Experimenting With Pirate Audio

The Problem:

I have an old radio that I want to refurbish and make into a streaming internet radio. Sure, I could just throw it away, but I’m not that wasteful. My uncles fixed radios and televisions, and they lost more and more work when electronics started getting cheap and people just threw them away instead of taking them to get fixed. I saw how they worked with soldering and reading schematics. I went with them to electronic stores to look for rare components that someone inevitably had to order from Taiwan via “a friend in California.”

The Solution?

After experimenting with a Raspberry Pi 4, I found out that a smaller version, the Raspberry Pi Zero W, would do the job of taking on a piece of software to stream the music and output it via a sound card. Then I did some more digging and found that MusicBox was based on Mopidy, a very customizable software package that allowed for music to be streamed via the Raspberry, but I still needed either a sound card or a module that allowed for sound to be converted into something that could be connected to a speaker.

That’s where the Pimoroni Pirate Audio cards come in. They’re pre-made modules that connect to the Raspberry Pi (any size) via the GPIO connection and output audio to speakers or headphones. They also have a neat little LCD screen that lets you see what you’re playing and the album art. Finally, they have four buttons to control the music playback and the audio.

To the rescue!

Ingredients:

  1. Raspberry Pi Zero WH: The smallest, simplest Raspberry Pi computer. The WH tells you that it has wireless (WiFi and Bluetooth) and a header. You can also get a W model, but you’ll have to solder the header yourself. I’ve only started experiment with soldering, so I’ll hold off on doing that for now.
  2. Pimoroni Pirate Audio DAC Line Out LCD module: A small module that includes a 1-inch by 1-inch LCD screen to show album cover and other information. It also has four buttons to help you control playback and volume. (The buttons are customizable. You’ll see what I mean below.)
  3. 3.5mm cable to connect from the DAC to a speaker. Other DACs can connect directly to speakers or to headphones. This one is a “line out” to a powered speaker with a 3.5mm jack. If you connect to speakers, you’ll need an amplifier if they’re not powered. (The Pirate Audio Stereo Speaker Amp does have enough power for two small 3W speakers.)
  4. Micro SDHC card (with an adapter to plug it into your personal computer). This will run the Linux operating system on the Raspberry Pi and store any MP3 files you may have.
  5. Micro USB power cable and power supply, 5 volts, 2.5 amps. (Some suggest getting something slighter more than 5 volts because the system will begin shutting down if the power drops too much below that. (Not all power supplies are made the same.)
  6. A personal computer to install the files into the SDHC card and to connect to the Raspberry Pi via terminal because we’ll be installing a “headless” Linux distribution.
  7. OPTIONAL: PiSugar battery supply. This will make the system even more portable.
  8. OPTIONAL: A Spotify Premium subscription. This is to stream music without interruption. Spotify also has podcasts and other audio. You don’t need it, but it is nice to have, and they are offering a free 3-month trial to see how you like it. It’s then $10 a month after that.

The Plan:

Install the software and hardware on the Raspberry Pi Zero WH and customize it to my needs. Then gut the old radio and find a way to fit the Pi inside. The Pirate Audio card with the amplifier and the two little speakers (speakers sold separately, and make sure you get 3W ones) should do the trick, and I don’t have to worry about a separate amplifier and/or power source for the speakers. One power line in should do the trick.

The Process:

First, I used the Raspberry disk imager to load the Raspbian Lite (a Linux distribution) image on the micro SD hard. I used an 8 GB card, which is plenty big for what I’m doing. You may want to have a bigger card if you’re also going to be loading a ton of MP3 files. You can load the full distribution, which you can then connect and control with a keyboard, mouse and monitor. I used the “Lite” version and just SSH into it via my Mac.

Next, I followed the instructions in this great blog post after trying several times to follow the instructions in the official Pimoroni site. If I followed the official instructions, which tell you to use a full Raspbian distribution, I ended up with an empty screen. I think that something in the latest Raspbian update interferes with how the display works. The lite version gave me no problems.

Next, over on the official instruction site, I followed the instructions to get the credentials for Spotify. If you don’t want to use Spotify, that’s fine. I signed up for the free three-month trial just to see how it would work. I mostly will use this to play my music with airplay (more on that later), and I tend to listen to online radio stations anyway.

Alright, so far, so good. Next, I went over to this GitHub project and followed the instructions to make the play button be a shutdown button. Instead of the automatic setup, I followed the instructions for the manual setup and copied the code for the buttons to be turned into a shutdown button. Now, because I used the lite version of the operating system, it was necessary for me to install “gpiozero” from this other site. What gpiozero does is set up the GPIO connectors to do different things. In this case, the code for the shutdown button inherits some of the functions from gpiozero:

from gpiozero import Button

I did have to do some searching around because it seemed that gpiozero was not being installed correctly. One suggesting that worked was to run the uninstallation code for both the Python 2 and Python 3 versions of gpiozero and then reinstall it.

Finally, to make it all work like I wanted, I installed a few extensions from the Mopidy site. In my case, I installed the mobile browser controls to control it all from my phone, the TuneIn extension to listen to online radio stations, and the Autoplay extension so that the player will start at the last station I was listening to before I shut it all down.

There is one more bit of software that I decided to try, called Shairport-Sync. With it, I was able to get a signal on my iPhone telling me that the Raspberry Pi was available for me to stream the audio I was listening to on my phone. However, if something was already playing, that something was not being interrupted for the new stream. If something was not playing, the stream would be played just fine, but the radio (or Spotify) data stream would not come on after I finished streaming to the device.

(Please note that after each step above, I went through a reboot of the Pi to make sure everything that needed to be shut down for the next bit of code was indeed shut down.)

