Inventions Wanted #3 – The Perfect DVR

     Once you own a DVR, a digital video recorder, sometimes thought of as a TIVO, you’ll understand what a magnificent device it is for television lovers.  The functionality is so useful you’ll want one on every TV set you own.  However, that doesn’t mean DVRs can’t be improved.

     Within a very short time you’ll want more hard disk space, especially if you’re recording shows in high definition.  We can save 10-20 shows depending on length and quality.  Our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD allows for an external SATA drive to be attached to the unit to expand storage capacity, but I’ve already got enough electronic boxes sitting on my television stand and too many plugs plugged into my surge protector.  I would say a 320 gigabyte hard drive, about double our current capacity, would be about right.  You want to keep a nice selection of shows for the family to watch when the mood strikes them, but you don’t want to create a junk hole like the drawer in the kitchen that collects everything but where you can’t find anything.

     Now that brings up my first idea.  It would be great to save shows to folders, so each family member could have their own selection of shows to control and protect.  Space allocation should be assignable to each folder.

    Next up is bookmarks.  I’d like to be able to bookmark where I left off – and each show should have it’s own bookmarks.  An even spiffier feature would be named bookmarks, so each family member can have their own.  When a show is highlighted in the DVR directory, it should display how many bookmarks are placed on the show, that way people won’t erase any show someone is still watching.

     One way to handle bookmarks would be to offer the option:  delete up to this point.  That would save a viewer’s place and add space back to the drive for more recording.  These are computer hard drives, so adding such features should not be hard.  It’s just computer programming.

     The biggest feature I’d love in my next DVR is a built-in DVD player.  I hate switching video sources and juggling two remotes.  Why have a whole other box needing a second HDMI cable and HDMI port when it’s very logical to just combine the DVD and DVR players into one box.  It would save power, remotes, and further simplify the use of televison.  Better yet, make that built-in drive a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD recorder.  Then if the hard drive gets too full I could off-load shows to disk.

     Now this might be a total fantasy of a desire, but why not add a 5.1 sound amplifier into the box so I could jettison my AV receiver too?  It would help if a new standard emerged for speaker cable connections or even wireless connections, so that the back side of this box wasn’t as big as my current receiver.  I don’t expect high-end audiophile quality either.  All I want is more simplicity in my setup.

     Finally, and I know this is showing just how much of a TV whore I am, but I’d love another tuner.  Susan and I can currently record two shows and watch a third from the recorded list, but quite often we wish we could record three shows at once.

     If Comcast and Scientific Atlanta ever came out with this dream DVR we’d be loyal subscribers for life.  By the way, I do feel the perfect DVR has to be part of the set-top box.  I’ve messed with computer PVRs and they just don’t cut the cake.  And standalone DVRs like TIVO just add complexity to my television viewing.  My basic belief is a cable TV or satellite TV provider is only as good as their set-top and DVR combo box.  It’s no longer how many channels they provide, but how easy they make the television viewing experience.  Susan and I would hate to go back to the pre-DVR television days.  The enjoyment of television watching has been improved by DVRs as much as when TV broadcasting added color.


Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

My friends seldom whisper a word about music anymore, which I am finding very strange. People used to talk about music, at least back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I assume young people today are just as crazy about music as my generation, but they don’t talk about music with me. It could be the generation gap, or has music dropped off the water-cooler topic list? Oh, I have a number of guy friends that are music nuts like me, and we tell each other what we’re listening to and trade recommendations, but as far as I could tell, most of my friends stopped listening to music a long time ago. At least that’s what I thought. I sent an email out and polled some friends and I was surprised by what I got back. Many still love music, they just love it alone.

My wife hates when I play music at home when she’s there. I beg her to sit and listen with me and share the music I’m discovering, but my enthusiasm to just sit and listen bores the crap out of her. She does love music, but in the car, when she’s by herself, where she can sing along. It’s become a personal thing, something to do in private. I’ve heard from other women friends that like to sing in the car alone too. Many people tell me their only source of music is the car radio. Others love the iPod, and we all know how isolating those little gizmos are. Plug in, turn on and tune out the world. I have heard people extolling the virtues of noise cancelling headphones but nary a word about what they are hearing. And I’ve heard endless arguments over digital music, MP3 players, music piracy and so on, but I just don’t hear people listening to albums together.

