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

My Wife’s Experiences with Uterine Fibroid Embolization

I never heard of fibroids until I learned early last year that my wife Jennifer had them. (Her mother had them as well, as did an aunt and a grandmother, so I think they’re at least partly genetic.) Fibroids of the uterus are what they sound like: Fibrous masses—noncancerous tumors—growing in the uterus. My wife had a lot of them, some of them quite large (up to six centimeters across).

Fibroids can do a variety of nasty things, such as interfere with pregnancy and cause heavy bleeding. My wife had severe anemia (for which she took iron pills), and she ended up in the emergency room once due to bleeding, which prompted us to get more serious about solving the problem.

The first OBGYN we visited (before the ER visit) wanted to cut out my wife’s uterus—do a hysterectomy—which struck me as an absurdly disproportionate “solution” relative to the problem. A hysterectomy would have required a six-week recovery, and obviously it would have made pregnancy impossible.

The second doctor my wife visited is an endocrinologist. He wanted to cut out the fibroids laparoscopically, through small slits in the abdomen. This was a considerably less-horrible alternative, but the problems were two-fold: a long recovery time and a high probability of regrown fibroids within a few years.

There is a lesson here: Don’t necessarily act on the first “expert” advice you hear from a doctor (or anyone else). The first doctor my wife saw gave her terrible advice. I chalk this up to the “hammer and nail” phenomenon: The first doctor happened to do hysterectomies, so that’s what she thought my wife needed. The second doctor happened to do laparoscopic surgery, so that’s what he thought my wife needed. In fact, she needed neither of those procedures.

Thankfully, we kept digging, and we learned about embolization. The idea is that a doctor runs a tube up through the main artery in your leg up to the uterus. Then the doctor strategically releases silicon particles to block or restrict the blood flow to the fibroids. Assuming this goes well, the fibroids shrink and are absorbed by or discharged from the body.

Jennifer learned that RIA Endovascular performs uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) in Denver. Checking around, we heard that RIA’s Dr. Brooke Spencer was excellent in the field. And she is.

After a consultation and a preliminary MRI, Jennifer had the UFE procedure done by Spencer on September 6 of last year. At the six month mark she got a second MRI, and the results are very good, with some fibroids completely gone and most others significantly smaller. (The remaining fibroids are expected to continue to shrink.) Her monthly bleeding and cramping is radically less now than it was before, and her anemia is gone.

We were extremely happy with Spencer’s work and with her willingness to answer our questions in minute detail. Indeed, we were very happy with the service provided by everyone associated with RIA. Likewise, we were happy with the service provided at Littleton Medical Center, where the procedure and recovery took place.

We did have a slight hitch in the recovery. The hospital staff put Jennifer on a morphine-class drug (I believe synthetic) immediately after surgery, but the next day when they took her off of that drug and switched her nausea medication she experienced some abdominal pain and some violent vomiting. They put her back on the morphine-class drug, changed her nausea medication, and kept her a second night. So UFE is definitely not an out-patient procedure, but Jennifer was back to work five days later.

Obviously neither Jennifer nor I are doctors, so anyone reading this should consult with a qualified medical expert regarding any medical issue. That said, in our case, we’re extremely glad we pursued UFE, particularly through RIA. So thank you Dr. Spencer and team!

July 7, 2016 Update: Last year my wife gave birth! It is my belief, although not a certainty, that the fibroid embolization allowed her to get pregnant. The procedure did not seem to interfere with the pregnancy. She did deliver early due to severe preeclampsia. Because she had a c-section, I actually saw her uterus. She still had some remaining fibroids, including one that might have interfered with baby positioning and delivery; but we still regard the embolization as an overwhelming success.

Run, Hide, Fight: Even the New York Times Gets It

Alon Stivi

The gun laws recently proposed (or passed) in Colorado and at the national level will not reduce violent crime. Something that will reduce the number and destructiveness of mass murders is citizens preparing for such attacks and responding appropriately.

