Guns? Really?

I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that the problem with gun control in the US is that, while a majority of people support better background checks at time of purchase, congress is so worried about the loss of NRA funds that they refuse to pass any real laws that might restrict gun ownership. One of the best articles I’ve read, entitled “We’re Just Haggling Over Price“, suggests 90% of Americans support the enhanced checks, and that the changes would only delay purchasing by a few minutes.

While some may consider it to be a step in the right direction; I don’t. I’m sorry, but a law like that would be just another lame compromise, a bit like the Affordable Care Act was a massive compromise. Of course, the difference between the two was that the ACA was passed, but gun control laws fail every time they are proposed, no matter how many people are killed.

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Stanford Children’s MyChart

In 2013 our pediatrician’s practice was acquired by Stanford Children’s Health which, at the time, seemed to be a positive move. The pediatricians at the hospital where both our kids were born was part of the same group and they were great.

Indeed, the actual doctor part hasn’t really changed beyond the introduction of computerized records (believe it or not they were still using paper records until around a year ago). What did change though was how we pay the bills. Initially, there was some confusion as the billing was moved from the old system over, which, while not really acceptable, is at least understandable as a temporary problem.

Finally though, the bills were being sent out as Stanford Children’s Health bills, and to pay them online we need to login to their MyChart system – something that appears to have been licensed from Epic Software. Quite why this is necessary I don’t understand; all the other medical bills I’ve ever paid allowed me to simply go to a payment portal, enter the details of the bill and pay it without needing an account. But, SCH requires an account at MyChart. And that is where the confusion starts.

Account Holder

Obviously, the patients in this case are not paying the bills, so the account needs to be created in an adult’s name, and associated with the patient. The first to receive a bill under the new system was my daughter, following a visit when my wife took her. But I pay the bills. When the account was created, I entered the magic code from the bill, and my email address. But somehow the record had been created with my wife’s name on it, so now the account is in her name, with my email address. Unfazed, I just paid the bill and left it; it doesn’t really matter much.

Next to visit was my son, so now I have a bill for him. And here is where MyChart falls apart. It would seem that nobody at Epic ever considered the possibility that a family might have more than one child. I can’t create a new account for him because my email address is already associated with an account (I guess I could use a different email address, but I don’t want to deal with two accounts for this either). And I can’t see his bill on the existing account because that account is associated with a different patient (my daughter). And there is no way for me to link him to the existing account. Which means there is no way to pay the bill online. Total failure!

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Looking Back

This must be one of those moments in time when Twitter is reminding me of events long gone. The buildings I worked in during my gap year & for the first summer break while at university was the first trip down memory lane. Now I am reminded about graduation by seeing all the photos of this year’s Kent graduates at Canterbury Cathedral.

For me, that trip was 22 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long, or at least it didn’t until I started thinking about what has changed since then. Graduating in a building with the history & grandeur of Canterbury Cathedral is quite an experience. Especially when the university itself is very young (established in 1965, so only a few years older than I am). That experience, I’m sure, hasn’t changed. Nor will the excitement of dressing up in robes and finally being admitted to the degree that has been the focus of a few years of their lives. (And, perhaps, some will have the opportunity to make unwitting tourists believe students wear the robes every day, or to have a swift pint with friends while dressed in them, like we did.) But plenty has changed.

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First Job

This tweet from @robleathern that I saw in my feed this afternoon got me thinking about the buildings where my first job was located.

So, I thought I’d try to find out what the building was used for today, and even see if I could get a photo. That actually proved difficult, even though the buildings it was part of are in fact pretty historic having been the place where a number of very significant inventions were created.

I started as a trainee in the year between graduating from secondary school and before starting at university. For that year, I was to be working at Thorn EMI in Hayes, Middlesex. The first six months were in the training department, located in Vulcan House, the remainder of the year we were split into different divisions of the company, but my assignment was to Radar Division, based in the nextdoor building, Mercury House, in Hayes.

