Unarmed Civilian Response to Active Shooters: A Crucial Part of Reducing Casualties of Mass Attacks

Teaching people the appropriate, relatively simple self-defense survival tactics useful in cases of mass attacks is probably the single most important thing we can do to prevent future carnage.

Heroes of the Paris Train Attack
Heroes of the Paris train attack with French president François Hollande. United States Air Force

Recently presidential candidate Ben Carson “came under fire”1 for suggesting what to most people is common sense: If someone is actively trying to kill you, and you have no opportunity to flee, it is better to try to stop the criminal by force than to wait passively to be murdered. If you take action, you have a fighting chance to live; if you take no action, you will most likely die.

Thankfully, when an Islamic jihadist opened fire August 21 on a train headed for Paris, several people acted according to Carson’s advice—they attacked and stopped the perpetrator before he could murder anyone.

Alon Stivi—a former member of Israel’s special forces, a security consultant, and an instructor of law enforcement in counter-terrorism—said Carson’s message “is what I’ve been telling people, and teaching people how to do, for ten years.”2 Indeed, Carson’s remarks are consistent with advice that law enforcement agencies often offer (see details below).

Stivi added, “We are conditioned to dial 911 and wait, but, in the case of an active shooter, that does not work. Most casualties occur within the first ten or fifteen minutes, and police response usually is too late. Time is always the key factor, and immediate, successful response is critical for survival.”

The problem comes with translating Stivi’s insights into practical action in a time of crisis. Thankfully, Carson’s remarks, and the media attention surrounding them, offer a good opportunity to make headway there.

Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to take Stivi’s (and Carson’s) advice seriously, largely for two reasons: First, some people find it hard to separate Carson’s advice from his personality and the contentious 2016 presidential race, and, second, various well-funded advocacy groups have incentives to avoid serious discussion of the issue. Let’s take those points in more detail.

Carson has made some foolish remarks on the other issues, including evolution and Islam, and now a common media “narrative” paints Carson as gaffe-prone.3 So there has been an attempt by some to spin Carson’s perfectly sensible remarks regarding self-defense as just another gaffe.

Unfortunately, the way that Carson phrased his remarks caused confusion and opened Carson to criticism on tangential issues.

For one thing, Carson hypothetically placed himself at the scene of the recent massacre near Roseburg, Oregon, which prompted the criticism that he can’t truly know what he’d do in such a crisis. One of Carson’s competitors in the presidential race, Lindsey Graham, voiced that criticism.4 Carson would have been better off saying that, if any given individual mentally prepares for such a crisis, that individual is much more likely to respond effectively during the moment of crisis.

Next, as one ABC headline puts it, “Carson appears to be second-guessing Oregon shooting victims.”5 I don’t think that’s what Carson was doing, but it’s easy to see why his critics brought up the point. Carson should have more strongly emphasized from the start that he was in no way blaming the Oregon victims but was instead trying to learn from past horrors in order to mitigate the carnage of future possible attacks.

This last point brings up a crucial issue: If we avoid serious discussions about self-defense and survival tactics in cases of intended mass murder out of fear that such discussions are somehow insensitive to victims of past attacks, all we accomplish is to ensure that more people will be murdered in possible future attacks.

Surely we can agree that preventing murders is a worthy goal. As I will indicate in this essay, an essential way to prevent at least some murders in a typical mass attack is for unarmed civilians in certain circumstances to forcibly respond to the attacker.

To learn this lesson well, we must look at past mass attacks to see what actually happened and what might have happened had the victims had better tactical knowledge and preparation. Obviously, victims of past attacks are in no way at fault for the attack or for their possible lack of tactical acumen. The entire point of Carson’s remarks was not to blame past victims, but to “plant in people’s minds” knowledge of what to do if they find themselves in similar circumstances in the future.6

Obviously, people who think ahead of time about the best ways to respond to a given crisis are more likely to respond more effectively should the crisis strike. If we don’t mentally prepare for a crisis ahead of time, many of us will freeze if we face that type of crisis. This is especially true when facing an armed killer—one of the most stressful and horrifying types of crisis imaginable. For many people, the idea of attacking an armed killer seems insane at a gut level. But it is not insane; in some circumstances, it is the best tactical option, and one that can be extremely effective. Quite simply, in those circumstances, if you attack the perpetrator, you radically improve your chances of living. If you do nothing, you likely will die. There’s nothing crazy about taking the tactical measures most likely to keep you alive.

I also mentioned the problem of various well-funded advocacy groups lacking the motivation to seriously discuss unarmed self-defense during a mass attack; I return to that issue now.

Most of the political debate surrounding mass attacks—and therefore much of the media coverage—focuses on gun laws. The National Rifle Association argues that more restrictive gun laws would not prevent such attacks and that measures such as expanded concealed gun carry and armed guards at schools might help.7 Many Democratic politicians, as well as gun-control groups, by contrast, argue that a range of more stringent gun laws is the appropriate response. For example, Barack Obama explicitly said “we should politicize” mass shootings so as to regulate guns more tightly.8

One side, then, argues that more guns in the right hands is the answer; the other side argues that fewer guns is the answer. But unarmed self-defense during a mass attack has nothing to do with gun policy; thus, neither side of the gun-control debate has much incentive to seriously discuss it—even though, in terms of saving lives during mass attacks, it is the single most important thing we could possibly discuss.

I want to respond to a possible objection here. Some people will say, “We shouldn’t need to discuss self-defense survival tactics during a mass attack, because government should ensure that mass attacks never happen.” I agree that we shouldn’t “need” to discuss such tactics in this context or any other. In a perfect world, no person would ever try to assault or murder another, no man would ever try to rape a woman, no religious zealot would ever try to inflict harm on someone with different beliefs, no white supremacist would ever try to harm others because of their skin tone. But wishing won’t make it so. Head-in-the-sand thinking about such matters will result in one and only one outcome: More innocent people dying. Responsible people try to prevent such deaths.

Let’s say that the most far-reaching gun laws, somehow, magically were enacted in the United States. That would not stop mass murders. Even in the event of a total gun confiscation program, it would take government years—probably decades or longer—to retrieve the bulk of existing guns in America. And anyone who has ever thought seriously about the black market in illegal drugs will immediately realize that the same sort of criminal elements that now trade in illegal drugs will trade in illegal guns, no matter what the law says. Prohibition would merely make the black market in guns exponentially more profitable for criminals. As bloody attacks at such places as the offices of Charlie Hebdo make clear, countries with stricter gun laws are not immune from mass attacks.9

We need a strategy for preventing casualties during mass attacks more serious than wishing the bad guys would go away.

