Sunday, December 04, 2016

It Didn't Work for Me: Automatic

I hate to give a bad review, but when a gadget has consistently failed, support calls didn't improve anything, and it finally broke, I realized it was time.

A couple of years ago, an advertisement for the Automatic car monitoring gadget crossed my path.  I have a 1997 Jeep Wrangler, so all the fancy fuel monitoring status boards on all the other cars left me a little jealous.  The gadget plugs into the diagnostic port on nearly all cars and works with the cell phone GPS to give you more details like fuel consumption, and at the same time give you a tracking map of everywhere you've gone.  I bit.  It was relatively cheap and plugged in fine.

Only, when I went to the website and started looking at my results, the flags starting waving.
Sixty miles per gallon on my 97 Jeep?  Not likely.  I started noting down my fillups and did my own spread sheet.  At best, I was getting sixteen miles per gallon.

I left a complaint on the website and received a note that they were working on it.  As far as I can tell, my Jeep never actually monitors fuel consumption, so the software takes what data it has and makes a guesstimate.  However, I never saw any updates and the results stayed the same.

At the same time, I was getting dropouts.  Many times the gadget never made contact with my cell phone.  It happened so frequently that I stopped looking at the website map, because it was frustrating to find out that after a two thousand mile road trip, only fifty miles were logged.

The web site looks nice, but with bad data, it's useless to me.  I forgot about it.  Sometimes it was still connecting, but most times, it wasn't.

And then getting in and out of the Jeep's driver's seat I kicked the thing once too often and the gadget came apart in several pieces.  I have no desire to try to fix it.

Here's my final report:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Shared Desktop and Documents on macOS Sierra

One of the featured items of macOS Sierra is the ability to share your desktop and Documents folders via iCloud.  It's great for me, because I have two macs and several iOS devices, old and new iPhones and an iPad.  So everything that's contained in those two places are available anywhere.

But not immediately.  At least not at first.

You see, I have about 20GB in my Documents folder, including saved documents since back to 1990.  ALL of that has to shipped up the iCloud servers before all of my devices can get access to it.  My DSL wires must be running warm lately.

Now, I could move some of this stuff out of Documents first, and I did for a couple of very dynamic items that didn't need to be shared across machines.  But I sort of like the idea of being able, on a whim, on the road, to dig down into my 2002 archives to find a shell-script that I wrote long ago and has some features I might want to look at again.

So, I'm spending a few days with my DSL upload maxed out until it's all there.

After that, I might just want to move a few more things to my Documents folder—like every story I've ever written.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Memories — The Best New feature of IOS 10

Many features of the new iOS 10 from Apple are nice.  Some are "Well, okay.  I can live with that." But the one that has blown me away is the improved Photos.  In particular, there's a Memories feature that you have to try out.
If Apple advertised this feature, I was thinking about something else at the time, because I just stumbled over the changes while picking a photo for a Facebook post.  Down at the bottom of the Photos screen is a tab labeled Memories. I tapped it and discovered that Photos has been doing some work behind the scenes for me.  It has taken the location information, the timestamps and some serious photo analysis to look at my phones.  Then with that information, it has composed several videos automatically.  It did a Best of the Year for 2015, a family photos collection, and several trip videos.

Now each was composed and titled.  But these were just 'to-do' videos-database entries , because once I actually clicked on one, it took a couple of seconds to download the photos and generate the video on the fly and then start playing it. Only when I decided to save the video did it store the multi-megabyte file back into the library.

There are also pickers and sliders that let you customize the length and mood of the video.  In addition, I went in and changed the auto-generated titles in some cases when I knew some more specific information.

I settled into my easy chair, used Airplay to put the video up on the TV and enjoyed.  But that's not the best part.  When you click on a video and then stop it, you can see a list of the photos that composed it, and a map showing their locations, and then below that, a list of related videos.  I spent quite a while deep-diving into the nooks and crannies of my 49,000 photo library and may of these were definitely worth saving and sharing with friends and relatives.  For me, they were definitely Memories, bringing back the highlights of a trip I had taken, or smiling at family no longer with us.  Do the same.  I recommend it.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Where are the Electric Cars for Travelers?

Today on my news feed, I read some article about how the new Tesla was going to charge extra for an  additional 19 miles range over their standard of 250-ish miles on a charge.  Considering how much hype there is over the newest Tesla, it just makes me sad.  It doesn't look like I'll ever buy an electric car.

I've always been in love with the idea of an electric drive train.  Even forty years ago, I wrote science fiction that talked about electric cars, although mine were a bit different from what you see today.  My best-selling novel Star Time has an electric vehicle as part of the battle against the aliens.  It's not that I don't like EV's.  I just could never use one.

There's certainly a market for commuter cars.  Plug it in overnight and you have enough range for the day's activities.  Many people fit that category.  Not me.  I'm a traveler.

I'm a science fiction author.  My job consists of two parts; stay at home writing and doing my social media outreach, and traveling to events where I spread my books out on a table and talk to people.  If I bought an EV, I'd need a second car to do my traveling because EV's are a joke when it comes to range.

As I do every year, I'll need to pack my books and go to St. Louis.  On the range a Tesla gives, I'd never even get across the state line before it ran dry.  How many times will I have to recharge it, to travel the 825 miles to get there?  How far out of my way will I have to go to search for a charging station, and how long does it take to charge a Tesla (I've never seen that number).

This is just one example.  Most of my events are in Texas, but half of them are also out of range.  One trip I made to Chicago was extended with an exploration of the western states and I logged several days straight with over 900 miles traveled per day.  This is just impossible in an EV.  A few years back, one trip logged just under 14,000 miles, including many Canadian provinces.  I worried about getting gas in some of those places (like Labrador), and expecting to find EV charging stations is out of the question.