Yet to be worked on:

  1. When disconnecting the speaker, the system hangs and the music will not restart. I may need to do some coding with the Autoplay extension.
  2. Adding an on/off shim and some code to make sure the Raspberry shuts down completely and cleanly, so I don’t corrupt the files. I think the solution with the play button works, but I want to get this device into a case and install a button on the case itself. Besides, the only way to wake up the Pi right now is to disconnect and reconnect the power, so that button will come in handy for that, too.
  3. Some people have been able to create custom artwork for the stations they like and used that instead of the boring default artwork that comes with the radio stream.

Backing Up Your Work

Because so much time is spent on figuring out the configuration settings, you might as well create a back up of your work in case something goes completely wrong. (This happened to me a few times, where I added something new to the configuration, and I ended up killing something else.) It also helps if you keep notes on what you’re doing.

To back up your disk, just follow the directions on this blog post (and make sure to look in the comments section on how to give your computer permission to read/write the disk). If you’re running Windows, then follow these instructions. The Raspberry Pi official site also has these instructions, which use more of the terminal command to get the job done.

In Conclusion

At the end of all this, I have a handy little device that I can connect to any old speaker, and I hope to be able to integrate it into the old radio. If that works, I’ll probably do more coding and then some soldering to get some on/off switches on it, and a switch that changes the station. So stay tuned for that… And, as always, thank you for your time.

The Technology You’ll Love

I’m writing this on an Ubuntu Linux machine. The machine is a Raspberry Pi 4. I had heard about the Raspberry Pi machines a while ago, but I didn’t really get interested until recently. I’ve been picking up more and more little projects to do during downtime since the weather has been getting colder and the pandemic restrictions make it harder to go out and do stuff like museums and public places with the toddler. I still get my workouts in — swimming in the morning before the sun comes out — and I still write and do other creative things. However, I’ve decided to take that creativity into technology.

Setting up Ubuntu Linux on the Raspberry, and wiring it all so I can access it while working on other stuff on my desk and so it can share the screen with my Xbox. One flip of a switch, and I can go from playing video games to editing code on the Raspberry (or writing a blog post). And I have my Mac monitor on a floating arm, so the desk is completely free. To top it all off, my writing desk is completely free for me to sit and read, write, and catch up on stuff.

This is not the first time I’ve started technology projects like these, of course. When I was a kid, mom bought me an old Commodore computer. She saw it at a Goodwill store, and she bought it for me to play with. It came with a phone modem, some game cartridges and some books. After trying out a few things, I was able to hook it up to our television and play a few games. Then I took out the books and read up on some coding. There was BASIC, and C++, most of which I’ve lost by now. I do remember how to decipher the syntax and understand it. Now, I’m not shy about taking on some coding project, even if I don’t know the language.

Google helps a lot, too.

As I see my daughter grow up, I wonder how she will relate with technology since it permeates her entire life. There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos all around her, and she loves sitting and watching cartoons on the television or the iPhone or the iPad. I have no doubt that she is going to be coding soon, way sooner than I ever did. And I hope she comes to see technology as a tool to be mastered, not a master to rule over us. (Easier said than done, given how much I see children and teens getting addicted to their devices… Or, rather, addicted to the interactions and “experiences” their devices bring.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to figure out how to refurbish an old radio with a music streaming Raspberry Pi project.

Quarantine Shmarantine! Pandemic Edition

Six years ago, I told you all about how quarantines don’t really work in practice. They work in theory just fine, but human nature in all of us make us violate quarantine almost inevitably. We just don’t like being told what to do as a society. We also get scared of contagion if we are feeling fine but are in a place where people are sick. You see that even in the most collectivist of societies.

Here we are now, six years later and in the middle of a full-blown pandemic of a respiratory pathogen. In a matter of weeks, this novel coronavirus traveled from Wuhan, China, to the far reaches of the globe. The result has been millions infected and millions dead, mostly because humans decided to not follow public health guidance. People just had to travel out of China, and then they had to travel all over the world. And now, because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Americans just have to travel to see their families.

Some of the people I follow on social media are justifying their decision to travel to and meet with a lot of friends and family is that they’re doing it for their children. They say that they don’t want to ruin the holidays for their children, or that they don’t want to break with tradition. They value those traditions over life, and that both confuses and scares me.

It confuses me because I know that they are not uneducated people who would get confused by topics like Germ Theory, or who would not fully understand the myriad of health recommendations they’re being bombarded with every day. Many of them are professionals in the medical and scientific fields, yet they’re inexplicably tied to tradition.

If we were to stick to tradition, we wouldn’t have Germ Theory. I’m just saying.

Think about from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know better, and you’ll see how Germ Theory is actually quite complex a theory. How can we expect someone who has never looked into a microscope or grown bacteria in a Petri dish to understand what microbes are and how they cause disease? If we are still stuck thinking that amulets protect from disease, what can we expect of mask mandates or recommendations to wash hands?

This is a heck of a time to be in Public Health. As a public health worker, I find myself going up against political interests, divisiveness, ignorance, science denialism, and social barriers to health that are enormous and difficult to move. We’ve been responding to the pandemic for more than 300 days now, with only ten days off since. “Burn out” doesn’t even begin to describe what I’ve seen happening to some of my colleagues, and I’m convinced that they would be better off had they had the full support of the government and the politicians.

But no, no, no. We had to go and politicize the heck out of it all. Wear a mask? You’re sheep. You’re a socialist. Don’t wear a mask? You’re an idiot. You’re a bigot. Want a vaccine? Socialist! Don’t trust public health recommendations? Hillbilly. And so on, and so forth. And all of that politicization has made it almost impossible to get people to quarantine when exposed or isolate if they test positive. They don’t believe what we tell them, and they go out and about into the community, infecting others and leading us straight into the next wave of COVID-19 activity.

We have been trying quarantine since the times of the plague, and people still break them. We might even try it again with the next pandemic, or the one after that. I’m not very convinced it will work, especially if it is recommended/ordered/enforced in the context of a divided public opinion on something as basic as Germ Theory. But one can hope, right?

