Fragility

The floodwaters in Houston have not finished rising 250 miles south. The ramifications are starting to be felt across the country in the form of higher gas prices at the pump. Here in Texas we have been enjoying gas prices that hover within 30¢ of the $2 mark. Every once in a while they dip below that mark. With the tragedy of Harvey, the flow of refined gas has been interrupted. The interruptions are caused by a disruption of the flow of crude oil coming in via ports and pipes. Motiva, Exxon Mobil and Valero have shut down refining activities as the storm moves north east. That represents 20 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.  That’s 3.9 million barrels per day. This is why we have reserves. The September futures market is up 6¢. This creates an economic incentive for other refineries to step up their production to make up the difference to bring us back into equilibrium. 

How does all of that map to our experience at the pump? Many busy gas stations rely on daily or more frequent deliveries of gas. The size of their underground storage tanks are optimized to satisfy customer demand while staving of ecological disaster. With a real interuption in that flow of fuel on the market, these companies are looking to buy gas at whatever the price. Gas stations have to choice between buying gas at exorbitante rates or stop selling altogether. A business should not be ablieged to sell gas at a loss. 

This apparent interruption in the flow of fuel causes people to panic. When you hear that they ar running out of gas, the unfortunate response is to go fill up your tank. That’s what we had starting yesterday and today. A run on the gas pumps causes them to actually run out of gas. This is exacerbated by the holiday weekend. By mid day we were seeing station report they were out of unleaded. You are OK if you need diesel or are willing to use E15 gas. Reports are coming in about $5 and $9 gas. By this evening the gas trucks rerouted from around the country are starting to arrive. The panic should be over by the weekend. 

When I was driving home this evening it struck me how fragile our society is. We have a run on the gas pumps and it starts looking like the precredit scroll from a zombie movie. People just need to calm down and it will be OK. The folks in Houston are the ones who really need our help. 

References: Motiva, Exxon Mobil, Valero, Total cease operations
By Jordan Blum Updated 3:54 pm, Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Follow the Geeks

In 2015 I made a trip up to Pentaluma, California to visit the brick TWiT House. The proprietor of this establishment was featured in a chapter of the book, Follow the Geeks by Lyndsey Gilpin and Jason Hiner. I just finished reading this book and enjoyed the stories about people that I have listened to as guests of the TWiT network. If you are a fan of this network then I can recommend the book. Most of the stories were about people I knew from TWiT network. The star of the book is the profile of the amazing Maya Penn. Anyone interested in diversity and women in STEM should read her chapter 10 profile.

Visiting the TWiT brick house was a treat. You get a front row seat to a live production studio. I got to see the recording of MacBreak Weekly and Security Now shows. Leo Laporte took some time between shows for a meet and greet with a photo op.

 

iPhone Call Blocking & Identification

Apple has added a new category of application to its AppStore that allows the user to block incoming calls. The first one of these that I tried was called Nomorobo, as in “no more robodialers”. It worked pretty well. They have an existing online web site where you can pay for a subscription or you could pay for the subscription right in the app. I let my subscription lapse because of a general Internet service subscription fatigue and not for any fault in the product. After a few months I stumbled onto a new crop of these apps that didn’t charge a monthly fee. I know they are not free. They must be mining the caller ID data and find value there. Since I rarely use my phone, it seems like a fair trade. I downloaded a couple new trials, Hiya and Mr. Number. So far I’ve only tried Hiya. Now AT&T has a new app they call Call Protect that features the Hiya logo but does not appear in the Settings app.

Using these apps is really simple. You download one from the App Store. Then navigate to “iPhone Call Blocking & Identification” setting under “Phone”. Turn on the apps that you want to allow to see all your incoming calls. Yahoo! and LinkedIn (Microsoft) are also listed but no way I’m letting them have any more access to my personal data. If AT&T and Hiya are in bed together I figure they already have my call history.

When the phone rings, the app is supposed to look it up in their database to see if it is spam. With Nomorobo, the spam call would just be rejected and go straight to voicemail. With Hiya, the phone still rings but with a message like “Scam or Fraud” or “Telemarketer” along with a little warning icon. Not all the messages are bad. I received a call from my Alumni Association’s call center. The ones that are really nasty are now spoofing the caller ID to match first 6 digits of your phone number. This is supposed to trick you into thinking the call is from a neighbor. In these cases Nomorobo wisely does not block them but displays a warning that the caller ID might be forged.