Teaching people the appropriate, relatively simple self-defense survival tactics useful in cases of mass attacks is probably the single most important thing we can do to prevent future carnage. It is also an excellent way for people to avoid a “paralyzing, irrational fear of mass shootings”10—which, after all, are relatively rare despite their wall-to-wall media coverage—because people will know they can be pro-active in the extremely unlikely case that they find themselves in the middle of such a crisis. Further, if more perpetrators are stopped by their intended victims, fewer sick individuals will try to become perpetrators of mass murder in the first place as their chances of hoped-for infamy diminish.

The purpose of this essay is primarily to persuade people of the need for widespread education regarding self-defense survival tactics in cases of mass attacks. This essay is not a guide for mastering those tactics.

Of necessity, I will need to discuss some of the basics of good self-defense survival tactics as I understand them. I am not an expert in the field. I do not teach these tactics professionally or as a hobby. What I know, I learned primarily from Alon Stivi and from my father, Linn Armstrong, who often works with Stivi to teach people the tactics at issue. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to spend a day with Stivi for a class he taught in Grand Junction, Colorado, that included both research materials about mass attacks and hands-on practice in simulated attacks. I therefore have greater-than-average knowledge of the tactical matters at hand, but I am no expert. I urge readers not to attempt any of the tactics I discuss without first thoroughly vetting them independently with a reliable expert in the field.

The basics of surviving an active shooting (or other sort of mass attack, such as one involving edged weapons) can be summarized in three words: Run, hide, attack. In slightly more detail: Escape the area of danger if you can; if that is impossible, barricade yourself in a safe room or hide effectively from the attacker; if that is impossible, and your life is in imminent risk, attack the perpetrator, hopefully with the help of others in the area. The focus of this essay is on that third step, attacking the perpetrator, something that is generally appropriate only if fleeing or hiding is impossible. For short, I will refer to this strategy as “attack the perp.”

It should be clear that neither I nor any sensible person advises that unarmed people who are not in law enforcement actively try to hunt down a distant perpetrator (except perhaps in very special circumstances). This isn’t about a Rambo fantasy or a video game simulation; this is about taking the steps most likely to keep you alive. Only if you are in close proximity to an active attacker, and you have no opportunity to flee or hide, should you consider attacking the perpetrator.

The basic advice summarized by “run, hide, attack” is not controversial among experts in the field. It is the basic advice (described in somewhat different language) offered by videos produced by the Los Angeles Police Department, New York State University Police, Texas State University, the city of Houston, and Stivi’s Attack Countermeasures Training:11

The type of situation we’re talking about, in which the best tactical move is to attack the perp, is when the perpetrator is close and escape is not an option. Scenarios include the perp breaking into a room from which you cannot easily escape or opening fire in a crowd where you are very close and cannot reasonably hope to run away in time.

Obviously, if the situation calls for attacking the perp, there are better and worse ways to do it. Many people who encounter an active shooter will not have prepared much if at all for the situation. At the point of crisis, you cannot get better preparation; all you can do is act as effectively as you can. In these cases, the basic idea is to get the perpetrator on the ground and incapacitate him (most mass attackers are male). Shouting simple, direct orders to others—such as “Tackle him!”—can sometimes break people out of a panic-induced passive state and motivate them to help. Ideally, one person grabs the perpetrator’s arms (and weapon) and drags him to the ground while another person or persons tackle him from behind. Then, if necessary, those available beat and stab the perp with any available object—such as a laptop computer or a ballpoint pen—until he is no longer a threat.

What about a scenario in which the perpetrator opens fire in front of a large crowd, such as a movie theater? Some people are too close to flee but too far to immediately attack the perp. In that case, my father suggests pelting the perp with whatever objects are at hand in an effort to surprise, distract, and disorient him—hopefully giving others a better chance to attack the perp. This idea springs from the work of military strategist John Boyd, who discussed the “OODA loop”—the process in which people observe, orient, decide and act.12 Boyd argued that disrupting a person’s OODA loop can give one the tactical advantage. By throwing something at an attacker, one may be able to get the perp out of action mode (killing people) and back into the modes of observation and orientation.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter objected that effectively attacking the perp would involve elaborate coordination among multiple parties that would be impossible in a true crisis.13 But coordination in such a crisis might be as simple as barking, “Attack the perp!” or “Tackle him!” to others. Simply taking action yourself might spur others to join you, absent any coordination. In some contexts, people who refuse to be victims may have more time to coordinate in more complex ways. For example, if an active shooter is in another part of the building, people in a room can coordinate to barricade the door and plan an attack should the perp break in.

After the fact, an expert in self-defense probably could look at any instance of self-defense and suggest improvements. The fact that, during a crisis, people are unlikely to respond with tactical perfection is hardly a reason for them not to respond as well as they can given their abilities and experience. Even the best possible tactical response may fail in a given circumstance, and even an unskilled response may succeed. The point is, in the relevant circumstances, attacking the perp is the only possible way to increase the odds of survival.

Is all of this unrealistic theory, or is it practical?

According to a 2013 report published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of 160 cases of an active shooter investigated, “In 21 incidents (13.1%), the situation ended after unarmed citizens safely and successfully restrained the shooter.” The report adds, “Of note, 11 of the incidents involved unarmed principals, teachers, other school staff and students who confronted shooters to end the threat.” By contrast, armed citizens (not in law enforcement) stopped the perpetrator in only five of the cases.14

To get a better idea of what unarmed citizens can do in practice, consider a few recent examples.

On September 30, 2015—just one day before the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon—an armed student entered Harrisburg High School in South Dakota. The school’s principal, Kevin Lein, struggled with the student, and the student shot him in the arm. Then the assistant principal, Ryan Rollinger, “tackled the teenage shooter and held him down with help from another staff member [activities director Joey Struwe] until police arrived,” reports the Argus Leader. School superintendant Jim Holbeck fears the student might have shot more people had staff not intervened: “You really never know what this student would have done if they hadn’t confronted him. If he already shot once, who knows?”15

On April 27, 2015, “A teacher in Washington state helped prevent what could have been a deadly school shooting when he tackled and restrained the suspect,” reports the Huffington Post. The school was North Thurston High; the teacher was Brady Olson. “The teacher and a school resource officer held the suspect until police arrived.”16

