The Robservatory

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Road tripping through a pandemic

In late August, my eldest daughter Kylie and I set off on a nine-state, 12-day, 3,500 mile road trip…no, really…

Why, during the heart of the COVID pandemic would we choose to do this? Because Kylie is a senior in high school this year, and after looking at the calendar and her schedule, we sort of figured this was her only real opportunity to check out some campuses before it was too late. The timing, obviously, wasn't ideal, but it was what it was. We had to figure out how to make it work as safely as possible.

We used our Tesla for this journey, which will be the subject of a near-future post: It was, by far, the longest trip I've ever taken in an electric vehicle.

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A cleaner method for debugging windshields

Unlike gasoline-powered cars, my Tesla is rarely at a gas station. The chargers in Tesla's Supercharger network are occasionally located on or near gas stations, but they're more likely to be at a hotel or in an industrial area, meaning you're not going to find a squeegee and water bin for cleaning your windshield.

To solve this problem, I keep a roll of paper towels and a can of Zep Foaming Glass Cleaner in the back of my car. While the car is charging, I spray and wipe the front and side windows. I've found that bug residue easily wipes off; only the largest of bug stains require a bit of elbow grease.

A recent 3,500 mile road trip (more on that in a future post) really put this system to the test, and it worked quite well—each time we charged the car, we left with a nice clear view…which lasted for all of a few miles, of course.

The other advantage to this method is that it's way less messy than water and a squeegee; it's easy to keep the spray exactly where you need it. This works so much better than the old method that we've put another can in the back of our gasoline-powered car—no more squeegees and water (of questionable cleanliness) for us!

This won't work well if you've got a large SUV, though, as you need to be able to reach across at least half the width and the full height of the windshield…another reason to stick with sedans!

Review: Logitech MX Keys for Mac

In April of 2019, I reviewed the Logitech MX master 2S mouse, which I really liked. Earlier this year, Logitech came out with the Logitech MX Keys for Mac keyboard, so I thought I'd give it a try. (I also upgraded to the MX Master 3 mouse at the same time.)

Executive summary: I love this keyboard. I was on a road trip recently, gone for 12 days straight with nothing but a MacBook Air (of the 'broken butterfly' generation). As soon as I got home and switched back to my iMac, I was reminded of just how much better this keyboard is than the one built into my Air…and the one that came with my iMac.

(Note: The "Mac" in the name simply means that you're getting a keyboard with Mac-specific symbols on the Command and Option keys; I'm pretty sure the Windows version would work just as well, but without the Mac-specific look.)

This review won't be quite as thorough as that of my mouse, mainly because there aren't as many nifty features—it is "just" a keyboard, after all.

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Two recommended apps for Tesla owners

If you're a Tesla owner, perhaps you'll find these apps as useful as I have…

The first is a macOS app called Tesla Tunes that overcomes some limitations of Tesla's USB music player: It automatically converts Apple Lossless (which the Tesla can't play) into FLAC, which the Tesla can play, and it offers some rudimentary support for playlists, which aren't supported at all in Tesla's player.

It's quite old, having been last updated two years ago, but it still works well—I prefer USB to streaming over Bluetooth from my phone, which is the other option.

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An oddity with Photos and camera lens information

The other day, I was working on some Smart Albums in Photos, adding a Smart Album for each of the lenses I use with my FUJIFILM X-E3 camera. This seemed like a simple task; each Smart Album just needed to check two conditions:

Camera Model is X-E3 [and] Lens is 16.0 mm f/2.8 (as one example)

But after creating my Smart Albums, I noticed that some photos were missing, so I did a bit of experimenting. What I found was that Photos showed different values for the Lens field—even when the same lens was used on the same camera. Here's an example:

The only difference between those two photos is that one was taken in RAW mode, the other in one of my camera's JPEG modes.

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Photos makes it very difficult to find RAW+JPEG photos

I mostly shoot photos on my iPhone, because that's what I'm usually carrying. But when I want to go out and really take photos, I take my Fuji X-E3. The Fuji can take photos five different ways: At two levels of JPEG quality (fine and normal), those same two JPEG quality levels with an attached RAW version, and RAW only.

Most of the time, I shoot in the highest-quality JPEG format, which is more than good enough for my needs. But there are times, such as when shooting landscapes or flowers, when I want to have the original RAW file to edit, so I shoot in the RAW plus highest-quality JPEG mode.

The problem is that RAW images are huge—the Fuji's RAW files are over 50MB each, versus anywhere from 7MB to 14MB for a JPEG. Because of this, I try not to import the RAW+JPEG files into Photos. Instead, I import to a folder, then edit the RAW photo in a photo editor, output a final JPEG, and import that to Photos. (In very rare cases, I'll keep the RAW version, for a photo I may want to edit more in the future.)

Unfortunately, I wasn't so smart in the past, and I imported many RAW and RAW+JPEG photos to Photos—and I don't need the RAW versions at all. Some are pure RAW, and these I can easily find and fix (export, convert to JPEG, re-import). Unfortunately, most are in the RAW+JPEG format, and that's a problem: Once such photos are in Photos, there's absolutely no way to find them—which means there's no easy way to remove them.

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A possible simple fix for flickering slow-motion video

With the transition to LED lighting, I was hopeful it meant the end of flicker in slow-motion videos, because LEDs don't heat-and-cool the way an incandescent bulb does when running on AC power. Alas, after installing some EcoSmart 100W LEDs over our pool table, I was still getting horrendously bad flicker in my iPhone slow motion videos.

I did a bunch of web searching, and most of what I read said that I'd need to find a way to run the lights on DC, or change my frame rate, in order to avoid the flicker effect. Neither was really a viable solution.

Then, on a lark, I searched Amazon for 100w no flicker LED bulbs, which returned a ton of matches—most of which weren't applicable (I didn't need a 16-pack, and they had to be normal-style bulbs). But I did eventually find the LOHAS 100W Equivalent LED A19 Light Bulbs, which promised "Non-flickering light and zero harsh glares."

I ordered a box (four lights), replaced my existing lights…and surprisingly to me, the new bulbs eliminated the flicker—based on what I'd read, I didn't think there was much of a chance that a simple bulb change would work. But it did.

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When a light drone is the right drone

Many years ago, I had a big, spendy drone—the DJI Phantom 2 Vision +. This was a monster of a drone, measuring over a foot along the diagonal between the motors, and probably just under a foot in height—this image gives a good sense of the size of the thing:

It was also heavy, weighing in at 2.7 pounds (1.2 kilograms), and it used a 5200mAh battery to provide a claimed 20ish minutes of flight time, though 15 was more typically what I saw. The camera was mounted on a precision gimbal, providing incredibly smooth video—1080p at 30fps (stills were 14mp), which was very good for the time.

While I liked the big drone, for a part-time hobbyist drone user like me, it was also a pain: I needed a big case to transport the Phantom and its spare parts and batteries and charger, it took a while to set up (install propellers, configure controller, make wifi connections, etc.), and I never mastered flying it low-and-slow (perhaps due to the amount of wind its powerful rotors generated). It was also really loud.

Because of the hassle involved with using the drone, I didn't use it as often as I wanted to. So I eventually sold it, and left the world of drones behind for a few years. But lately, I'd been getting the itch again, and after doing some research, bought something much different…

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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.

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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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