In Medias Res, Part III

It’s almost three in the morning, and I’m driving toward Alice’s apartment. Part of me was tired over the adventure from a few hours ago, but the other side of me wanted to make sure that Alice got home safely. I assumed she was home because she was nowhere to be found when I went back to get my car after helping Tom out with the cowboys. However, as I was driving, I began wondering if I was wrong.

Nightlife in Juarez is weird. There are certain areas that are bustling with activity, especially those close enough for Americans to cross over and spend their dollars. The rest of the town is generally quiet… At least it was that way when I lived there. Since then, the escalation from the federal government in their war on drug cartels meant that several cartels fought, killed and took over Juarez as a prime gateway for transporting drugs into the United States. As soon as one cartel took over, another one would come along and stir things up.

Not so when I was living there. Yes, there was plenty of drug-related violence, but one cartel owned the city, and they made sure to also take their cut from the tourism industry. As I told the soldier, if he had gotten hurt, many people would have been made to pay the price of scaring away Americans. So, I was not worried about Alice’s safety, per se. I was worried I’d never see her again if she thought I had ditched her.

I mean, I did ditch her, but it was for a good reason. Also, I was back at my car no more than an hour after I stepped out of the nightclub. Did she really leave that quickly? As I looked at the outside of her apartment and saw all the lights were off, I wondered if she had gone home early or if she never went home. Three thirty in the morning was way too late for me to go knocking on the door, or to call her.

It’s 1990, and I’m riding my bicycle in the empty streets of Aldama at three thirty in the morning on a summer night. I had three whole months off from school back then, and I made sure to enjoy all of them by staying with dad up in the desert mountains. Because there was absolutely nothing that I had to do on any given day, I stayed up late and woke up just before noon. It was very rare that I woke up any earlier than 8am, and that was only when we were going on some trip with the family.

As I’m riding through town, enjoying how quiet everything is, a truck pulls up behind me. It is the local cop and his one partner. They turn on the blue and red lights and drive up next to me. They ask me what I’m doing up so late at night. Before I can explain to them that I’m just out enjoying the coolness of the desert night — and the incredible stillness of a whole town being asleep — they tell me to go home. “I’m sorry, but is there a curfew?” I reply. The cop driving the truck just stares at me.
“You’re Francisca’s son, aren’t you?” he asks. I nod. He smiles. “Go home. Tell her the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

It’s the early 1970s, and mom is in middle school. She stands up in the middle of the classroom while the teacher is out of the room, and she begins delivering a monologue. It’s her way of getting out all the thoughts in her head, I guess. A few years later, she is told that she is to stay home and take care of my grandmother, just like all the youngest daughters do. She is having none of it, so she goes to my grandfather and has a chat with him about her ambitions. He gives her money for school. A few years after that, I’m sitting in a baby carrier next to her while she’s taking courses on the law. That, or one of her friends is taking care of me while mom is in class. A couple more years, and mom is a lawyer, someone who is very good at delivering arguments and defending her point of view. I learn from her all I can in that regard, sometimes to my detriment.

As I’m walking away from Alice’s apartment building and back to my car, a police car pulls up. They turn on their lights and step out of the car, one of them shining his flashlight in my face. Instinctively, I raise my hands away from my body and look at the ground. “Hello,” one of them says.
“Hello,” I respond.
“What are you doing out here tonight?” the second one asks. I start wondering how much of my story they’ll want to hear. How much would they believe?
“I’m checking in on a friend,” I reply. “She was out late with me, and I lost track of her. So, I came to see if she was home yet.” They both look at each other then approach me. They ask me for my ID and I very slowly pull out my wallet. They ask me where my friend lives, and I tell them her apartment number. They look over at the building and see that all the lights are off, though one of them turns on on a higher floor from Alice’s. I see a person looking out the window.

Two years before, one of my little cousins (a toddler at the time) picks up the phone and dials 911. “Daddy is gone,” he cries. The operator keeps him on the line while she contacts a nearby patrol car. “I miss my daddy,” he says. While this is happening, my aunt is in the backyard, hanging clothes to dry. Me? I’m in one of the bedrooms, sleeping off a long night. My cousin left her little boy with my aunt — her mother — and we’re the only three in the room.

In my slumber, I hear a couple of cars drive up close to the house. This startles me because the street is usually very quiet, and the cars really made a lot of noise. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door. When they knock a second time, I get out of the bed and walk to the front door. Then I hear a third, very loud knock. When I opened the door, two police officers were standing about five meters from the door, pointing their guns at the door. It took a second for me to process the image.

“Come out, slowly,” the first cop said. I slowly raised my hands beside me and opened the screen door, then I stepped out. “Turn around and walk backward toward me,” he said. I did. When he told me to stop, I felt him grab my hands and slap on the handcuffs. “Is anyone else in the house?”
“Yes, my aunt and my little cousin,” I said.
“And no one else?”
“No one else,” I said just as my aunt came out the door.

My aunt explains to them that it was just us three in the house as two other officers who had just arrived join the second cop and walk into the house. One of them then comes out with my little cousin in his arms. “This little guy called 911,” they explain to us. “He was looking for his daddy.” As everyone nervously laughs, I kind of smile at the cop and then signal that I’m still handcuffed. “Oh, right,” he says, and then he takes them off.

In some other universe, I’m laying dead at the doorway. I’m sure.

As I look at Alice’s apartment along with the two cops, one of them turns around and walks off talking to his radio. He’s running my name through their database back at headquarters. They won’t find anything. I don’t even have an outstanding ticket, and I still don’t to this day. As he comes back and informs his partner that I’m “clean,” Alice pulls up with friends in a car, slowly stopping a few yards away. “And there she is,” I say.

