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Lost In Space

It was the middle of February 2020, just before COVID-19 changed everything. My husband, daughter and I were at a luau in Hawaii, celebrating my daughter’s birthday.

Just after the outdoor show began, an hour or so past sunset, somebody at our table pointed to the western horizon. “Look at that!” Flying low in the sky was a series of lights in a straight line. There were maybe 10 or 12 of them. We’d never seen anything like it. Were they birds? Were they shooting stars? Was it the second coming? What the heck??

We asked some of the hotel staff “Have you ever seen this before?” No, they all answered. We watched until the string of lights slowly drifted out of sight.

The next day our astronomer friend, who was also visiting Hawaii at the time, gave us the explanation. Only a few days before, SpaceX had launched 60 Starlink satellites. What we saw were a few of them still following each other in the same orbit. Eventually, they would drift apart and orbit on their own.

When I think of it now, it seemed like a strange omen. We didn’t realize then that this would be our last trip for a very long time.

Just the other day, May 4th, known as “Star Wars Day”, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites. A string of them were visible in the night sky here on Vancouver Island for a short time.

There are roughly 6000 satellites orbiting around our little blue planet at this time, with more coming. Some of these satellites are not even operational. Space junk.

They float along with lots of other bits and pieces like old bolts, equipment fragments, fuel sludge and paint chips that have been orbiting for years. One of the main concerns is the possibility of collisions with important working satellites.

The International Space Station is constantly adjusting direction in order to avoid this space junk. At a high velocity, even the smallest bit can do great damage.

Environmental issues, it seems, are not just confined within our atmosphere. Believe it or not, there are “space debris experts” out there trying to sound the alarm and to come up with ways to safely remove space junk before something catastrophic happens.

Why, at the very moment of this writing, there is a 10-story, 23-ton piece of rocket about to crash to earth, with no one knowing for sure where it might end up. Alert the “space debris experts.”

It could splash harmlessly into the ocean, but it could also smash into a populated area. Some of it will burn up on re-entry, but not all 23 tons of it.

Back in 1969, I remember watching the blurry image of the first step onto the moon. I was at my best friend Shirley’s house and we watched this incredible event on her black and white TV. “The Eagle has landed.” Looking at the moon that night, I was amazed to think that people were actually up there walking on it.

Now we’ve got NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance roaming the red planet, looking for past signs of life. The technological advances in space exploration have been astounding, and we keep learning more and more, not only about our solar system, but also about our home, the earth.

And, as my astronomer friend would point out, a lot of that technology and research has also benefited us as individuals too.

Oh, oh, watch out!

Phew…

Just figure out a way to get rid of all of that space junk, will ya?

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Facebook Follies

When I became a computer operator (now referred to as a computer “technician”) at the Vancouver Public Library back in the early 80s, it was an enormous task to enter the name of every book and periodical, and every patron, into our new system. We hired a group of people for that task, and they literally spent months and months tucked away in a room, doing nothing but data entry.

It amused us at the time that a few of the patrons were worried about their information being put into a computer system. Who would see their names and addresses? Who would have access to their records? We rolled our eyes at their paranoia.

Little did we know that 40 years later, we’d be carrying devices in our pockets that knew almost everything about us even when we didn’t mean for them to. Not only that, but those little devices could also broadcast whatever they knew about us anywhere in the world, to whomever wanted that info.

Last year around this time, we were on what would be our last (sob) vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii, before this COVID thing hit. We were walking through a market when I spotted a t-shirt on a woman about my age, and it made me laugh. I can’t remember now exactly what it said, but it wasn’t anything I’d seen anywhere before, and I thought it was pretty funny.

So I giddily told my husband and my daughter about it after we had passed the woman.

Back at our condo that evening I was on my iPad perusing Facebook, when I saw that very t-shirt in my Facebook feed. It was a unique t-shirt, so I knew it wasn’t a fluke. That was the first time I realized just how little privacy I actually had. Suddenly, those long ago library patrons questioning where their info was going to be seen or accessed, weren’t so paranoid to me anymore. My phone was actually listening to me.

As we have all discovered, the technology and algorithms on our phones and other devices are mapping our routes, listening to us, and watching every Google search we make.

A lot of people have quit Facebook for many reasons, including that privacy issue. Facebook pretty much makes all of their revenue (in 2020, close to $86 billion US) from businesses, big and small, who want your dollars. Of course, that’s what advertising is for, and what would businesses and companies do if they couldn’t advertise?

What bothers me is the sneaky little way that technology is figuring out what you might want to spend your money on. It feels creepy. It’s like some sleazy guy followed you as you walked through the mall, and watched as you eyed that new red dress. Then he shows up in the parking lot with the red dress, trying to convince you to buy it from him as you’re attempting to get into your car. That kind of creepy. And so much more.