Of course, your chances of ever finding yourself in the middle of a situation like that at the Aurora theater or the school in Newtown are extremely low. A tiny fraction of homicides are mass murders, and a tiny fraction of mass murders are the random and large-scale events that generate international headlines for months on end. You’re far more likely to die in a car crash than to die at the hands of a mass murderer.

Still, there is some chance, however slight, that you will find yourself confronted by a mass murderer, so it is worth some time thinking and planning how to respond. Perhaps surprisingly, even the New York Times picked up on this theme in an April 6 story written by Erica Goode. Following are some of the highlights from that article:

The speed and deadliness of recent high-profile shootings have prompted police departments to recommend fleeing, hiding or fighting in the event of a mass attack, instead of remaining passive and waiting for help. . . .

Research on mass shootings over the last decade has bolstered the idea that people at the scene of an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued by the police, who in many cases cannot get there fast enough to prevent the loss of life. . . .

In the absence of a police presence, how victims responded often made the difference between life and death, Dr. Blair said.

In 16 of the attacks studied by the researchers [at Texas State University], civilians were able to stop the perpetrator, subduing him in 13 cases and shooting him in 3 cases. In other attacks, civilians have obstructed or delayed the gunman until the police arrived. . . .

“The take-home message is that you’re not helpless and the actions you take matter,” Dr. [J. Pete] Blair [of the university] said. “You can help yourself and certainly buy time for the police to get there.”

Here is the video from the Houston’s Office of Public Safety mentioned in the article:

I’ve produced two videos and an interview on the matter.

The interview (with my father), available at TOS Blog, is “Linn Armstrong on Self-Defense and Guns.”

I also conducted another interview on video with my dad:

And I conducted an interview with Alon Stivi (with whom my father has worked), who developed a program for Attack Countermeasures Training.

So don’t be paranoid, but do be prepared.


Surviving Attacks at School and the Workplace: Alon Stivi’s Attack Countermeasures Training

Alon Stivi, CEO of Direct Measures International, recently attended an event in Grand Junction, where he agreed to a short interview. Stivi developed a certification program in Attack Countermeasures Training to help school administrators, teachers, and office personnel effectively respond to active shooters and terrorist attacks.

One of the points Stivi makes is that renewed military action in the Middle East (which seems very likely to me within the next few months) could spur terrorist organizations to step up their attacks on American and other western targets. And “we need to be prepared,” he points out.

A Few Thoughts about Volunteer Search and Rescue

Recently I helped (a little) with a search and rescue effort in Utah. The upshot is that two Colorado men—including a family friend—crashed their vehicle off the side of a cliff northeast of Price, resulting in fatality on impact. Yet, because the vehicle was so hard to see and locate, it was not found until more than a week after the crash and several days after the men were reported missing, even though more than 100 friends and family members had traveled to Price to help with the search.

Here my goal is to offer a few reflections on the search in the hopes that, should others find themselves in a missing persons or search and rescue situation, they might have a little better idea of what to expect.

It has never been so clear to me the living hell created by not knowing what happened. We didn’t know what happened to the men or whether they were still alive. That uncertainty leads to high emotions, hard feelings, exhaustion, and continuous speculation. In such a situation, one must make a special effort to remain civil and productive and not do anything that gets in the way of the search.

There are four basic scenarios for any missing persons case: either the person is lost, injured in an accident, the victim of foul play, or trying hard not to be found. In this case, the second scenario was most likely, but we could definitely rule out only the first scenario. But within each remaining scenario, there are a thousand, a million, possibilities.

The key is to add plausible scenarios to the list of possibilities, while not losing focus on the most obvious explanations. In this case, the most likely explanation was the correct one: the men drove their car off the road in rugged country on the way to their base camp.

