Thursday, 30 March, 2006

New Telephone

Debra and I got new phones today.  We both upgraded to the Sprint PCS Voice Phone A560 (who knows how long that link will work) from Samsung.  It's the cheapest phone available from Sprint.  That is, it was free.

And so ends the 4-year Palm Phone experiment.  On my 40th birthday, Debra bought me a Kyocera SmartPhone because I'd been wanting a PDA but didn't want to carry it and a digital phone.  The thing was large, even by 2001 standards, and today people look at it like it's one of those old cell phone bricks.

In any event, it didn't take me long to realize that I'm not the PDA type, and I didn't much care for playing games on that little thing, either.  In fact, there wasn't much at all I liked about that phone, except for the ability to check my email--a feature that was handy when I traveled without a laptop.  I chronicled the problems I had getting SMS text messages to work with the thing last year.  All in all, it was an expensive experiment that ultimately was a failure.

Debra, too, had been using an old phone.  I think hers was over five years old, and it was falling apart.  The new phone is half the size of her old one (about 1/3 the size of my old phone) and seems to have much better reception here at the house than either of the old sets.  It also has longer battery life, a pretty color screen, and more different ring tones, songs, beeps, boops, and bops than I'll ever be able to understand.

But it's cool.  I just hope I don't lose the dang thing, it's so small.

Monday, 27 March, 2006

Losing money for fun and ... profit?

One of my friends the other day suggested a wonderful new way to get rich quick lose money in the stock market:  buy stock in bankrupt companies that you think will emerge successfully.  On the face if it, it sounds like a great idea:  buy the stock of a formerly high-flying company for pennies on the dollar and hold onto it until the dust settles.  Then when the company emerges from bankruptcy, sell for a huge profit.  Simple, right?  What can go wrong?

The question should be what can't go wrong?  Or perhaps what can go right?  There's a reason why losing money on bankruptcy stocks ranked #8 on the SEC's complaint list last year.  And the SEC has an excellent warning about bankruptcy stocks on its web site.  According to the SEC's Corporate Bankruptcy article, "In most instances, the company's plan of re-organization will cancel the existing equity shares."  The bold is on the SEC's page.

Unwary investors (who, by definition, are gamblers) are easily lured into "investing" in shares of a bankrupt company that looks like it will turn around because there appears to be a huge jump in stock price when companies emerge from bankruptcy.  Consider UAL Corp, owner of United Airlines.  They went into Chapter 11 a little over three years ago.  After almost 38 months during which their stock traded at under $1.00 per share, the company emerged from bankruptcy with their stock trading at $40.00.  Instant goldmine!

Except the $40.00 stock was a new issue.  The old $1.00 stock was ... canceled.  That's right, if you held shares in UAL Corp before February 2, that stock is now worthless.  Let me rephrase that.  If you had gambled on UAL Corp stock before February 2 of this year, you would have lost 100% of whatever you put in.

Companies don't always just cancel the existing shares.  Sometimes the reorganization plan is quite generous and rewards those shareholders who stayed with the company by offering a certain number of new shares for each of the old shares.  A number like 100 old shares for each new share is not uncommon.  That's not so attractive if you paid 50 cents for each old share--$50 for 100--and the new shares are issued at $20.

Have you got the picture yet?  It's possible that somebody makes money trading shares of bankrupt companies, but it almost certainly won't be you.  There might be faster ways to lose money than by gambling on such stocks, but I can't think of one right offhand.  You might even be better off playing your State Lottery.

Sunday, 26 March, 2006

You: The Owner's Manual

I finally finished reading You: The Owner's Manual, by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz.  Both of the authors are M.D.s.  I really wanted to like this book because everything that I'd heard about it was so positive.  But ultimately the book fell short of my expectations.

Don't get me wrong: there's a lot to like about the book.  The authors provide approachable descriptions of major bodily systems and give good information about what can go wrong with those systems and how to keep them healthy and in good working order.  The systems covered are:  heart and arteries, brain and nervous system, skeletal structure, lungs, digestion, sex organs, senses, immune system, and hormones.  There's even a reasonably good chapter on cancer.

The first chapter sets some high expectations.  My eyes continued to widen as I read those few pages, because these doctors were saying things that I've believed for decades:  you are in charge of your own health.  It's easier to stay healthy and keep things in good repair than it is to fix things that break after years of neglect.  Doctors are there to help you stay healthy rather than just to fix things.  And they do the one thing that gives doctors credibility in my eyes:  they admit in the first chapter that there's a lot about the human body that medical science simply doesn't know.

The first chapter ends with a 50-question quiz about your body that most people will fail miserably.  And the questions are simple stuff.  For example:

What is the greatest threat to your arteries?