This is the best photo I can find online for the entire site:

Thorn EMI, Hayes

If you look in the lower left corner of the highlighted area, the thin building right on the boundary is Mercury House; the larger, square footprint building next to it is Vulcan House.

Right now it looks as though they either have been, or are being, converted into something called the Old Vinyl Factory, but several pictures I found online seem to suggest that both of these two are somewhat derelict now (Thorn EMI moved out of the site in the early 1990s, and we were relocated to a site in Crawley that is still in use today, although under different ownership).

I mentioned that they were somewhat historic. Before WW2, the buildings were on the cutting edge of audio recording technology. Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo sound recording, worked in these buildings, and the very first movie with stereo sound was shot from one of them, looking down at the railway lines alongside the site (which were still there while I was there, but no longer with steam trains!). The buildings were also home to a lot of the early development work on television, with Blumlein listed as an inventor on several TV-related patents. Pretty significant stuff, but perhaps the more significant work was still to come.

As Europe was embroiled in war, the same people shifted their focus to other technology, including the development of radar, which was so critical in the defence of the UK. Blumlein was a key developer in the top secret airborne H2S Radar system project. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash while testing the radar in 1942; just imagine what we could have achieved otherwise. At the time, some thought the H2S project would fail without him, but it survived (and in fact was still in active use as recently as 1993). Additionally, some of his early radar-related inventions are still in use in modern radar systems.

Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.

Review: Virgin America

I am writing this from my seat in the main cabin on Virgin America’s VX321 from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles. The first leg of my journey home. I have seen mixed opinions of Virgin America, but my previous flight with them, shortly after they launched, was pleasant enough that I booked this business trip with them flying SFO – LAX – FLL (on a red eye), and the same route back.

Booking 

I booked the flight on their website directly, and the process was simple, and the options for different cabins or other upgrades were clear. The one thing I would have liked would be a more detailed receipt breaking out the upgrades from the base price, though I suspect there as many, perhaps more, people who appreciate them being hidden for when they submit their expenses.

Check In

At the appropriate time an email arrived in my inbox with an invitation to check in. Tapping the button in the email took me straight to the online checkin page with all my details completed. Since I was flying with just one carry on bag, I chose the no bags express checkin option, and that was that. The next page had two buttons, one for each segment of my flight, to load my boarding passes into Passbook on my iPhone.

At The Airport

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Traveling Light

As I write this the view out of the window next to me looks similar to the photo on the right (snapped with my iPad camera moments ago) and I am writing this on my iPad seated in 3A at the front of the main cabin of an Airbus en route to Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale.

Unusually though, even though this was a business trip, I do not have a laptop with me. Normally I would have my trusty 13″ MBP in my bag, but this was a quick trip (I was in Florida for a little over 24 hours), and I did not need to present anything at either of the conference sessions I was speaking at (both were panel sessions).

Instead, I brought just my iPad, my TwelveSouth Compass stand, and a Bluetooth keyboard in case I needed something more than the on screen one.

So how did it work?

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Pebble Update

Given all the issues I had been having with my Pebble watch staying connected to my iPhone, it might seem odd that I ordered a new Pebble Time rather than an Apple Watch. For the last few months though my Pebble has stayed connected to my phone almost continuously. The iOS permission notification, that I used to see regularly, now really only appears when the phone restarts.

Intermittent Disconnects

Also, the problem where it appeared to be connected, but was not getting any notifications, has gone away after a factory reset of the watch (from the watch’s settings menu), followed by switching to recovery mode (press and hold back, up and select buttons for 30 seconds) and letting the phone re-install the latest firmware. The app reinstalled 

Not sure what caused the problem, but I suspect either the update process left something in a strange state or there is something that leaks resources. With the latest firmware though, I haven’t seen it again, so I’m hoping that was something in an earlier version. If I do see it again, at least I know the trick to getting things back to normal now, and while it sounds painful, getting watchfaces & apps back on the watch is automatic once the watch is paired back to the phone.

