Tuesday, October 27, 2015

When technology crushes do-it-yourselfers

Stew prides himself in his supernatural do-it-yourself skills which permit him to repair things lesser humans would toss in the trash or the back of the closet. His brother Greg is even more confident of his technical abilities: He often buys things that are already broken, and really cheap, counting on being able to fix them and saving tons of money.

As a back-up strategy, Stew also saves all receipts and guarantees, so he can smugly send back to the manufacturer or retailer those rare items beyond his amazing mechanical talents, and demand a replacement, no matter how onerous the warranty requirements might be, such as "void unless you include the original sales and credit card receipts and a copy of your grandmother's birth certificate." Stew's got them all neatly filed, and more often than not he gets a replacement.

Then came the case of the LG smart phone, which he dropped sometime ago. The keyboard touch-screen went bonkers and would come up with the wrong letters or none at all, making it impossible to type any messages or even enter the password. In Chicago we went to a Best Buy store, where a lethargic "Geek Squad" member at the service desk declared the phone positively dead and gone.

Patient lying on the operating table; vital signs still hopeful. 
Stew would not give up. Back in Mexico he fiddled around until he discovered that, aha!, the keyboard would work if he held the phone upside down, which meant the entire screen wasn't dead, just the bottom half. Could that be fixed? Yes! he said to himself, and ordered a new screen—a "touch-screen digitizer"—from Guangzhou, China, via Amazon.com, for $9.19.

After a few days, he received a cheerful if mostly unintelligible email from someone in China, announcing the imminent arrival of the new screen. Indeed, it arrived in Chicago, and later in Laredo, in six days flat.

Must admit I became a believer when the cigarette pack-size package arrived, containing a new screen plus a set of nearly microscopic screwdrivers, smaller even than those you use to fix eyeglasses, everything you needed to replace the screen on a LG Nexus 4 smart phone—except instructions and a requisite hair dryer.

Stew found a thirty-five minute YouTube video that promised to guide him through the entire process. Let's go.

Stew's index finger and thumb on his right hand don't work properly, thanks to an incompetent Mexican "orthopedic surgeon" here—with a German last name but no German expertise—who bungled the operation to repair carpal tunnel syndrome.

It was up to me to do the surgery on the smart phone, with Stew yelling the instructions from the guy on the YouTube video, which I couldn't quite hear because the volume adjustment on his laptop doesn't work properly and, anymore, neither does my hearing.

Let's see. Pry the smart phone case open, carefully, with the tool provided, and then, using one of the tiny screwdrivers, remove nine screws, about a sixteenth of an inch long, if that. Set aside. Carefully peel back a printed circuit, onion skin-thick and then another. Using tweezers, not provided, unplug a connection at the end of a wire, about as thin as a human hair. Careful now.

With all the pieces spread on the desk, always being careful not to sneeze, you wonder how human beings, even very tiny Chinese factory workers with eagle eyes, magnifying glasses and tiny fingers, assemble these things. Some of the pieces had what looked like Chinese characters, presumably the initials of some quality control person.

After forty-five minutes, this intervention became as nerve-wracking as a vasectomy on a chipmunk, though, astonishingly, it seemed to proceed according to the YouTube video.

The beginning of the end: In comes a hair dryer. 
 "Now you need a hair dryer," Stew said, echoing the YouTube instructor. The hair dryer was supposed to heat the malfunctioning screen to an unspecified temperature that would cause it to peel back from some sort of sensor panel to which it was attached.

"Shit". A fateful last word, uttered by me or Stew, I can't remember. Doesn't matter. The screen didn't peel back properly and the sensor panel shattered, though we also noticed that, anyway, the wires dangling from the replacement didn't match those on the old screen or the picture on the YouTube video.

Stew wouldn't give up—I can't imagine what he was pondering—and so he left the whole mess of wires, circuit panels and tiny screws lying on the desk, as if waiting for a visit by the Angel of Technology.

"Should have done what ninety-nine percent of smart phone users would have done," I said snarkily.

"Which is?" Stew asked.

"Throw the damn thing in the trash and buy a new one," I said.

Which is what we ended up doing, and we now own shiny new Samsung 6 Galaxy smart phone. It has a panoply of features we've just begun to explore. Fingerprint and voice recognition, plus automatic this and that and the other. Don't ask how much it cost, because I won't tell you.

Meanwhile, Stew now has moved on to the solar-powered, motion-activated LED light by the entrance gate, which doesn't seem to work. He mumbled about fixing it until he discovered we bought it nine months ago and it carries a two-year warranty.

And when that's on its way back to the manufacturer, he'll need to check the weather station on the roof which has been registering zero m.p.h. winds and no temperature, for several days. I think it's broken.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Memorial for someone we didn't know

Sally lived in San Miguel but, for Stew and me, she was a bedridden unknown. We inquired about her periodically, but her brother Doug, one of our best friends here, would only mutter, predictably, "Oh, she's about the same."

Sally, 77, died on September 28 from the multiple sclerosis that had kept her barely conscious, in a special room set aside in Doug's house, for the past twelve years. It wasn't until two weeks ago, when we attended an ad hoc, but deeply moving memorial sendoff, consisting of a brief service at a Catholic church followed by a rousing fiesta at Doug's house serenaded by a mariachi band, that we got to know Sally, however fleetingly.

By the entrance: Mariachi fanfare for Sally.
For years, Sally didn't, couldn't, say much. But during her last moments somehow she communicated her appreciation for all the extraordinary love and attention she had received from Doug and his wife, as well as the team of Mexican caregivers who looked after her, round-the-clock.

