The Robservatory

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The 2020 edition of my Excel run tracking workbook

At the end of 2016, I first posted about my run tracking Excel workbook. That first version was crude, but functional, and I used it to track every mile of my “2,016 miles in 2016” running goal. I posted a minor revision for 2017, then made some major updates for 2018. When 2019 rolled around, I made a few more changes, which I released by way of a note added to the 2018 post.

Now that 2020 is here—I know, it’s a bit past January, sorry!—I’ve made yet more changes, and have decided it’s time to replace both of the previous posts with one new all-in-one post. Here you’ll find a link to the latest version of the workbook, as well as full instructions on how to use it.

If you already know what you’re doing with my workbook and just want the newest version, grab it here. If you’re curious, here’s what’s new in this version:

  • There’s no more macro-enabled version, which was used to quickly delete all entries. Instead, keep the original file intact, and just duplicate the master each year for a new year’s tracking. This is much simpler (and safer) than the prior macro-based way to start a new year.
  • I worked around an issue where not entering a run distance—even if it was zero—for each day of the year would break the progress chart.
  • Fixed a few layout issues (like “0” appearing for a shoe name if you didn’t enter three pairs of shoes), revised a few formulas, and just generally tried to clean things up.

Note: This workbook will probably not function correctly in Numbers without some modifications—see my note to “Tom” in the 2018 version’s blog post for the details. I have not tested that fix with this version of the workbook, however, so you’re pretty much on your own if you’re using Numbers.

If you’ve never used my run tracker and would like to know more about it, keep reading…

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How I lost control of our bank accounts to a phone scammer

Yesterday, instead of having a productive afternoon at home, I had the privilege of sitting at the bank for a couple of hours, resolving a problem completely of my own doing: I fell for a phone scammer. My wife and I had to close our accounts—which were in excess of 25 years old—and set up new ones. I then spent hours updating our various bill paying services, Quicken account access, etc.

Do yourself a favor, and don’t be me. I never thought I’d be “that guy” either, as I keep current on scams, look for signs of fishiness on phone calls, etc. Still, they got me, and it was painful—not necessarily in terms of financial loss (we’re out $500 for maybe 60 to 90 days while they investigate), but in terms of time: Time to fix what I did, and even more time spent beating myself up over my stupidity.

Here’s the tl;dr version: Do not ever, as in never ever, give out a verification code over the phone. I know that now. I knew that earlier today. I’ve known that for years. And yet, I did it. What follows is a bit of the nitty-gritty on how I got scammed, what I learned (beyond the above), and some technological things that affected my behavior during the call. Hopefully the sharing of my stupidity will help others avoid the same fate…

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Watch two of the Star Wars Trilogy movies in 4K

Hot on the heels of my weekend post about Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of the original Star Wars Trilogy movies, Six Colors maven and all-around good guy (and my ex-boss) Jason Snell pointed me to something I’d previously only seen briefly referenced in a few spots: Project 4K77.

Project 4K77 is, as you might guess from the name, a 4K version of the 1977 Star Wars movie. The group has also completed Project 4K83 (Return of the Jedi), and is now working on Project 4K80 (The Empire Strikes Back).

What’s really amazing about the 4K77 project is that it is not an upscale of lower-resolution footage. Instead, as explained on the 4K77 page…

…97% of project 4K77 is from a single, original 1977 35mm Technicolor release print, scanned at full 4K, cleaned at 4K, and rendered at 4K.

Because this is a scan of the original film, it’s grainier than the Harmy releases—and there may be some actual film effects like scratches visible at times (I haven’t yet watched the full movie, so I’m not sure).

But it is a full 4K, and it’s a very different experience than is Harmy’s version. As an example, here’s the same still as I used in my prior post, but this one was taken from 4K77 (again, click to see the larger version):

Without looking back at the other blog post, it may not be obvious just how different these two versions are…but this composite photo makes it obvious:

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Watch the Star Wars Trilogy movies in their original form

As a child of the 1970s, the original Star Wars trilogy1Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi was—and remains—one of my favorite movie series of all time.

Unfortunately, George Lucas has made it virtually impossible to watch the original unedited versions of the films.2Unedited versions exist on LaserDisc and DVD, but they are low quality transfers. From 1997 onwards, only modified versions have been available—with newly-added CGI effects, deleted scenes that add nothing to the story, changes to sound effects, and even replacement of characters, such as some of those in the cantina in the original Star Wars. He called these releases Special Editions…but to fans of the originals, they weren’t so special.

Enter one Petr Harmy and an army of volunteers. Using multiple sources, Harmy and the others pieced together all three original films, doing away with the edits, correcting colors, upscaling imagery, and replacing sound effects. This 20-minute video explains the process, and contains a number of before-and-after comparison shots.

The end result is something called Harmy’s Star Wars Trilogy Despecialized3Because these versions remove the Special Editions’ changes—get it? Editions: Amazingly high quality versions of the theatrical releases of all three original movies. As a very brief example, here’s one still (click for a much larger version) from Star Wars:

The movies are not at Blu-Ray (1920×1080) resolution, but they’re very well done 720p (1280×720) versions which look amazingly nice even when scaled to fill the screen of my 27″ iMac. And most importantly, all the cruft added on through the years is gone. No bogus CGI. No replaced characters. No weird sound effects. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) Han shoots first.