When did music become so anti-social? As kids in the 1960s with limited budgets we gathered together in after school parties to play, trade and share records. Or gangs of us would ride around in beat up old 1950s cars, going nowhere, doing nothing but listening to dashboard AM radio. On weekends we’d go anywhere where there was a great jukebox, or to roller rinks and thunder along on wooden floors to the blasting boom of the Beatles. We’d have endless arguments. The Bryds v. The Buffalo Springfield, Eric Clapton v. Duane Allman, Motown v. Brill Building. Did the Monkees play their instruments? What did those lyrics really say?

And of course, there was the communal aspect of the musical enhancing herb that would bring us together in darkened rooms lit by muted televisions, with the stereo drowning out our thoughts, sharing the vibrations, feeling groovy. We’d spend hours talking about our favorite groups between changing LPs. Music was a revolution that was of vital importance to art and society. We felt we were on the cutting edge. We could have all written our own books about Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.

Every weekend there would a selection of touring bands to consider, and this would bring us together by the hundreds or thousands. Seeing top performers cost no more than going to the movies today. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do know there’s plenty of live music playing every night in 2007 in any big city, but that’s for a generation two generations younger than mine. My generation might go out once every year or two to some performing arts center to see an Oldie-Goldie nostalgia act, but to be honest folks, I don’t like seeing geezer rock and roll. I remember going to concerts or parties with bands and I hated when old people showed up, so I don’t like intruding on the current generation of the in-crowd. So I wonder if age is a factor – is live music mostly for the young? I know I’m going to get some howls over that prejudice.

I do have some theories about us old guys playing music alone. I think music makes us feel really good, almost like a drug, but it produces a high we like to experience alone. I’m bobbing my head to “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s Exile on Mainstream album that’s coming through my computer’s speakers via Rhapsody. I’m listening to this week’s new releases. I just finished Annie Lennox’s Songs of Mass Destruction and I’ll probably listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Magic next. It’s 7:43 pm and I’m tired after work, and I haven’t had dinner and I’m hungry, but the music is infusing energy into me, enough to encourage me to write. When I tired of music I’ll eat. Music is more nourishing now. My wife is at the kitchen table playing games on her laptop – that’s her way to unwind. My friends are at their homes, tired from work too, doing their thing. Maybe watching TV, maybe woodworking, reading the newspaper or maybe they are at the gym grooving with their iPods – tuning the rat race out. I guess the world of work, marriage and families split up our communal listening gatherings. That’s sort of sad.

I wished that all my friends were members of Rhapsody so I could still share music. I’d hit the share button on special discoveries and send them a song in a bottle to listen to on their own mental desert island, where they commune in their loneliness. I’d love to share some songs from The Reminder by Feist, the little girl doing the iTunes Nano commercial with her song, “1234.” Maybe that’s why MP3 music stealing is so popular – kids don’t want to get together, but they still want to share.

The best I can do to recapture this old spirit of music sharing is to write this blog. I do have to wonder why my generation is secluding itself into their little rooms to pursue solitary pursuits. Are our hobbies of self pleasure more fulfilling than trying to communicate and work on the same wavelength? It reminds me of long ago when my sister would beat on the bathroom door and yell, “Why are you taking so long? What the hell are you doing in there!”


I’ve Got an Electronic Monkey on My Back

    Every Sunday I page through the Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Depot and Office Max ads for new electronic toys to help make my life better.  I’m currently thinking about buying a Palm TX, Asus Eee PC, iPAQ 200, iPod touch, Nokia N800, Nikon D40x, an external SATA drive for my Scientific American 8300HD DVD cable box, a GPS for my wife, better speakers for my PC at work and home, a 24″ LCD for my home computer, a Roomba vacuum cleaner, a Canon SD750 pocket camera, an Olympus voice recorder, a Mac Mini to put the Internet on my HDTV, a Sonos ZP80, a SanDisk E280R, a miniDV video camera, a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder, a Blackberry, and so on.  That’s the current stuff I’m thinking about. 

    When my wife brings her work laptop home, we have five computers, two printers and two scanners to do our work. We have two digital cameras and seven remotes on the table between our La-Z-Boys in the den, and that doesn’t count the expensive universal remote bought to replace the others that we do not use, or several other orphaned remotes scattered around the house. We have three television sets, two DVRs, four DVD players, two of which are DVD recorders, two component stereo systems and two cable boxes. We have four telephones hooked up, who knows how many not hooked up, as wells as our two separate cell phones. We both have iPod Nanos we always carry, plus we have several other less famous MP3 players sitting around cluttering up shelves and chest-of-drawer tops.