An hour later, Alice and I are sitting on the sidewalk. She’s chewing gum loudly, and leaning her head against my shoulder, looking up at the sky. You can hardly see any stars because of the light pollution around us. “So you just decided to chase them and help that guy, huh?”
“Yeah, I know. I know. It was stupid.”
“Heroic, though. You’re quite the boy scout.”
“Stupid boy scout,” I tell her.

We sit there for a few more minutes before I tell her that I have to go. She kisses me on the cheek, and I’m on my way. After that, I didn’t see Alice as much as before. We kind of just drifted away, and I didn’t blame her. I left her behind in a dangerous city when I went chasing the group that was chasing the soldier. I could have gotten hurt, and she would not have known what happened. This pattern repeats itself every two to three years with other relationships until 2006.

I never saw Alice after moving out of El Paso.

It’s three in the morning on a night in August 2006, and I’m leaving the apartment of a certain young woman. There is a ticket on my windshield because I parked in a spot that gets cleaned overnight. It was for $50, but it was worth hanging out with her and watching Eddie Izzard while laughing and getting to know each other. By eleven that same morning, I’m across the street from her apartment, paying the ticket. A couple of days later, we’re out on another date, and then another… And then another.

Two weeks later, we’re on a couple of swings at a playground at a nearby park. “So you’re almost done?” she asks.
“Yeah, I just have to work on my capstone project.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. I look up at the clear blue sky and take a deep breath then let it out. “Save the world, I guess?”
She smiles and says, “Then it’s time to get going…”

We got going.

In Medias Res, Part II

It’s 1992 and I’m a thirteen-year-old in high school. I don’t fit in with many of the groups in school because of my age and my background. I’m not smart enough to be part of the “nerds,” although I tend to earn good grades and get enrolled in advanced courses. I’m not athletic enough to be on any of the school’s sports teams, though I would later take up soccer. (But that’s a whole other story.) So, I hang around with a few kids who, like me, don’t fit into any other group. We sit at the front of the school during lunchtime and talk about cars and other mundane things.

One of those kids is “Gabe,” a kid who towers over me and is very socially awkward. He’s obese and wears glasses. He likes comics and hard rock music. But he’s alright, and he tolerates my existence. One day, while sitting behind him in English class, he tells me something — I don’t remember what — to which I reply with, “Your momma.” That was obviously a pressure point for him. He turned around and punched me across the face. My head snapped back, and I almost fell out of my chair. My eyes watered, and I remember a ringing in my head as he told me to never mention his mom again.

As cowboy number three hit me, it didn’t hurt at all. Surprisingly, he hit me much, much softer than Gabe did five years previously. The light I saw was from a car stopping just in time to not run all of us over. I used the cowboys’ distraction from looking at the car to kick number one in the face and punch number three in the crotch. And then I was gone, running down the street after the soldier, hoping he was running in the direction of the bridge.

Back in 1989, when we moved to El Paso from Mexico, I was surprised to see that the elementary school had a whole hour dedicated to physical fitness. We would go out to a dirt track behind the school and were made to run lap after lap for that whole hour. I remember those days well because we were given small paper strips for each lap that we ran, and we were allowed to collect them. Whoever collected the most strips, would get a prize. Once in a while, we would trade with each other to get the prize in exchange for, say, pizza at lunch.

I also remember those days because I was very sore the next day. I wasn’t the fastest, but I could run lap after lap without stopping, even in the hottest, driest days in the El Paso desert. I grew up running around or riding bicycles with my cousins, and I didn’t gain weight until college. Running for an hour was no problem, except for the next day. I’m sure the heat and the lack of water bottles back then did something to the muscles. As I was running after the soldier, I wasn’t focusing on my speed, just in keeping up.

Interestingly — or stupidly — he had stopped a couple of blocks ahead and was looking back to see what had happened. “What are you doing?” I asked as I was getting closer. “Move!” He turned around and ran slow enough for me to catch up and then sped up to match me.
“Thanks,” he said, somewhat out of breath.
“Thank me when we get to the other side,” I replied. I quickly glanced back to see three of the four cowboys about 100 meters behind us. “The bridge is just ahead.”

It’s 2000, and I’m turning 21 years old. I was old enough to drink on the American side of the border, and my friends at Ft. Bliss invited me over to the base for some midnight bowling. We bowled for a couple of hours, and they celebrated my birthday. After the bowling, we went to one of their homes on the base and continued the partying. We were up late into the following morning, and it was the best birthday party (though it wasn’t) that I ever had.

I lost track of all but one of my friends from Ft. Bliss after I moved to the Northeast. I met some of them in Virginia for their kid’s birthday, but then they were all redeployed all over the world after the September 11 attacks. Social media was not a thing, so we really didn’t have a way to stay in touch. I would only find one of them much later and mostly accidentally.

As we arrived at the booth to begin crossing the bridge, the soldier turned to me and thanked me for helping him by slowing down the cowboys. We saw one of the cowboys stop a few meters behind us. By then, we were in a very well lit area and there were Mexican cops around. “Look, do me a favor,” I said. “Next time you come over, don’t wear your BDUs. You stand out like a sore thumb as it is, and wearing these makes you look like an asshole.” He looked down at his clothes.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’m right,” I said. “You Americans come over with all that money and no one touches you because the criminal element has already told everyone to stay away. I more or less did this so that those kids wouldn’t get killed for doing something to you.”

We walked up and down the bridge, and I explained to him that organized crime had a firm grip on the touristy areas of Juarez. If they had done something to him, the boss of the area would have gone after them, and it would not have ended well for them. An assault of an American tourist — and a soldier, nonetheless — would have brought a lot of bad press and kept people from coming over. “I know you think this uniform protects you, and it does,” I said. “But it doesn’t protect them.”

I got home late that night and took a shower. I felt sweaty and icky, even with the weather as cold as it was. I wondered what happened to the cowboys, especially why there were three at the end instead of four. The one I punched in the crotch must have taken a while to recover. And then I broke down in a nervous laugh over how stupid I had been. Then, I remembered Alice.