Then, of course, on August 21, 2015, two French men and three Americans subdued a murderous jihadist who was armed with “an AKM assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun, a box-cutter and a bottle of gasoline.”17 Weaving together numerous media accounts, Wikipedia reports that one French man “attempted to restrain or disarm the gunman but fell to the floor in the ensuing struggle.” Then “[a]n American-born Frenchman, 51-year-old Mark Moogalian, attempted to wrest the rifle from the gunman, who then drew an automatic 9mm Luger pistol. Moogalian was shot through the back of the neck; seriously injured, he played dead.” Then three Americans—Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos—successfully attacked the perp. “Sadler told CNN that Skarlatos yelled ‘Get him!’ after which ‘Spencer immediately gets up to charge the guy, followed by Alek, then myself.’” Stone received some blade injuries in the process. “Skarlatos seized the assailant’s rifle and beat him in the head with its muzzle until the assailant was unconscious. A British passenger, 62-year-old Chris Norman, and a French train driver came to their aid to hold the gunman down.”18

Several points about the Paris attack are worth mentioning here. Attacks on the perp can have varying degrees of success. Although the first two men to attack the perp did not disable him, they may have been able to delay him from clearing a jammed rifle. The three Americans coordinated their attack with a minimum of planning: Essentially, one person yelled “Get him!” and the three men got him. True, two of the Americans were off-duty soldiers, so they probably had very good preparation and physical conditioning for such an attack. However, any three average people who followed a similar course stood a reasonable chance of success, particularly when others joined them.

During the Oregon shooting, in which nine people were murdered, apparently no one attempted to attack the perpetrator, although one man, Chris Mintz, heroically took other important defensive actions. To emphasize the point again: Reviewing the facts of this case from a tactical perspective does not imply that the victims were in any way to blame for the atrocity; the purpose is to try to figure out how others might respond with more effective tactics in possible future attacks.

Apparently Mintz took the most active role in responding to the crisis, urging people to leave and attempting to obstruct the attacker. The perpetrator shot Mintz multiple times (thankfully not fatally) as Mintz tried to block a door.19

What happened next is sickening: The perpetrator spent long agonizing moments talking to many of the victims before wounding or killing them. First, he verbalized his intent to select one student to receive an envelope before handing off the envelope. Then, as one wounded survivor reports, before the perpetrator shot people, “He had us all get up one by one and asked us what our religions were.”20 After the fact, in our calm living rooms and offices, we can conclude that, obviously, the strategy of sitting or standing around waiting to get shot is not tactically optimal, if the goal is to stay alive.

We can only speculate what might have happened if one of the students had shouted, “Get him!” and gone on the attack. Might that have broken others out of their panic-induced passivity? If, prior to the crisis, some of the students had watched a video on surviving an active shooter, might those students have been mentally able to take action and attack the perp?

I needn’t get into details of other cases here to draw a conclusion: In some cases of mass attacks, some of the intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator; in other cases, none of the victims do. In cases where intended or potential victims attack the perpetrator, sometimes they succeed and stop him from killing or killing again. In cases where victims do not attack the perpetrator, usually he stops killing people only when he kills himself or when the police show up and subdue him.

We do not honor the memories of the victims of mass attacks by refusing to draw lessons from the attacks that could help others save lives in the future. We honor their memories in part by taking reasonable steps to prevent future murders. Whatever else might be said about gun laws, mental illness, police action, and other matters, it is clear that, if caught in the horrific crisis of an active attacker, unarmed people can in certain circumstances take effective action to bring down and subdue the perpetrator.

Attacking the perpetrator might not save lives in all cases, but not attacking the perpetrator certainly will cost lives in many cases.

Unfortunately, unarmed self-defense in a case of mass attack is not something easily politicized, so it is not provocative enough for many politicians or journalists to discuss. It is shameful that many journalists chose to cover the issue only in relation to the politically-driven controversy of Ben Carson’s remarks. At least Carson’s remarks got more people talking about this vitally important issue.

Attack the perp. No, it is not as easy as it sounds. But, if more people prepare themselves mentally to attack the perp should the need arise, fewer people will die horrific deaths. If even one person’s life can be saved—and probably many people’s lives can be saved—then we need to act to educate people about unarmed self-defense in response to mass attacks.

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Endnotes

1. See, for example, Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting,” Newsmax, October 7, 2015, http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/lindsey-graham-ben-carson-comments-oregon/2015/10/07/id/695171/.

2. Alon Stivi’s remarks come from personal interviews on October 7 and October 8, 2015. Stivi’s biography may be found at his web site for Attack Countermeasures Training at https://www.actcert.com/instructors.aspx. My father, Linn Armstrong, frequently works with Stivi to conduct counter-terrorism and workplace safety classes in western Colorado. I have spent several days training with Stivi for firearms use and workplace safety.

3. For one detailed critique of Carson’s remarks on evolution, see Jerry A. Coyne, “Ben Carson on Evolution: An Ignorant (or Duplicitous) Presidential candidate,” Why Evolution Is True, September 24, 2015, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/ben-carson-on-evolution-an-ignorant-or-duplicitous-presidential-candidate/. For my critique of Carson’s remarks about Islam, see “Ben Carson’s Grain of Truth: Voters Should Care about Candidates’ Religious Views,” AriArmstrong.com, September 21, 2015, http://ariarmstrong.com/2015/09/ben-carsons-grain-of-truth-voters-should-care-about-candidates-religious-views/. For one account of Carson’s “gaffes,” see “To Ben Carson’s Fans, those ‘Gaffes’ Aren’t Gaffes,” Daily Kos, May 16, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/05/16/1385049/-To-Ben-Carson-s-fans-those-gaffes-aren-t-gaffes.

4. Greg Richter, “Lindsey Graham: Carson ‘Has No Idea What He Would Do’ in a Shooting.”

5.Katherine Faulders, “How Ben Carson Appears to Be Second-Guessing Oregon Shooting Victims,” ABC News, October 7, 2015, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ben-carson-appears-guessing-oregon-shooting-victims/story?id=34310265.

6. Alexandra Jaffe and Andrew Rafferty, “Ben Carson Says People Should Attack Active Shooters,” NBC News, October 7, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/carson-loss-gun-rights-more-devastating-bullet-wounds-n439251.

7. See, for example, Ashley Fantz, “NRA clarifies its stance on arming schools,” CNN, December 27, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/27/us/nra-president-interview/.

8. Jordan Fabian, “Obama: Mass Shootings Are ‘Something We Should Politicize,’” The Hill, October 1, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/255723-obama-mass-shootings-should-be-politicized.

9. For more examples of mass attacks in other countries, see David Harsanyi, “Actually, President Obama, Mass Killings Aren’t Uncommon In Other Countries,” Federalist, June 18, 2015, http://thefederalist.com/2015/06/18/actually-president-obama-mass-killings-arent-uncommon-in-other-countries/. Much more could be said, of course, about the incidence and trends of mass attacks in the United States and in other countries.

