Saturday, February 28, 2009

$48 Spark Plug Wire

We're still not yet fully settled into our new house here in Bend, and I don't have access to all my tools and spare Vanagon bits and pieces. So when the engine started missing on one cylinder all of a sudden four days ago I knew that trying to sort it out myself might take too long, esp. since I've picked up a couple side gigs to keep the cash flowing. The O2 monitor on the dash was vibrating rapidly and leaning toward rich, so my guess was a fouled plug or bad plug wire. Or maybe a problem in the dizzie. Anyway, I took Mellow Yellow to Steve's Place, on SE 9th Street, yesterday morning and dropped it off. He called me a couple hours later. Bad plug wire. Same brand he sells, he's had no trouble with them. Go figure. 

I rode my bike over to pick up the van -- a beautiful sunny day in the upper 30's (F), a lovely day for a bicycle ride. $48 dollars later and the mighty roar of Mellow Yellow's 1.9 l engine has returned. 

Yeah, I could-a fixed it myself, but sometimes a fellow just doesn't have the time, tools, or parts within easy reach. Besides, $48 goes into the local economy ($40 for labor, $8 for the part). Steve said that he has seen a reduction in business, but he does get a steady stream of customers, mainly because he is mentioned on all sorts of VW blogs and websites as a reputable place to get service work done. I'm mentioning him here, again, because he does fast work and knows what he's doing.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Skiing? Doctor Says No

Back in 1978 I discovered how much fun cross-country skiing is. In 1980 I had a massive automobile accident (kids, don't drink and drive on twisty mountain roads in the rain -- ask me how I know). I broke a lot of bones: my right ankle was shattered, my right hip and right shoulder were broken, some ribs (who's counting at this point?) were fractured ... and my left knee -- from about three inches above the joint to an inch or so below the joint -- was turned into bone shards. 

The ER doctors did what they could to paste me back together. "Looked like gravel in there," the surgeon commented. 

I spent 3 months in the hospital, 6 months in a wheelchair. A second surgery was needed for the knee because it wasn't knitting. More wheelchair time, then a walker, then crutches, then a cane. And for 17 years I was pretty okay. Lucky to be walking. 

But the knee started to wear out, and in 1997 I achieved that lovely bone-on-bone pain that happens when the meniscus is worn through. 

I got opinions from several knee men (I say "men" because they were all men) and the concensus was that I needed a TKA -- total knee arthroplasty, or total knee replacement. In 1998 I was cut open again, and the end of the femur (thigh bone) and top of the tibia (shin bone) were removed and this wonderful titanium Terminator-style knee was put in. It sets off alarms at all airports. Secondary screening is routine. 

My skiing days were over, said Dr. James C. Esch, M.D., the man that did the procedure. Because the femur had been broken into so many pieces, and because the original surgeries were only able to put things together so well, the prosthetic knee they ordered up had a special long stem that was shoved up into my femur for at least 8 inches. 

The stem has a hexagonal cross-section. "One fall with a ski on that leg with a good twist, and it could shatter your femur," he said.

Walking is pretty painful sometimes, because of my bad ankle. I've got a bad limp, too. Bicycling, which I love anyway, does not hurt my leg joints and I cycle whenever I can. 

But now we're in Bend, where there is cross country skiing, and downhill skiing, and snowshoeing and other winter activities to do when cycling isn't such a good idea on the icy roads. 

So I decided to get a fresh opinion on this whole skiing versus my knee thing. 

My primary care physician recommended two knee men at The Center: Dr Hall and Dr Beuhler. I checked out their cv's, and they both looked qualified, and they both enjoyed winter sports. So I flipped a coin and picked James A. Hall, M.D.

Saw him yesterday. 

He looked at the new X-rays and said that he could see that Esch had had to make a lot of revisions (special modification) to deal with the wreckage he was working with. And that there's no way I should ever get on skiis. Even cross-country on a meadow. But I could snowshoe. 

