Making The Skies A Little Friendlier

Disclosure: I have no business relationship with the two online services that I endorse in this post.  I am endorsing them based on my experience with their products.   One provides their service free of charge, the other charges a one-time fee.  My endorsement is purely voluntary.

Airliner with Boy. Photo: Source Unknown

Flying Ain’t What it Used to Be

The days of flying as an experience that was both elegant and comfortable are gone forever.  It was losing ground for the past twenty-five years or so, but after 9/11, and the subsequent changes for security that have been imposed, the pretense of flying commercially as a fun way to travel was abandoned.  Flying has, in one respect, become a metaphor for our society’s changes as well.  The “Haves” who can afford to fly first class or business class, are treated with some semblance of the old days.  The rest of us get to fly in the section euphemistically termed “coach,” but which I simply call the “trash-compactor” area.

The purpose of this post is not to rant about the decline in service or the dismal state of airline passenger quality or comfort.  I want to discuss two applications, one for so-called smart phones and the other a website. These two applications are a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal sky.

Flight Track by Mobiata

Flight Track Icon. Image Courtesy of Mobiata/Flight Track

Over the course of the past two months, my wife and I flew several times (unfortunately never together) for business or educational purposes.  I have a Motorola Droid and was looking for an application (app for short) that would allow me to keep track of the airplanes in which we would be flying, and to be alerted to changes in flight status, delays, gate changes, etc.  After perusing all the flight tracking apps available for the Droid, I decided to purchase Flight Track (FT).  It was rated 4.5 stars by other users.  The app has been downloaded in the 10K-50K category and has received nearly 600 comments.  The developer of the app is Mobiata.  The price for the app is$4.99 USD. The main features are:

  • Easy entry of Airline and flight number.
  • Correcting and deleting flights is also easy
  • Live flight status and gate info
  • Home screen widget with latest flight status
  • Live flight tracker maps (can overlay Google maps for a more realistic view). The maps can be zoomed in or out, and also panned.
  • The aircraft’s position is fairly accurate, not quite real time, but close. (I suspect this will get better over time)
  • During flight, the aircraft’s speed and altitude are displayed as well as the time elapsed since takeoff.
  • Arrival status and gate information that is automatically updated during the flight.  Or (like I experienced in September 2010 during my layover at KSFO), the airline changed both the aircraft and the gate, necessitating my having to move to a completely different concourse.
  • An upgrade is available to import data from TripIt.
  • FT is available for basically all smart phones OS: Android, Blackberry, Palm,  iPhone, and iPad.

Additional features I liked were: FT will run in the background and notify you of  status changes even though you are working on something else.  It updates itself the moment you turn on your phone after landing.  You can activate FT the night before you take off and it will notify you of the flight’s status and any changes that have been made prior to the flight.  If you live in a large city and have an international airport this can be a valuable notice to receive, especially if the flight’s gate or boarding time is changed.  My one criticism, which is common to numerous apps, is that it sucks up a lot of battery juice when you are running it in the background.  On the other hand, getting notice of changes between your arrival and departure can be very helpful. It rarely causes a Force Close, which I rate as an app that plays well with others.

I rated Flight Track with  5 stars after using it for three trips.

Douglas DC-3A N25673 Built 1940 Continental Airlines. The Grand Dame of Airline Travel. Photo Courtesy: FlightAware & ebdon

FlightAware: Live Flight Tracking

When travel by air began to become affordable for the average citizen, the Douglas DC-3 was one of the main reasons for that transformation.  Durable, relatively inexpensive to maintain, a sturdy air frame and easy to fly, were among its attributes, although its passenger capacity was limited to between 21-32 occupants.  Nevertheless, it had a pressurized cabin, cruised at 150 mph with a service ceiling of 25,000 feet, and a range just over a thousand miles. For more information on the DC-3 and its illustrious career, click here.

