May 25 2016

3D model of the Elfin Forest Recreational Center visitor center

Published by under Drone imaging,UAV

This is my first attempt to do 3D virtual reality modeling with my drone… this model is a composite of about 90 images.

by DroneDeploy
on Sketchfab


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Jan 01 2016

Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve, 1/1/16

I took my drone out to Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve to show some of the traffic issues they are facing.  EFRR is a wonderful gem, a bit remote from most San Diegan’s thinking.  It is tucked away next to the Escondido Creek, just down creek from Harmony Grove.  The Visitor’s Center is designed by artist James T. Hubbell, a visionary artist/architect/poet/sculptor who has been instrumental.

Here is video of my drone hovering 400 feet over the visitor’s center for 10 minutes, sped up by a factor of 10.  In addition to illustrating the traffic at the center, it also illustrates the drone’s “tripod in the sky” capabilities.  It held its position very well, even though it was experiencing winds of 10-20 mph.

Here is an aerial survey I took, putting my quadcopter in autonomous mode.  I outlined the perimeter of area I wanted to survey on my iPad, then uploaded the flight plan to my DJI Inspire 1 drone.  It then flew a zig-zag pattern, taking photos at strategic times.   I then stitched together these images, and orthorectified them into a single image using the GPS information included in each image.  (The drone also uses the Russian Glossnas GPS equivalent, so it was tracking its positions with 15-18 satellite fixes).   These images are integrated with a base map, allowing us to zoom in and around the image.  (Here is the full screen image)

Here is a three dimension view of the terrain, which you can move around:

I flew along Elfin Forest Road to show the cars parked in nearly every available spot along the road, the visitor center, and the overflow parking area. (This video was shot in 4K Ultra High Definition mode)

These were all taken with my DJI Inspire 1 Unmanned Aerial System, tail number N3377B.

And here is a short film I made, interviewing visitors to the reserve.  I worked with Kevin MacLeod who did a custom composition “Elfin Forest” for this film.


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Jul 18 2015

What does Pluto look like from Earth?

When I host star parties, one of the most enjoyable experiences is to introduce people to Saturn for the first time –  “Saturn Virgins” they are called.  People oooh! and ahhh! and walk around to the front of the telescope to see if I’m fooling them.  The can’t believe that the solar system appears with such 3 dimensional depth and reality.

This is inevitably followed up with “let’s look at the other planets.”   Jupiter is pretty cool, and occasionally shows moon shadows moving across it.  Mars and Venus can be very bright, but Neptune and Uranus are just small dots, barely discernable as disks instead of single dots (as stars look).

But Pluto is a different story.  Besides its demotion from planet to minor planet (a topic which generates immense debate, but which I’m firmly an agnostic), it is really far away.  It is only visible with light reflected from the sun.  The light from sun diminishes according to the inverse square law.  If a planet is 10 times as far from the sun as another, then it gets 1/100th the light.  But that is just the light falling on Pluto.  That light has to reflect and come back to Earth, which is another inverse square law relationship, which makes it an “inverse power of 4” law.  Moving a planet twice as far away makes it 1/16th as bright.   Pluto is very far away, as far as solar system metrics go.  It takes light about 4.5 hrs to go from Pluto to earth.  Kuiper Belt objects become very dim, very quickly.

I have a scale model of the solar system in my back yard.  I shrunk the sun to the size of a golf ball. To scale, Earth is then 12 feet away.  Pluto is 330 feet away.  This is seriously Far Away with Not Much In Between.   And the light we see from Pluto is Magnitude -14 – requiring a serious telescope to see.  Pluto is about 1 million times dimmer than Saturn.

Just before the New Horizons encounter with Pluto, I took some time lapse images of Pluto moving across the sky.  It was impossible for me to see the spacecraft, and even detecting Pluto was a challenge.  I set used my backyard observatory, the Cosmos Research Center, to photograph the sky around Pluto.  This is what I saw:



This image is about 1 degree wide, about as wide as your index finger held at arm’s length.  For those of you who can’t see Pluto yet, here is a close up, showing a zoom area around Pluto:


And for those of you who are still missing Pluto, here is a closeup showing the motion of Pluto over 4.5 hours – the same time that it takes for New Horizons to send information back to Earth.  Pluto’s motion is shown as a sequence of dots, making a thin line across the middle of the frame.  This shows were Pluto was when New Horizons sends a message (on the left), and where it is when we receive it (on the right).