10. The quoted line comes from Steve Neumann, “I’ve Developed a Paralyzing, Irrational Fear of Mass Shootings. I Bet I’m Not Alone,” Vox, October 2, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/17/9340679/mass-shooting-fear.

11. “Surviving an Active Shooter,” March 17, 2015, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=6&v=DFQ-oxhdFjE; “Crisis on Campus: Shots Fired,” August 20, 2013, New York State University Police, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNzYNhySD_8; “Surviving an Active Shooter Event—Civilian Response to Active Shooter,” February 10, 2015, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Program at Texas State University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=1&v=j0It68YxLQQ; “Run, Hide Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event—English,” July 23, 2012, City of Houston, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VcSwejU2D0; “Last Resort Active Shooter Survival Measures by Alon Stivi,” June 18, 2010, Attack Countermeasures Training, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2tIeRUbRHw. I found several of these videos through links provided by Randall Holcombe, “Be Prepared for Active Shooter Threats,” September 22, 2015, Independent Institute, http://blog.independent.org/2015/09/22/be-prepared-for-active-shooter-threats/.

12. For one summary of Boyd’s work, see Brett and Kate McKay, “The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop,” September 24, 2015, Art of Manliness, http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/09/15/ooda-loop/.

13. See Bryan Register’s Tweets of October 7, 2015, at https://twitter.com/RegisterBryan/status/651905208214155264.

14. “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” September 16, 2013, Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2014/september/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents/pdfs/a-study-of-active-shooter-incidents-in-the-u.s.-between-2000-and-2013.

15. Patrick Anderson, “Heroes emerge from shooting at Harrisburg High School,” October 1, 2015, Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/crime/2015/09/30/shots-fired-harrisburg-high-all-students-safe-principal-wounded/73085090/.

16. Sebastian Murdock, “Hero Teacher Brady Olson Stops High School Shooter In Washington State,” Huffington Post Crime, April 28, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/27/teacher-brady-olson-shooter_n_7154554.html.

17. “Suspect in France Train Shooting Watched Jihadi Video Prior to Attack, French Authorities Say, August 25, 2015, Associated Press, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/08/25/french-authorities-launch-terror-probe-in-train-attack-says-suspect-watched/.

18. “2015 Thalys Train Attack,” Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Thalys_train_attack (accessed October 7, 2015).

19. Don Melvin, “Oregon Shooting Hero Tells Gunman, ‘It’s My Son’s Birthday Today,’” October 3, 2015, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-school-shooting-hero/.

20. Neal Karlinsky, Sabina Ghebremedhin, and Cassidy Gard, “Oregon Umpqua Shooting Survivor Recalls Terrifying Moments Inside Classroom,” October 5, 2015, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/oregon-umpqua-shooting-survivor-recalls-terrifying-moments-inside/story?id=34249478.

An Elegant Solution for Storing Breast Milk

My wife and I have found that storing breast milk in one-cup canning jars, and using a plastic lid for pouring, works well for us.

Breast Milk Storage

It’s great if babies can be exclusively breast fed from birth. But, for many of us parents, that just doesn’t work out, so we turn to pumping and, with that, breast milk storage.

My wife and my baby was born prematurely, so he started off with a bottle in the NICU, first with donated breast milk, then with my wife’s milk. He has never exclusively breast fed. Now that my wife is back to work, she pumps there and I bottle feed throughout the day.

As far as I can tell, Madela sets the standard in breast pumps, and our older model (donated by a friend) works great. (Contrary to advice from hospital staff, we found that the “hospital grade” pump isn’t actually much of an improvement; if anything, we prefer the home model.) But what about storage of all that pumped milk?

After some trial and error (including a late-night spilled cup of milk), we hit on a solution that works for us. It might work for you, too. (It is up to you to properly clean and sterilize whatever equipment you end up using and to check with qualified health professionals about all such matters.)

We tried bags, which are basically glorified ziplocks at a shockingly higher price. I didn’t like trying to pour milk out of those floppy things.

So we started storing milk in standard one-cup canning jars. But how do you get the milk out of the jar into the bottle? It’s too messy to try to pour straight out of the jar. At first we used syringes, but after a while those tend to stick. So we bought an eight-dollar plastic cap via Amazon, one that claims to be “FDA approved-Food Safe, BPA-free & Phthalates-free.” I don’t know what Phthalates are, but apparently I can rest assured they won’t end up in baby’s bottle.

This cap works great for us. It seals well on the jar, it has a tight cap on a hinge, and it pours the milk very well with no spillage.

Incidentally, we’ve found that one-cup canning jars with standard lids also work great to freeze extra milk—just be sure not to fill them too full so as to allow for ice expansion.

Sometimes with parenting, we’re finding, simple, inexpensive solutions can work wonders. We’ve found that to be the case with our capped jar approach to milk storage.

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Using Evernote for Research

For collecting and organizing research, as well as for various other tasks, Evernote works.

Evernote Interface

 

 

 

 

May 15, 2017 Update: I no longer use Evernote; eventually I found it too clunky. One idea is to use a private WordPress blog to track citations and notes.

For a long time I’ve struggled to track and organize my research for various writing projects. My solution—for now, anyway—is to use Evernote to stash and organize articles and notes. I also use Evernote for my to-do lists, which works fairly well, and for a few other tasks.

Evernote is a type of software that combines features of a word processor and a database. (Another example of this type of software is Scrivener, which I’ve also started to use for writing.) It’s great for displaying multiple thumbnails of files at a time, allowing easy viewing of a given file, and organizing files by category.

Evernote has several advantages other other offerings of the type. Its web-based interface allows users to access their data on any web-connected device; its mobile apps allow easy syncing between mobile devices and desktops; and its web browser add-on “web clipper” enables easy storage and sorting of the contents of web pages. No longer do I have to worry about important articles disappearing on me; I just save a copy to Evernote. (Evernote also has a desktop app, but I didn’t see the point of using it.)

Unfortunately, a recent “upgrade” to Evernote’s web-based interface made the software less functional for me. Before, I found it easy to group multiple files by “notebook,” then to “stack” multiple notebooks into groups. With the upgrade, I found it too hard to display this hierarchy of files, so I ended up unstacking all my notebooks. For ease of use, this is how I recommend using Evernote: Put all your notes into notebooks, and don’t attempt further nesting of files.

Before I unstacked my notebooks, I didn’t use Evernote’s tag feature. Now I use tags. These are useful for grouping small numbers of like files together and for tying together files in different notebooks.