Of the two that I have tried, Nomorobo’s solution is more elegant because the phone never rings. There is the potential of a false positive but hopefully that caller will leave a message. I don’t think I had a true false positives. My Alumni Association call center originally queried as Telemarketing which is accurate. The more specific label was updated later. This is a community fed system so early reports could have been unnecessarily harsh. I’m glad to see come curation corrected the assessment.

I plan to stay with Hiya and recommend it to those who want this service but may be a bit subscription sensitive at this time. Hiya also has a lookup function. Inside the application is an Identify button. You can type in a number or use the contents of your clipboard. It will give you reverse lookup with name and city, along with community reports of spamming, if any.

The ultimate solution is to change the phone system such that individual subscribers cannot forge caller ID. Seems like a pretty basic principal. If you’re going to call me, you had better properly identify yourself. This would require some reworking of the phone network which was never designed to be secure. My assumption is that this will never get legally mandated because politicians are such big spammers. I’m hoping that apps like these put a small dent in the universe.

Negatives Will Not Be Returned

I was at the drugstore getting some prints from my recent trip. Next to the register was the usual envelope for getting C-41 film developed. The envelope said that they would include a free CD with processing but that the negatives would not be returned. What kind of a bargain is that? The last time I got 35mm film processed there was lint on the scanned images. Fortunately I had the negatives to go back to when I needed additional prints.

Let this serve as a warning for anyone still getting 35mm film developed if you care about the quality of your reprints. 

Eclipse

2017 Eclipse Rendered with Moon

On August 21st, 2017 I was lucky enough to get to witness the total eclipse. I dragged a couple buddies, Lee & Jeff, on at 1500 mile road trip that landed us in Hopkinsville, Kentucky for the event. Scott of Scott’s Astro Page had picked out the location at a church that was renting their parking lot for $20 per person. The weather cooperated and we had a clear view of the sky.

In preparation for the trip I bought a solar filter for my zoom lens from B&H Photo – a respected camera sales company. This filter consists mainly of a piece of film in a cardboard foldable cylinder. I also bought a sheet of solar film to be cut out for other cameras. Lee was able to cut this film out into small disks to protect my video camera and binoculars. The filter came in earlier in the month. I tested it out in the back yard by taking pictures of the sun. I was able to get a clear shot showing details like sunspots. I tried a few tripods but failed to find one that was easy to use to track the movement of the sun. I settled on one that would let me lock in the frame just above my target and it would settle down a few degrees. The problem was that the center of gravity for the camera was too far forward.

Early Sunday morning we piled in the car and drove to Memphis. When we finally got there, it was time for a little tourist action. This included barbecue and visits to Graceland, Bass Pro Shop Pyramid, and The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery.

Our original plans included a trip to NASA in Huntsville. About a week before the eclipse, Scott advised us that the weather forecast made Kansas a much better option. We scrapped our plans and targeted Hiawatha, Kansas. As the week went on, it was clear that Kansas City would be under thunderstorms come Monday. We pivoted back to Tennessee and eventually west of Nashville in Kentucky. With all this change of plans came a change to hotel reservations. At some point with all the cancellations and rebooking, my credit card decided that something was foul and started declining my transactions. This caused our Sunday night hotel reservation to get cancelled. I got this notification via email on the road that morning. I tried to rebook the same motel but it was now sold out. I did manage to find another hotel just up the road in Jackson, Tennessee for the luxurious price of $38 per night. Once we got there we found that they may have over charged for the facilities. You know its a quality establishment when they have South Park blaring in the lobby. After some obligatory snafu with the reservations we were set for the night.

The next morning we hit the road due north. Traffic was light although we would not know what normal Monday traffic in Kentucky would be anyway. We started seeing road-side vendors selling t-shirts. Even Chick-fil-A was getting into the act with their own “Solr Eclipz” shirt. We made it to All Nations Church about 11am with plenty of time to setup and get ready.