  1. An elevated blood pressure of 160/90
  2. An elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol of 200
  3. An elevated helping of fried zucchini sticks
  4. An elevated amount of time spent on the couch

The answers are given at the end of the chapter, with some brief explanations.  With high expectations for the rest of the book, I headed into Chapter 2, which starts the bodily tour with the heart and arteries.

The authors make the analogy of the body being like a house, with each bodily subsystem similar to a system in the house:  heart and arteries like the plumbing, lungs like the ventilation system, etc.  That analogy works reasonably well, mostly because they don't try to take it too far.  Each chapter starts with the analogy, describing how the system in question relates to the subsystem in the house.  Then there's a discussion of the anatomy, including descriptions of what can go wrong.  Finally, each chapter has a "Live Younger Action Plan," which describes how to keep things in good working order.

The anatomical descriptions are very good: reasonably complete and given in layman's terms with some helpful illustrations.  I could do without some of the silliness in the pictures, and the lame jokes that average once per paragraph get old pretty fast.  But the information is useful.

The "Live Younger Action Plan" sections drive me bonkers.  There is some good advice that seems to be backed up by a lot of research, but there's also a bunch of advice that looks like it's backed up by anecdotal results.  And the authors don't do a very good job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  They suggest so many different supplements that you could probably make lunch from the supplements alone.  There's no way I could remember all those pills, much less take them.

The thing that really bugs me about the Live Younger sections is that the authors throw around this concept called "Real Age," without defining very well how to apply it.  The "Real Age" is supposedly your body's perceived age.  For example, an exceptionally healthy 55-year-old can have the health and body of a 35-year-old.  It's an attractive and interesting concept, and it's described well in the first chapter, but then it's not applied well throughout the book.  The authors often include information about the Real Age effect of some behavior, for example:

A fifty-five-year-old with a LDL of 180 mg/dl who lowers it to 100 will make himself three years younger.

But there's no summary information, nor is there any rational way of combining the hundreds of such statements into some coherent whole.  On first reading, I'm pretty sure that if I followed all of their suggestions, I could have the body of an eighteen-year-old.  At least, according to a simplistic reading of the information.

The book ends with The Owner's Manual Diet, which looks like a reasonably healthy diet.  It doesn't look like any of the fad diets I've seen over the years.  As the authors put it, they're more interested in regulating important things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and your energy level.  Losing weight isn't the primary purpose of the diet, although it probably will happen if you follow the simple diet and exercise suggestions.

The writing, although probably very good compared to most doctors, is indifferent at best and sloppy in some places.  The editing of the book is absolutely terrible.  The copy editor should be fired.  There is an embarrassing number of missing words, and the sentence structure is just painful at times.  Any editor worth his salt would have nixed at least 80 percent of the lame jokes.

For all that I dislike about the book, I still give it a cautious recommendation because I think there's a lot to be gained from reading the book and a lot to be lost if you don't read the book.  The authors' primary points can be summed up in a few bullets:

  • Don't smoke.  If you smoke, stop now.
  • Cut down on excess fat in your diet.
  • Don't eat so much.
  • Exercise regularly.

Those points are made in Chapter 2 when talking about the heart and circulatory system.  They're driven home in almost every other chapter by descriptions of what happens when clogged arteries make it difficult or impossible for blood to get where it's supposed to go.  I, for one, endorse the major ideas even if I disagree with some of their recommendations.

In all, a good overview of the anatomy and some good solid advice for staying healthy.  Recommended, but be sure to engage your brain and do some thinking for yourself.  These guys are doctors with an agenda, and that agenda might not always have your best interests as the guiding principle.  You are in charge of your health.  Learn from this book, but don't treat it like The One Truth.

Friday, 24 March, 2006

Juggling to the Beatles

A lot of my friends know that I do a little recreational juggling.  I'm not a good juggler by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy tossing the beanbags around from time to time.  I also appreciate good juggling when I see it.

A couple of weeks ago I started getting emails linking Chris Bliss's 3-ball juggling routine, done to some Beatles music.  Not bad, huh?  None of his juggling tricks is especially difficult, but the choreography was well done.  I thought so, anyway.

I don't know where the bad blood is, but apparently some in the entertainment industry aren't too happy with Chris Bliss getting all this attention.  Jason Garfield got annoyed enough that he created a 5-ball juggling routine to the same music.  Garfield's routine is, quite simply, astounding.  And he makes it look incredibly easy.

I've been reading the book, You: The Owner's Manual, about which I'll post more when I'm finished.  However, it struck me about halfway through the book how many ailments are related to poor blood circulation.  We often think of clogged arteries causing heart attacks and strokes, but don't often realize how many other things are related.  It's not just the arteries that get clogged.  For example, erectile dysfunction is most often caused by poor circulation, not stress or other psychological problems.  Reading that, I got to wondering how Viagra and similar drugs work.