I do four main things with Evernote: collect research, write and collect notes about projects, collect information about personal business interactions, and maintain to-do lists. Let’s take these in turn.

Most of my notebooks are devoted to research topics. For example, I have a notebook for “Philosophy, Kant” and another for “Philosophy, Rand.” (This naming structure allows me to easily view related notebooks next to each other alphabetically.) I have a notebook for “Research, Abortion” and another for “Research, Capitalism.” (Someday I may get around to changing the word “research” to “policy.”)

When I come across an interesting article that I want to save, I cut-and-past it into a new note in the appropriate notebook, or I use Evernote’s web-clipping function (which I use with the Safari browser). Usually with the web-clipper, I find it useful to cut-and-paste the citation information as straight text into the “Add remark” box, then save the main text in “Simplified article” mode.

I use separate notebooks to record my personal notes on various topics. As examples, I have notebooks for “Project Notes, Religion” and “Project Notes, Roads.” Of course, it’s possible to use a single notebook to combine outside materials and personal notes. For example, I could put my collected articles as well as my own notes about roads into a unified folder. But I opted not to do that, because generally the number of articles I gather far outpace the number of notes that I write, so in a unified notebook my personal notes would get buried.

I use a “Personal, Business” notebook to record information about contractors, doctors, and other service providers with whom I interact.

Finally, I have two notebooks for to-do lists, “To Do New” and “To Do Archive.” I like using the archive file, because I can reproduce the contents of my list into a new list, then save the old list to the archives. That way I can go back and see my progress if I want. At this point, I have two notes in “To Do New,” my main to-do list and my to-write list, which lists the various writing projects I hope to take up.

Obviously there are lots of different ways to use Evernote, but I’ve found a way that works pretty well for me and that’s easy to maintain. I use the free “basic” level of service; two different pay-per-year levels offer more services, including sharing features that many businesses use. So far, the basic level has been ample for my needs.

I was surprised to see a total limit of 100,000 notes and 250 notebooks; I’ve already stored 897 notes in the short time I’ve been using Evernote. I asked via Twitter if the company plans to expand these limits. Evernote replied, “Not that we can publicly release.” But most users won’t need to worry about those limits for a long time.

For collecting and organizing research, as well as for various other tasks, Evernote works.

October 1, 2015 Update: Today I hit my monthly upload limit, which, for the free account, is 60 megabytes. The first, paid upgrade offers a full gigabyte—way more than I need. So my solution is to simply stop using the web clipper and cut-and-paste files into Evernote so as to avoid space-consuming images. You can find your monthly usage stats in your account summary.

An Idea for Inexpensive, Classy, Personal Photo Cards

In today’s digital age, a hand-written note often stands out. But cards from the store are expensive and impersonal. My wife and I came up with a low-cost alternative, and we’re thrilled with the results.

Inexpensive Personalized Photo Cards
In today’s digital age, a hand-written note often stands out. But cards from the store are expensive and impersonal. An alternative is to print out personalized cards. But most home printers do a poor job printing photos on appropriate paper, places such as Uprinting.com are great for running many copies of the same thing but bad at printing one-offs, and places such as Shutterfly print nice one-offs but they tend to be a little pricey.

My wife and I came up with a low-cost alternative, and we’re thrilled with the results. However, the idea does requires some design savvy. My wife is a graphic designer by trade, so we have Photoshop. You’ll need that or comparable software to get the job done, or else you’ll need to call in a favor from a designer or pay someone.

The idea is simply to print 3×4 inch photos from your collection (or from the public domain or Creative Commons) and glue a photo on a nice, blank card.

Why 3×4 inch? I’ve found that the least expensive photo prints are 4×6 inch (at Costco I pay just nine cents for a single photo). But that’s too large for your average card. So I asked my wife to place two photos evenly in a 4×6 inch grid (at 300 dpi), so one printed photo cut in half yields two cards. We made a large set these images, drawing on years of photographs.

I’ve found nice, blank cards for as low as a quarter each (I got mine at Michael’s), so the total cost of a card can be as low as thirty cents—much less than you’ll pay for good cards anywhere else, especially personalized ones.

I had some nice scenic photos from my own collection, as well as some great shots from my step-dad’s and grandparents’ collections. I asked my wife to add a credit line to the images, and the result is a set of intensely personal, attractive cards that bring back cherished memories for me and, I hope, for recipients as well.

Finally I Found a Use for Twitter Favorites

Using “favorites” in Twitter can be useful especially on mobile devices for marking a Tweet to explore further later.

Twitter Favorites

I tolerate Facebook, but I love Twitter. Having posted nearly twenty-three-thousand Tweets over the years, I use Twitter almost daily to track the news and views of the day and to comment about it.

But one thing I never got was Twitter’s “favorite” feature. I thought, if you like another person’s post, why not just retweet it? A retweet notifies not only the person who posted it but everyone else who follows me.

But then I became a father, and I found that using my mobile device (my iPhone) one-handed often came in much handier than before. Thankfully, mobile Twitter allows for the use of lists, which I find essential for navigating Twitter. But a mobile does not allow for the flexibility of a desktop in terms of opening multiple windows, saving articles to Evernote, and the like.

My solution? I now use the “favorite” feature to track Tweets I want to check out later. I can read my lists on my mobile, read, retweet, or ignore the Tweets I have time to check then, and favorite Tweets I want to check out later.

So, earlier today, I favorited a few Tweets while feeding my son a bottle, then strapped my son in his Moby for a nap and loaded up my favorited Tweets on my desktop. (Actually, I use an Apple laptop exclusively now, but usually I use it the same way I used to use a dedicated desktop, so that’s how I usually think of it.)

Some favorited Tweets I retweeted, others I used to track news stories (such as a coming fight in Colorado over the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), and others I discovered to be not too interesting, after all.

In any case, I unfavorited the entire list when I was through. Basically, I used my favorites list as something like a Twitter inbox, then achieved “Twitter inbox zero” by clearing my favorites. I could also just leave everything favorited, but then I’d have to track where I left off, which I don’t want to do.

With this new use of Twitter favorites, Twitter for me just got a lot more flexible—ideal given my more adventurous schedule with baby.

A Great Course for Helping Children Learn Self-Control

“Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive,” a Great Courses offering taught by developmental psychologist Peter Vishton, offers some great advice for helping young children learn basic motor skills and older children learn self-control.

Maryam Abdulghaffar
Maryam Abdulghaffar

How can parents help their children learn self-control? As a new father, I’m keenly interested to learn. (I’m also interested in improving my own self-control.) I was thrilled, then, to discover the Great Courses offering, “Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive” (currently on sale), taught by developmental psychologist Peter Vishton.