It was 2 AM…

In Medias Res, Part I

It’s a cold night in 1997, and I’m running down the streets in Juarez, Mexico. There is a group of young men ahead of me, four in total, who are themselves chasing after one other young man. One of the four is carrying a metal pipe of some sort. I’m having a hard time keeping up with them because the man they’re chasing is very fast, and the four are huffing and puffing to keep up. I’m more than huffing and puffing because I’m trying to keep my wits about me as I plan what to do once I catch up to them.

Just a few minutes earlier, I was standing outside one of the many nightclubs within a few minutes’ walk from the Paso Del Norte bridge that leads into El Paso, Texas. The Paso Del Norte is one way, north, so a huge line of cars trying to get into El Paso waits on the Mexican side, and the line can get to be a few kilometers long. If you’re ever waiting there at night on a weekend, you can look both ways and see nightclubs and bars catering to the American kids who cross over because it’s legal to drink at age 18 in Mexico. Few of those kids, the dumb ones, will cross over wearing their BDUs from serving in the American armed forces at Fort Bliss.

That’s what the man running from the other four was wearing, boots and all. He stood out like a sore thumb when he went flying past me and up the street. He was obviously lost, with a bewildered look on his face as he looked back and forth while looking back to see his pursuers. “Well, this is new,” I thought. Then the four men, wearing cowboy boots and jeans, came flying soon after.
“I’m going to kill you!” one of them yelled, and the soldier sped up some more.

My first plan was to run across the street and get in my car and give chase, maybe pick up the soldier and take him to safety, but the line of cars waiting to cross the bridge was causing a traffic jam in the entire area. I would have never gone anywhere. My second plan was to run past the cowboys and run with the soldier toward the bridge and cross with him. The bridge was maybe three kilometers away, and I was in good shape from playing soccer all the time. I could do it. Then I thought of the pipe the one cowboy was carrying, and I wondered if the other cowboys were not carrying firearms.

I looked back at the nightclub where a few minutes earlier I had been dancing with Alice (not her real name) and wondered if she would be okay. I had only stepped out to get some fresh air since I was tired from being up since five in the morning and everyone seemed to have been smoking in the club. What if I didn’t come back? Then I remembered she had found several of her friends, and they were all dancing together. I figured she would be okay, and that she would forgive me once she heard why I left.

So I started running.

The soldier was definitely heading in the wrong direction. He was running west, deeper into the downtown area and parallel to the border. He would have to double back then go north, or go north and double back. In essence, he would have to outpace the cowboys for a long distance. With all of them wearing boots of some sort, I was sure that it was going to be interesting to see them go the distance. Then I remembered I was wearing dress shoes I changed into when we go to the club, leaving my sneakers in my car.

If you’ve ever seen one of those races where people wear the wrong shoes, this was going to be one of them, though we were all still putting all of our effort into it. Slowly and steadily, I caught up to the fourth cowboy. The look on his face was one of surprise as he looked at me and I looked at him. It was as if he couldn’t figure out why I was there. He definitely didn’t know who I was. I sped up just a little more and caught up to number three and number two. One was within reach.

One had a pipe in his right hand and was running full speed after the soldier. The soldier was running slower and slower, and he was running in a straight line. It was as if he had never seen those nature shows where the prey zigs and zags this way and that to get away from the predator. He was making it easy for the cowboys in their cowboy boots — and me in my dress shoes — to catch up to him. It would only be a matter of seconds before number one caught up to the soldier, and there was no way we could prevent it from happening before we doubled back and then north.

A couple of years earlier, I took self-defense courses that centered around Shotokan Karate. It was definitely not like the karate you see in movies. It was very fluid, with not as many punches and kicks as one would think. We had some lessons in what to do with people holding clubs or knives, maybe a baseball bat. But I certainly wasn’t dealing with one adversary. Number one had numbers two, three and four with him. I reminded myself to line them up so the other three would be behind the first. That way, I would only deal with one at a time.

Seeing that the soldier was slowing down more and more, and number one just about to catch up to him — to the point he was raising the pipe — I sprinted even faster and launched myself at cowboy number one, knocking us both to the ground. The pipe went flying under a car. As I looked up, the soldier stopped for a second and then kept running. “Run that way!” I yelled as I was trying to get up, pointing toward the bridge. He stopped for a second and then started running north.

“Who the hell are you?” asked cowboy number one. Two, three and four then soon caught up. Number two stood over me while number one held me by a leg. Number three then took a swing, and my world was filled with light…

The Flag You’ll Drape Over Your Shoulders

A friend of mine recently posted a neat picture of her husband and their children. In the photograph, her husband — who is a firefighter — is sitting on the back of a firetruck while their older child is on top of the truck, looking down at his dad. The husband is also holding their youngest — a newborn at the time — while both father and child are draped in the American Flag. From a photography point of view, it’s very neat.

From an American point of view, I assume that the photograph is deeply patriotic, especially in light of the events of September 11, 2001, when so many firefighters lost their lives responding to the terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon and Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. I write that I “assume” that the photograph is patriotic because I’ve never really felt a sense of patriotism to the degree that so many display.

A week ago, some young people in town decided to have a protest against racism and mistreatment of Black people by law enforcement. They were at a very busy corner in town, right off the interstate off ramp. They had banners and flags of all kinds, including the American Flag. Countering their protests were a group of people with flags with the name of the current President of the United States. They also had Confederate Flags and American Flags. To make things very confusing, the people protesting anti-racism (racists, I guess?) were chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”

You see, recent protests against racism and social injustice have weaponized the American Flag. On the one hand, people are kneeling during the National Anthem or the refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because they feel — backed up by plenty of evidence — that the United States of America are not living up to the ideals that the Flag is supposed to symbolize. People who take offense at people who want social justice have used the Flag as an excuse, saying that the protesters are being disrespectful to a flag that means the world to them.