    Growing up, from 1962-1967 I survived off of one white GE AM clock radio.  My family had one TV and one telephone the four of us shared.  I rarely used the telephone, but spent hours with the TV and books. And I consider those years the golden years of life.  In 1968 I bought a stereo and Yashica twin lens 120mm camera which began my gadget addiction.  By the late 1970s I started buying home computers and all the junk that goes with them, plus I began the new addition of reading magazines about gadgets.  The crap has been piling up ever since and I’ve got an electronic monkey on my back.

    Do I really need all this crap? Does it make my life better? Is there a way to manage this addiction? I say manage because I don’t plan to give up using a computer, watching TV, playing music, using a phone, or listening to audio books on my iPod. I’m so tempted right now to buy a smart phone because of how cool my friend’s Treo 700w is. Laurie has one gadget that I need two to cover – a definite case of gadget envy. Three if you count the camera that I sometimes carry. Four, because roaming access to the Internet that I don’t have now at all, but would like.

    There is a struggle between what I really need and outright gadget addiction. The spirits of Buddha and Henry David Thoreau urge me to simplify my life, to seek inner harmony and withdraw from this crazy over-connected world. But my modern soul thrives on input and I constantly crave more data. Is there a middle way? One where I can maximize my philosophical growth and yet drink from the fire-hose of the Internet? On one hand I seek a monkish contemplative life with my books and on the other I want to use the Internet as a sixth sense and watch every sparrow that falls from the tree.

    What are my pure needs and how can I use technology wisely? How can I achieve simplicity of living but live in a world of fiber optic interconnection? We have seven technologies to master: telephones, computers, stereos, televisions, photography, video and games, although it really comes down to one, the digital computer. Theoretically, it might be possible to have a device that does everything, but I’m inclined to think I’ll need three: the personal handheld that goes everywhere, the general computer for each family member, and the entertainment center in the den for family and friends.

The Telephone

    The telephone is a marvelous invention that we can carry in our pocket and connect with anyone else in the world. It’s more basic and universal than the computer, and it’s no wonder that it has worldwide acceptance. I would never give it up. What would be the perfect phone be in concept? The obvious is it should have crystal clear voice communication and work anywhere from the depths of the ocean to the highest flying plane. After that, what should a phone be? You can already get phones that combine limited functions of the other six technologies, so does that make the iPhone the ideal phone?

    The concept of combining my cell phone and iPod Nano into one unit is very appealing since I carry both everywhere, but I’m not ready to buy an iPhone. I have a Motorola cell phone with a pay-as-you-go plan with no monthly bills. I upload $50 about twice a year to T-Mobile and that covers my cell phone usage. Switching to an iPhone might save pocket space but will decrease my wallet space by 8x. However, is spending more money on a gadget that brings six of the seven technologies together worth the monthly expense?

    How many of the seven essential techs are really needed in a palm size device? If I was stranded on a desert island I’d want them all.

    I’m meeting more and more people who have cancelled their home phones and switched completely to cell phones. My house alarm depends on my wired phone system, but I’ve heard they now have cell phones that can do the job too. Or I could kill off all the features from my AT&T service except a rotary dial line and devote it to the alarm. This would have the added bonus of stopping unsolicited phone calls. We’re already on the do-not-call registry, but there are an amazing number of charities and other organizations that are exempt.

    My wife objects to cancelling the home phone because cell phone reception isn’t that good at our house. That could improve, especially if Google gets to buy the current TV spectrum and use it for some super wireless network. Convergence is on its relentless way.

The Stereo

    Music has been vital nourishment for my soul since the late 1950s. Over the decades I’ve had many stereo systems. I’m not an audiophile, but I like a certain level of sound quality. I was moving toward Super Audio CD (SACD) technology when MP3 took over the music world. Coincidently, about the same time I was getting a 56″ HDTV, Apple was promoting the 2.5″ video iPod. The modern generation seems to be into small – and that’s cool. I’ve tested MP3 music enough to know that it is better quality than the stereo systems I had in the 1960s, or even the 1970s. MP3 is good enough technology.

    The burden of the past is maintaining legacy systems, and in this case, maintaining technology to play LPs and CDs. I have 1500-2000 CDs and LPs. Many of my LPs have never made it to CD, much less to iTunes and Rhapsody America. For example, I have a soundtrack, “On the Flip Side” to a 1966 TV show featuring Ricky Nelson, a teen idol from the 1950s who is probably totally unknown to the Brittany Spears generation. To maintain that music I must keep a turntable and stereo system, or convert it to MP3, and find some way to preserve those song files from being lost or corrupted for the rest of my life.

    What I really hate about giving up LPs is losing the 12″ square cover art. Boy, wouldn’t I love to find a website that has hi-rez images of all the great LPs to use for my desktop background. Scanning my LP covers would require getting a very large flatbed scanner – well beyond the practical, or set up a macro-photo stand and light for photographing the covers.

