Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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No Thanks Google

A few minutes after one o’clock this morning, my Android phone woke me up by sounding an alarm. The screen flashed up a warning that we were about to experience a magnitude 6 earthquake centered about 230 Km (140 miles) southeast of us. What the heck? An earthquake that far away at only magnitude six is not worth being woken up for, especially if it doesn’t occur. A few seconds later, the house gave an almost imperceptible squeak but no shake at all. A real letdown!.

It turns out that Aotearoa New Zealand is one of two nations (the other being Greece) where Google has rolled out a nationwide earthquake detection service using the accelerometers built into most Android phones. It started here in April, and while it might have been mentioned in the accompanying notes of an Android update (who reads the full list of changes that accompanies an update anyway?), I certainly didn’t notice this “improvement”.

When a phone detects vibrations it sends an alert to Google’s servers, and based on the number of phones that call home, Google attempts to work out if it caused by an earthquake, determines its location and magnitude, and then sends an alert to those in the affected area.

Supposedly the system will give those a little distance from the epicentre a few seconds notice ahead of the shock waves arriving, but the movement of the tectonic plates beneath this land is likely to fool a network of hundreds or thousands of motion sensitive phones. This was one such occasion.

The actual epicentre was hundreds of kilometres northwest of us and was caused by the subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the Australian plate. It was at a depth of 160Km (100 miles) and a magnitude of 5.1. In this type of quake, the energy waves travel along the plate and are felt where the plate reaches the surface – the east coast of the North Island and can be felt over a wide area. Those near the quake centre are unlikely to feel it at all.

My phone is configured to receive National Emergency Management Agency messages, which sends emergency messages regarding not only earthquakes, but many others, including covid-19 notices. I really don’t need another, especially one that’s as wildly inaccurate as Google’s.

Having discovered this new but unwanted “feature”, I decided to switch if off. I knew it had to be in the phone settings somewhere, but exactly where was not revealed after a careful search. The obvious solution was to Google. As I suspected, the instructions were easy to locate. Eight out of the first ten search results gave precise instructions on activating/deactivating earthquake notifications. None applied to my Huawei phone. In all eight case, the first step was to open “Settings” but from there on every step was different, and none were available on my phone. Back to the drawing board.

It took me almost an hour of drilling down through almost every Setting option before I eventually found it hidden in Settings > Security & privacy >Location Access > Advanced settings > Location services > Earthquake alerts. So obvious!

I appreciate that in some parts of the world, earthquakes are rare and dwellings are not designed with them in mind, so Google’s alert for earthquakes of 4.5 and higher might be appropriate. But in this country where earthquakes of that magnitude or greater occur several times a month, there’s only one way to describe the service: Bloody annoying!


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Not knowing what you don’t know.

Lyric Holmans has released a Youtube clip explaining why she finds people overwhelming. You can view the clip and read a transcription on her blog. Like her, I find people can be overwhelming, and the reasons are similar – non-vocal communications.

While humans may be the only species to have developed a language, all vertebrates and many invertebrates communicate in various ways with their own species, and to a lesser extent other species. And while non-vocal communication may take second place to spoken (or written) communication in humans, it remains an important factor in our everyday communications.

For the first 60 years of my life, I was totally unaware that language (spoken or written) was complemented by other forms of communication, namely body language and facial expressions. I’m not alone. Many people don’t realise that body language exists, but nevertheless, they use it and read it every day. It’s instinctive to them. For many autistics, including myself, its not. Hence the title of this article.

During those first 60 years, I was able to read body language in domestic pets – better than most people in fact – in babies and to a lesser extent, toddlers. But apart from the way lips form with a smile or laughter I was unaware that the face, especially the eyes, can convey a whole raft of emotions and ideas. Even so, I was unable to distinguish between a grin and a grimace. I was completely unaware that humans also used posture, movement of body and hands, even vocal pitch and volume to supplement the words they use.

