GMT-9:00″. I took it off automatic, and set the time to to match the other clocks, and the time zone to Hawaii/Aleutian. Then I clicked on automatic again. It went right back to DST and zone “GMT-10:00, GMT-9:00″. I am now annoyed that some Verizon engineer, who is probably fast asleep, has made this horrific mistake and left me without an hour of Sunday morning sleep. Or perhaps, even worse, some idiot in California, who clicked (or failed to unclick) the DST setting on a CDMA base station somewhere. Thankfully, my multiple CDMA-disciplined clocks on the UH network do not use time zones, and appear to be OK. (BTW: My wife’s T-Mobile phone says agrees with the coffee maker.)



Droid X2: The First Fortnight

Droid Inside X2

I was lurking on a conference call about a month ago, when the strangest thing happened. A series of touch-tones began intruding on the call, making further conferencing impossible. Since I had destinated at work, I decided to hang up and head for my office.

By Sunday night, three days later, it had become apparent that the Old (Motorola Original) Black Droid just wasn’t what she used to be. There were enough “phantom” touches to render it useless, and after much fiddling, I declared it totaled, and decided to move on. (Soon after I ordered the new phone, a colleague clued me in that the Droid’s apparent touch-screen failure was actually a screen-protector problem, so Old Droid’s fine now.)

I really, really wanted a physical keyboard, but I was also aware that I wanted to reach for as much platform performance as possible, because if I changed phones, I wanted to get at least another two or three Android versions hence. Physical Keyboards are getting hard to come by, which is slightly strange, since Android Froyo, even under Moto-Blur, seems to assume you have one, in various ways.  I looked longingly at the Droid 2 Global, but I really didn’t need to roam globally — when I go abroad, there’s almost always some other source of phone, so the need to slip a sim card into my CDMA phone is small, and doesn’t really provide any advantage. You’re going to use another number anyways.

So, I took a deep breath and went for the Droid X2. Dual Core, good chance for Ice Cream Sandwich readiness, and beyond, but no keyboard.  (My new X2 came with Froyo, and bright future for Gingerbread is on the horizon, we hope.)

The size of the thing is the first yay/boo item. The screen is big and beautiful, makes the phone a little big in-pocket.  The truth is that I can type about an order-of-magnitude faster on the X2’s soft keyboard than on the Droid’s physical. Still, I miss the deterministic cursor positioning of the trackpad.  If you think your text entry is OK, try writing Python code with it in SL4A; you’ll turn off all the auto-correction post-haste.

The X2 comes with a built-in 4 GB flash area which is mounts as “/sdcard” (aka /mnt/sdcard), which is where apps expect to find the SD card, and the removable sdcard ends up as “/sdcard-ext” (aka /mnt/sdcard-ext), which, once you get your mind around it, is nice.  What it means is that your bulky videos and stuff can go in /sdcard-ext, while the things you want to stay with the phone, like your PGP keys, important apps etc, go in /sdcard.

The lack of a slide-out keyboard makes putting a protective skin on it more plausible; my old Droid went through phases, with the hard snap-on plastic annoyance, later rubber pads stuck on strategic surfaces. Something that I really liked about Old Droid was its non-skid. My Original iPhone had been a constant nuisance because it wouldn’t stay put. It was too slippery, but with the rubber jacket on, it was hard to get in and out of pockets. The Droid had a nice rubberish coating on it that made it stay where I put it. The X2 is a little bit non-skid, but less so than Droid.

After running a couple of benchmarks on the new X2, and comparing with Droid, I noticed that although it goes faster, and is noticeably peppier during use, it may not be configured, as delivered to exploit both cores.

A cat of /proc/cpuinfo:

Processor        : ARMv7 Processor rev 0 (v7l)
processor        : 0
BogoMIPS        : 1992.29

Features        : swp half thumb fastmult vfp edsp vfpv3 vfpv3d16
CPU implementer        : 0x41
CPU architecture: 7
CPU variant        : 0x1
CPU part        : 0xc09
CPU revision        : 0

Hardware        : Daytona
Revision        : 83a0

Only reports one core, albeit one with 8 times the BogoMIPS that the Old Droid reports (249.15).

For so much hype about dual-core power, Droid X2’s do not tend to fare well with benchmarks, mine ranking at 12794 in Antutu (free in the market).

The Rub

One big bugaboo with Droid X2 — its video decoding is inexplicably buggy. From my extensive selection of MP4 files encoded over the last 7 years, some files play, and some just get stuck, or have a 20 second unsync between picture and sound. These files play reliably on PSP, iPhone, Droid, In Windows and Mac OS, with QuickTime, VLC, and Windows Media Player, and with various media players on Ubuntu, so don’t (sh, sh, don’t) tell me that Droid X2’s video decode is OK, or per spec when the others weren’t.  It’s broken, and it should have never shipped that way. Luckily, there is a decent work-around. Install MoboPlayer (for free, from the Market) and “MoboPlayer Codec for ARMV7FP3“, and then set it to use “Default Using Soft-Decoding”.  When you have done this, your extensive SouthPark and SpongeBob collection will be ready for the road again.

Several bloat-apps are included, but the two game demos I got, “Need For Speed: <something-something>”, and “Let’s Golf”, are deletable. The others, (evil-Blockbuster,  and some Verizon crap) are not. The bloat factor is annoying, but not to a prize-winning extent, by any means.