Snowshoeing looks like a bit of a slog compared with cross-country skiing. But it's better than nothing!

Monday, February 2, 2009

New TV Cable Box Gives Me Wood

Bend Broadband's Moxi MC3 HD DVR does it for me. Yep, I can honestly say that after nearly 40 years of Life With Cable TV, beginning in the early 70's in Goleta, California (where the cable company apparently got its signal by using a pair of rabbit ears in someone's garage, and seldom bothered to see if the channels were actually delivering picture and sound), I have finally found a cable box with a user interface that doesn't appear to have been programmed by the same folks that designed the Atari 400's graphics, a box that doesn't drive me crazy like the poxy Motorola DSH3416 HD DVR + clunky iGuide software (read my highly opinionated rant, here).

The MC3's graphic user interface is pretty and operates smoothly. It uses a different approach than the familiar program grid + menuing system commonly used on other boxes. After about a minute of messing around with the remote I sorted out their way* of doing things -- and I like it. It's easy to navigate to where one needs to go to watch live TV, to set up recordings, to play back recordings, and it's easy to find other settings to play with which are so frequently buried in sub-menus on lesser boxes.

The hardware has none of the frustrating remote control lag that plagues the Motorola+iGuide line of DVRs. Nowhere to be found on the Moxi interface will you find advertisements for Bose Lifestyle systems or Preparation H. Suck on that, iGuide.**

I can leave this box on my favorite music-only channel all day long, and it continues to play that channel even after it starts recording the five o' clock airing of KOHD news (more about them later -- it's like watching a high school production, those kids are so darn adorable). Unlike the Moto+iGuide box, the MC3 understands that record means record, not show. It's only when both of the tuners are needed will the MC3 switch away from my default music channel. 

Me likee.

The picture quality is perhaps a smidge better than the Motorola DSH3416, but without a side-by-side comparison I can't say for sure. It just seems that way. The MC3 box's motorized bits are no noisier than those in the Moto, i.e., pretty quiet. The remote handle is smaller, better-balanced, and the most-used controls are fairly close together; while in comparison, the most-used buttons on the larger "Polaris" remote that BBB provided with the Moto box were, in my opinion, not grouped quite so well, so it was like playing a double bass in comparison to the Moxi's cello --  you need to reach your fingers farther to hit the notes. 

There have been a few glitches with the MC3, which is to be expected for a new product, and I've forwarded them to Digeo (who wrote the Moxi UI and worked with a hardware vendor to create a box to support it). Compared with cable box behemoths Scientific Atlanta and Motorola, Digeo is a small company so it is to be hoped that they can be more responsive in the bug-squashing department than those giants.***

Before we got the Moxi MC3, I figured that even though I had, amazingly, lived to see a black man elected President of these old racist United States, I would forever be tortured by crappy cable boxes. I'm pleased to say that the zeitgeist and events have proven me wrong. And cable companies have come a long way since the bad old days in Goleta. Time Warner in Carlsbad wasn't so bad, but in my experience, BBB is the best so far. Their service has been excellent, video and audio quality just fine, HD selection excellent, and pricing pretty much in line with all the others. 

Now that the MC3 is in our system, the satellite providers (DISH and DirecTV) will have to do some fancy talking (read: serious price reductions) before I could be talked into leaving BBB . . . and that's even if the satellites start carrying local network affiliates (read here and here). I've tried DISH's box, and have heard nothing to suggest that DirecTV's is any better. 

A final note. Believe it or not, I'm not that much into TV. There are a few shows that I like, but it's not that big a deal to me and I could forego TV easily. I've lived for years at a stretch without TV. However, Mrs Elliott loves her some TV, and since happy wife = happy wife then TV is here to stay. Given that I have to use it, I expect it to not be stupid. I've designed successful consumer electronics since 1980 and I know stupid when I see it.  The Moto+iGuide (and every other box I've had before it) is. The MC3 ain't.