Now that I do know that a significant part of human communication is non-vocal, I’m able to look for it, and that in itself can be overwhelming. In the first place, making a conscious effort to look for non-vocal communication requires effort, so much so, that sometimes I forget to listen to the actual words being spoken. And then I’m always asking myself whether or not a particular facial or body movement is indeed intended (intentionally or not) to communicate something. And if it is intended to communicate something, what exactly?

I managed to survive the first sixty years of my life, more or less intact, not knowing that body language and facial expressions play a vital role in interpersonal communications. I’m yet to be persuaded that knowing it exits at all, let alone its importance, makes my communication with others, as individuals or groups, any less overwhelming. In my case it might actually make it more so. Group dynamics is another mystery to me (Lyric touches on it in the post linked to above), but that’s a topic for another day.


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What next?

It’s been one of those months. Mostly “developed world” challenges, but if that’s the only world you’re familiar with they are real challenges in every sense of the word.

On the last day of June we switched internet and telephone providers. It’s not something I do regularly, but it’s a very competitive market in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are literally dozens of providers that supply various combinations of internet, home telephone lines, mobile telephones, electricity, and gas. Some provide all those products and services (and sometimes more) as a single package. However, the wife has a monopoly on choosing our electricity provider, while I make the decisions around the communication services, so I doubt we’ll ever have a single provider for all. Her priorities and mine are quite different.

We have now switched to a single provider for home phone, mobile phones and Internet, saving us nearly $50 per month. We’ve been using them for mobile phone services for some years and have been very happy with them, so when they made an offer that was to good to ignore, I decided to jump in boots and all. Usually switching between providers here is a painless operation and usually, if there is an outage, it’s often only minutes. Not this time.

The internet went down for no more than 10 minutes during the switch, but the home phone went dead and remained so. No dial tone, no anything. I won’t go into all the details, but it took two days and a replacement router before our home phone was back in business.

At around the same time, my old back injury returned with a vengeance. It still hasn’t settled down and I remain in some pain, but I’m damned of I’m going to take any more of those prescribed Tramadol tablets. My current inflexibility might make my movements appear as though my spine is made of a single plank of wood, but at least I’m moving. The Tramadol made me so drowsy and confused that I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag, let alone safely boil water for a cup of tea.

I selectively filter some internet traffic arriving at our home network, and have done so for more than ten years., through OpenDNS’s content filtering service. It worked reliably with my previous internet provider, but was proving very hit and miss with our new provider, and nothing they did made any difference. It took me two days of trawling the internet and some experimentation on my part to find the cause. The new router requires DNSv6 server configuration as well as the usual DNSv4. While OpenDNS do provide DNSv6 servers, it turns out these do not support content filtering. Whenever the router switched from a configured DNSv4 server to a configured DNSv6 server, content filtering would cease until it switched back to the former.

Identifying the problem was one thing, solving it was another. The new router must have DNSv6 servers configured. It will not accept blank or invalid IPv6 addresses. It took me nearly half a day of scratching my head to come up with a simple solution: Configure the DNSv6 addresses to a non exiting device on the local network. That way, when the router attempts to connect to a DNSv6 server, it gets no response, so marks it as unavailable and consequently resumes using one of the assigned DNSv4 servers.

Twenty-three years ago when I was working as an I.T. engineer, the cause of the problem and a solution probably would have come to me very quickly. But then I also had access to diagnostic tools that make troubleshooting relatively easy. After being out of the industry for so long, my 72 year old brain being not quite as sharp as it once was, and having a non-existent set of diagnostic tools, perhaps I should be proud of the fact that I solved a problem that a younger generation of I.T. engineers weren’t able to, even if I did take the best part of three days to do so.

Yesterday a tree at the front of our section (property/lot) fell over blocking our driveway. Another distraction I could have done without. This morning I planned to catch up with some work that had fallen behind due to all the major and minor inconveniences over the past few weeks. We have our two grandsons staying with us for a few days, and while they do make keeping to a schedule difficult, they are a welcomed and much appreciated distraction. I had just started to cook some porridge for their breakfast when the power went off.