FlightAware Logo

I discovered FlightAware through the great weather site, Weather Underground. (Please note that I use a Wunderground widget for my blog.  Thanks, Jeff!)   I’ve had a subscription with them for years and rely on their forecasts, as well as an ever-expanding range of services (like what the weather is going to be for the next NASCAR race, and the link to the race site so you can keep tabs on the weather radar during the race  This is important stuff. Go #18!).  And since Wunderground’s author is Dr. Jeff Masters, who in a previous life flew on the hurricane hunter aircraft, Jeff has been consistently adding new aviation-related services to the site.  When he added FlightAware, I knew it would be a very reliable source for information.

How things have changed in the airline industry since the DC-3 was the queen of the skies!  And FlightAware is one of those changes.  Unlike Flight Tracker above, FlightAware is designed to provide a wide range of online services for both the passenger and pilot (private, commercial or military).  Their basic offerings are free, but one can register without cost for another tier of services   For the occasional flier, one can enter your flight numbers and airports into FlightAware, and its aircraft tracking feature will show you, pretty close to real time where the plane is along its route.  Here’s a short list of the services they offer:

  • Live Tracking (by several different categories, plus helps if you don’t have all the flight info at your fingertips).
  • Flight Planning: a wide range of services designed to assist the private pilot
  • Pilot Resources: IFR route searches, weather maps, mobile METAR/TAF info
  • Photos: Thousands of photos from people around the world.  Many are professional or near professional quality.  If you like planes and want to look at pictures in just about every imaginable context, you will love this!  I did.
  • Sqauwks and Headlines:  A place to sound off and also get the latest news on the flight-related industry
  • Discussion:  This is not your typical blog reaction site.  This page offers announcements, as well as places to respond organized into categories.  Now that’s a pleasant discovery.
  • Commercial Services:  Here you’ll find the business connection for FlightAware and the many services they offer.
  • About FlightAware: Provides some history and background on the company:

Founded in March of 2005, FlightAware was the first company to offer free flight tracking services for both private and commercial air traffic in the United States. FlightAware launched public operations in late 2005 and quickly became the most popular flight tracking service in the world.

FlightAware’s proprietary flight arrival time algorithms combined with FlightAware’s powerful, intuitive, responsive, and reliable web-based interface yield the most capable and useful flight tracking application and service. FlightAware has offices in Houston and New York.

I’m waiting for is FlightAware to add the Android OS.  That way I could have both Flight Tracker and FlightAware available any time I might need them.  So, Dan Davis (CEO) and Matt Baker (VP Aviation Marketing) I’m thinking it’s time you sat down over a cup of coffee and planned out how to get your software developers on the stick to put out versions for Android, Blackberry and Palm.  Oh and don’t forget about iPad, too.

Time for Wheels Up

I’ve got two great products here.  And though they are similar in some of their services, they are distinct enough from each other that I found using the two together was even better.  I give Flight Tracker and FlightAware two thumbs up and both are well worth your time to check them out.  The days of luxurious and elegant flying are gone forever.  These two apps, however, help take some of the stress out of flying.  And for me, that’s saying something significant!

The well-prepared pilot never leaves anything to chance for a successful flight. Photo Courtesy: FlightAware & hottubpoet

MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

A Little Humor: Electronic Medical Record Alerts We’d Like to See

Warning signs are commonplace.  Most of them are appropriate and provide information that is worth heeding.  Part of the upcoming revolution in medicine is the computerized patient medical chart, most often known as the Electronic Medical Record or EMR for short.

The hospital I work for took the plunge into EMR in 1998, when the software was still very much in its infancy.  Twelve years later, along with dozens of upgrades and new version rollouts, our EMR is state of the art and has vastly reduced the amount of paper we used to use in our patient charts.  The savings, easily, is in the range of one-half to maybe even two-thirds.  It also assists in preventing medical errors that can harm our patients.