One mistake I made was to assume that, since the area had been searched so thoroughly after a few days, both by air and by ground, there was little chance the vehicle was actually in that area off of a road. But the country was so rugged (check out the satellite imagery of the map) that the vehicle was impossible to see from the road. Because the vehicle was so mangled (see the video from KSL Salt Lake), it was nearly impossible to identify from the air; it blended in with the surrounding rock features. (Finally the vehicle was found when a volunteer hiked down a rough incline to look down a cliff.)

Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Wally Hendricks told some members of the team that, during a search, you may need to look behind the same tree (or down the same cliff) six times before you see what’s there. So don’t assume that, just because an area has been searched once, it shouldn’t be searched again. Focus on the most likely routes and devote multiple searches to those.

That said, keep the search as organized as possible to limit unnecessary passes of less-likely areas. The man who stepped up to organize the search kept a large map on the wall and copied more-detailed sections of that map for the searchers. His single-page maps contained several square miles and showed all the dirt roads; typically an assigned search grid was two miles square. (It took my team an unexpectedly long time to cover a grid, but then there were multiple roads, some of which we had to walk.)

One advantage to staying organized and searching by grids is that you minimize the number of tracks over an area. This increases the chances of seeing tracks that may be related to the missing persons.

Take plenty of time to cover a search grid. Be thorough. Get out, walk around, look off the side of drop offs. As the search’s organizer pointed out, you may need to cut your engine and listen for the sound of a car’s horn. Try to mark a particular grid off the list as definitively as possible.

Also, take detailed notes of the search grid. This will help the organizer determine whether to send additional teams through that grid. For example, while walking a rough road I saw a small pond, and somebody had cut a hole in that pond. It turns out the pond was irrelevant to our search, but the fact that I saw the hole caused me to spend more time there and report it to the organizer. Then another team returned the next day to check out the pond more thoroughly. I still don’t know why somebody cut the hole in the pond. But it occurred to me that perhaps another searcher did it to check the pond; if that’s the case, that’s the sort of information that would have been useful in a search report.

All that said, people are going to make some mistakes. So don’t accuse, and don’t feel bad if you miss something. Recognize that tensions are high, people are extremely tired, and emotions are raw. Keep focused on the goal: find the missing people. Take what you have and work with that in a constructive way.

Be careful! You are not helping the situation by becoming lost or injured yourself. Stay rested, fed, and hydrated. Don’t push your vehicle beyond its capacities. Make sure the search organizer knows where you are, who is in your party, and how to get ahold of you. As in medicine, first do no harm. (Again, if somebody does make a mistake, don’t accuse, and don’t feel bad; return to constructive action as quickly a possible.)

Recognize the leaders of the group, and support them. There will be (or should be) two key leaders. One is the organizer of the volunteer search. This person should be responsible for organizing the search pattern, handing out search assignments, collecting search reports, and processing that information. In our case, this person had a second-in-command, and that was vital to keeping the assignments going out and the reports coming in. That organizer (and only that organizer) should interact with the local authorities to coordinate the broader search effort.

The second key leader is the person who facilitates the flow of information. This person (or, in our case, two people) should make contact with the authorities, with the volunteer search organizer, with the family and searchers, and with the media. The media accounts regarding this search were basically accurate and thorough because somebody was assigned to send out official media releases. Obviously this person should have some familiarity with the media (or at least be a decent writer). In our case, a Facebook page facilitated the distribution of these releases and related information.

Thankfully, we had a very organized search. I could see how a disorganized search could result in a great deal of tension and counterproductive action. Do what you reasonably can to identify and assist the leaders (or to become one of the key leaders if you have the experience and demeanor for it).

It was a terrible time with a tragic outcome. The silver lining, as several pointed out, was seeing so many friends and family members stepping up so valiantly during this difficult time.

Be careful out there. Take every reasonable precaution not to become a missing person yourself and to keep loved ones safe. But if the worst happens, and you find yourself in a search for missing persons, get an idea of what to expect and focus on productive action toward finding your loved ones.

See also “Integrating Aerial Photography in Search and Rescue.”