Disruptions to the electricity supply are few and far between, and on the rare occasion they do occur, power is usually restored very quickly. Not today. The boys waited, and I waited, and when power hadn’t been restored ofter twenty minutes, I phoned our electricity provider. In the good old days, when the lines company was also the electric power company, their call centre would very quickly know the nature of any problem and when power would be restored again. Not now.

The local lines company, being a natural monopoly cannot sell electricity, and we have no direct connection with them. We buy electricity from one of the fifty or so retailers that sell electricity into this region, and when a problem does occur, we contact our retailer. When I phoned retailer, the call centre was unaware of the problem but they would lodge a fault with the lines company who would then investigate.

That’s the problem these days. It doesn’t matter whether it’s electricity, internet, phone or gas (and in some areas, water and sewerage) the company you buy the product/service from is not the one that delivers it to your door. There’s always at least one degree of separation, which makes it just a little bit more difficult know what’s going on.

It’s times like this I wonder whether we did the right thing in removing our two wood burners during renovations last year. We removed them because their cost of running, even for just six ours each day was considerable more expensive than the heat pump we had installed a few years back running 24/7. But as the house slowly but surely got progressively colder during the course of the morning, I was starting to have second thoughts. When power was finally restored just after midday, it was a decidedly chilly 13°C inside.

A few minutes after power was restored, the front doorbell rang. Standing there, was a guy dressed top to toe in Hi-Vis gear. He was an employee of a subcontractor to a company hired by the lines company to repair and maintain the lines company network. How many degrees of separation does that make it? In the “good old days” he would have been an employee of the monopoly local electric power company. He just wanted to ensure all was now well, and to let us know the outage was caused by a car crashing into a power pole just a few hundred metre from our home. He’d been assigned the task to call on those who had lodged a fault with their electricity retailer. Perhaps an inefficient way to update their customers, but a very much appreciated personal touch that many other businesses could emulate.

Let’s just hope that today’s incident is the last “inconvenience” for some time to come.


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Trapped

Well, we were for a few hours yesterday. A cotoneaster fell onto the driveway overnight making vehicle access impossible and requiring foot traffic to duck down to waist height.

The fallen tree. Rain and mist hides the background.

The weekend was marked by gale force winds and torrential rain. And while we thought we had escaped any damage, it seems that their combined forces weakened the ground sufficiently for the tree, roots and all, to topple. It’s always had a preference of growing over the driveway, and no doubt its lopsidedness was a significant factor in its demise.

Fortunately a crew from All Tree Services arrived within three hours of us contacting them, and half an hour later, very little evidence of the tree falling remained, apart from the root stump. That’s too large for their chipper and will need to be ground down. That’s a job for another day.

The tree was destined to be removed in a few years anyway. We’d planted a Cherry blossom tree and Japanese maple close by to replace it eventually, but were in no hurry to remove it as it provided shelter and an abundant supply of berries for birds in early winter. It also provided a measure of privacy, filtering the view of the house from the street. It will quite a few years before it’s replacements are sufficiently large to provide much privacy at all.


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Improved service!

Over many decades (seven of them) I have had the occasional need to call on the assistance of health professionals. Most have fallen in to the non-emergency category, but there have been a few cases where without appropriate assistance I probably would not have survived – polio and hepatitis are two that come to mind.

In recent decades I have found myself in the emergency department of the public hospital in a nearby city, with no clear recollection of how I got there. I suffer from a form of migraine that often mimics the symptoms of a stroke. It requires an EEG and an MRI to rule that possibility out. Then there was kidney stones where I do remember the painful half hour journey by ambulance to the hospital.

However, today’s post is an observation of how the service of non-urgent medical treatment by General Practitioners (GPs) have changed in recent years. I can only speak of my experience in the town where I live – Feilding (population 15,000). It may be different in other parts of the country.

When we first moved here around 1986, we enrolled with a GP (general practitioner) in sole practice who shared a receptionist and practice nurse with another sole practice GP. This was an a change from what we had in our previous location. There, the family was enrolled with a sole GP where the duties of receptionist, etc were carried out by his wife. Generally an appointment wasn’t necessary. One simply turned up during surgery hours and waited. At the new practice it was necessary to make an appointment first, and usually one could be seen the same day or the next. If it was urgent, but not an emergency, then one could typically be seen within the hour. When our doctor decided to leave general practice and specialise in industrial health, we found ourselves looking for another GP.