    I’ve hung onto many LPs for years but only play a couple every few years. I think I should just let go and give them away to some collector who still lives and breathes LPs. My inner Buddha tells me not to hang onto the past. And the present is Rhapsody America with tiny cover art and no liner notes. On the other hand, the present is Rhapsody America with instant access to millions of songs for $10 a month – unfortunately, Ricky Nelson, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, are not available through Rhapsody, which shoots black holes in my life of subscription music simplicity.

    I can understand copyrights and not stealing, but I find it hard to understand why creative work that isn’t for sale, or hasn’t been for sale for decades, is protected. Is there a movement somewhere online to preserve all those forgotten LPs, including the covers and liner notes for the future? It’s a shame the system doesn’t allow the fans to digitize those old albums and upload them to Rhapsody music, and then allow the legal copyright watchdogs to set up accounting for Rhapsody to pay the original artists when the music is played.

    And it annoys me that Ricky Nelson “In Concert” is for sale on iTunes but not AmazonMP3, or as a CD on, or playable from Rhapsody America. Life and music should be simpler, and so should preserving the past.

The Television

    I love my 56″ Samsung DLP HD TV. Imagine combining all seven technologies through it? It would be great to have video conferencing with my old friends living in distant Miami or Australia. My TV can already be a giant screen to surf the net, play games, show photos and videos. But right now there is a good deal of complexity in doing all that. It’s complex enough that I have to set up things for my wife and all the remotes and wiring is annoying to me as well.

    The straw that broke my camel’s back was this morning when I was pricing external SATA drives to add to my cable box to get more disk space to save more TV shows on my DVR. I had to ask, what would Henry David Thoreau do? After his ghost told me to give away everything and build an 8×10 cabin in the woods, I decided to ask: what would I do? The first thing I told myself was to either watch the damn TV shows or stop recording them, but don’t buy any more crap to add to the entertainment center.

    That’s simple enough. The little red collector devil on my left shoulder whispered, “Psst, just record them to DVD+R disks.” Red has been pestering me to buy two DVD sets this week, The Complete Monterey Pop festival and Freaks and Geeks complete series. He wants to collect everything I ever loved. The fat Buddha on my right shoulder keeps pointing out the efficiency of Netflix and the virtue of non-ownership. Buddha-boy also keeps nagging me to give up my closet of old LPs and my turntable. He also wisely points out that my entertainment system doesn’t need two DVD players, and I could jettison the one that plays SACDs because Super Audio CDs never caught on and I only bought five of them. It’s too bad that my receiver/amp doesn’t come with a wireless media server built in so I could also junk the SoundBridge M1001.

    Once I start thinking that way, I begin to wonder just how many components I need in my entertainment center. The 56″ HDTV is a must. Ditto for the cable box/DVR. But what if Scientific Atlanta made a cable box with a Blue Ray/HD-DVD player/recorder built in that was compatible with all formats including SACD? What if it also had a built in amp for 5.1 surround sound? I’d go from TV + Receiver + 2 DVD players + turntable + Soundbridge + cable box/DVR to television plus superbox. I also be down to one remote, which would be fantastic. Comcast, are you listening?

The Computer

    I actually spend more time with the computer than any other technology or with any other human being for that matter. The brain is where our five senses come together to be processed by our conscious mind. The computer is where our technologies meet and our conscious mind uses it like a sixth sense to examine all of reality. It probably does deserve the time I devote to it, and although it keeps me from physically being with people, I know a lot more people through the computer than I know in real life. There is a philosophical balance there.

    Now, the question is how to build the ideal computer. Many people have come to love the laptop, but I find a large high resolution screen essential for my extended viewing of reality. I love photography, art and other recordings meant for the eyeballs and there’s nothing like a large screen for my personal art gallery or showing HD video. I currently have a 19″ widescreen LCD, but I’m planning to buy a 24″ replacement. 1920×1200 pixels allow the computer world and the HDTV world to intersect and overlap.

    The ideal CPU will have all the processing I need for as few watts of power as possible to help promote Green Living. It should be silent and cool and ultra-dependable.

    Next it needs great sound. I’m working on that. My desk is still cluttered with Bose bookshelf speakers and Sony AV receiver I use to play music from my computer. I’m just ordered Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers to simplify that problem so I should get back a couple square feet of my desk’s top (I hate to say desktop since that might be confusing since the old word, desktop, has been hijacked by computer phraseology). The goal though is to process all the music digitally inside the CPU and play it with the highest fidelity speakers I can afford, yet be the smallest.