The Tragedy of Fatal Hazards for Children

A single death due to an unintentional firearm discharge is one too many. When the victim is a child, the heartbreak can run especially deep.

But is the death of a child due to an unintentional firearm discharge any more or less tragic than the death of a child due to a car wreck or drowning? To think reasonably about the problem, we must put the dangers we face in context.

Earlier today the Denver Post falsely claimed that, based on recent figures, “more than 500 children in the United States die in gun accidents each year.” The actual figure for 2007, as the Post acknowledged in a correction, is 112 (as I reviewed at length earlier today). And yet, while I think journalists should strive to report the facts accurately, at a certain level the precise numbers are not the most important issue. What is most important is that each of these deaths, whatever their total number, represents a profound tragedy, a life forever snuffed out.

And yet life is full of risks. All sorts of things, not just firearms, can be hazardous if abused, both to adults and children. Obviously the proper goal is to reduce all deaths due to unintentional injury to as close to zero as feasible, everything else equal. The problem is that trying to force down the number of unintentional injuries can result in offsetting harms. For example, there is a very simple way to reduce the number of auto fatalities to zero: ban all automobiles. Yet obviously that would severely harm people in other ways. The same goes for firearms.

The fact is that firearms are useful for self-defense. Forcibly taking people’s guns away, or forcing people to render their guns inoperable for self-defense, would increase the numbers of home invasions, murders, and other crimes.

The Post rightly reports the general problem of gun fatalities in its related stories. In the case of the 2007 figures, the context for the statistics is a story about two 5-year-old children fatally shot in Colorado. In one case, a three-year-old shot a five-year-old with a “family friend’s gun.” In the other case, a child shot herself with her father’s gun. Those stories are painfully tragic to read about; obviously the families involved will never fully recover.

The Post includes some relevant context: in the first case the gun’s owner may be charged with “child abuse resulting in death and criminal negligence.” When the debate about gun laws raged in Colorado several years back, I rightly pointed out that general child-abuse laws already on the books account for all instances of needlessly putting a child in danger.

Notably, the Post has also pointed out the drowning statistics in stories related to drownings. For example, in 2009 the Post‘s Kieran Nicholsonwrote, “In 2005, there were 3,582 unintentional drownings in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” In another short story, the Post related, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated 319 children younger than 5 died in pool and spa incidents in 2005.”

Obviously the magnitude of the problem does matter. If ten-thousand children died every year in spas or by firearms, that would be an enormously more pressing problem. In the case of firearms, various anti-gun activists have skewed the figures for partisan political purposes. For obvious reasons, news reporters should be careful not to fall for such claims.

Even when reporters get their basic facts straight, readers ought to bear in mind the general context that, of necessity, is not included in a particular news story.

According to, “Fatal gun accidents involving children (aged 0-14) also fell significantly, from 495 in 1975, to under 250 in 1995.” Again, the figure for all minors for 2007 was 112. The fact that unintentional shootings have fallen dramatically, even as gun ownership has risen, is a very good thing.

Using the CDC’s clever search function, we can compare deaths from different sources. For 2007, a total of 7,931 children age zero to seventeen died of unintentional injury. So the deaths involving firearms represents 1.4 percent of the total. When parents are evaluating risks, that’s a relevant figure.

Let’s check out the numbers of unintentional deaths by various other causes (same year and age group):

Firearms: 112
Drowning: 901
Fall: 123
Fire/Burn: 497
Poisoning: 398
Suffocation: 1,239
Transportation Related, Overall: 4,264

Again, the point is not that news reporters are obligated to provide such context when writing their reports; they are not. But readers should bear in mind that news reports generally do not include all the relevant context.

Parents should take reasonable precautions to prevent unintentional injuries, whatever their cause. Part of this means that gun owners should take precautions not to let any unauthorized or irresponsible person gain access to a firearm. As a group, U.S. gun owners have made great strides in curbing the numbers of unintentional gun deaths. Obviously, some small fraction of gun owners need to do better.