And here is an animated image, showing the motion of Pluto over 4.5 hours.  Look in the center for the dot moving across the image.  If New Horizons sent a message while at the left most point in the motion, Earth would see it at the right most point.


And here is an interview I recorded with Dave Jewitt, the astronomer who discovered the first Kuiper Belt Object beyond Pluto.

I would like to thank Bill Warden, Orange County Astronomers,, for his help in processing these images.




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Sep 13 2014

Cosmos Research Center is now an official Minor Planet Observatory

Published by under Uncategorized

My backyard observatory, the Cosmos Research Center, has been officially certified by the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomy Union.  I am now observatory U79.

I have a modest telescope set up on homemade concrete pier in my back yard, and use an Orion Atlas EQ-G mount controlling a Williams Optics 110mm F7 APO Refractor telescope.  I use an SBIG SFT 8300C camera, with a Starlight Express Lodestar guider.  The mount is controlled by EQMOD and Maxim DL, and I do my astronomic analysis using Pinpoint.


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Aug 12 2014

Interview in Fedscoop about Chuck Hagel and the Underground Railroad

Here is an interview from FedScoop that captures a lot of the dynamics of the VA and DoD health care systems.

I get a kick out of seeing Chuck Hagel’s wry smile at 2:06 in the attached video, where he can’t quite admit to Congress that he is a card-carrying member of the VA MUMPS Underground Railroad.




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Aug 12 2014

Experience with the Kaiser/Epic Scheduling System

Published by under Heath IT,VistA

With all the attention given VA Scheduling nowadays, I thought I’d relate some of my experiences with a commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) scheduling program that I use as a Kaiser Permanente member.  Kaiser has a multi-billion dollar agreement with EPIC systems, who provide their MyChart patient portal system.

Bottom Line: Even COTS software does not necessarily lead to happy patients.  The Kaiser scheduling system is seriously messed up.  Figuring out when to call the central 800 number, the department, or submit an online request is quite a frustrating challenge.  And trying to book an online appointment for optometry, for example, is nearly impossible.

Here is what it looks like to do an online optometry appointment request.

First you have to choose a facility:


provider step 0

So far, so good.  I chose the Carlsbad offices.  The fun begins on the next screen, where I have to choose specific providers.   I can’t ask for “any” provider, nor can I just ask for the next available appointment.  I have to choose 1-3 providers specifically, and I have to choose a specific date range:

kaiser step 1

After about a dozen attempts to figure out providers and dates, I keep getting the same message:

Kaiser screen 2


No other feedback, just try again.  When I go back, I don’t see the providers or dates I tried, just blank fields to try again.  There are no hints, no “next available appointment” slots, no Help tab, customer support access, or ability to browse.  Just a blank screen to try again.

So, I had to call their 800 number to wade through the key presses to select my language, listen to a “this call may be recorded” message (multiple times), then select my way though the appointment menu.  Depending on the particular clinic, I might get routed to another 800 number to call.  Some appointments I can make directly with my provider, others through the department, others through the central service.

Of course, the problems with the VA scheduling system are far more serious than what I describe here.  But this also shows that, even with billions of dollars of software expenses and Commercial Off The Shelf products, things can be far from perfect (or even usable).



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Jul 09 2014

Underground Railroad and Indian Tomahawk Express Cards from Clayton Curtis

Published by under Uncategorized


Clayton Curtis Card

I got these photos of some of the original membership cards issued to Clayton Curtis, MD, who is currently with the VA’s Health Informatics’ Knowledge Based Systems as well as the VHA-Indian Health Service Interagency Liaison for Health IT Sharing.

Long story to be told here, but the bottom line is that the VA and the Indian Health Service have been collaborating for 30 years now, while DoD worked really hard to make its systems incompatible.  I was an informal consultant to the IHS while I was at the VA, and found them to be a very dedicated, but underfunded, agency.  So, the cooperation made a lot of sense.

When I went to work on the DoD version of the software (called Composite Health Care System), things were completely different.  They stripped out the communication capabilities I wanted to use to coordinate systems, and made other changes that would make the DoD version incompatible with the VA.

I wish this could be written off as ancient history, but I don’t think so.  DoD is continuing to do its thing with an $11B “rip and replace” waterfall effort, while VA seeks to take an evolutionary approach.

There has to be a better way.  For starters, the folks in Washington should recognize the power of informal organizations active in their formal organization charts.