Scott had been there since the night before. He had his telescopes already celestially oriented. He also had a big solar scope that became a favorite attraction. As I expected, tracking the sun with my tripod was proving to be a hassle until I had the bright idea to use the mount point on the camera body instead of on the lens. Normally this is a bad idea because the lens weighs twice what the camera does, if not more. But with the lens pointing almost straight up, the center of gravity was now over the tripod and it became much easier to position the camera to track the sun.

This was my first total eclipse. Back in 1991 there was a partial eclipse. I remember being in the back yard of my rental house with my Canon EOS 10s and a 300mm zoom lens. To protect my investment, I used a black Glad trash bag. The setup worked pretty well. It was hard to focus without looking through the view finder. I used a piece of paper to project through the lens to do my focusing. I mistakenly choose infinity as the focal point. I now know that to be wrong. I would have to wait for my 35mm film to get processed before I could see the results.

For this trip, I was a little more prepared. Scott set up a video camera to record the scene at ground level. His video shows the shadow coming from the west and contrails of jets flying overhead. I brought my drone and did a couple of circuits of the the field and then set it up to hover over us looking down. The idea was to get the view from the sun. It did not turn out as well as I’d hoped. I also shot some video of the eclipse itself but since the filter was taped on, it was not of any use once the totality started. I fortunately remembered to remove the filter from my camera to catch the totality. I was not sure what settings to use. I set the aperture at F8 and spun the shutter speed dial up an down to get a range of exposures. I trusted the autofocus to do better than my own eyes and it worked out well.

After the totality the parking lot started to empty like half time of a one-sided football game. We stuck around for a little bit but then packed up to hit the road. We ended up having to avoid Memphis altogether because of the traffic and construction would have added two ours to our trip. Siri routed us to Missouri to become the fifth state on our tour.

What about next time? Now that I had a chance to reflect on the trip, the one thing I would do different is to be at a location with scenery, preferably at higher latitude. The video from the northwest part of the eclipse route show the event juxtaposed with terrain where our view was almost directly overhead.

Video of Eclipse from Drone.

Video looking west during eclipse.

iPod Incompatible with Subaru

I’m not a fan of radio whether it be commercial radio on its endless loop of commercial and same 20 songs, or satellite radio that harasses owners of new cars to subscribe. In the car, I prefer to listen to my own music, podcasts or audio books. For the last 20 years the best way to do that has been an iPod plugged directly into my car. Initially it was my iPod Mini which served me well and even survived being hacked and upgraded. That iPod was replaced by an iPod Nano. When the iPod Touch it the market I thought it would be the perfect melding of iPod and Wi-Fi updated content. Unfortunately the iPod Touch was not designed to handle heat. Left in the car the display would go black with a heat warning. The sent me back to the iPod Nano.

The key advantage of a hard wired iPod over say BlueTooth connected device is that it would immediately start playing with the engine start. If I were listening to spoken word content, it would pick up right were I left off. The iPod Nano never complained about the heat. And since it was not my phone, I did not need to plug it in or remember to unplug it when I got to my destination.

Along comes CarPlay. Finally a car audio experience close to what I want. I say close because there are two major issues with the current implementation from my point of view. The first issue is the lack of Waze navigation support. Whether that is caused by Apple or Google, I don’t care. I just know that It’s the best GPS app on the market and I want to be able to use it in my car with CarPlay. The second issue is the delay between startup of the car and when the iPhone gets connected. I understand why the 10 minutes of silence has become such a popular song on iTunes. Anything to not to have to listen to babble of the radio while CarPlay connects. Personally I tune to a blank spot in the dial as I would prefer to hear static than radio. I look forward to when my XM trial ends so that I can use that for dead air. I made the mistake of not opting out when I bought my new car. Now they’ve got me. I’m being targeted with email and mail to get me to sign up for pay radio.

While I’m happy with my car and AirPlay, I wanted to use my old iPod Nano for an upcoming road trip. I pulled it out of storage and charged it up. I plugged it into my car and it immediately caused the iPod to reboot. When the screen came back the iPod was in recovery mode. I brought it back in the house and plugged it into iTunes to be restored factory fresh. I repeated the experiment with the same results. A quick google found that I was not alone. My fancy infotainment system does not work with iPod Nano (6th Generation). I am curious about the 7th generation with the Lightning connector. Maybe it will work.