You can find anything on the Internet, and a quick search for "how does viagra work" turned up the HowStuffWorks page, How Viagra Works.  It's actually an interesting story.  The biology of an erection is a somewhat complicated mechanism that involves stimulating the production of an enzyme that in turn produces a chemical (called cGMP) that induces the muscles around an artery to relax, letting blood flow.  Another enzyme called PDE deactivates the cGMP so things don't get out of control.  The most common cause of erectile dysfunction is that not enough cGMP is produced to maintain an erection.

There are 11 different types of PDE (the enzyme that blocks cGMP) and one, PDE-5 is used primarily to control the penile valve.  Once biologists discovered that, all they had to do was develop a drug that blocks PDE-5.  So Viagra doesn't increase blood flow, but rather blocks the enzyme that prevents the cGMP from increasing blood flow.

I've been concentrating on fixing bugs in our product lately, and found that the story of how Viagra was developed resembles debugging.  Very often, the symptom is painfully obvious, but it's difficult to find the cause of the problem.  My experience with debugging is that finding the cause of a problem is the hard part.  Once I understand what's causing the program to malfunction, designing and implementing a solution is almost automatic.  The same is true for the development of Viagra:  once they fully understood the mechanics and chemistry of how an erection works, it was almost trivial to develop a drug to interrupt the mechanism.  There are some side effects, and I can imagine that men who take the drug even though they don't need it might experience some discomfort from the unrestricted blood flow.

Isn't the Internet great?  10 years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find that much information without making a trip to a large library and having to leaf through uncounted issues of medical journals.  For all the bad things people can say about the Internet, it's absolutely the best information resource ever developed.

Saturday, 11 March, 2006

Spokes 'n Spurs Ride

I met the organizers of the Spokes 'n Spurs Ride for the Ranch last year when I was participating in another ride.  I had my radio on the bike and was going slow, talking to the ride support people and helping other cyclists out with flat tires and other minor mechanical problems.  Three or four of the Spokes 'n Spurs people came by and asked me about the radio.  It seems they had quite a bit of trouble with their communications last year.  I told them that our ham radio club would be happy to provide support for their ride, and gave them my contact information.

The ride was today.  Eight members of the club and a dozen or so members of the Motorcycle Special Events Team (MSET) came out to provide communications and emergency medical services.  Fortunately there were no medical emergencies, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Six of us installed our radios in the SAG vehicles and rode along as we patrolled the course, giving encouragement, providing minor mechanical help, giving rides to those whose bicycles or bodies had given up, and making sure that the rest stops had enough supplies.  It helps to be prepared for these things:  installation of the radios consisted of placing a magnetic mount antenna on top of the vehicle and connecting the radio to the cigarette lighter or directly to the battery.  Two other members served as Net Control--one for the SAG vehicles and another for the MSET folks.

The organizers of the ride were quite happy with our ability to provide communications for the SAG wagons, relay messages from the rest stops, and dispatch the MSET folks for a few minor medical situations.  The ride's Safety Chairman sat near the communications tent and was comfortable that he knew exactly what was happening on the route.  It also gave him the ability to talk with his other people via cell phone for non-critical or time-consuming conversations.

Beyond what's on their Web site, I don't know much about what Spirit Reins does.  However, if they put the same kind of attention to detail into their daily work as they did into organizing and conducting this ride, they're undoubtedly very good at what they do.  The people who run the ranch are very friendly and appear to be quite competent.  They did a superb job on the ride.  I've participated in many rides as either a rider or a volunteer, and I've rarely seen one as well planned and executed as this one.  And to think that it's only their second year.  I have no qualms recommending this ride to any cyclist.

Thursday, 09 March, 2006

Mail server problem

For the second time in two years, my ISP has had a "mail server issue," and my email was down for almost an entire day.  When the server came up, I had to re-initialize my email account and Debra's.  I've had friends call and ask me if my email address is still good.

If you sent me mail yesterday, it probably bounced.  Even if it didn't bounce, it's likely that I did not receive it.  I think that any mail sent to me between noon EST on March 8 and 9:00 AM on March 9 ended up in the bit bucket.  If during that time you sent something that needs my attention, please re-send it.

The last time this happened, my spam count went from over 200 messages per day to almost zero.  It'll be interesting to see if I see similar results this time.