So how can you get these Despecialized versions for yourself? That’s a bit tricky…

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Our family’s robotic vacuum overlords are Deebots

If you’re interested in technology (me!), and dislike cleaning (also me!), you’ve probably investigated robot vacuum cleaners. There are tons of models out there, covering a wide range of costs from under $100 to over $1,500. I’m not here to try to tell you which is the best, or even which particular one to buy, but to point out a time-limited sale on the one we chose to buy.

Back in May, we bought an Ecovacs Deebot N79S (Amazon)1This is a referral link; I make a modest commission if you use it. to clean our downstairs hardwood floors. I bought it mainly because it was on sale for a relatively inexpensive (for a robot vacuum) $150, and it received decent reviews on Amazon and on various review sites such as Wirecutter.

It’s not the smartest robot—there’s no ability to save a map or mark off “do not enter” areas. But I’ve found it cleans well, it’s quiet, and the app does what it needs to do to make managing the vacuum about as easy as it can be. It’s got a stated 110 minute battery life, and ours usually runs for at least 90 minutes, going over mainly hardwood with a couple of area rugs.

I noticed today that it’s on sale again on Amazon for about $150—it shows as $170 in the store, but once in the cart, a $17 discount is applied, bringing it down to $153. We’ve been so happy with the first that I just ordered a second one to use upstairs (with two cats in the house, one cannot have enough vacuums).

I’m not sure how long this special price will last, nor if it’s some sort of targeted thing where only certain shoppers get the deal, but if you’re in the market for a decent yet not too costly robot vacuum, we’ve been very happy with ours.

Revisiting Intel’s geeky CPU tool, Power Gadget

I wrote about the Intel® Power Gadget back in 2015—it’s a little app that reports on your CPU’s performance in a few categories. I still run it on occasion, and noticed that my version was a couple years old.

I downloaded the new version, and discovered that it now has a built-in software update check (hooray, though it doesn’t appear to be automatic), they’ve improved the graphs’ appearance, and added a new Utilization chart; here’s a new (left) vs. old comparison:

If you like CPU stats, it’s great to get them right from the source, and I think the nicer-looking graphs (and new Utilization chart) improve on this already-useful geeky tool.

When products play hide-and-seek with serial numbers

I recently bought a set of PowerBeats Pro, which I generally love (more on the headphones in a future post), but today, while trying to register my product with Beats, I ran into a clear example of form trumping function.

To register your Beats, you need the serial number; Beats provides a graphic that shows you where to find it…

Seems simple enough, so I flip open the case…

Umm, where is that serial number?

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Travel from the Earth to the Moon in high def

Way back in the late 1990s, HBO aired an amazing miniseries called From the Earth to the Moon. Produced by Tom Hanks, the 12-episode series covers most of the key events in the Apollo program, including the Apollo 1 fire, the first moon landing, the Apollo 13 crisis, and much more. In total, 30 of the 32 astronauts in the Apollo program are represented onscreen during the series.

Each episode runs about 50 minutes; Wikipedia’s entry on the miniseries includes a nice summary of each episode that doesn’t give too much away.

I’ve watched it at least a half-dozen times, and up until this summer, every viewing was at DVD resolution—eventually upscaled on higher-resolution TV sets, but still not the greatest video experience.

This summer, however, HBO re-released the series after remastering it in HD. They also reworked many of the special effects to take advantage of advances in that field over the last 20 years. If—like me—you’re a physical media person, you can pick it up for only $23 from Amazon…or if you’re fully digital, you can get it from the iTunes Store for $30. (Yes, a physical copy with media and packaging and shipping1and it includes a digital copy! is $7 less than a series of 0s and 1s written to a file. What a wacky world we live in.)

The visual changes are dramatic, as you can see in these shots from the two versions.

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ADP’s payroll check security absurdity

Warning: The following is nothing but a rant—no charts, no photos, nothing but text—about a piece of security absurdity I ran into the other day. I am 100% in favor of strong security in general regarding financial matters, but when it’s false security that does nothing more than inconvenience legitimate users, that’s when I get mad…and that’s exactly what this was: a security absurdity.

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My daughter Kylie recently got a part-time job; her employer uses ADP to process its payroll. When her first check arrived, it was actually a debit card—which we didn’t want to use—so she had to write herself a check (using a blank they provided), which she could then deposit.

Because Kylie had a busy day ahead of her (school then work then a post-work thing), I told her I’d write the check for her, then she’d just have to sign and deposit it. But to make the check usable, I needed a six-digit authentication code that ADP provides via a phone call. And that’s when I entered a hellhole of security absurdity thanks to ADP…

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Don’t buy a Subaru Ascent if you car camp or tailgate or…

When we owned a boat, we used a 2008 Toyota Sequoia to pull it. The Sequoia is a great truck—it pulled the boat, had tons of room for stuff and people, and rode quite nicely. But it was also incredibly efficient at converting money into gasoline fumes—even when not towing, it only got around 12mpg in town. It’s also huge.

With the boat gone, we wanted something smaller, with better mileage, yet with room for seven people and capable of some towing. After a lot of research and a few test drives, we chose to lease a 2019 Subaru Ascent.

Reviews for the Ascent have been positive, with Consumer Reports scoring it at 96. In general, we’ve been happy with the car…until we took it on its first car camping trip last weekend.

It was there that we learned that Subaru made an incredibly stupid design decision with a vehicle targeted at those who use their vehicles for camping and exploring:

The rear hatch is not designed to be left open.

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