Recommended. Link to BBB's Moxi page here. (Note that the page does not mention that the box has an HDMI output.)

Thanks, Bend Broadband, for giving me a superior option. 

* Moxi uses a colorful horizontal row of category "cards." Many provide access to pre-sorted lists of channels, such as "Channels" (all channels BBB provides), "HDTV" (all HDTV channels), "Movies," "Kids," "Music," und so weiter. Three great features recommend themselves: first, you can "turn off" any channel you aren't not subscribed to or are not interested in ever ever watching (I'm looking at you, QVC) so it never rears its ugly head again; second, a card called "Favorites" gradually fills up with the channels you normally watch; and third, programs that you've recorded appear on the channel listings, so you don't need to use a separate menu to find and play them. Other cards give access to settings, your list of recorded shows, and a host of other functions. When a channel card is brought into focus, it brings up a vertical column of channels to select, while cards that don't access channels bring up "action menus." Cable-box functions, like setting video resolution (which on the Moto box could only be accessed through menus which look like the BIOS setup screen on your PC) have the same clean look as all the other functions. The display responds promptly, for a cable box, to keypresses and selections. All in all, the interface is nicely thought out. 

** iGuide is the software that runs on the Moto box. It's what you see when you press "guide" on the Moto box remote. Note the advertisement taking up space at the bottom. Note how when you scroll downward to see other programs the remote highlights the ad -- just as if you were actually interested in seeing more information about the product. Are you? probably not. But you have to get past that thing every time you scroll down the list. An extra keystroke. You can use the page up and page down buttons to speed the process, but it's still aggrievating, like paying AOL for internet service and still having to see ads. 

*** One of the glitches might very well be an HDMI handshaking problem between the MC3 and our Philips HD TV (LCD, not plasma, thus lower power consumption thankyouverymuch) that occurs when the box switches resolution. It's probably nothing that the MC3 is doing wrong. The Moto box sticks to one resolution (you set it on a BIOS-y looking screen) while the MC3 is allowed to change. The installer told it that 480p, 720p, and 1080i were all okay so I bet it's switching to match the program resolution. Anyway, the Moto box didn't glitch like this. I'll be tinkering with the settings to sort this out.

AN + SHIN = Peace of Mind

Several years ago Mrs Elliott and I went in for some tattoos. I asked the tattooist to recommend a kanji character which means "tranquility," and he flipped through his book and found the symbol "AN" (pictured to the left). I agreed and he tattooed me with that symbol on my left shoulder. 

Later, I was talking to the woman who owns a Japanese food market and told her about this. She laughed, "That doesn't mean `tranquil,' it means `cheap!' " To create "tranquility," or "peaceful mind," one needs to add the ideogram for "heart": SHIN / Kokoro (pictured). She calligraphed the two together to illustrate how it works.
Together, the two ideograms create Anshin, (relief, peace of mind), a bit closer to what I hoped to have marked on my back. 

But for a few years I left the incomplete phrase on my back, not quite getting around to changing it, but always kinda aware that I was wearing the word for "cheap," or "easy" on my back. 

A few weeks ago I became more aware of this dangling thread when I got a massage from Yasuko Narita, LMT, at Balanced Life Massage in Bend. Yasuko is from Japan, and I knew she was looking at the AN and thinking that I was yet another white guy with a senseless kanji tattoo. I asked her about it, and she confirmed what the market owner had told me, that KOKORO was needed to complete the concept. 

So with a scaled printout of what I needed in hand, I popped into Oxygen Tattoo on Bond Street. They quoted $100 for the job, which was a little more than I wanted to pay. I rode my bike over to Black Rabbit on Greenwood, but they were going to be closed until noon and I didn't feel like waiting. Having recalled seeing a new tattoo place on Galveston near the flaming chicken, I rode out and found Tattoos By Mum (no website found, she was formerly on Wall Street, I think). 

She said she could do the tat for $80 and got the job. 

A few minutes later, I had peace of mind.

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