When I was in high school, my economics teacher explained to us that he had no problem with fellow athletes who protested during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (He was on the 1972 US Olympic Basketball Team.) He said that, for him, the Constitution of the United States was more of a symbol of the country than the Flag. In a way, his views and his explanation of why formed my own opinion about flags in general.

You see, growing up on the border forced me many times to choose between my Mexican heritage and my American residence. When it came to soccer at the World Cup, I always supported the Mexican team, and I always will. That has caused friction with some people because they keep telling me, “You’re an American now. You need to support the American men.” As if who I cheer on in a sport somehow determines the level of my patriotism or duty to country.

They disregard that I signed up for selective service. They forget that I’ve been in public service for the great majority of my adult life. They shrug off that I’ve been to Puerto Rico on an outbreak response on behalf of the United States. (Puerto Rico is part of the United States, by the way.) Oh, no, my patriotism has been measured by what country I cheer for in the Olympics and in the World Cup.

Oooookay.

Even with Mexico, though, I’ve never really draped myself in that flag, either. When I was a child going to school in Mexico, I had to recite the pledge to the Mexican Flag, and sign the Mexican National Anthem. (I still remember the words to both of them.) But it was such a mechanical way of just doing something — like a church ritual, to be honest — that it didn’t mean much to me. And it was the same when we moved to the United States.

I suppose that if a bunch of epidemiologists were killed in some sort of catastrophe like 9/11, I would be a little more patriotic? Or if I had been indoctrinated into worshiping a flag since I was a small child? I don’t know. I just don’t know, and I probably never will. My parents made sure that I grew up to be skeptical of such things, learning from history how easy it is to slide from patriotism to nationalism. I mean… If you’re counter-protesting people who want less racism with the American Flag, then you’re probably almost to the nationalist end of the spectrum, right?

My patriotism usually manifests itself in the work that I do. My wife and child live in the United States. I live in the United States. We work in the United States. Our friends and relatives are in the United States… So of course I am going to do things that benefit and not harm the United States. At the same time, I still have family in Mexico, and several of my relatives living in the United States are undocumented immigrants from Mexico… So of course I’m going to worry about and do something about immigration policies between the two countries as well as economic development in Mexico.

It is not a zero-sum game to love more than one nation, or identify as more than one category, nationality or identity. So when people drape themselves in one flag, and do and say things with that flag as if that symbol is the only thing that matters, it confuses me. It confuses me for people to associate Freedom and Liberty with the US Flag and then want to enslave and discriminate against people — usually people of color. And it confuses me even more when the US Constitution clearly gives us the right to freely express our dissatisfaction with the government, and our own President threatens anyone who would burn the Flag to express their dissatisfaction with jail time.

Such weird times, these.

The Weight You’ll Gain and Lose

Back in 2003, I went through a serious relationship that tore me to shreds in more ways than one. I ended up in debt, heartbroken, asking myself if I was meant to be alone. Yes, I was 22 years old, but I still couldn’t help but think that maybe I was just not good at relationships. So I started running.

Image of a young woman wearing a white short sleeve shirt and jeans, standing by a vehicle and smiling.
I’d go on to lose the Jeep, too…

I started running because I was overweight, and I blamed my weight for not being able to attract the kind of women I wanted to attract. After all, who would want to date some slob, even if said slob was smart, driven and successful? I wouldn’t.

After a few months of consistent running and even doing some 5-kilometer races, one of the nurses at the hospital where I worked — a nurse that I fancied — asked me how much weight I was going to lose. At that point, I had lost several pounds and was feeling good about myself. That in itself translated to several dates that went well, though they didn’t develop into relationships.

Image of three men standing together and smiling at the camera as they're wearing racing bibs and sports clothing.
My first race: Frederick 5k, with Bob (center) and Steve (right)

The other thing that improved was my performance in the Master of Public Health program. (Not that it needed much improvement. I only got one B and the rest of my grades were As.) I was more energized and better able to handle working overnights and evenings and going to school during the day.

Image of a man crossing a finish line at a running event, wearing white shorts and a black tee shirt.
Not setting any records, for sure.

In late 2005 and early 2006, I met a girl from Philadelphia. She was fit and athletic, and I was really ready to match her fitness and try to take the relationship further. In an effort to impress her, I signed up for an “adventure race” and even dragged my younger brother into doing it with me. It was brutal.

Image of a man and a woman in an outdoor setting. He is hugging her as she shows a thumbs up sign. He is wearing a green shirt and bicycle gloves while she is wearing a white shirt. They both have backpacks on, and a lake can be seen in the background.

That all fizzled out, and nothing came from that relationship, but then the end of the summer of 2006 arrived. Fourteen years ago, exactly. I met the woman who would be my wife. While I kept running, I didn’t do it as much because I was in a steady and loving relationship. I was comfortable in my skin, and she was happy with me.

Image of a man and a woman smiling. They are both wearing hats, and there is a crowd behind them.

Sure, from time to time, we talked about my weight and how I should lose maybe 10% of my body weight just to be healthier. But that conversation would be thrown out and replaced with, “Oh, you’re doing important work, you should focus on that.” This was during the 2009 influenza pandemic. After that, the important work became getting into a doctoral program, then consulting, then going to Colombia, then going to Puerto Rico, then defending my dissertation, then becoming a father…

By the time January of this year arrived, I was at my heaviest weight ever. Let’s just say that the bicycle I had bought in 2016 — the last time I tried and succeeded at losing 20 pounds (ca. 9 kg) — could not be guaranteed to hold my weight anymore. As word of the coronavirus started coming out of China, I started to get a bit worried. My weight, my age and my work all put me at a high risk of contracting the disease and having severe consequences from it.