The course features twenty-four half-hour lectures, the first of which (on which I’ll focus) covers helping young children learn basic motor skills and older children learn self-control. Other lectures cover topics such as getting kids to eat their vegetables and the pros and cons of video games.

Vishton discusses the importance of “tummy time,” placing a supervised infant on his tummy so he can build muscles and coordination and, eventually, crawl. In this segment, I was especially interested in Vishton’s cross-cultural comparisons of swaddling practices and efforts to help infants develop.

To me, far more interesting was Vishton’s discussion of impulse control. Among other things, Vishton discusses the famous “marshmallow experiment,” in which children could eat a small treat immediately or wait for a larger treat. I had heard about this before, but Vishton fills in many fascinating details. For example, he describes how, at age three, most children were bad at delaying gratification, while, by age seven, most children were pretty good at it. He discusses a follow-up study finding that children who were good at controlling their impulses tended to be more successful later in life by a variety of measures.

So how can parents help? Vishton discussed a study of children taking Taekwondo, a type of martial art. Classes that emphasized self-control, the study found, helped children be more self-controlled generally. Another study that Vishton mentioned found similar results for yoga classes.

In all, the lecture surpassed my expectations. The production quality is fantastic, with good lighting and sets and an excellent lecturer. The video streaming was good overall, with just one glitch that resolved when we went back a minute.

This was the first set of video I’ve purchased from Great Courses. I’d purchased audio before, long ago, and decided to invest in some video courses on history, music, math, and science. I’m glad I added Vishton’s course to the mix.

I have just one complaint about the first lecture. Vishton discusses Taekwondo as an activity a parent might choose for a child. But what about what the child wants? As Craig Biddle writes in his recent article on parenting, “because our children’s use of their faculty of choice is what enables them to live proper human lives, we should enable them to choose their own values within the range of reasonable, life-serving, developmentally appropriate alternatives.” I would have enjoyed hearing Vishton’s thoughts on allowing a child to choose which activities to pursue and on whether and in what ways a parent should encourage a child to pursue activities that foster self-control. Without such a discussion, some parents might confuse fostering self-control with fostering mindless obedience. I’ll be interested to hear if Vishton addresses such matters in subsequent lectures in the series.

That minor complaint aside, I’m thrilled with the course, and look forward to watching more of the lectures from this and other courses. And, now that I’ve finished this brief review, I think indulging in a piece of chocolate is entirely appropriate.

Related:

The Expectant Parent’s Guerrilla Guide to Preeclampsia

c-sectionTrust me on this one: You do not want to first learn about preeclampsia the night your wife is diagnosed with a severe case of it, resulting in an emergency Caesarian delivery of your child.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Here’s what happened. In January, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant. This was something of a surprise, because we had been unable to get pregnant for years. What I think happened is that my wife’s fibroid embolization procedure in 2012 cleared a blockage (perhaps of the fallopian tubes), eventually allowing the pregnancy. We signed up at Mountain Midwifery near Denver, went to classes there, and planned on a normal delivery around August 15.

That’s not how things turned out. We went in to the Midwifery on July 10, and attendants there got high blood pressure readings for my wife of 163/96. This was a surprise, as my wife had not previously had trouble with high blood pressure. I didn’t know what was going on, and I had no idea how to gauge the seriousness of the reading. An attendant also tested my wife’s urine, and it showed high protein counts—an indication of possible kidney problems.

The Midwifery sent us to Swedish Hospital. The Midwifery’s relationship with Swedish to handle emergencies is a major reason why we chose the Midwifery. The thinking is that, for most cases of child delivery, you don’t need the intensive medical intervention of a hospital setting, but, in a small fraction of cases, you really do want access to all the technology and expertise that Western medicine offers. We turned out to be in the minority.

We saw a doctor at Swedish, and she confirmed that my wife had high blood pressure. She ordered an ultrasound to check the health of the fetus; thankfully, he was fine. She also rechecked my wife’s urine, and again found elevated protein.

My wife had preeclampsia. At the time, I had no idea what that meant. One thing I soon learned is that there are mild and severe forms of it. At first it was not clear where we were on that spectrum. At first, the doctors thought they might be able to send us home with some medications and deliver in a couple weeks. But, after my wife’s blood pressure did not respond well to medication, we heard the diagnosis of severe preeclampsia. That narrowed our options to inducing delivery right away or going in for a C-section. We started the induction process, but then, when a doctor found the fetus was breech (head up), we started prepping for a C-section.

One thing I appreciate about the staff at Swedish is that they gave us the information and the space to make an informed decision. Going in for a C-section was not an easy option to face, especially given that my wife had read extensively on traditional vaginal birth and was committed to that path. When I asked the staff to give us a few minutes to absorb the information and discuss our options, they gave us the space we needed.

The decision came down to two main facts. First, my wife’s preeclampsia was not going to improve, and was likely to get worse, until she delivered the baby. Second, the baby was breech, meaning that a vaginal birth was unlikely anyway. Everyone at Swedish was on board with the C-section, and so was our primary care doctor (with whom I was able to speak by phone). That wasn’t the path we had planned or thought much about, but, we soon realized, it was the medically optimal path for us given the circumstances. We both felt that we were making an informed decision and that we remained actively in control of our health. I will always be grateful to the staff at Swedish for giving us the information and time we needed to reach the conclusion on our own, rather than trying to push us into the procedure before we understood the relevant issues and had the time to absorb the emotional shock.

We went in for the C-section around two in the morning of July 11. My wife remained awake, and I could observe both sides of the sheet: my wife’s face and the doctors at work. Watching the C-section was another shock for me. What I had imagined is a doctor gently slicing open the belly, then reaching in with fingertips and gently pulling the baby out. But “gentle” is just not a word that applies to a C-section. I tried hard to conceal my shock so my wife couldn’t see it on my face.

The process was much more—shall we say active—than I had imagined. The main surgeon and her assistant forcefully cut through the belly, then the uterus, then pulled out the baby a limb at a time. At one point, it seemed that the surgeon’s whole arms disappeared into my wife’s belly. I thought for sure the baby would end up with broken bones (of course he didn’t, although he did have some bruising). I vividly remember my baby with his entire body out of the womb except for his head, which remained stuck inside. It was quite a process just to get the head out. Of course, during this process tubes sucked away the blood and amniotic fluid.