    My Canon MP600 copier/scanner/printer has already simplified things nicely in the paper related department, but I’d love to live in a world without paper and printing. The ideal future will be when I don’t have to scan anything in, print anything out, or copy anything at all. I wonder if that’s possible. My wife and I have inherited the family photos from our dead parents, so we have a heritage to preserve. Once those photos are digitized I don’t think I’ll need a scanner any more. I think I’ll package up the physical photos and give them to my sister who hates computers. That will free me of a lot of physical possessions and make my inner Buddha smile.

    I’m still burdened by those 1500-2000 LP and CDs. The thought of digitizing that much music is daunting. Rhapsody Music has become so easy to use that I rarely play CDs. If Rhapsody were to go bankrupt though, I’d want those CDs & LPs. Getting rid of 15 heavy boxes of physical music sure would make Henry David T happy.

The Camera

    I doubt they will ever make an iPhone type device with a camera I will like. I’ve played around with photography off and on throughout my life. When I was younger I had a darkroom and did black and white work. Later on I built a dark room for my wife and she did color printing. Digital cameras and Photoshop are absolute magic compared to those messy chemical days. I want a digital SLR like the Nikon I use at work, but if a cell phone had a 7 megapixel camera with 4x optical zoom and a quality lens, it would be very valuable to carry around all the time. I don’t know if technology can make a phone small and light enough and still be a worthwhile camera. The iPhone is nicely sized for showing off photographs, although I’m thinking a 4″ screen like on a iPAQ 200 would be better. A 4″ screen is also superior for GPS, data and e-Book reading.

    I currently want to get back into photography and that means carrying a camera around at all times. By today’s tech I would have a cell phone, iPod and camera. I’m quickly moving towards needing a purse. If I got a SLR with flash I’d need a backpack. The elegance of a handheld device that does everything is overwhelmingly attractive.

The Video Camera

    I don’t know if I need a video camera because I don’t take video now. However, I damn sure wished I had own one my whole life because my old brain just can’t remember things like it used to and it would be nice to see all the places and people I knew growing up. If a video camera could be added to my list of functions on my handheld device there might be times I would use it and save the results. That’s a whole new area to explore philosophically and intellectually. What does it mean to have such a well documented life?

The Game Machine

    I feel left out and old because I don’t play video games. My wife loves playing games on her laptop but doesn’t want an Xbox or Wii. I do wish I could play chess or Civilization, and sometimes think I should get into games as a way to exercise my aging synapses. Like video, games are another thing for me to think about in the future.


    Besides my addiction to gadgets, I have the weight of thousands, if not tens of thousands of albums, books, magazines, photos, DVDs, important papers and mementos to carry on my back as I march forward into old age. If I chose one object a day from my lifelong clutter to give up, I’d be dead before I could achieve Thoreau like living. Getting rid of 10 objects a day would probably allow me Zenplicity before I’m sixty. I’m fifty-five now, and choosing ten items a day to jettison from my collection would require real work. Having everything digitized is a wonderful dream, but I don’t think it will happen. To achieve at home Nirvana, I must reduce the number of gadgets I use, but also let go of the past, and just get rid of my junk. The real importance of having the right-minded technology is to improve your life and help others to improve life on Earth. Ultimately, it’s more important to study reality than play with gadgets, but realistically computers are far more powerful tools to do this exploring than any telescope or microscope.


Where Did My Love of Science Fiction Go?

    For a long time now, years even, I’ve had an aching hunger to find and read a great science fiction novel. When I was a kid I stayed in a constant science fictional high – from opening my eyes in the morning, to dropping into unconsciousness at night, I kept a running sense-of-wonder buzz-on fueled by pulp fiction, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions, and fantasies about the future. This craving I have now is really a psychological need to return to that old passionate state of mind. Does the desire to be young again really mean wanting to be physically twelve again, or to feel mentally like I was twelve again?

    I remember when I was a kid, when the oldsters used to moan and groan about aging, I used to think, what’s the big deal about getting old? So what if I turned wrinkled and bald – I could handle that! No big deal. It never occurred to me that my mind would get old too, in some unimaginable way. Jeez, if someone could have put this emotion in a horror film, it would have been the scariest monster movie ever to frighten kids.

    I keep thinking if I could only find the right Sci-Fi tale it would be Viagra for my mind. This summer ABC ran four episodes of Masterpieces of Science Fiction on successive Saturday nights. I had great hopes, but my sense-of-wonder was left limp. It’s a crying shame when TV shows like Big Love and Mad Men, about renegade Mormons and 1960s ad execs are more exciting than a new science fiction program. Damn, Robert A. Heinlein never predicted this future.