A typical electronic medical record screen shot. Photo: Happy Life

For all the advantages the EMR provides to the clinicians and the patients, this post is not really about what the EMR can do.  It’s about one feature of the EMR: the Alert Box.

Alert Boxes are automated pop-windows that contain information such as the patient’s drug or food allergies, drug interaction warnings, implanted medical devices like pacemakers, insulin infusion pumps and a host of other things related to the safety of the patient and reminders to the clinicians.  The alert boxes often look like this:

Alert Box in an EMR Screenshot. Photo courtesy: exscribe EMR Systems

These pop-up windows are an important and sometimes vital tool to protect patients and to alert doctors to critical information that will assist in their treatment of that person.

They are also boring.


With a diagnosis like that, Dr. Waggoner believes a presecription for proper treatment is in order to avoid the reader succumbing to a case of terminalis bordomitis.   So, here, in no particular order is his contribution to the funny bone of medicine:

Alert Messages We’d Really Like to See…

Glossary:  pt= patient, dx=diagnosis, p.o.=by mouth, i.m.=a shot injection, NEJM=New England Journal of Medicine.

Warning: Patient has a terminal dx: Stage 4 Bewilderment

Warning: Face mask with shield required for this pt with dementia when administering p.o. meds. Pt was 5 time national watermelon seed spitting champion.

Warning: Pt has dx of hemera antidiatithemamitis. Provide instructions unaccordingly.  (Challenge: try to translate the illness)

Warning: Pt practices ancient art of hirsute armpit braiding. Dx: lice.

Warning: Pt has dx of schizophrenia with persistent delusions that he is a starfish because he has five appendages. Will only move when placed face-forward in contact with wall or floor.

Warning: Pt requires a sitter. Pt made a bomb out of a nitrile glove filled with alcohol gel hand cleaner and flushed it down the toilet.

Warning: Pt thinks physicians are manifestations of Satan because she claims somewhere in the Bible Lucifer appears dressed in white.

Warning: Pt believes that all medications given I.M. contain nanobots that broadcast his thoughts to the NSA.

Warning: Pt has an addiction to genealogies and will babble incessantly about the origins of your family name during the exam.

Warning: Pt has a small semiautomatic 9mm handgun (loaded) strapped to her inner thigh and if you ask her to remove it she will claim you are violating her constitutional rights to bear arms.

Warning: Pt will insist on explaining the meaning of each of his 87 tattoos before letting you treat him. Note: Be sure to act very interested in the ones on both of his knee caps. Pt agitates easily.

Warning: Pt will come with his copy of the complete works of Paracelsus and look up everything you do and diagnose to check if you’re right. Note: Be sure to brush up on the Harmonies before the pt visit.

Warning: Pt is a prospector. Will only pay in gold dust.

Warning: Pt will quote passages from the NEJM contradicting everything you say.

Warning: Pt ingests Mentoes and Diet Coke just prior to exam.

Warning: Pt has an implanted IPod.  Push right nipple to change tracks; twist left nipple to adjust volume.  Upload port located in right nostril diguised as a piercing,  Just pull to extend for easy connection.

Warning: Pt is hyper-patriotic.  Carries a flag wherever he goes.  Will insist the two of you stand at attention and recite the Pledge of Allegiance before beginning the exam.

Warning: Pt has a prostate exam fetish.

Warning: Pt has the Declaration of Independence tattooed on his right ear drum.  Will ask for a $20 donation to look at it.

Warning: This pt will only speak through a sock puppet on each hand.  Talk only to the one on the left hand.  The one on the right cusses like an old longshoreman.

Warning: Pt has carved the nail of his right big toe into a train whistle which he will insist on demonstrating all of the crossing codes.

Warning: Pt had a silicon cast of her head made, which she carrys with her at all times and talks to before she makes any decision.

Warning: Pt believes she channels Jessica Rabbit.

Any other warning messages come to mind?  Feel free to post yours in the comments (please keep them in the G and PG-13 rating range).