Image of a man standing at the threshold to a door. He has his arms crossed and is smiling at the camera. He is wearing a blue shirt. The sign to his door reads "Operation Spinnaker" and "Rene F Najera, 211.31" and there is an image taped to the side of the door with a man pointing at the camera and a caption reading, "Wash your hands!"
Some health department dude walked up and asked me to try and social distance from myself. True story.

Something inside me told me to get moving, so I did.

By February, I was hitting the pool in the mornings before going to work. I’d go for a jog when the weather was okay, and I’d get on the bike when I could. It wasn’t enough, though. There was something working against me, and I needed to deal with it… It was my addiction to food.

Image of an order of onion rings and a burger.
Dammit, onion rings. I cannot quit you.

As the pandemic arrived where I worked, we started working some very long hours. To help us out — in a sense — the leadership started buying us food. Lunches and dinners were guaranteed to be delivered, and they were guaranteed to not be healthy. We had pizza, burgers, fast food, bad Chinese food, okay Indian food, and lots of donuts and coffee. As much as I tried to swim, run and bike, I was not losing weight.

Image of a man standing in front of several boxes of food sitting on a table. He is wearing a face shield and a mask.
The chicken was delicious, though.

That’s when I decided to just change my habits. I put a sticky note in my car to remind me of where I wanted to be. I made a rule of not buying fast food to eat on the way home, especially after having had breakfast, lunch and dinner… A fourth meal that was high in calories and me sitting in the car would have to be no more.

I bought fruits to snack on instead of 100-calorie packs that would be consumed by the half dozen a day. Bananas are more filling, and apples are mostly water. Little by little, I started dealing with my addiction. I confessed to myself that I was addicted to food, that it was getting me through the stress of work, and that it was killing me. Then I convinced myself that, yes, I was going to feel hungry once in a while, but it was not going to be the end of the world.

Image of a banana in front of a white board. The white board has notes on it.
Brain Food

Since May, I’ve lost about 22 pounds (ca. 10 kg). I’ve been tracking what I eat, not eating while driving, and stopping at around 2,200 calories each day. For my weight, those calories are enough to ensure about 5 pounds (2.27 kg) of weight loss a month until I get back to the weight I was when I got married. That’s my first goal.

Image of a man wearing a bicycle helmet and smiling at the camera. Behind him is a little girl with her own pink bicycle helmet and smiling at the camera as well.
I have the cutest cycling partner ever.

Between now and then, I have some milestones along the way that are tied to some “carrots.” The first carrot was an Apple Watch, and that has even helped more because it helps me track my time sitting, my time moving, and my exercise routines.

Image of an Apple smart watch showing the statistics for a 1,041 yard swim done in 29 minutes, 12 seconds, burning 541 active calories and 624 total calories in 41 laps.
I would swim a thousand miles…

The next carrot is a new bicycle. I love the current bike that I have, but it is a steel frame old thing that is starting to show signs of wear and tear. It cost me 1/3 of its original price to get the brakes tuned and the chain derailleurs adjusted. The freewheel is getting sticky, and they just don’t make freewheels for it anymore.

Image of a bicycle front cog with a displaced chain.
I also did something to the chain.

The carrot after that? I don’t know. I need to get to the next level first… You see, that is another aspect of all of this. I had to learn to be patient. I had to accept that losing one pound one week and gaining half a pound in the following week. I had to learn to look at trends and not obsess over daily numbers.

Image of a graph showing a purple line with circle markers trending down and to the right. The letters D, J, F, M, A, M, J, J, and A are on the bottom axis of the graph.
Focus more on the averages, I say.

Perhaps the most important thing in all of this is that I need to continue on this path for the rest of my life. Like any other addiction, being addicted to delicious food — and some not so delicious but easily attainable — is a lifelong issue. I once lost 17 pounds (ca. 8 kg) in 2016 before I headed out to Puerto Rico, and I ended up gaining all of it back in 2017.

At that time, my physician said that it was okay for me to gain the weight back because I had to look out for my wife as she went through pregnancy. But I never did anything to get back toward a downward trend. I justified nervous eating with lack of sleep from raising the baby. Then I justified it by saying that I was helping her raise a toddler.

Image of a little girl walking away from the camera alongside a goose by a canal.
A toddler who loves to be active.

There are no more excuses. I’m a doctor of public health, and I need to walk the walk as I tell people that overweight and obesity are huge risk factors not just for COVID-19 but for all sorts of other things. I need to be fit and healthy to keep up with my daughter as she grows up into someone who will benefit from having fit and healthy parents. And I need to be around to see the exciting conclusion of this life fifty or sixty years from now…

So let’s do this.

Image of a man wearing a bicycle helmet and a green shirt. He is looking at the camera and sticking out his tongue.
Until the world turns upside down!

My Obsolete MacBook Pro

“You know,” I said to my wife, “I think I’m going to buy that new MacBook.” We were driving down the road to go grab something to eat. It was the summer of 2012. I was still working at the Maryland Department of Health, but I was picking up more and more side gigs writing. I wanted to have something a little more “robust” than the MacBook Air I had at the time. As much as I loved that computer for its portability, it had a very rough time keeping up with all the different programs that I used to edit documents, images and video.
“Who are you kidding,” my wife replied. “You already bought the son of a bitch.” She was right. I already had.

It wasn’t a cheap computer to buy, but I figured that I could write it off as a business expense since I was going to use it a lot for all the writing/editing gigs. And I did. It proved itself to be a good companion for those adventures, and then some. It traveled with me to Colombia and Puerto Rico. When dad got sick with colon cancer, it came along with me to Mexico. I wrote much of my dissertation on it when I traveled to and fro.

I have another MacBook Pro that is newer and more powerful, but it is strictly for work I do at home. Anything else I do on the go — and is not related to work at the health department — gets done on the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina DisplayA computer that just got designated as “obsolete” by Apple. I’m planning to keep it going as long as I can, hopefully until 2022. A ten-year-old MacBook? Who has heard of such a thing?