Because, now imagine thousands of sleazy guys following you through the mall, every one of them carefully watching to see which purchases you might be considering. That’s closer to reality.

What’s even worse is how we are targeted by political ads. The fallout from that has been witnessed in such a distressful way with our neighbours to the south. “Freedom of speech” the tech companies say. More like “freedom to spew bull poop”.

In spite of all of this, my 149 friends and I are still on Facebook. Oh, there have been a few who’ve left, especially after some of the negative publicity that Facebook has received. And others have un-friended me for reasons I cannot fathom. What did I do? What did I say? It feels like being dumped.

And why are the rest of us still scrolling our Facebook feeds? That’s a good question, which I am sure has many answers. For me, it’s about staying in touch with friends and family, especially during these difficult times. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but at this point, the convenience that Facebook offers is unparalleled, at least for me.

Many of us are are waiting for the day that these social media companies will be held more accountable for their content, and take greater responsibility for their massive influence. We can always hope?

Me, I’m just trying to keep my voice down, in case that creepy guy on my phone is still listening. Shhhh!

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Paging Dr. Jackson!

Since my recent surgery went so well, I was pretty much prepared for smooth sailing back into my regular life. That is, until I realized that I needed a follow up exam from my GP.

You see, I no longer have a GP. Our family doctor retired at the end of August. He was in his 70’s, and with COVID-19 making its way through the population, he was convinced that it was time to go. Many other patients have found themselves in the same situation in the last few years. Their doctors have retired with no one willing to take over the practice.

So I was pretty much left on my own to try and figure out what to do. I took my paperwork for a follow up ECG and bloodwork to a local medical lab and got that done. And after a few anxious phone calls and emails, I found a doctor at a clinic who agreed to give me an appointment to go over the results with me. Phew.

Still, having given it some serious thought, I’ve decided that the obvious thing for me to do is to open up my own practice. Dr. Jackson has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Just to be clear, I will be my one and only patient. I wouldn’t be able to afford the malpractice insurance.

I would need a stethoscope and a white coat, but I think I’ve seen them both online through Walmart. I mean, you first have to LOOK the part, no? That and a little Dr. Kildare swagger, and I’ll have it down.

Sorry. Dr. Kildare is a reference that probably only makes sense to those of us who’ve seen a black and white TV. In person.

For so many of us, this is what it has come down to. We are shifting away from being able to entrust our health and our medical history to one person, to having to become our own health advocates instead.

One positive is that there is new technology now to help us deal with these changes. Babylon Health is an app you can download that matches you up with a BC licensed doctor via a video call. You can renew prescriptions or discuss symptoms and even get referrals through them.

LifeLabs has an app that helps you to find any openings at their local labs, and even book a time to get any testing that you need done. There is also my ehealth which is essentially an electronic health information service. When you sign up for an account, you can access the results of any tests you have done, from blood tests to ECGs, to mammogram results.

And, of course, there are still the walk in clinics. It’s just that they’re not as easy to “walk in” to these days because of COVID-19 restrictions, and because they’re just so darn busy.

But for many of us, there is no Overseer. No one to say, hey, we haven’t taken a stool sample or blood tests, or performed a prostate exam for awhile. Let’s get that done. There is no one who knows you and your family really well because they’ve pretty much seen you through every illness, pregnancy, or broken leg in your life. That person just doesn’t exist anymore.

Nurse practitioners may become the GPs of the future. They are nurses, but with added education and experience that enable them to diagnose and treat illnesses, interpret test results and even perform some medical procedures. There is a new nurse practitioner office opening up on Yates here in Victoria soon. I applied for my husband and myself to get in there, but no call so far.

So I am left on my own to diagnose and follow up, and do whatever else I need to do to maintain my health. I have ordered a digital copy of my medical records, downloaded all the medical apps, and signed up for an ehealth account. I will resist the temptation to Google my symptoms, but I’ve made lots of notes. I’ve got a blood pressure monitor, Pepto Bismal, and bandaids. I’m all set.

It’s just that I can’t read my writing.

Old and Forgotten

Did you see Steve Jobs gleefully announcing the arrival of the second generation of iPad the other day?  Okay, maybe he wasn’t quite gleeful…he does look terribly sick.  But I digress.

I love technology, I use it all the time.  But there are still a lot of people in the world who either don’t have access or simply are not tech savvy.  Lots of them.  Including my Dad.

Now my Dad has never been very good at dealing with anything mechanical…it shocked me to find out that during World War II, my Dad, who was in the service, was in charge of checking the instrument panel of the airplanes they were testing at the base he was stationed at.  I’m sure the people in charge could NOT have known how tech-tarded my Dad actually was.  Okay, they didn’t have that term back then, but you know what I mean.