Child Birth Swedish HospitalFinally, baby delivered, the doctors stitched back together my wife’s uterus—as it sat atop her belly. “Is that normal?” I asked; I was assured it is. I even saw a couple of fibroids left from the embolization procedure. One larger fibroid was on the bottom of the uterus, which might have made a normal vaginal birth difficult or impossible, even had my wife not had preeclampsia.

I’ll pause here to praise the lead surgeon, Susan Peck. Her work during the surgery, as well as her interactions with us before and after the surgery, were outstanding. I’m convinced she shaved several weeks off my wife’s recovery time with her skillful work. “Beautiful” is sort of an odd word to refer to a surgical scar, but it is in fact beautiful as a mark of excellent work, and several staff members at Swedish used the term in that context, as did I.

My son owes his life largely to two doctors: Brooke Spencer, who performed the embolization procedure and thereby made his conception possible, and Susan Peck, who performed the C-section and thereby made his delivery possible.

The delivery finally over, my wife went to recovery while my son went to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I spent the rest of the night wandering between my wife’s room and the baby’s room.

So what is preeclampsia? Please note that I am not a doctor or health professional of any kind, so nothing I discuss here is intended as medical advice. As far as I can tell, no one really knows what causes preeclampsia. They do know how to treat it, thankfully.

“Eclampsia” refers to seizures during pregnancy. So a preeclamptic woman is one at risk of suffering seizures or stroke. Here’s a summary from the Preeclampsia Foundation:

Preeclampsia is a disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period and affects both the mother and the unborn baby. Affecting at least 5-8% of all pregnancies, it is a rapidly progressive condition characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. Swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches and changes in vision are important symptoms; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. . . .

Globally, preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.

Notably, my wife showed no external symptoms of the disease. But for the blood pressure test and subsequent tests for her kidneys and liver, we would not have known she was preeclamptic. That’s horrifying in retrospect, because I don’t know how long my wife had the problem (her previous blood pressure check was three weeks prior), and I imagine what might have happened had we not caught the disease when we did.

As Mayo points out, the precise causes of preeclampsia are unclear. One theory I heard is that the genetics of the placenta (and possibly the fetus) somehow trigger an autoimmune response (or something similar) in the woman.

The cure for preeclampsia is to give birth. However, as I learned, the “cure” can take some time to take hold. Doctors put my wife on a twenty-four hour magnesium drip soon after delivery to protect her from stroke and seizure. With the drip and with blood pressure medications, finally they got my wife’s blood pressure under control. However, once she went off the drip, we had another scary night with high blood pressure readings, so doctors put her back on the drip and increased the dosages of her other meds.

In all, we spent eight days in the hospital, a grueling slog that felt like it would never end. (Note to hospital equipment designers: Please stop making every single last piece of equipment beep unnecessarily and incessantly.)  Apparently, such severe residual preeclamptic symptoms are fairly rare in patients, so our doctors struggled a bit to get the meds right.

My wife continued to take blood pressure medication for another three weeks at home, until finally her readings returned to normal.

While my wife recovered from preeclampsia, my son developed in the NICU. The nurses there are excellent, and they helped train me to feed and care for my son.

We were delighted to learn that, thanks to the Mother’s Milk Bank, our son would be able to drink donated breast milk until my wife’s milk came in. This was a huge relief, as I was slightly horrified the last time I read the ingredients list of formula. I was so grateful that our son could have the best available nutrition.

At 35 weeks, our son was a premie but a relatively developed one. Some babies in the unit were far younger. Our son needed a feeding tube at first, in addition to pressurized air to help him breath. He also got the “hot box” and the jaundice light for a few days.

Our son spent ten days in the NICU, two days longer than my wife spent in the hospital. We were thankful to get everyone home, yet I was also grateful that we could stay at the hospital when we needed to. In general, we were extremely happy with Swedish from the moment we walked in the door until, finally, we drove away.

I had spent all my time planning for a “normal” vaginal birth in mid-August, so an emergency Caesarian delivery in early July was a difficult thing to adjust to. The time in the hospital was extremely stressful and exhausting. And we were in the middle of some major home projects—I thought I still had five more weeks—so coming home was not the restful and serene experience I had envisioned. But we made it through fine, and the results are excellent. We didn’t take quite the path we had planned, but we arrived at the same destination; ours is a success story.

So what are some of the take-home lessons for other expectant parents?

1. Learn the basics about preeclampsia early in pregnancy, so you are better equipped to handle it if it happens to you.

2. Plan for a “normal” delivery—I highly recommend the Mountain Midwifery if you’re in the Denver area—but have a contingency plan in case something goes wrong. The Midwifery’s contingency plan is to send patients with complications to Swedish, and, for us, that worked spectacularly well.

3. If you’re pregnant, consider buying a home blood pressure kit and taking your pressure every day or two. One doctor advised us to sit still for five minutes and have your arm level with your heart to take a pressure reading. If I had it to do over again, I’d take regular home readings to supplement doctors’ readings. That way, I’d have a better ability to notice sudden changes and promptly seek professional guidance if needed.

4. If you do end up with severe preeclampsia, take heart that modern doctors know how to handle it. You want to take the disease seriously, but there’s no need to worry excessively about it, given the technologies and expertise of modern medicine.

5. Be prepared for contingencies. Get your “to go” bag ready early on. Include earplugs and eye shades, as sleeping in a hospital can be challenging. Get your house in order early if you can. Line up someone to watch your house and your pets if necessary.

6. Prep yourself for the potential stresses of a hospital visit. During the first night at the hospital, I did not sleep a wink, so I started the process utterly exhausted. It was a very busy and stressful time.

7. Be an advocate for yourself or your patient while respecting the time and expertise of hospital staff. Generally, we had very positive interactions with everyone at Swedish—something made easier because Swedish is an excellent hospital. However, I had a couple of unnecessarily testy exchanges with doctors, largely because I was tired and stressed; I later apologized to those doctors and we resumed a good working relationship.

8. Do what you can to get mother with baby, but recognize the limitations of the hospital setting. At first, I did not understand why baby could not be in the same room as mother. Then it became apparent to me: The NICU is very specialized, as is the Labor and Delivery ward, so sometimes it’s not feasible to keep mother and baby together. That said, do try to facilitate meetings of mom and baby until they can get into the same room or come home.

To me, preeclampsia was terrifying. But largely that’s because I didn’t know what it is or how doctors treat it. If you’re an expectant parent, do yourself a favor and spend a bit of time reading about the disease and preparing for the possibility of going through it. Then you can take comfort in the knowledge that most pregnant women don’t get preeclampsia, and, if a pregnant woman does get it, doctors are in a great position to effectively treat it. Preeclampsia is a problem for some women, but a manageable one with modern medicine.