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Jun 09 2014

The Dangers of Traffic Gridlock during wildfire evacuations in San Diego

Published by under Wildfires

Cocos Fire from OlivenhainThe most remarkable aspect of the 2007 Wildfire evacuations of San Diego was how orderly everything was. Drivers seemed to be more polite with each other than normal.  Talk to someone who has been through a wildfire evacuation and they will likely have some stories to tell about community cooperation, a sense of pulling together. For example, in the May, 2014 fires, the Helen Woodward Animal shelter put out a request for horse trailers to move their horses to safety, and were immediately met with a flood of volunteers with horse trailers. The San Diego Union Tribune (June 7: Cocos Fire Jam to be evaluated) quoted a San Elijo resident about his experiences trying to evacuate during the recent Cocos fire.

Longtime resident Dustin Smith said he packed up his pets and headed off about 4:15 p.m., but couldn’t leave his gated Promontory Ridge community. In front of him was a line of vehicles backed up even before the gate…. He said he gave up, tried again an hour later but found the same situation. Tried again shortly after 6 p.m. and finally found roads clear enough to leave.

Being blocked from leaving your home for 2 hours under any circumstances is a really bad thing, but it is particularly terrifying when there is a wildfire raging nearby, and you don’t know where it will go. My daughter was evacuated earlier in the day from her office at the corner of El Camino Real and Palomar Airport road.  Traffic on the road was so bad that it took her 30 minutes just to get out of her parking lot.  She call 911 to see if they could get some traffic control police to help, but the dispatcher just said, “sorry, all of our officers are busy with other aspects of the fire.” Google Maps traffic reporting was very helpful, and gave citizens a great way to see what was happen and adapt to the traffic flow dynamically.  For example, my wife and I were babysitting our grandchildren May 14th, and I was driving to our normal rendezvous with my son-in-law for a 4:00 handoff in San Marcos.  I was planning on driving over San Elijo road to Twin Oaks, when I got a call from him, saying he saw a fire starting near Twin Oaks (that would become the Cocos fire).   We both knew that this could block the road, and could cause havoc with the traffic flow between us.  So, we both turned around and went home, watching the fire expand, but also noticing that the traffic on Del Dios highway was clear on Google Maps.  My daughter came by around 8 that night, and we had an uneventful handoff. Unfortunately, the past few decades have seen an upsurge in NIMBY activists who fight roads in their area, creating a patchwork of unconnected roads with long cul-de-sacs. Perhaps the risk of traffic gridlock might reverse some of these attitudes, or at least give fire safety folks a stronger position from which to demand better ingress and egress for fire safety.


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May 23 2014

Why you shouldn’t try to defend your house against a wildfire with a garden hose.

Published by under Wildfires

I live in an area where wildfires are part of nature. I am also an “early evacuator” – happy to get out of the way of any potential fire hazards if one is coming my way. I know that there are others who want to stay back and defend their homes, typically with a garden hose.

Here’s a photo sequence of the recent fires that proves my point. It shows an ember gaining a foothold on a hillside, which engulfs the whole hillside and creates a 100′ tall fire tornado within 15 minutes.

Jeff Anderson, Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve park ranger, took these remarkable images during the recent “Cocos Fire” in North San Diego County.  The fire started quickly in the late afternoon of May 14. The next morning (May 15), it seemed to be fairly tame until about noon.  Then it flared up with a vengeance.  My home was about 1000 feet downwind of the evacuation zone, and we could smell the smoke passing over us, so we were intensely focused on what was happening.

Jeff was on the ridge of the Elfin Forest reserve looking north towards Harmony Grove when he snapped this photo of an ember burning at 12:25:24pm on May 15:

Fire 5-14_254

Just two minutes later, at 12:27:30pm, the fire from the original ember fire spread considerably, and another ember jumped up the hill:

Fire 5-14_256

Four and a Half minutes later, at 12:32:07, the fire engulfed the whole side of the hill. At this point, the flames were probably burning 1200 – 1600 degrees F.

Fire 5-14_262

Eight minutes, later, at 12:40:05, the fire had generated a “fire tornado” about 100 feet high, with winds 50-80 mph. The temperature at the base of the tornado was probably about 2000 degrees F, about one fifth the temperature of the surface of the sun, and the fire was generating its own wind:

Fire 5-14_275

I would ask those who would try to defend their house by playing Rambo with a garden hose, how long they think they would last in the midst of that inferno. It’s not a matter of your skill or machismo, it’s simply a recognition of the overwhelming power of nature.