    Imagine reading in a 1939 issue of Astounding Stories about the year 2007 where Americans aren’t living on Mars, but waste their lives watching reality television and fighting an endless war, not with brainy alien invaders, but with humans whose only desire for the future is to go back to the past, to the seventh century.

    Have science fiction writers stop writing astonishing stories, or has getting old allowed the mundane world to grind down my adolescent excitement? I think it’s a little of both. I suppose if I was twelve in 2007, and reading Asimov’s and Analog science fiction magazines for the first time, I’d be just as wild-eyed about the future as I was in 1967 reading Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow. But I’m not twelve, so how do I get my old Sci-Fi high again?

    Could it be after waiting forty years for mankind to travel to Mars, I’ve just given up hope? That makes me think of the old preacher at the beginning of classic film, The Big Chill, and his eulogy about lost hope – then the organist starts playing with perfect irony the Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Making Mars earthly by terraforming seems a lot less important now that we’re turning Earth into Venus.

    As I have come to learn, the future is everything I never imagined. Science fiction was just fantasy. Nevertheless, I’m still looking to find that old thrill to spike some high quality sense-of-wonder to my vein. If you are past fifty, and thought Heinlein from the 1950s was the crown of science fictional creation, and have discovered any new books that bring back that level of thrills, write me and let me know what they are. Please, please, I need a fix.


Did AARP Rip Off My Old Mother?

    I don’t mean to knock AARP, an organization that helps us all as we get older, but I have to question their efforts to promote the sale of long term healthcare insurance. My mother died recently, and the experience was a great learning one for me in many ways. Getting old and dying involves a lot of details and it really helps to be prepared. My mother was a fiercely independent person who lived alone for the last third of her ninety one years. Around 1995 she purchased long term healthcare insurance policy from AARP. I assumed she was afraid my sister and I would not take care of her and she wanted peace of mind. She tried to buy that mental comfort at $220 a month, spending around $32,000 before she died without requesting even a dime in benefits.

    For the last several years my mother was in and out of the hospital. She refused to live with either me or my sister, Becky, and she didn’t want to go to an assisted living home. I would force her to stay with me and my wife when she was very sick, but she’s always pack her bags and sat on the edge of her bed demanding to be taken home when she got well. Lesson number one: old people want to stay in their homes. The AARP policy did provide for some at home professional care, but it had severe limitations and didn’t pay much. As it turned out, Medicare covers some at home help which we used on various occasions.

    In the end my mother had two very strong wishes. First, she wanted to die at home. Second, she wanted to leave Becky and me something, and the only thing she had was her house. To have gone to assisted living or a nursing home would have required selling her home. Medicaid will pay for a nursing home if the individual is poor, so a common practice for old people is for their families to sell their parent’s homes, pay for nursing home care until the money runs out and then get their parents on Medicaid. My mother grew up during the depression and had strong objections to going on the dole. She hated the idea of Medicaid.

    I’m guessing she bought that AARP policy assuming it would keep her from using Medicaid and losing her house. However, reading the policy after the fact, which was in large print and easy to understand verbally, the math just wasn’t there to make it practical. Nursing homes at the low end run around $6,000 a month and that policy only paid $50 a day, or $1,500 a month with a limit of 1,460 days – for a maximum value of $73,000. It didn’t even start paying out until day 91 of a nursing home stay. My sister moved from Portland, Oregon to take care of my mother, who was a total invalid for the last three months of her life. In other words, even if we had put my mother in a nursing home, the policy would never have paid out. Lesson number two: any insurance must cover inflation and practical experience.

    So when is a long term care policy worth buying? My wife and I have no children. I assume I will die first and my wife will have to live by herself. Single living is very common to the baby boomer generation anyway, even before old age. Thus, insurance for long term healthcare is appealing. I’m seeing it promoted and advertized on TV and in magazines. Mathematically, when does it make sense? If my mother had put $220 monthly in the bank, she would have had about $40,000 dollars when she needed it to spend starting on day one. Assuming she really would have gone to a nursing home, which I don’t think was her desire.

    Dying at home is expensive too. We had to hire non-professional sitters. Even in a rural town where wages are low, sitters can run to thousands a month for 24×7 care. Personally, at my current age and thinking, I plan on going to assisted living, this runs about half the cost of nursing home care (and not covered by long term care insurance). But I’m only 55, and who knows how I will think when I get to be 90. Lesson number three: it’s impossible to plan for specific arrangements in the future. That leads me to believe that putting money in the bank is better than buying an insurance policy because it’s more flexible.