Audio Issues

I still get the interference from the Pebble when using a Bluetooth hands free system for voice calls. Most noticeable on in car systems, though either the latest versions of iOS and/or Pebble firmware, or perhaps my new car (same make as the previous one, but a few years younger) have made it less of a problem. I haven’t had a chance to do any testing with other devices.

The Bluetooth audio connections for listening to music were fixed with a Pebble firmware update a while ago.

Battery Life

For a long time after I had the issues with battery life (which, I am pretty sure, were actually caused by the Bluetooth communication issues), I had been using the Modern Longlife watchface. With that, I was getting 5+ days regularly from the Steel, with moderate to heavy notifications. I switched to Modern Neue recently, which includes a second hand, and I think it has knocked a little off the battery life, but it is still 5 days between charges most of the time. I have become comfortable with the 20% battery warning and know that just means I need to charge that night, even when it pops up early in the day.

The Good

As I mentioned earlier in my smart watch thoughts post, having the important things that happen online appear on the watch is great, and something I would definitely miss now. The watchface options are unbelievable too, and while perhaps not as pretty as the new Apple Watch ones, they are every bit as functional (perhaps more so if you take into account the fact that they on screen all the time and not just when you activate the screen).

On the app front, there is already a huge selection of apps, but my personal feeling right now is that few are really useful for me simply because I would rather use the watch to be notified of things than to act on them. I do like the Nest remote, but even that i don’t use often. I certainly don’t want to be reading anything longer than a notification on my watch (though I do wish Facebook notifications included at least some of the content too so I cou,d decide whether I want to get the phone out or not).

Crowd Funding Update

Back in August of last year I wrote an update on the status of the projects I have backed on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Eight months on, only one of the projects still ongoing has delivered: Parashoot. Lima and Lono are still promising to ship soon.

I also have a couple of projects not on either of the two platforms: Coin (which finally delivered this week, very late), and Nymi, a biometric authentication project (still to deliver, but different in that they won’t take the money until they ship, so really this is pre-ordering more than crowd funding).

In the meantime I have backed a few more projects:

The Egg

A personal web server gadget. This one was a little personal since I know one of the founders, but I’ve seen one of their early units and the project has some appealing features too, not least of which is the ability to share photos with friends & family without having to upload them to a public web service.

Expected delivery: September 2015

Pebble Time

This will be my third Pebble, and I upgraded the pledge to switch to the steel variant once they announced it. Not much more to say about this one.

Expected delivery: July 2015

Titanium Pens

A set of three (because I couldn’t decide on the finish I preferred & the set was a bargain compared to one or two pens). And, yes, these pens are going to ship without a refill. But they look gorgeous, and the guy behind the project already sells lots of titanium products directly from his site and clearly has a passion for this pen project. It has been incredibly over subscribed though – about 3600% more than the goal.

Expected delivery: July 2015

The Leaders Guide by Eric Ries

A new book project from Eric Ries (of lean startup fame) with lots of unlocked extras. 

Expected delivery: October 2015

Coin: The Card To Replace Them All

What seems like a very long time ago now, I signed up for a crowdfunded project called Coin. The literally credit sized (in all dimensions) sliver of electronics claimed to be able to pretend to be all of my credit cards, selecting the one I wanted being as simple as pressing a “button” on the card.

Well, this week my card finally arrived, much later than they had originally estimated, and after a much longer beta testing period (which I had signed up to be a part of, but was not selected for).

Setting up the card was mostly straightforward (I already had the app on my iPhone and the account set up since they sent instructions for doing that part a long time ago so we could track our order too).

Loading Cards

I had a small hiccup getting the cards sync’d onto the Coin, but once I worked out that the trick was to wait for the phone app to tell me to activate the card and get it into sync mode, it all went smoothly. At least for the two credit cards.

The Starbucks card I tried to load was another problem altogether. The Coin ships with a small card reader that plugs into the headphone/mic jack on the iPhone (similar to the original Square card readers). That is able to read credit cards easily, but when it came to reading my Starbucks card it took a few swipes to get it to read, and even then the number it read from the mag stripe didn’t match the number printed on the card. I have a support request open with Coin to see whether that is expected.

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