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January, 2021:

Proposal: A New Standard for Encloseable Small Computers

Monitors are getting big. Computers are getting small. I think I’ve mentioned this idea before: a cavity in a monitor big enough to hold a Raspberry Pi, with the monitor providing power, video display, and a couple of USB ports for connecting peripherals like mice, keyboards, and thumb drives. Several of my Dell monitors have a coaxial power jack intended for speaker bars, and a USB hub as well. I’ve opened up a couple of those monitors to replace bad electrolytics, and as with most computer hardware, a lot of that internal volume is dead space.

The idea of a display with an internal computer has long been realized in TVs, many of which come with Android computers inside. That said, I’ve found them more a nuisance than useful, especially since I can’t inspect and don’t control the software. These days I outsource TV computing to a Windows 10 Intel NUC sitting on the TV cabinet behind the TV.

The top model of the Raspberry Pi 4, with 8 GB RAM, is basically as powerful as a lot of intermediate desktops, with more than enough crunch for typical office work; Web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. With the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) and its suite of open-source applications, you’ve got a desktop PC. More recently, the company has released the Raspberry Pi 400, which is a custom 4GB RPi 4 built into a keyboard, with I/O brought out the back edge. (In truth, I’d rather have it built into a display, as I am extremely fussy about my keyboards.) Computers within keyboards have a long history, going back to (I think) the now-forgotten Sol-20 or perhaps the Exidy Sorcerer. (Both appeared in 1978.)

What I want is breadth, which means the ability to install any of the modern small single-board computers, like the Beaglebone and its many peers. Breadth requires standardization, both in the monitor and in the computer. And if a standard existed, it could be implemented in monitors, keyboards, printers, standalone cases, robot chassis, and anything else that might be useful with a tiny computer in its tummy.

A standard would require both physical and electrical elements. Electrical design would be necessary to bring video, networking, and USB outside the enclosure, whatever the enclosure is. (I reject the bottom-feeder option of just leaving a hole in the back of the enclosure to bring out conventional cables.) This means the boards themselves would have to be designed to mate with the enclosure. What I’m envisioning is something with a card slot in it, and a slot spec for video, network, i2s, and USB connections. (GPIO might not be available through the slot.) The boards themselves would have slot connectors along one edge, designed to the standard. The redesigned boards could be smaller and thinner (and cheaper) without the need for conventional video, network, audio, and USB jacks. (Network connectors are increasingly unnecessary now that many boards have on-board WiFi and Bluetooth antennas.) Picture something like the Raspberry Pi Zero with edge connectors for I/O.

Defining such a standard would be a minor exercise in electrical engineering. The big challenge would be getting a standards body like ANSI interested in adopting it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has the engineering chops, obviously, and once a standard has been created and proven out, groups like IEEE or ANSI might be more inclined to adopt it and make it “official.”

I understand that this might “fork” the small-board computing market between GPIO boards and non-GPIO boards. Leaving the GPIO pads on the opposite edge of the board is of course possible, and would allow the board to be enclosed or out in the open, or inside some other sort of enclosure that leaves room for GPIO connections. A big part of the draw of the small boards is the ability to add hardware functionality in a “hat” that plugs into the GPIO bus, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that there’s a market for non-GPIO boards that vanish inside some larger device or enclosure that provides jacks for connections to the outside world. The Raspberry Pi 400 is an excellent example of this, with GPIO header access as well. What I’m proposing is a standard that would allow a single enclosure device to be available to any board designed to the standard.

Ok, it would be hard–for small values of hard. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be well worth doing.

The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.