Monday, 06 March, 2006

Pushing the limits

One of the informal measures I use to determine my level of fitness is to see which is stronger:  my legs or my heart.  If my legs are pumping as hard as they can, screaming "Stop!" while my heart is chuckling, "Is that all you got, Bub?", then I know that my legs need a little work.  Give me a month or two of training and my legs will be screaming down to engineering for more power and ol' Scotty will be crying, "I canna give it any more, Captain!  She's about to blow already!"  Spock, by the way, is deep in meditation hoping that the madness that has infected the human crew won't claim him.  Chekov is staring blankly at the viewscreen, plotting a course for Boobella III where the women are busty, blonde, and very friendly.

It doesn't take too much training for my legs to outpace my heart.  My maximum heart rate, according to the "220 minus age" rule of thumb, is 176 beats per minute.  When I'm out of shape I have a tough time getting my legs to push my heart that hard.  But when I've been training regularly I can push my heart rate to 190 and keep it there for five or ten minutes.  My doctor about jumped out of his skin when I told him that, and ended up giving me a five minute lecture about how there's no significant cardiovascular fitness gain by pushing my body that hard and that by doing so I risk tearing plaque from my artery walls (assuming there is any) and causing an instant heart attack.  I decided that I won't tell my doctor about those experiments any more.

He's right, though.  From a cardiovascular fitness standpoint, you gain almost nothing by pushing your body beyond about 80% of your maximum heart rate.  The ideal aerobic exercise range, and where your body burns fat most efficiently, is between 65% and 80%:  in my case between 114 and 141 beats per minute.  Pushing beyond that you enter anaerobic territory, where you're starving your body of oxygen and burning muscle glycogen rather than fat.  It's great training for professional athletes who regularly push their bodies to the limit, but mere mortals should be very cautious about exercising that hard.

Saturday, 04 March, 2006

History Lessons

I finally made my way through History Lessons: How Textbooks from around the world portray U.S. history.  It's an interesting and sometimes amusing read, but not terribly enlightening.  Not surprisingly, most of the selections portrayed the U.S. involvement in world affairs negatively.  This is especially true of selections from North Korea, Cuba, and the Middle Eastern countries.

Most "approved" history texts smack of propaganda, even here in the U.S. where textbook approval is left to the states (and in some places to the individual school boards).  The books from North Korea and Cuba are really bad.  For example, North Korean junior high school students learn:

The troops of the People's Army defeated the American bastards over and over again on every battlefield.  Cornered in a dead end, the American bastards didn't know what to do.  The quick-tempered Americans finally signed the armistice on July 27th of the Juche calendar (1953) and kneeled down before the Chosun People.

The great victory of having beaten the Americans, this proud triumph and honor of our people, was the glorious accomplishment of our great leader (Kim Il-sung).

The North Korean descriptions of the Pueblo incident are similarly one-sided.

Cuba's students learn that the U.S. is actively engaged in biological war against their country:

Among the most criminal aggression that the US has carried out against Cuba [was] the spreading of toxic substances and germs over the island, causing the outbreaks of diseases that have affected people, plants, and animals.  Only a deliberate enemy action could [have] caused these epidemics in a country whose high level of public health care and flora and fauna protection is recognized by the most competent, specialized regional and international organizations.

To be fair, the book does shed some light on incidents that aren't well-covered in U.S. textbooks.  At least, not in any textbooks that I remember seeing.  The Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine-American War (yes, there was one), and U.S. involvement in Latin America are just some of the topics that U.S. textbooks either ignore or mention only briefly.

The book does give some useful background information into what was happening in other countries during the time periods discussed.  That's something that often is lacking in U.S. history textbooks, and gives some insight into the reasons for many conflicts.  The views are understandably slanted, but that's to be expected.  After all, our textbooks tend to portray the U.S. in the best possible light.

Recommendation?  Mild.  I learned a few new things, which is always good, but not enough to justify the time I spent reading the book.  A history buff might get more out of it--especially some good laughs at some of the more slanted viewpoints.  But I suspect most people are better off spending their money and time on something else.

Friday, 03 March, 2006

Spring is Here

It appears that Spring has come to Central Texas.  I noticed the Texas redbuds blooming while I was on my bike ride this afternoon, and the Arizona ash trees are beginning to leaf out.  My peach tree is leafed out and beginning to bloom, which probably means that we're due for another frost before Spring officially arrives.

Sunday is the 78th Zilker Kite Festival.  I might take time off from riding to go take a look.

And, for the third year in a row, I'm preparing for my April madness:  a 335-mile, three-day bike ride from home to Harlingen, Texas.  This started out as a bit of craziness just to see if I could do it.  It's turned into an annual event raising money to fund a scholarship endowment for the Marine Military Academy.  This year we'll have another graduate (Frank Colunga, who graduated in 1975), and possibly one other.  Debra's training has suffered and she probably won't do the entire ride, but she's hoping to do the last day with us.

Work is keeping me busy, which is the reason for my absence here.  Perhaps next week I'll have a little time to catch up on the in box.