Wanting a practice within easy walking distance limited out options to two and we settled on a group practice consisting of four GPs and a number of support staff covering several fields. At first, non-urgent appointments could be booked two days in advance, but over the course of a decade, waiting times became longer until it reached the stage where non-urgent bookings were typically a week away.

Since the start of this millenium there had been discussion about forming a community health centre for Feilding that could provide additional services beyond those that a typical small private or group practice could provide. It could be viable only if all the GPs in town provided services from the same facilities. It was a slow process but a few years ago Feilding Health Care Hauora Tangata opened for business.

While it provided radiology and other services previously only available in the city of Palmerston North (about a 30 minute drive), I can’t say there’s an improvement for non urgent medical attention. At this point I feel the need to mention that what constitutes non-urgent now includes conditions that would have been deemed urgent just a few years ago. Take for example my recent experience.

Weekend before last, I did something that caused an old injury to flare up. When I was 17, I suffered a lower back injury that resulted in one collapsed disc (two vertebrae now grind against each other wearing their faces down), one seriously compressed disc, and another with less severe compression. Over the years I have learnt to manage the injury, and for the most part, it doesn’t cause continuous pain. When I am careless and do something to silly, I can find myself in considerable pain exacerbated by any movement of the torso or legs. This was one of those occasions.

There are a number of exercises I have been taught to assist in recovery when my mobility is compromised like this, and generally within four or five days after a flare up I can reach the stage where the pain has been replaced by discomfort. However this time, the pain severely limited what I could do. As the weekend rolled around again, there had been no improvement and my mobility had become more restricted. So first thing Monday morning I phoned to make an appointment to see the doctor.

It was then that I was reminded how much of an improvement had been made over recent years. After describing my condition to the receptionist, I was advised that my assigned GP was away until August and even though I was in considerable pain and could scarcely walk, it didn’t qualify as urgent and there were no non-urgent spaces available for the next month! After some strong words from me she relented and said she would arrange for a duty nurse to contact me later in the day to evaluate my needs.

At four thirty, the nurse phoned and after a short discussion, she too said that I wasn’t able to book an appointment. However, I could see a doctor if I attended the after hours clinic which opens at six each evening, although I might have to wait a while before being seen. I was there before six but already there was a line of people at the check-in desk. Just as it was about to be my turn, the receptionist put an “Appointments closed” sign in the desk. I wasn’t pleased, and in the condition I was, I didn’t care who knew.

I think the receptionist took pity on me and said she’d try to have me seen by a nurse. Well, that’s better than nothing I suppose, and half an hour later one appeared. She told me the good news. All the doctors on duty were fully booked up for the evening, but if I drove across to Palmerston North I could attend an after hours clinic there. I asked if I could be guaranteed being seen, but no, they too ran their after hours service on a first in first served basis.

By this time my pain was so severe that I could only talk in gasps, and as best as I could I asked if it was reasonable to expect someone of my age, who has nyctalopia and cataracts in both eyes to drive to Palmerston North at night when they can barely walk or sit just on the off chance that a doctor might be able to see them. She conceded it wasn’t reasonable. How generous of her. I asked her what my options were to which she replied she wasn’t sure but she would find out.

She returned about ten minutes latter to give me “great news” that if I was prepared to wait and if a doctor finished all their cases before eight o’clock then he/she would see me, but there’d be no guarantee that I would be seen. I waited. And waited some more.

Some acquaintances tell me I have the patience of a saint, and on Monday evening that played to my advantage. Two people who were ahead of me in the queue were becoming more and more agitated as time wore on. Eventually one, then the other left in anger after waiting around an hour and a half. Ten minutes later, my name was called.

To cut a long story a little shorter, the doctor decided there was no new nerve damage (I’d already determined that) and that with some pain killers, I should be back to normal within a week. I was sent home with a single pain tablet to be taken when I arrived home. A short while later I received an SMS message informing me that a prescription had been sent to my preferred pharmacist and could be picked up in the morning.