I suppose I could tow a trailer, carrying a generator that was always running—but that's just a hybrid in different clothes.

As I said, I'll never get to use an EV.  They don't make them for travelers.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My Fictional Net, and Encryption

Book Covers
When I began the multi-book storyline, The Project Saga, I had the opportunity to re-invent the Internet from scratch.  Or rather my self-aware AI character Hodgepodge did.  In the first book, Star Time, the existing internet was fried by EMP caused by the Betelgeuse supernova.  After Hodgepodge was put back together from the components wrapped in metal and shielded from the flare, one of the tasks the robot took on was to rebuild long distance communication, and he did it with several changes.

Starting with a variation of Ham Radio and packet-radio, he sent out instructions allowing remote survivors to cobble together salvaged computers and crude modems to build a store-and-forward system.  This crude early version had a few wrinkles that allowed for a new type of Net.

For one, there was a micropayment system, using Net Credits, that was handled invisibly by Hodgepodge.  It allowed elementary commerce to be built, even with this limited infrastructure.  There was an information economy from the beginning, where survival information and news from far away could be had, cheaply.

Another difference was encryption down to the bottom layers of the communication system.  No one could intercept messages other than the person addressed.  In today's Internet, your messages might be encrypted, but at lower levels, anyone could tell that you were on-line, and that you sent something.  In the version Hodgepodge created, every trace was encrypted—the transport-level information, the micropayment information, and the content itself.

The final piece of the puzzle was rapid and automatic updates.  Some survivor's original Net connection that had been possibly entered by hand was in a constant state of flux, and getting better and better.  While it was possible for humans to decode the original software, by the time it had evolved and become much more valuable, the users of this new Net were at a disadvantage compared to the machine intelligence running the system.  When the world reached the point where Hodgepodge-designed hardware took over the job, it was impossible for any human to understand.

The new Net had several goals, most notably to bring humanity out of the blackout caused by the Star.  But Hodgepodge had his own goals as well.  Being well-read from before the supernova, Hodgepodge was aware that his own survival depended on his invisibility.  By taking charge of the communication infrastructure of the planet, and keeping it deeply encrypted, he was able to work on the larger stage.  By providing constantly increasing speed and bandwidth to recovering humanity, he provided a service that made it's continued operation necessary.  It was a win-win situation for everyone.

But just as in today's headlines, encryption allows bad actors to bring their plans to fruition, and this is spelled out in the novels In the Time of Green Blimps and Humanicide. Unfortunately, in a world where the economy moves at Net or Internet speeds and where interception by third parties is disastrous, encryption is a necessity we have to learn to live with.  Nobody has solved that dilemma yet.

One other point made in the novels is that humanity is gradually losing the ability to program.  Yes, the languages are widespread, and many people use them, but other than some specialists with the necessary training, nobody today really cares about what happens on the chip.  As programming languages get more sophisticated, fewer people need to know about what happens to bits when OR'ed together.  Even people who have programmed computers for decades (like me) would be struggling when faced with a few kilobytes of executable code. If somewhere there were a Hodgepodge analog out there in the real world, how many compiler optimizers and code verifiers would he have to subvert before every user program contained his additional functionality.

The books were fun to write, and the Earth Branch of the Project Saga has been completed.  Take a look, if you have the time.

Star Time
Kingdom of the Hill Country
In the Time of Green Blimps
Captain's Memories

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

My Pocket Backup for Mac

I have many backups.  I'm a little obsessive about it.  I have Time Machine running on my laptop to an external drive.  I have Carbon Copy Cloner running to make a bootable backup of the whole machine every night to a different external drive.  I have Backblaze running for an off-site copy of all my files.  And that's just for the laptop.

But lately, I've been feeling the need for something a little different.  They make USB
'thumb' drives so small these days that I picked up a fast USB 3 128GB drive SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive (SDCZ43-128G-G46) [Older Version]for about $30 on Amazon.  Since I already had Carbon Copy Cloner running multiple backups, it wasn't hard to add another.

The idea for this backup was to have nearly all my personal files on me at all times. If I'm on the road, lose my laptop, and don't even have internet, I could borrow someone else's mac, and get access to whatever I needed in case of emergency.

Now 128GB isn't enough for my music, photos, or videos, so that'll have to wait for another generation of pocket drives, but with some careful exclusions (no cache files, downloads, etc.), I was able to select my whole user account on my Mac. To insure that my Pages and Numbers files are also included, since some are on iCloud, I made two little sparsebundle backups of them as well that would in turn be backed up to PocketBackup drive.  I used sparse bundle drive format since it's most efficient in doing incremental backups, since only the changed bands would be copied.

The other restriction I had in mind was to make the whole copy encrypted.  This way, I can carry the thing in my jeans pocket every day with no worries about losing it.  I'd just have to buy another drive and look at this blog post to remember how I did it the first time.

Here's the setup:  I formatted the drive and created an encrypted sparsebundle disk image on it.  In addition, I have an unencrypted README file with my contact information in case it's lost and a nice person finds it.

Carbon Copy Cloner waits for it to be inserted.  Then it mounts the encrypted disk image, makes the daily changes, and then dismounts everything.  The initial backup took a little while, but typically, it all takes one minute, or maybe two or three if I've loaded some large files.  I've got a daily reminder at 4 pm to plug it in.  The menubar icon for CCC turns black while the backup runs and when it turns white, I can unplug it and stick it back in my pocket.  All the mounting and dismounting is handled by the program. It's so easy, I haven't missed a day since I started it.

Here's the CCC settings for the main backup:

And here is the setup for the Pages backup.  Numbers is similar.

For the tiny space and minimal cost, it's a nice peace of mind to have all my important files hiding down there in my pocket.