Related:

William Coley’s Immune-Provoking Cancer Treatments

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

William Coley, a doctor in the late 1800s and early 1900s, noticed that some people who got infections beat their cancer. As I understand his work, he theorized that an infection boosts the body’s immune system, which then also (sometimes) fights off cancer. Coley developed some bacterial vaccines and gave them to patients, not to vaccinate against a particular illness, but to basically trick the immune system into going into high gear.

Today Coley is not well-respected by other cancer researchers, and his vaccines are illegal in the United States. But Monica Hughes thinks Coley vaccines are a very good ways to treat some cancers, and her husband has taken them (in conjunction with other treatments) to treat a brain tumor. Apparently the treatments have met with at least some success. I’m not sure what to think of Coley’s work, but I do find it interesting, regardless of whether ultimately there’s anything substantive to it.

In June, Hughes presented her views at a Liberty On the Rocks event in Broomfield. Please observe the disclaimer posted with the video: “The speaker is not a medical doctor or health care practitioner. The ideas in this video are not intended as a substitute for the advice of a trained health professional. All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. Consult your physician and/or health care professional before adopting any nutritional, exercise, or medical protocol, as well as about any condition that may require diagnosis or medical attention. In addition, statements regarding certain products and services represent the views of the speaker alone and do not constitute a recommendation or endorsement or any product or service.”

“The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get”

Image: Brian Tracy
Image: Brian Tracy

Yesterday Don Watkins shared the transcript of a delightful 2012 interview he conducted with Brian Tracy. Following are a few of the highlights:

  • “Most people I know who are successful are still busy and working; continually striving to achieve more and do even better.”
  • “There is no such thing as luck; there are only probabilities. The good news is that you can influence the probabilities on your behalf.”
  • “Successful people accept complete responsibility for their situation, good or bad. They don’t make excuses or blame others.”
  • “For every reason that a person can give for not moving ahead, they can look around and find someone who had it far worse than they could ever dream of, but who are successful nonetheless.”

See Tracy’s web site for more.

My Smart TV Odyssey

After not owning a television for nearly a decade and a half, my wife and I recently purchased one. My conclusion is that the “smart” technology in so-called smart TVs is totally worthless, although modern TVs are otherwise amazing machines. Perhaps my notes will help other consumers pick out a television system that works for them.

My New TV

I first bought a Vizio 40-inch “smart” TV at Costco. But where was the web browser? The whole point of having a “smart” TV is to access the internet, right? Apparently not. Apparently the purpose of a “smart” TV is to screw its owner with special rip-off “deals.” Not only did the Vizio not offer a web browser, it did not offer the ability to download one (at least so far as I could figure out).

So I returned the Vizio and got a Samsung, because it specifically said it offered a web browser. The problem is, its web browser sucks. The first thing I looked up is Hulu, as my wife and I watch Hulu shows, and of course that web page was blocked. Apparently I was supposed to pay an extra fee every month to watch “Hulu Plus,” which I had no intention of doing.

Moreover, the web browser was almost impossible to use, even for those pages that weren’t blocked. I bought an HP keyboard with a Bluetooth plug that worked great—except the web browser is so clunky that using it with a keyboard was still a major hassle.

Despite my dissatisfaction with Samsung’s idiotic “smart” technology, we decided to keep the TV, because we doubted we could do better with a replacement. At least it works great as a TV—its picture is amazing (as was the picture of the Vizio).

So now we have a “smart” TV that I’m using as a dumb TV, because the “smart” technology is too stupidly designed to function well.

Rather than use the TV’s “smart” technology, I just hooked my laptop up to it. Through the laptop, I can play DVDs, watch Hulu and Netflix, and watch personal videos.

I thought the TV would readily feed the laptop’s sound through to our soundbar, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen. So I just plugged the laptop’s audio directly into the soundbar, and that works great.

The Amazing Flatwave Antenna

One of the reasons I wanted a TV was to watch locally broadcast sports games. You don’t need cable for that. Instead, I bought a Flatwave antenna from Costco for around forty bucks, and it works spectacularly well. It easily hooked up to the Samsung (through the cable jack), and the Samsung readily searched for available channels—of which we have over fifty.

I remember my step-dad trying to adjust our “rabbit ears” to bring in a show, and that rarely worked well. But this new little antenna is amazing (at least in my metro area). I highly recommend it.

The Awesome Vizio Soundbar

I also bought a lower-end Vizio soundbar (with a woofer), and it works great. Not only does it pick up fantastic audio from the Samsung via the Flatwave antenna, it offers additional in-jacks for the laptop, and it also has Bluetooth connectivity. (So I’m actually using a mobile device for music.)

This is another great product. It took me a while to figure out how to change the input source, but once I did that I loved the product.

The upshot is that, for a few hundred dollars, we got a TV, a soundbar, and an antenna that works well (with the addition of our laptop) as a television and music system.

A Note about Comcast

Comcast offers cable in my area. I love Comcast’s mostly-reliable and fast internet service. I hate Comcast’s absurd pricing policies and lousy customer service.

For the last year or so, I’ve purchased a cable-internet package from Comcast—not because I wanted cable, but because the price for both was cheaper than the price for just internet.

But then, despite my explicit directions to the contrary, Comcast sent me two different shipments of gear to work with a television set—even though I didn’t even own an television set at the time—to run cable service that I didn’t want. I refused the packages and wasted additional time on the phone trying to set Comcast straight. Finally somebody at Comcast decided to give me an internet-only deal for the same price as the package deal—which is what the company should have done in the first place—because otherwise Comcast couldn’t figure out how not to send me television equipment I don’t want. Ridiculous.

Incidentally, also within the last few weeks, Comcast tried charging me for a modem rental, even though I don’t rent a modem from Comcast.

In general, I am continually amazed that Comcast offers such horrible customer service. It can do so only because its service does work well, and its competitors aren’t fantastic by comparison.

Some people I know do watch television shows that are only available through cable (or on disk long after the original release date), but I have little or no interest in such shows, and for me broadcast offers more than enough channels.

A Final Note

Yes, I’m a demanding customer; I like to get value for my dollar. But I should end by noting how amazing it is that Vizio, Samsung, Comcast, and others offer me such great products and services that tremendously improve my life.

For a small fraction of my income, I can watch exciting sporting events, films that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, and well-made television shows; and I can listen to a practically endless catalog of music.

We’ve come a long way since the days of telling tales around a fire or even sitting around the family radio. Intelligent consumers of technology can get some great deals on amazing high-tech machines and services.

Image: Wikimedia Commons