    I currently buy insurance betting if I die my wife will have some money to help her get by. It’s a precautionary thing. Life insurance become more expensive and less practical as you get older, but is very practical if you die young. When is long term health care insurance practical? I’m guessing it’s not in many situations. If my mother had been forced to stay in the nursing home for the last 9-12 months of her life, she would have gotten her money back, but it wouldn’t have covered her true expenses and she would have still had to sell her house. All the policy would have done would have been to delay becoming poor enough to go on Medicaid.

    One year of low end nursing home care is about $72,000. I’m guessing, unless you have Alzheimer’s or some other condition that involves a long slow decline, that on average you’ll spend less than a year in a nursing home. The decision between assisted living and nursing home care seems to be whether or not you can get out of a building under your own steam in case of a fire. Most people will need far more money for assisted living expenses than for nursing home care – not the territory of long term care insurance. My mother never understood this and I’m wondering if she thought the policy covered assisted living.

    In the end, my mother wanted to die at home and Becky and Hospice Care were the miracles that allow that. My sister had to quit her job and rent her house to come stay with my mother and that was a huge sacrifice on her part. I think Becky felt she owed me that because I always lived closer to my mother and helped her during her long retirement. Thus having children is a key component to long term care. Like I said before, my wife and I do not have children. Most of our regular friends do not have children. Where does that leave us? It makes the urge to buy some kind of insurance stronger, but I have to wonder after seeing my mother’s experience and ask if it’s worthwhile.

    I wonder what kind of insurance AARP is selling today, twelve years after my mother bought her policy. I’m sure the market is constantly evolving. Would something I buy today be practical when I get ready to use it 20-30 years from now? How can we best plan for the future? I know this might sound silly, but I’m hoping that science and technology will perfect robotic health caretakers so if I want to stay in my home as long as possible. I’m guessing though, a good supply of cash will be the most flexible problem solving insurance. I also have to wonder how the system will handle the bulge of aging baby-boomers.

    Medicare pays for Hospice care, and I think they do this because it’s far more cost effective than letting people die in hospitals. My guess is any end-of-life living arrangements for the future might follow this lead. Can nursing homes be made more affordable and more humane? There is work in that area now. Long term health insurance policies need to prepare us for various kinds of possibilities. I don’t think AARP ripped off my mother, but I don’t think it sold my mother a good policy either. Long term care insurance should be more like what was called whole life insurance – more of an investment than a gamble. What we need is something like a 401k for our final days (402k?). We need to save for living without working but remaining independent, and we need to save for our dying months when we can’t take care of ourselves


Inventions Wanted #2 – The Solar Power Tree

Update 8/19/11: Kid tests out solar tree collector

I think crystal balls are showing households should become more energy independent, or at least, less dependent on distant sources of energy. The first line of attack on this problem is to just use less energy, but another solution, which for me is a long term solution, is to produce energy locally. This is neither easy nor cheap – $12,000 might buy me a modest system that would supplement my energy needs, but it’s doubtful that it’s cost effective. 12k is equivalent to 60 months of $200 payments, and that would buy a lot more power company energy than I would generate. In other words, generating your own energy isn’t about saving money. At least for now.

Owning my own energy producing system would get me some energy independence if we have blackouts or other failures of the central energy grid and would let me us less energy from polluting sources, or less energy from nations I don’t care to support. My worry is the energy production grids in this country won’t keep up with demand. Producing my own energy would reduce the load on the central systems, contributing to the common good, and give me some electricity when things are bad, contributing to my selfish interests. In other words, if the forecast is for global warming, I want to stay locally cool.

The easiest was to produce electricity at home is with a generator, but that’s not a long term practical solution if we’re talking gasoline generators. Fuel cells may become practical, and most homes are ill suited for wind or geothermal electric generation. The only other solution is photovoltaic panels. Now my house is completely hidden under a canopy of trees, which is a natural way to keep cool in the summer and save electricity to boot. Memphis, the city I live in, has so many trees it feels like the suburbs are really houses built in forests. And I don’t want to cut down my trees. I love the shade and they suck up lots of carbon.

The invention I would like to see is a solar power tree – a photovoltaic collector shaped like a big Christmas tree that I can raise above the tree line – but not look like a big eyesore. It could also serve a dual purpose of being a HDTV antenna or hold a satellite dish. I picture this device sitting on an extending pole that can be automatically raised and lowered depending on weather conditions. All the photovoltaic panels I’ve seen are flat, but flat panels are not something good to send skyward because of their aerodynamic drag. Trees, branches and leaves are a natural shape that’s suited to collect sunlight and handle strong winds.