I mean, I have no doubt that someone has a running MacBook from 2006. It’s just kind of neat that this thing is now at eight years of age and runs modern software on it no problem. It can edit a video, albeit slowly. It can have several programs running simultaneously, albeit slowly. And it can take a beating… This aluminum construction is quite durable.

So, here’s to all the old things — and people — who have been deemed obsolete and the people who use them and make them contributors to the work that needs to be done every day. Here’s to the toys you bought to help you get your work done by making it easier and more enjoyable. And here’s to the women in our lives who can read us like an open book and know when we’ve already spent a good amount of cash on something. (How does that work?)

Most of all, here’s to midnight rants on your personal blog, illuminated only by the light of your retina display on a quiet night while the loves of your life sleep soundly.

Header image by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash

What You Need to Know About COVID-19 Right Now (mid-July 2020 Edition)

The Coronavirus Pandemic continues around the world and in the United States, with states in the American South and Southwest right now reporting the highest numbers of cases. While states in the North, Midwest and Northwest United States don’t have as many cases, cases there are still simmering, waiting for the reopening plans to go sideways and allow the virus to make a comeback.

Meanwhile, the entire country is locked in yet another social and political battle over school re-openings. Some school systems want to continue online learning. Others want full, in-classroom learning. Others want a mix of both types. And the people in the White House want a full return to classes, with seemingly nothing in between.

Good stuff.

The Coronavirus Continues to Be a Virus

One thing that has not changed about the coronavirus is that it is still a virus. It is still in a lipid envelope that can be disrupted through soap or alcohol sanitizers. Hand washing is still highly effective at preventing infection because hand washing washes away and kills the virus, reducing the chances that you contract it by bringing it into your nose, mouth or eyes through contaminated hands.

That dirty motherbleeper…

Contrary to what conspiracy theorists want you to believe, the virus is not some result of an experiment gone awry. It is no one’s Frankenstein monster. Based on the genetic analysis of the virus, it came about through natural processes. That said, many of those processes could have been avoided. The increased encroachment of humans into wild areas for housing, food and raw materials is a big concern. It causes what we call “spillover” events.

The virus is still relatively heavy and will not travel long distances on its own. This is why we continue to recommend social distancing of at least six feet (two meters). Because coughing, sneezing, yelling and singing can launch the virus further as it grabs on to your spit, mucus or cells, we also recommend cloth face masks. While they will not 100% protect you from infection, they will prevent you from launching the virus is you’re one of the many people who carry the virus asymptomatically.

Speaking of Symptoms

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were three symptoms we were focusing on: fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Since then, we’ve learned that there are a variety of other presentations of a coronavirus infection (COVID-19 is the disease caused by the infection). The definition of a case has changed to include more symptoms: body aches, chills, loss of smell, loss of taste, sore throat and headache. Of course, these symptoms alone don’t guarantee that you’re infected with the virus, so you need to see a healthcare provider if you or someone in close contact with you has had these symptoms.

Only a lab test can diagnose the infection.

Speaking of Lab Tests

There are now more lab tests available not only in the number of tests but in the types of tests. Initially, there were only PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests available to detect the virus RNA. Now, we have tests to detect the virus antigens (bits of protein or fat or sugar) on the virus surface. We also have tests for antibodies against the virus. Soon, there will be tests for immune markers other than antibodies that our bodies make against the virus.

We need to take all of these tests with a grain of salt, however. The PCR is still the “gold standard,” the test that if positive means you are infected and if negative means that you are likely not. If that test is positive, however, we do not know how infectious you are, or if you’re likely to develop the symptoms and complications — and now sequelae — of the infection. What we do know is that you need to go into isolation for at least ten days while your close contacts go into quarantine for fourteen days.

The other laboratory tests are still not quite there with regards to their sensitivity and specificity — the two measures by which a healthcare provider or public health practitioner can be certain that a positive is a true positive or a negative is a true negative. They’re either not there because their technology is new, or because — as is the case with antibody testing — the virus is new. There is some good evidence that antibody tests might be picking up antibodies against the other human coronaviruses and not this human novel one, leading to false-positive results.

But We Really Don’t Need Masks, Right?

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the allergic reaction to wearing masks. Some people say it is a form of tyranny, an overreach of government toward its citizens. Others believe that this pandemic is not happening, so wearing a mask in public would be an acceptance on their part that it is happening. Then there are those with, seemingly, a form of oppositional defiant disorder who don’t want to just because.

Whatever the case is, we need to understand that they are in the minority. Yes, they threaten the rest of us who decide to follow public health recommendations and wear masks, but we shouldn’t feel like we — the ones who follow reasonable recommendations — are the weird ones. You — yes, you — who follows recommendations, gets your children vaccinated, washes your hands… You’re the “normal” ones (for lack of a better term). We outnumber them.

There is no vaccine against the Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.

Speaking of a Vaccine

A vaccine against this coronavirus is still months away. Even with recent news that participants in a trial made a lot of antibodies after being vaccinated, there is no guarantee that those antibodies are specific enough to grant immunity… Or that they will be around long enough to allow us to reach herd immunity.

I’m not pessimistic about this, actually. I’m quite optimistic that we will have a good vaccine in 2021. It’s just that this rush to publish results by press release rather than peer review is going to get someone hurt. Not only might we end up with a Dengue vaccine-type of fiasco, but we could end up with people plunging a lot of money into a company selling vaporware when it comes to a vaccine.

Still, if you’re curious and want to track the progress of vaccine studies, check out this tool from The New York Times.

In Conclusion

So this is where we are right now. Cases on the rise in the South and the Southwest; the virus is still a virus that hygiene, cloth fase masks, and social distancing can defeat; a vaccine is months away, but it should be here in 2021; and you are not in the minority when you see so much attention being given to people who won’t listen to reason.

Let me know if you have any questions.