My Dad is almost 89 and has Alzheimers, and he lives in a care facility.  Since I live in another city, my only means of communicating with him in between visits these days is an everyday, ordinary land line.  A phone, as they used to call them.  I am the one who calls him because he would have no way of remembering my number anymore, and it gives me comfort to hear his voice even if we don’t talk much or for very long.

I had to move my Dad to another room in the same facility the other week.  They only give you one or two days’ notice that the new room is available, so you have to jump on it or give it up to someone else.  When I had him all moved in, I called our local phone company, Telus, to change his land line to the new room.  Of course, I realized that there would probably be a delay and I figured I could live with that.  As it turned out, it was going to be a whole week before they could get a technician out to connect his line.  Why they needed a technician, I don’t know.  There was a phone jack in the room already…but I decided, okay, we’ll wait for the week.

When the day that his phone was supposed to be connected came and went and I still got an automated “This number is not in service”, I called the phone company again.  Well, the technician went out there, they said, but he was told that there was no one there by that name.  Because the bill is sent to me, the tech asked for me, and not my father, even though I explained all of that when I orginally called to set it up.  So nobody did anything about it, and the technician left without doing anything.  I explained again to the customer service person I was talking to, that the bill was in my name but the phone was at my father’s room in a care facility.  They passed me back and forth a couple of times, and finally a customer service representative typed out a new request for a technician.  “Is next Thursday alright with you?” he asked me.  Another whole week before they could get someone out there again??  I was getting mad.  “Another whole week?  Is there any way you can make it sooner?  My Dad has already been without a phone for a week and this is his only way to communicate with his family.”  There wasn’t even an ounce of sympathy in the guy’s voice.  “No, next Thursday is the first available time.”

Okay, so one land line for one old man doesn’t mean much to anybody, I get it.  Phone companies are more interested in their cell phone sales and their big corporate contracts.  A story on the news recently was about the $37,000 bill that one Telus mobility customer received when she went to Africa and used her iPhone, thinking that she had paid for extra coverage there.  That made the news, but one old man without a land line won’t.  I wrote out an angry letter to Telus because there was no email address to complain to, and at the end of the letter I pointed out that by the time this SNAIL MAIL letter got to them, my father would still be without a phone.

Actually, my father and other elderly members of both sides of my family are lucky.  They have people who care about them and make sure they have what they need as they get older and have more difficulty taking care of themselves.  But there are a lot of elderly people out there who are not so lucky, who are put away or kept in terrible conditions.  For example, in a story that came out recently in Toronto, an elderly woman was found unconscious and unresponsive in a basement with NO HEAT in the dead of winter, kept there by her son and daughter-in-law.  How can ANY human being do that to another, especially family??  Elder abuse can happen to anybody, even someone as famous as 90-year-old Mickey Rooney, who recently sat in front of Congress explaining the abuse he received at the hands of his wife and stepson over several years.

And of course these extreme cases make the news, but I think what is even more insidious is the fact that our society as a whole doesn’t have much time or inclination to respond to or even think of the elderly.  Oh, except the scam artists of course.  Yes, old people are really popular with these predators who are trying to scam them out of what little money they have.  I’ve heard two stories recently from people I know whose older family members were the victims of a scam.  If I could have just two minutes with one of those scam artists, they’d…well, let’s just say they’d never be the same again.

Most of us are going to be there one day…at or close to the point where we can’t take care of ourselves anymore.  Hopefully someone will be there to look out for us, but in the meantime I think we can do a heck of a lot more to take care of the ones who so abley took care of us.  If you see and older person somewhere someday who needs a little help crossing the street or picking out some fruit in the grocery store, jump in and say hello.  It’ll make their day, and yours too 🙂

IJ

…just in case you were visualizing all 88+ year-olds as being helpless and ineffective, watch this:

People Who Inspire

I saw a story about William Kamkwamba about a year ago on TV and was instantly moved to tears hearing his account of building something that most of us would more or less think nothing of; a windmill.

William comes from the Republic of Malawi, a small, land-locked country in southeastern Africa. It is one of the most densely populated and least developed countries in the world. William was born in 1987 and had to leave school when he was 14 because his parents could no longer afford the $80 US tuition. He decided to educate himself, and began to visit his village’s library where he found a book called Using Energy that explained the workings of windmills. He took it upon himself to attempt to build one, and using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard, he built a crude windmill that had enough energy to power the lights in his family’s home. And then he built another windmill that had enough power to pump water to irrigate the fields in his village, where drought had devastated the crops in the preceding years.

His story spread to all corners of the world, and in 1997 he was invited to speak at TED, a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. TED started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Participants are invited to give talks lasting no more than 18 minutes to explain their concepts, ideas or passions and the annual conference attracts the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers.

William is not entirely fluent in English yet, but he does his best to explain his dream of building his village’s first windmill in the following video:

William has gone on to do many things since building his first windmill. You can read all about his ventures here. If William Kamkwamba doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know who will!

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