What’s needed is the maximum surface area to collect energy that can easily shift to follow the sun, low weight, and high strength to handle wind and rain. It will also need to withstand lightning. I have no idea how to build such a thing, but if it was reasonable priced, worked well, and produced a decent amount of electricity I’d want one.

If a variety of solar energy collectors could be designed and marketed cheaply enough, that would have a major impact on society, because how would things be different if every house generated 20-80% of its own clean energy? I think a lot of people fear the world won’t adapt to dealing with global warming because it will require too much change from people. What if the changes required actually benefited people directly? Instead of making sacrifices, you bought something at Home Depot, like buying another appliance and it made your home better, is that such a sacrifice?


Supplemental 11/23/7.  I got to visit the Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC this past October and it furthered my desire for a solar collector shaped like a tree.  All the houses were built with the assumption they would be shaped and lined up for the maximum exposure to the sun.  This isn’t practical for retrofitting an older home, especially one where trees block the sunlight.  I asked about other kinds of solar collectors but didn’t find much encouragement for my proposed design.

Then Nanosolar was mentioned in the December 2007 issue of Popular Science as their Innovation of the Year.  The PowerSheet product is a cheap film-like material sold in rolls as a solar collector that can be applied easier than the more bulkier old-style box collectors.  It’s manufactured rather than assembled making it cheaper.  It’s not hard to imagine that this stuff being produced as solar leaves that could be assembled into three shapes.

Using fractal mathematics its probably possible to design an optimal pattern of leaves and branching that would work with the electrical wiring needed to channel electrons down the leaves, stems, branches and trunk, like the reverse osmosis of sap.  Further, it might be possible, within the need to be energy efficient, to design this solar collecting tree with servo motors that would keep the leaves and branches oriented to the sun.  If a complete system could be sold for $5-10k that produced enough electricity to supplement a normal house need’s then it might be practical for commercial success.

It would not have to have a battery system to be useful.  As long as a local collector reduces the overall drain on the grid providing power during the day, and using grid power during the dark, the overall effect would be to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce the carbon footprint of the house and improve the reliability of the grid system.

UPDATE 10-28-08

Open Energy Corporation shows off an energy tree prototype.

Inventions Wanted 001 – The Memory Bank

    In our age of technology new inventions flood the market daily, but the pace still isn’t fast enough for me. I can always think of new things I wished I owned or services that I wished existed. Here’s an example. I’d like an internet company where people could register photos by date and location, for sharing. I’m obsessed with memory, probably because I have such a bad one, and it would be great to go to such a photo database and ask if there are any photos of Maine Avenue, at Homestead Air Force Base, in Homestead, Florida from 1961-63? Or Air Base Elementary from the same time and place.

    If I had known how bad my memory would become when I got older, I would have taken one photo a day when I was a kid to document all the places where I lived and grew up. I lived in a lot of places and met a lot of people and I’d really, really love to see them now. Are there enough people who think like to me to start such a business?

    Imagine being able to input an address and get a list of photos taken near that address over a range of years. Or enter a person’s name and the name of a school and location and get a screen of thumbnails to click on. Even more fantastic is if such a photo database could be combined with a Virtual Reality viewer and I could walk from my old home to my old school via a series of stitched together images wearing VR glasses and then see a collection of mug shots of my fifth and sixth grade classmates. Cooler yet, would be the ability to click on a face and then see a series of photos showing that person growing old.

    Of course, back in the 1960s people didn’t take photos like they do now. There’s a chance that nobody took a photo of Maine Avenue back then, or even inside the classrooms at Air Base Elementary. My family tended to take pictures on special occasions, usually at Christmas.

    My parents would have me and my sister Becky walk outside where the light was good and snap a single shot of us in our new Easter outfits and then not finish the roll for three years. What I’d love to see now is pictures of houses, cars, streets, school rooms, stores, and all those places we hung out in daily or pictures of people not in my family that we used to know.

    Using the same system, users could register film and video clips, sound recordings and any other clues about the past. I even have a name for this hypothetical company: The Memory Bank.

    By the way, I tried to go back to Maine Avenue a few years ago. My old neighborhood was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew and bulldozed away. All that’s left is a vast close cropped field patterned with flat black streets that I imagined looked like a printed circuit board from the sky. Like a dummy, I didn’t take a picture that day. I wished I had.