I am conflicted about the standard Android buttons. Why are they in a different order? (note to focus groups: don’t express your true feelings — lie to get what you want. Or maybe what I mean is “lie to get what I want”). There really wasn’t (sh, sh, no don’t) any good reason to rearrange the buttons. Also, they’re physical buttons, that require force to depress, which is completely different from Droid, and makes one-handed use more difficult. Of course, it was too easy to accidentally hit the Droid touch-buttons, so I concede the point, I guess. The camera has no physical button, but the one on Droid was a funky pain-in-the-ass, and I tended to use the on-screen one anyways.

Lastly, I would like to change the ever-present default icons at the bottom of the screen. Specifically, to remove the default Android mail app, which I don’t use.  A different kind of bloatware is the auto-install partition that pops up for MotoHelper, which apparently is simply another driver-update virus. This is a nuisance, and I suggest just changing your auto-insert settings to exclude it, rather than installing it. I installed it at home, and so far it’s pretty quiet, but at work I just told 7 to shut up about it.


So far, besides the video decode and various getting-to-know-one-another turbulences, the X2 and I are getting along pretty well. I hope for some cluefulness in the next update, but you know how that goes.


Tech Heaven: Hong Kong’s Golden Computer Arcade

Having spent a couple of months in Hong Kong over the last 3 years, there are many great things to see and do there, but as an incorrigible techophile, my favorite, so far, is the Golden Computer Arcade in Sham Shui Po.

Getting There

Sham Shui Po (Cantonese for “Deep Water Pier”) is a neighborhood on the Kowloon Peninsula, north of Hong Kong Island. It is known for its flea-style street markets, and is a decent shopping destination for various things, including tools, electronics, test equipment, as well as clothing and other uninteresting stuff.   The easiest way to get there is to take the MTR to Sham Shui Po station, which is on the Tsuen Wan Line (say “chin wan”), which connects with the Hong Kong Island Line at Central and Admiralty stations.  If somehow, you are in Hong Kong and isolated from the MTR trains, you can probably take either an MTR Bus to a train station, or a Kowloon Motor Bus directly to Sham Shui Po. (KMB has an excellent trip planner on their web site.)

Once you are in Sham Shui Po station, take exit D2. Walk northwest on Fuk Wa Street (vehicular traffic flows southeast), toward larger Yen Chow Street. There is a McDonald’s on the same corner, directly across Fuk Wa from Golden Computer.  See my Google Map for details.

What you’ll find in the Golden Computer Arcade is a whole lot of everything computer-related, from motherboards, and cooling fans to point-of-sale equipment, to educational electronic breadboard kits, to just plain weird stuff you’ve never seen before. You can go just to look, and have a good time. If you do decide to buy something, don’t buy it the first time you see it, at least not early in your visit. You may see some new things here, and get excited, but then you’re likely to see them a hundred more times as you move around.

Prices in Sham Shui Po can be quite good, partly because the fixed US->HK exchange rate makes them so.  Also, note that there is no word in Hong Kong Cantonese (or HK English for that matter) which means “refund” —  it’s a foreign concept.  So don’t expect to renege on that impulse buy.  You can find interesting portable keyboards, panda-shaped  web-cams, many Android tablet devices, cables, flash drives, hard drives, RAM sticks, software, games, PC-pimping components, and pretty much anything else. The stalls range in format from temporary piles of cardboard boxes (often with brand-name-knock-off items) to standard retail shelf space, and they’re all worth a peek.  For the most part, you will need cash, in Hong Kong Dollars, to buy stuff here. Some of the more store-looking stalls may take credit cards.

Two blocks southwest, in Apliu Street, you can find a vast assortment of tools, test equipment, and other delights (there’s a store dedicated solely to monitor mounting brackets), as well as those T-Shirts made by people who slept through English class  (favorites: “Nobody seems to shiny”, and “Galmour Gril”).

There are bathrooms in the GCA, and also across the street at McDonald’s (regular ice cream cones at HK McD’s cost about $0.65 USD).

Caution In most of Hong Kong, you should always plan to limit the temptation you offer to pickpockets; use extra caution in crowded spaces like the Golden Computer Arcade.

When in HK, consider getting an Octopus Card at 7-11 — it’s an RFID based transaction card that you can use for transport, food and drink, as well as other things. It’s almost absolutely pervasive in transportation, only taxis and certain mini-buses don’t take it, and it helps you avoid that buildup of unfamiliar change in your pocket.  If you get a “loaned” card at 7-11, you need to make a $50 HK deposit, which you get back upon surrender.


A friend from HK adds:

There are two computer arcades in Wan Chai, the bigger one is just adjacent to the Wan Chai MTR station exit. Another one, which is smaller and called the 298 Computer Arcade, is about 15 minutes walking from the Wan Chai MTR station.

The bigger one is similar to Sham Shui Po GCA. The 298 Computer Arcade mainly sells accessories like cables and writable CDs and DVDs etc, even though there are some shops, but not much, selling main boards and hard disks. The 298 shops do sell things a little bit cheaper. By the way, there is a computer fair held at Sham Shui Po from 12-Feb to 22-Feb. And then there is another Computer Fair which was held at the Cheung Sha Wan Sports Ground from 18-Feb to 21-Feb.??