Tebowmania Article Published in Denver Post

The Denver Post published a recent op-ed of mine, “Tebowmania isn’t just for Christians.”

In this article I try to make sense of the overt religion of Bronco’s football star quarterback, Tim Tebow. On the surface, there’s much about this that seems odd. What if, I ask, “a star football player were as vocal about his Muslim, Hindu, or Scientologist beliefs?” And does God really care about who wins football games?

But, listening to some of Tebow’s comments during a recent game, I got a better sense of what religion does for him. I conclude that “what Tebow is able to do remarkably well is keep a sense of perspective about the game and his play,” and he uses religion for that end.

Read the entire article!

Mass Beer Blind Taste Test

Last night a friend organized a blind taste test of several mass-produced beers. This stemmed from an argument over whether Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) was an okay beer or a horrible one. Tasters were given six small lettered cups of beer; nobody knew even which brands they were (except we all knew PBR was in the mix). I collected five results.

Photo: The good Doctor Paul Hsieh applies his penetrating scientific mind to the problem of determining beer quality; from Picasa.

I did a two-stage ranking. First I marked beers as “okay” or “not great”; I marked three in each category. Then I ranked the beers in order from 1 to 6. Here was my ranking: Sam Adams Boston Lager, Modelo Especial, PBR, Coors Light, Stella Artois, and Pilsner Urquell. So, while I thought the Sam Adams was clearly superior to PBR, PBR still made my “okay” list.

Jennifer (my wife) and I had similar tastes, except she ranked Pilsner Urquell second rather than last. (I didn’t like it at all.) Here was her ranking: Sam Adams Boston Lager, Pilsner Urquell, Modelo Especial, PBR, Stella Artois, Coors Light. (It’s too bad the regular Coors wasn’t in the mix; I suspect that’s somewhat better.)

Paul ranked them as follows: Modelo Especial, Sam Adams Boston Lager, PBR, Coors Light, Stella Artois, Pilsner Urquell.

“H:” Modelo Especial, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois, PBR, Coors Light.

“S:” Coors Light, Stella Artois, Sam Adams Boston Lager, PBR, Modelo Especial, Pilsner Urquell.

While Sam Adams ranked in the top half of everyone’s list, only Jennifer and I ranked it first. (I thought it was clearly superior to the rest, though not nearly as good as the craft beers I usually drink.) Everyone ranked PBR in the middle, from a 3 to a 5. I was a little surprised that the Modelo performed relatively well, earning two first places and a second.

But of course this exercise largely was academic; generally I’m going to drink a real beer, such as a Guinness or a Rock Bottom Molly’s Brown.

Happy Exuberant Friday

The Objective Standard has published my latest article, “Call It Exuberant Friday, Not ‘Black Friday.'” I write about the day:

What’s so black about it? Stores and city streets glitter with holiday lights. Shoppers, often in bright-colored clothing, chatter with excitement among family and friends. … We should call it “Exuberant Friday,” a day for celebrating prosperity, shopping for gifts, and enjoying friends.

Read the entire piece!

Harry Potter, Distinguished Toastmaster?

I’ve just published a new article over at the web page for my book, Values of Harry Potter, titled, “Harry Potter’s Magical Communication.” Invoking examples from the Potter novels, I show how the stories offer several lessons for public speakers.

I write, “Tellingly, the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort involves the two of them arguing, alone, in the midst of hundreds of their compatriots. Harry addresses Voldemort, but he speaks to inform the crowd of the truth of Voldemort’s evil and the virtues of Harry’s allies.” Read the whole piece!

This is relevant here: I’d like to congratulate Brad Beck and the other leaders of Liberty Toastmasters for creating a robust and amazingly valuable club. You can meet the future of Colorado’s liberty movement at these meetings.

Incidentally, I’m declaring this Friday “Sirius Black Friday,” in honor of Harry’s godfather. It’s the perfect day to buy my book!