The prescription was for Tramadol, which I’m supposed to take three times a day. No way! I tend to experience the worst side effects of every medication, and Tramadol proved to be no exception. Within an hour of taking it, I became fuzzy headed, unable to think clearly and found difficulty staying awake. Shortly after, my irregular heart beat became pronounced. I regularly miss about one heart beat in ten, but it increased to one in every four or five and was very noticeable to me. Then a headache set in. About time to research Tramadol’s side effects.

The possible side effects as described on Drugs.com make alarming reading, and the description on the NZ Health Navigator only slightly less so. I took two tablets yesterday, and only one today and I’m struggling to keep my eyes open as I compose this post. However, I think it has done the trick in relieving the pain as I am now able to do my exercises for managing back pain. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

On a brighter note. I received a phone call shortly after six last evening from Feilding Health Care inviting me to get my first Covid jab. They had a few surplus doses and if I came immediately I could receive my first of the two Pfizer shots. The wife and I were there and had our first vaccination within half an hour, and our next vaccination is booked in for later this month. We had been booked in for our first jab in August, and while there’s no sense of urgency here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is comforting to know that our personal risk is now even lower than it has been.


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A walk in the forest

Awahuri Forest to be precise. It’s one of the few remaining remnants of lowland podocarp swamp forest surviving in the region. I use the word “surviving” with caution. The forest has been devastated by introduced animals and plants, and without human intervention, all native species, both plant and animal would disappear within a hundred years, probably sooner, and be replaced by exotic species.

Rats and possums are currently the target of trapping and poisoning programs as both species predate on native bird and plant life that has evolved over 80 million years in the absence of mammalian predation. There are reminders at the entrance to the forest that for our own safety it is necessary to keep to the paths.

Currently plant control is concentrating on the removal of willow trees, bamboo and tradescantia fluminensis, the latter carpeting the forest floor preventing the regeneration of native plants from the few seeds that rats and possums don’t consume. Birdsong is often being interrupted by the sound of chainsaws attacking the willow.

There’s also an active replanting program and thousands of native plants have already been planted, with many more thousands planned.

What saddens me is the thoughtlessness of some visitors to the forest. The sole surviving silver fern is dying due to people removing fronds. When the wife and I visited the forest yesterday, workers were building a fence around it to protect it from “human predation”. But as one of the workers commented to me, it’s probably too little to late to save it. It’s really sad because just a few kilometers away there’s hundreds of silver fern growing, and while not quite as convenient (no adjacent boardwalk) they are readily accessible.

We try to visit the forest at least once each week, depending on the weather. There’s little wind under the forest canopy so unless there’s rain it’s alway pleasant, even if a little chilly. And the smells of the forest are so delightful. So here’s a few images from walks the wife and I have made though the forest in recent weeks.


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The Jab

Living in one of a few truly covid-free nations, Aotearoa New Zealand, there has been little urgency for most people to be vaccinated. Border, quarantine, health and essential service workers have already been vaccinated and others at high risk are currently in the process of being vaccinated. The general population will be able to get vaccinations from the end of July for those over sixty and then progressively through younger age bands. By the end of the year, everyone over the age of sixteen will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

Being in our seventies, the wife and I are considered “at risk” and yesterday I received an SMS message inviting me to book an appointment for the first of the two Pfizer shots. So now we have a confirmed appointment for the 10th of August, at 2:40 to be precise. Yes, it’s still around six weeks away, but like most Kiwis, we don’t have a sense of urgency about being vaccinated.

As to whether the lack of urgency is good or bad depends on one’s fear and/or restrictions on freedom. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, where we don’t experience restrictions such as social distancing, wearing of masks (except on public transport) or limits on the size of social gatherings (recently, 50,000 fans attended a Six60 concert in Auckland, and tens of thousands regularly attend sports events), life has been more or less normal for more than a year. Yes we are still encouraged to scan QR codes wherever they are displayed and to enable Bluetooth on our mobile devices to enable fast and effective contact tracing if necessary.