We also need to recognize that wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem. We even have a flower, the Fire Poppy, that germinates after wildfires. Here is picture I took of a fire poppy at Lake Poway, six months after the area had been burned in the 2007 Witch Creek Fire:

Fire Poppy


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Mar 10 2014

1986 Letter from House VA Committee calling for increased metadata sharing

Here is a letter from

Here is a 1986 letter from Rep. Sonny Montgomery. chair of House VA committee VA Administrator Thomas Turnage about NHS meta data sharing.

Note that, even in 1986, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs was savvy to, and advocating the use of metadata (then called the “data dictionary – a roadmap to the database.”  It understood its use in VistA (then called DHCP), its role in portability (then with the Indian Health Service), and hopes to use it for the Department of Defense’s Composite Health Care System.

Today, metadata is a household word, given the NSA’s use of it.  But it reflects an entirely different perspective on how we view complex systems.

Imagine a complex system, represented by millions of dots, with even more connectors between the dots.  We can think of the dots as representing the “data” in the system, and the connectors (links) representing the “metadata” in the system.

This perspective generates an overwhelming number of dots and links, well beyond any human capacity to understand.

One way to approach this complexity I’ll call the “Dots-first” approach.  This approach tries to categorize the dots, pigeonholing them into a predefined hierarchy of terms: “A place for every dot, and every dot in its place.”  This goes back to Aristotle, and the law of the excluded middle.  Something is either A or Not A, but not both.  We just keep applying this “law” progressively until we get a tidy Aristotelian hierarchy of categories.  Libraries filed their books this way, according to the Dewey Decimal system.  If you wanted to find a book, you could look in a card catalog for title, author, and subject, then just go to the shelves to find the book.  The links between the dots are largely ignored.  For example, it would be impossible to maintain the card catalog by all the subjects referenced in all the books, or all of the references to other books and papers.  Order is maintained by ignoring links that don’t fit the cataloging/indexing system.

An alternative approach I’ll call the “Links-first” approach.  This approach focuses on the links, not the dots.  It revels in lots of links, and manages them at a meta-data level, maintaining the context of the information.  It can work with the Dots-first categorization schemes, but it doesn’t need them.  This is the approach taken by Google.  It scans the web, indexing information, growing the context of the dot with every new link established.

If a book had a Dewey Decimal System number assigned to it, Google would pick it up as just another piece of metadata.  Users could search for the book using it, but why would they?  Why revert to the “every dot in its place and a place for every dot” scheme when you can use the much richer contextual search that Google provides.

Sonny Montgomery – in 1986 – was advocating the “Links-first” approach that we pioneered in VistA.   This approach came up again in the metadata discussions of the PCAST report.

Bureaucracies typically favor to focus on the dots.  If a Dewey Decimal System isn’t working well enough, the solution is to add more digits of precision to it, more librarians to catalog the books, and larger staffs, standards committees, and regulation to insure that the dots all stay in their assigned pigeonholes.

This is what is happening with ICD10 today.  After the October 2014 roll out, we will now have the ability to differentiate “W59.21 Bitten by turtle” and “W59.22 Struck by turtle” as two distinct dots in the medical information universe.  Unfortunately, we are lacking dots to name tortoises, armadillos, or possums.  Struck By Orca (both the name of the book as well as an ICD10 code) provides some artistic insight into the new coding system.

The continued expectation that we can understand medicine from a “Dots-first” approach is a travesty in today’s world of interconnection, rapidly growing knowledge and life-science discoveries, and the world of personalization.  People use Google, not card-catalogs, to find their information, and do so in a much richer, quicker, and informative way than anything before in human history.

The “Dots-first” thinkers will panic at the emergence of a “links-first” metadata approach.  How can we have establish order if we don’t have experts reviewing the books, applying international standards, and librarians carefully typing and filing the catalogs?

One of the criticisms in the early days of VistA that it’s metadata-driven model would lead to “Helter Skelter” development, and that only centralization could make things orderly.  (Helter-Skelter was the name of the Charles Mansion murder movie at the time, so the term carried a lot of linguistic baggage with it.)  They could see only the Dots-first framework, and the ensuing failures of  the centralized, waterfall development of $100m+ megaprojects has continually proven that their approach doesn’t work.  Yet, they continue to blame their failures on the decentralized, metadata-driven core of the system.

There are technologies that address this, such as the Semantic Web or Linked Data initiatives.  But I’m afraid that there is so much money to be made “improving” the medical Dewey Decimal Systems and patching up all the holes in the Dots-first kludges that it seems to be a tremendous uphill battle.


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