She mouthed a last-minute "thank you" to Doug minutes before she died. Even Sally's husband Hans, who died in 2000, may have returned to bid her good-bye too.

Neither Sally nor Hans could talk, but somehow each got a few last words in.
We met Doug Lord and his wife Brianne ten years ago at a yoga-for-geezers class in San Miguel and soon became fast friends. None of us drinks. We're all liberal Democrats, the Lords from the San Francisco area, us from Chicago, and we can hoo-hah, or at times groan, endlessly about he foibles of Republicans. We gossip, schmooze and laugh over lunch or dinner for two hours or more, and walk away confident there's plenty conversation left for the next get-together.

Sally's memorial rites were held on October 11 at Las Monjas, one of San Miguel's most beautiful churches, which gets its informal name because of its attached cloistered convent. The services were arranged by Oscar Peña, who runs the home-care service that looked after Sally, and was attended by him, his wife and a few of the other caretakers, plus about twenty-five expat acquaintances.

Neither Doug nor Brianne, nor I suspect most of the other Americans in attendance, were Catholic, and so the young priest wisely dispensed with most of the normal church liturgy for the dead and improvised a set of readings—in Latin and Spanish—that were unintelligible to all but the Mexican attendees yet stirred everyone with their simplicity and cadence.

Recalling Sally's Life: Doug speaking,
Oscar to his left, Brianne sitting. 
As if for added dramatic effect, the priest, in his mid-thirties, read and sang the readings in a high and resonant tenor that echoed throughout the church and was met by the distant responses of soft female voices, presumably coming from cloistered nuns huddled behind the grille in the church's choir loft.

From what I could understand of the five-minute sermon, it was a matter-of-fact exhortation, light on hell-and-damnation, and more along the lines of, "life is a limited engagement, folks, and we'd better enjoy it while we can."

A serious teenage boy clad in white and red vestments, hanging about ten inches above his white sneakers, went around and collected donations. The half-hour service concluded with the priest sprinkling holy water on the container holding Sally's ashes, which rested on a small stand by the communion rail at the front of the church.

At the end, Stew sat there speechless for a minute or so and, visibly moved, turned to me: "I don't understand any of this Catholic stuff, but I want something like this when I go."
Sally and Hans Saxer both worked in the San Francisco area, she as a secretary and he, a hulk of man who was born in Switzerland, as a loan officer at a bank. Doug commented he was a thrifty guy who probably owned only one pair of shoes.

In some ways, their love affair was as unconventional as the memorial service. They dated for seventeen years and finally got married in 1987, about the time when Sally began to show the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, an incurable disease that causes the body's immune system to attack a sheathing of the nerves in the brain and spine, and leads to loss of muscle control and other basic body functions. It often starts with problems walking that turn, as it did in Sally's case, into paralysis.

Shortly after their marriage Hans took Sally on a month-long trip to South America. But tragedy struck again years later when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He died in 2000.

By this time, Sally, incapable of taking care of herself, was moved to a nursing home in Oakland, where she stayed for three years.

Then Doug and Brianne, planning to retire in San Miguel, faced the quandary: What are we going to do with Sally?

For Brianne, it was no quandary. "We're taking Sally with us to Mexico," she said.

So in 2003 they booked a flight to Mexico for the three of them on Allegro Airlines, a Mexican airline now out of business. Sally, wrapped in a heat-saving "space blanket," was loaded onto the plane by the flight crew, and brought down at León Airport near Guanajuato, by another crew of six Mexican guys who also carried on as if this was a routine movement of passengers, Brianne recalled.

She said that gesture, and the care Sally received later, left her with an indelible memory of the kindness of Mexican people.

Sally settled into her own room at Doug and Brianne's home, where she was cared for by a team of nurses and caretakers led by Oscar. Once a week, Dr. Jorge Martínez, long revered locally not only for his medical skills and attention but also his looks—some of his American women patients call him "Dr. Gorgeous"—checked in on her every week.

Life of the fiesta: Mini-mariachi with a maxi-voice.
Doug said he couldn't imagine more attentive care at a nursing home in the U.S., where even twelve years ago, the fees ran at $7,000 a month for a shared room plus incidentals, and the doctor came around only once a month.

Indeed, Sally's stay in San Miguel was a mixture of the tragedy of a lingering, terminal illness and the blessing of the personal attention she received, as if she had been a family member, from Oscar and the Mexican care team.

Ever attentive, Oscar arranged for the service at Las Monjas Church and hired a mariachi band—one of the best I've ever heard—to play during the farewell brunch at Doug's home. The celebration was a mixture of somber, sometimes tearful, stories about Sally's last days, and the festive blaring of trumpets, violins and singing. An amazing solo by a boy, about ten years old, dressed in full mariachi get-up, capped the celebration.

Sally didn't die alone. During her last few hours she slipped in and out of a coma. She was almost pronounced dead by Dr. Martínez only to rally a couple of hours later. When Doug was summoned to her room for the last time, she opened her eyes, looked straight at him and mouthed a silent good-bye.

Two of the Mexican nurses later reported that during those last few days they had individually, and on two different occasions, witnessed a large and distinct silhouette of a person—a palpable presence they said—standing by Sally. Could it have been the hulking Hans, stopping by to pay his final respects?

Even Doug, an avowed non-believer, nodded as he told that story.