My observation has been that significantly less than 25% of the public bother to scan the QR code that is by law required to be displayed at all premises and locations open to the public. I have no idea what percentage of those who don’t bother to scan have the covid app and Bluetooth enabled on their mobile devices, but I’d be more comfortable about the ability for any future covid outbreak to be contained if more people took the the time to scan, especially in light of new variants that are highly transmissible. It literally takes only a second of your time to scan a QR code if you’re prepared. So why not do it?

Perhaps too many people here are a little too complacent about the potential dangers and have forgotten the effects of the lockdown in March/April 2020. If it wasn’t for the frequent overseas covid related news reports such as new variants appearing in some parts of the world and the dire effects such as has occurred in India, I suspect any thought I have about the pandemic would quickly fade into oblivion. It’s something that affects other nations, not Aotearoa New Zealand.

It is true that the quarantine-free travel bubble between this country and the various Australian states can be a bit hit and miss at the moment as covid still pops up over there from time to time. A bit like whack-a-mole. It’s enough for me not to consider travelling to Australia for the time being. What I find hard to fathom is why so many Kiwis feel they’re hard done by when they cannot return home without being quarantined, whenever an outbreak occurs over the ditch. It’s been made abundantly clear that the quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia is conditional on each Australian state being covid free, and that there is no guarantee that the situation in Australia will remain the same throughout their stay there. Are they unable to understand the risks or are they wilfully ignoring them?


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The Case for a Non-Commercial Public Broadcaster — Peter Davis NZ

Once again Peter Davis has reflected on a topic that has been on my mind for some time – public broadcasting in the online multimedia age. It’s a topic worthy of discussion particularly in light of the trend towards the polarisation of ideas and beliefs.

The Government recently established a working group to look at the possibility of establishing a new public broadcasting entity. At present Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is almost the only agency that adheres to a public broadcasting mandate largely free of commercial imperatives. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) is in public ownership, but in all but name […]

The Case for a Non-Commercial Public Broadcaster — Peter Davis NZ


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The case for autistic pride — Yenn Purkis Autism Page

For a great many of us on the spectrum, Autism Awareness day/month in April is less than helpful especially in the form promoted by Autism Speaks – a “support” organisation that definitely does not speak for Autistic people. Instead, Autistic Pride Day (June 18) is the day to show the world we are not inferior but just equal and different. I might have something more to say on the day that is more relevant to my personal experience, but here is a post by Yenn Purkis that I believe most neurodivergent people (not just autistics) can relate to.

Friday June 18 is Autistic Pride Day so I thought I would write a blog post all about autistic pride. Sometimes people say ‘why would you be proud? You can’t help being autistic. It just is.’ I think for members of marginalised groups, like Autistics, pride is a political act and a way of asserting […]

The case for autistic pride — Yenn Purkis Autism Page


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7 years

This morning WordPress reminded me that it is seven years ago today that I opened a WordPress account. I’m not the most prolific writer by any means. My posts occur at erratic intervals – sometimes weeks and occasionally months between posts. Over all, I have averaged one post every 5.1 days. Meanwhile most of the WordPress posters I follow post daily and quite a number post several times every day!

I don’t know about other WordPress users, but if I were to count all the words I’ve used in my posts and compare that to the number of words I’ve used in comments, I suspect that words in comments would outnumber words in posts by at least 2:1. I confess it’s much easier for me to comment on what others say than to convert my own ideas, concerns and joys into meaningful posts.

Even when I have something I would like to share, putting into words is never easy – it comes from not thinking with words. The fact that I currently have 73 drafts in various stages of readiness for publication, some dating as far back as five years ago, perhaps illustrates the difficulty I have in organizing my thoughts in a way that might be intelligible to others. I recently purged a great many drafts that were specific to a particular event, and I still have a few that should go as the moment for their publication has passed. But who knows, the way history repeats itself, especially with politics, perhaps a few drafts might become relevant again soon – very soon in the case of US politics.

I still have followers from my first months of blogging and especially to them but also to all my followers, thank you for taking a a few moments of your time to read the personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind.