Friday, December 16, 2016

Dear Los Angeles Metro: The Blue Line is ill

(I sent this to Los Angeles Metro on Dec. 16, 2016)

Dear Metro:

I've been riding the Blue Line for some 18 years, so I know its moods pretty well. And it's become quite apparent in the last few months that the Blue Line is just not itself.

The Blue Line has reliably delivered me from Wardlow Station to 7th Street/Metro Station -- and back again --  thousands of times. But lately it has developed a bad case of the "waits."

Nearly every day now, riders on the Blue Line experience repeated stops and delays -- maybe two minutes, maybe five minutes, even 10 minutes or more.

To determine just how sick the Blue is, I took its temperature. For 10 days I timed every ride I made on the Blue Line (20 rides in all). This is a ride that should take 42 minutes. That's not my opinion; that's what Metro's own timetable says. And for 18 years, the Blue Line has had little trouble meeting that time.

Today, however, something is clearly wrong. Out of all the rides I timed, the Blue Line was able to complete the Wardlow-Metro Center run (either way) in 42 minutes only 35% of the time.

Here's the complete record:


  • Nov. 28, a.m.: 44 minutes, 2 minutes over
  • Nov. 28, p.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over 
  • Nov 29, a.m.:  53 minutes, 11 minutes over
  • Nov. 29, p.m.: 53 minutes, 11 minutes over
  • Nov. 30, a.m.: 42 minutes, On Time
  • Nov. 30, p.m., 48 minutes, 6 minutes over
  • Dec 1, a.m.: 48 minutes, 6 minutes over,
  • Dec. 1, p.m.: 44 minutes, 2 minutes over
  • Dec 2, a.m.: 41 minutes, 1 minute under
  • Dec. 2, p.m. 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 5, a.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over
  • Dec. 5, p.m. 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 6. a.m.: 42 minutes, On Time
  • Dec. 6, p.m.: 42 minutes,  On Time
  • Dec 7, a.m.:  51 minutes, 9 minutes over,
  • Dec. 7, a.m.: 46 minutes, 4 minutes over
  • Dec. 12, a.m.: 51 minutes, 9 minutes over
  • Dec. 12: p.m.: 40 minutes, 2 minutes under
  • Dec 13, a.m.: 49 minutes, 7 minutes over
  • Dec. 13, p.m. 43 minutes, 1 minute over
(Note: I did not ride the train on Dec. 8 or 9)

Anyone -- or any train line -- can have a bad day, and Blue Line passengers understand that. But what's alarming here is that these delays happen virtually every day. Would you fly an airline that has just a 35% on-time record?  Would you buy milk if it was sour 65% of the time?

This is not just a matter of annoyance. This is a breach of contract. Metro is not giving riders what they are paying for. Metro is exposing itself to a class action lawsuit.

The good news is that the record shows that Metro can do this right. In fact, two of the rides in my study came in under 42 minutes. 

Is Metro going to fix this? Or will Metro admit that it can't and just change its timetables?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book review: "All Brave Sailors" by J. Revell Carr

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles from land, two men in a lifeboat consider their fate. It has been three weeks since their ship sunk. They are dying of thirst, starvation and exposure to the unrelenting sun.

So they decide to end their lives.

Bob Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe climb into the water, intending to end their misery by floating away and disappearing beneath the waves. But the cool water seems to change their mood and they climb back into the boat. After a short wait, they decide again that it is time to die. They slip into the water and Tapscott starts to float away. But Widdicombe clings to the boat's lifeline.

Angry, Tapscott returns to the boat. He and Widdicombe argue, then both climb back into the boat. They will not kill themselves, at least not today. Soon they notice something that had an escaped their attention before. Their compass is filled with a liquid that allows the device to spin freely. It's alcohol.

Carefully, they open the compass -- perhaps their most important possession at this moment -- and empty out the few ounces of alcohol it contains. They split it among themselves and drink it. Soon they are so drunk they forget they're on the brink of death.

This is just one scene in the true survival story that lies at the heart of "All Brave Sailors," by J. Revell Carr. I've read many of the best survival stories -- "Unbroken," "The Long Walk," and accounts of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic ordeal -- and the story told in this book is equally as amazing as any of them.

The trouble is, the tale of how men from the Anglo-Saxon freighter survived an attack by a Nazi merchant raider in 1940 is only part of "All Brave Sailors."  Carr tries to fit a lot into this book -- possibly too much -- as he covers some 50 years of events around the globe.

Many of the pieces are interesting, but the desperate ordeal of the British sailors is the only part that is truly gripping.  And Carr struggles to fit everything in a form that flows smoothly.

"All Brave Sailors" is truly about three men -- Tapscott, Widdicombe and Hellmuth Vonk Ruckteschell, the commander of the German "commerce raider" that ruthlessly destroyed the Anglo-Saxon on Aug. 21, 1940. Carr traces the lives of these three men before and after their fates intersected on that day.

Carr fumbles around at the beginning of the book trying to fit the disparate elements in. The first problem is right on the cover, which suggests that "All Brave Sailors" is only about the events in the lifeboat. This is misleading -- nearly half of the book is about the life of Ruckteschell.

The cover of the book also gives away too much, telling us how long the sailors were stranded on the ocean. Even worse, the very first thing that you see as you start the book is an annotated map that gives away multiple key points in the story. Talk about spoilers.

At the outset, the book hops strangely, starting with a hurried description of the attack on the Anglo-Saxon, then jumps backward to start the biography of Ruckteschell. In the third chapter, Carr gives us biographies of key sailors on the Anglo-Saxon, but we have no context for them. We don't know how each sailor is important to the story. It would be better to insert these as the characters emerge in the narrative.

Here's what I suggest: Avoid looking at the map until late in the book. Skip the first part of the book and start with chapter 5. It's not perfect -- you might want to skip back to fill in a few details -- but it gets you into the meat of the story with less confusion.

From there, the book gets much better. Carr has done tremendous research and he fills in details beautifully. He describes the way the Widder, the German commerce raider, cleverly disguised its guns so as to appear as an ordinary merchant ship. During the lifeboat section, we can really feel the misery of the sailors as they slide from hopes of rescue to desperation and, for some, death.

The book has some surprising moments but I don't want to spoil things by giving them away here.

In the end, I think Carr is too soft on Ruckteschell, the German commander.  This is a man who was essentially a terrorist, sneaking up on unarmed ships, attacking with multiple guns and torpedoes, and sending many defenseless men to their deaths. Carr catalogs the commander's war crimes carefully, but he doesn't seem to have the hatred for the German that I developed as I read it.

If you're interested in the history of German commerce raiders you might be interested in "The Wolf" by Richard Guilliott.

If you like survival stories of men lost at seas, consider "Adrift" by Steven Callahan, and "In the Heart of the Sea" by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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Microsoft Office 365 could delete everything on your phone

Why would ANYONE agree to this?

My company recently began using Microsoft's Office 365 for accessing work email on a cell phone. As I was setting it up on my phone, I got this message:

"Outlook.office365.com requires that you allow it to remotely control some security features of your Android device."

Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean?  Reading on, it said that if I activated this software, I would be allowing Office 365 to do various things, including, "Erase all data."

Um, what?

If installed, Office 365 could, if it wanted, "Erase the phone's data without warning by performing a factory data reset."

So at any time, everything on your phone -- pictures, contacts, texts, apps, e-books -- could be completely deleted without any control by you.

Again: Why would ANYONE agree to this?

I certainly didn't.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

What if electoral votes were proportional to state population?

One of the oddities of the electoral college system in electing the U.S. president is that some voters' ballots count for more than others. This is because electoral votes are not proportional to the states' populations.

Yes, big states do get more electoral votes, but not as many as they would if the votes were allocated proportionally. For instance, California gets 55 electoral votes, while Wyoming, the smallest state, gets 3. This mean California gets 18 times more electoral votes than Wyoming. But California actually has 67 times the population of Wyoming.

Under the electoral college, voters in small states get disproportionate sway. A vote cast in a small state can count for more than three times as much as one cast in large state.

What would happen if electoral votes were allocated proportional to state population? I took Census population numbers for all the states, created a "proportional" electoral vote division and applied them to the results for the 2016 election.

All the small states in this experiment got 1 vote. California, the largest state, got the most, 67. Some other states got more, others fewer. (You can see the breakdown below.) Because of the way this calculation was done, I ended up with a total of 548 electoral votes, slightly more than the real 538.

The results? Well ... not much difference. Under my scenario, Donald Trump would have received 292 votes to Hillary Clinton's 239, with Michigan still undecided as I write this.  The actual result was 290 for Trump versus 232 for Clinton (again, not counting Michigan).

Yes, I'm surprised this didn't change things much. Still, in a different election, proportional electoral vote allocation could change the result, especially if one candidate gets most large states while another get mostly small ones.

State Actual electoral votes Proportional votes Winner
Alabama 9 8 Trump
Alaska 3 1 Trump
Arizona 11 12 Trump
Arkansas 6 5 Trump
California 55 67 Clinton
Colorado 9 9 Clinton
Connecticut 7 6 Clinton
Delaware 3 2 Clinton
District of Columbia 3 1 Clinton
Florida 29 35 Trump
Georgia 16 17 Trump
Hawaii 4 2 Clinton
Idaho 4 3 Trump
Illinois 20 22 Clinton
Indiana 11 11 Trump
Iowa 6 5 Trump
Kansas 6 5 Trump
Kentucky 8 8 Trump
Louisiana 8 8 Trump
Maine 4 2 Clinton
Maryland 10 10 Clinton
Massachusetts 11 12 Clinton
Michigan 16 17
Minnesota 10 9 Clinton
Mississippi 6 5 Trump
Missouri 10 10 Trump
Montana 3 2 Trump
Nebraska 5 3 Trump
Nevada 6 5 Clinton
New Hampshire 4 2 Clinton
New Jersey 14 15 Clinton
New Mexico 5 4 Clinton
New York 29 34 Clinton
North Carolina 15 17 Trump
North Dakota 3 1 Trump
Ohio 18 20 Trump
Oklahoma 7 7 Trump
Oregon 7 7 Clinton
Pennsylvania 20 22 Trump
Rhode Island 4 2 Clinton
South Carolina 9 8 Trump
South Dakota 3 1 Trump
Tennessee 11 11 Trump
Texas 38 47 Trump
Utah 6 5 Trump
Vermont 3 1 Clinton
Virginia 13 14 Clinton
Washington 12 12 Clinton
West Virginia 5 3 Trump
Wisconsin 10 10 Trump
Wyoming 3 1 Trump

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ode to a Nike bag

In 1998, I signed up for a biking and hiking trip through China with my then-girlfriend Barb (now my wife). It was to be my first true overseas trip – I don't think going to Bermuda counts –  and certainly my most exotic vacation.

For nearly six months, I prepared for the trip, learning to speak some Mandarin, reading books about China and researching the places we would visit. But barely 24 hours after we arrived, near-disaster struck: The zipper on my primary piece of luggage broke.
A final look at my bag before heading to the trashcan

Now you may not consider a broken zipper a near-disaster, but at the time I had no idea what to do. The zipper couldn't be fixed and I certainly couldn't use the bag. At home, I would run to Target and just buy a new one. But we were in a foreign country, with no car, and I had no idea how I was going to carry all my belongings around for the next two weeks.

Something needed to be done fast because our small tour group was due to get on a train soon. As an interim measure, one of our guides retrieved a duffel bag from storage that Barb had brought (the bag had been holding camping gear we would be using later in the trip). I could use that for now. But I still had to find another bag.

After our train trip, we spent a night in the city of Xian and then cycled through the countryside the next day, stopping for the night in a small city. Exploring the town that evening, Barb and I found a store selling bags.

These weren't expensive luggage pieces, but something more like workout-gear bags. We looked around and I finally selected a simple black-and-teal bag with "Nike" on the side. I liked it because it was large. It cost me about $5. I figured it would be good enough to get my stuff home.

It did indeed get my stuff home –  and then some. Over the years, I used the bag frequently to carry things like books, clothes and groceries. It worked well for hauling almost anything.

Eventually, the zipper broke, but I kept using the bag. A few small holes appeared but I still kept using it. Finally this year, with the number and size of the holes growing, the end came for my bag. With a touch of wistfulness, I dropped it in a garbage can.

If you say Chinese-made products don't last, I will tell you the story of the bag that did 18 years of hard work. Not bad for $5.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Dear Los Angeles Metro: What's wrong?

I sent this email to Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transit Agency today:

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Dear Metro:

I have been riding the Blue Line to and from downtown Los Angeles for about 18 years. I have taken thousands of trips. Not all of them have gone perfectly, of course, but generally I have found the Blue Line to be a reliable way to get to work.

Not anymore.

Every day now, as the train gets close to downtown (north of San Pedro station), it starts a series of unscheduled stops. Sometimes, we're told, we have to wait for an Expo Line train. Sometimes, there's a train in the tunnel ahead of us. Sometime, it's just a mystery.

Each time, the delays add up. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. EVERY day.

I listened to the phone conversation of a fellow passenger the other day as he tried to explain to his boss that he would be late, AGAIN, because of Blue Line delays. He was clearly on the verge of losing his job.

If Metro can't provide reliable service it is going to lose some of its most loyal customers. For the first time in 18 years, I am considering going back to driving to work.

So please be honest with me: Are you going to fix these problems or are these delays the "new normal"?

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See also: "The day I got punched in the face."

Friday, October 28, 2016

Book review: "The Crash Detectives" by Christine Negroni

Depending on your perspective, "The Crash Detectives" may thrill -- or chill.

In this 2016 book, author Christine Negroni details the many ways that planes can crash.

Computers malfunction. Electrical systems fail. The plane itself ruptures. A sudden decompression causes pilots to collapse.

If you're the nervous type, this might leave you anxious about your next flight. But for those who like stories of danger, mystery and -- occasionally -- heroism, Negroni's book is a gripping read.

The book starts fast as Negroni offers her theory regarding the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 340 in 2014. She's only speculating, true, but she builds an impressive case based on knowledge of other aviation mishaps and detailed understanding of how planes work.

Negroni's expertise is impressive. She cites and describes many cases of crashes and near-crashes, aiming to find precisely what went wrong.

After the quick early start, the book slows down. I wasn't as interested in the section on crashes where the true causes have been covered up for political reasons. Not that those cases aren't important -- the mystery of the 1985 Gander crash that killed 248 did get me thinking -- but they tended to focus on backstabbing and cover-your-ass politicking that just wasn't as compelling as the rest of the book.

Negroni also made a tactical error in the last section of the book. In that section, she describes a variety of incidents where pilots' heroism or bold thinking prevented a crash, or at least made it less lethal. But she chose intertwine the stories, bouncing back and forth between them. Frankly, it gets confusing. It would have been better to tell each story separately.

That said, "The Crash Detectives" is still an engaging read. And for all the aviation perils described here, Negroni does make the point that air travel is still the safest way to get around.

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Book review: "The Essential Retirement Guide" by Frederick Vettese

There are enough calculations, graphs and number-loaded tables in Frederick Vettese's "The Essential Retirement Guide" to send your average actuary into orgiastic heaven. For those who get their thrills comparing savings-rate projections, computing wealth targets and estimating spending patterns, this book is a page-turner.

Is it for the average reader? Not really. "The Essential Retirement Guide" goes far deeper into the weeds than most people need to go, or should go.

That said, Vettese does have some decent points to make. To save you the trouble of actually reading the book, let me see if I can sum them up.

  • Save 7% to 10% of your income for retirement during your working years. Add more during good times. 
  • In choosing investments, note that there is no correlation between high fees and high returns.
  • You will spend less in retirement, often a lot less.
  • The often-used rule of thumb that says you will need 70% of your pre-retirement income once you retire is wrong. Most people can be content with 50% or 60% of income, Vettese says, and some could go as low as 40%. This is good news for those who haven't saved very much for retirement.
  • We are living longer and you should plan for that. Check a lifespan calculator on the Internet to get an idea of how long you have left.
  • Annuities are good. It's better to put your retirement savings in an annuity and guarantee yourself income for life than to try to manage the money yourself and risk running out of funds before you die, Vettese says.
  • If you are managing your own money, withdrawing 5% a year in retirement is "relatively safe." That's bit more than the usual "4% rule."
  • The probability of requiring long-term care is 50% for women, 40% for men. It is better to set money aside for this possibility than to pay the high premiums of long-term care insurance. 
Confused by any of that? Well, I guess you'll have to look at the book.

Vettese is Canadian, so the book has a bit more than you would expect on considerations for Canadian citizens. Still, he does show knowledge of things like U.S. taxes and Social Security for American readers.

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Book review: "Overboard!" by Michael J. Tougias

When Ron Burd stepped onto the sailboat Almeisan in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was hoping for a bit of "heavy weather" on the trip that he and four others were about to make to Bermuda.

Burd, 70, was one of three volunteer crew members who had signed up for the voyage led by Captain Tom Tighe. Burd wanted to learn all he could about "blue-water" sailing from Tighe and first mate Lochlin Reidy so he could do his own trip to Bermuda some day.

Burd got his heavy weather -- and then some. Four days into the 2005 voyage, the Almeisan was engulfed in a massive storm. Tighe and Reidy were hurled into the water to fight for their lives, while Burd, Chris Ferrer, and Kathy Gilchrist remained aboard a damaged sailboat on the verge of sinking.

And so begins the drama in another of  Michael J. Tougias' page-turning stories of maritime disaster. I've read two of Tougias' previous books -- "Fatal Forecast" and "A Storm to Soon" -- and "Overboard!" matches both of them in intensity and drama. If you're looking for a story to become absorbed in, any of these books will provide an immersion experience.

Like the other books, Tougias interviewed all the participants in the Almeisan episode -- not just the crew, but Coast Guard rescuers as well. Armed with ample material, he is able to recreate scenes with remarkable details and precision. It's no exaggeration to say you feel like you're there.

I was impressed by the tenacity and ingenuity of the sailors as they faced increasingly desperate situations. When the main radio dies, Ferrer rewires it to a different circuit on the ship's electrical system. When that doesn't work, he starts disassembling a large rechargeable flashlight in hopes of using that. But before he's done with that, Gilchrist searches the ship and locates a spare battery that brings the radio alive. They do all this while their sailboat is being violently tossed around by the seas.

I don't want to give away too many details of the story and spoil it, but "Overboard!" takes some turns you won't expect. There's also some humor near the end when one survivor gets his first opportunity to eat after a harrowing 28-hour struggle in the seas.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Floating the Boise River -- tips and tricks

Floating down the Boise River can be a fun way to spend a summer day in Idaho's capital city. It can also be a pretty chilly, and possibly scary, experience if you're not prepared.

At its heart, floating the river in an inflatable tube or boat is one of the simplest leisure activities. Pretty much all you have to do, really, is lay there as the river carries you along. But to do it right you have to plan carefully.

When my family and I floated the Boise River in late July 2016 we did some things right and some wrong. Here are some tips so you can learn from our mistakes:

What's it like? 

Climb onto your tube or boat and the river takes you away. I found the current swifter than I expected. I don't know what the actual speed was, but we were moving faster than walkers on the riverside paths. Only near the end did it slow down to a more sedate "lazy river" pace.

You only have to paddle occasionally to turn your craft or to stay with other members of your group. If you're all on separate tubes, as we were, you can occasionally get separated from each other. It can take a little extra paddling to get everyone back together.

There are several small "waterfalls" on the route, though don't get freaked by that term. They're fun falls, not Niagara Falls. At first, all you hear is a vague rumble coming from down the river. You see that you're approaching some frothing whitewater, but you can't really tell what you'll be going over. That can make you nervous! But when you get there, it's a short, swift chute, like a playground slide.

In some spots, the river splits to go around a small island. When you encounter this, it's usually best to try to pick the deeper channel, otherwise you may run aground on rocks.

The river is pretty and lined with trees the whole way. Along with walkers or runners on nearby paths, we also saw a handful of fishermen.

Where do you start? 

Start at Barber Park on the east side of Boise and ride the river six miles to Ann Morrison Park in downtown. There is $3-a-person shuttle that runs between the parks. We paid for the shuttle at Barber Park and they gave me receipt that I kept dry in my pocket inside a plastic baggie. You can't really extend the distance in either direction because of dams on the river. You could pull out earlier than Ann Morrison Park if you've planned ahead for some kind of car shuttle.

How long does it take?

It took us about two and a half hours.We only stopped for one short break. Your time will depend in part on the speed of the river, which will slow as the water volume falls during the summer.

Tube or boat?

You can float the Boise River in an inflatable tube or inflatable boat. We chose to float in tubes that we had bought at Big 5 for just $12 each. This was pretty simple and inexpensive, but it had some disadvantages. First, the water was REALLY cold, and with the tubes we had we were sitting in the water basically the whole time. Even though the air temperature was in the 90s, we got uncomfortably chilled.

We also hit our butts on some rocks, though nothing too bad. You learn to lift your butt in low-water spots. 

And sitting in a tube for a long time can get uncomfortable. I eventually flopped over onto my stomach, which was a nice change, but that position too will get uncomfortable after a while. I'm not sure whether sitting in an inflatable boat would necessarily be more comfortable since we didn't try that.

Sitting in a boat will keep you out of the chilly water and you might even be able to bring some beverages and snacks. On the other hand, if it's a hot day, sitting in a boat might not cool you off enough. You might wish you were in the water.

A nice compromise would be to use a tube with a "floor" -- a cover for the hole so you're not totally sitting in the water and your rear end is somewhat protected from the rocks.

Rent or bring your own?

You can rent many inflatables at Barber Park, including the tubes with a floor. That's pretty convenient and they will include life jackets at no extra charge. They inflate the craft for you, too.

Buying and bringing your own would probably be cheaper in the long run since you can, of course, keep your inflatable for future swimming or floating trips. .

If you bring your own tubes or boat, you'll have to inflate them yourself.  Barber Park is nicely set up for that with a whole row of free air pumps.

Get life jackets?

We didn't get life jackets, and we survived without any problems. Nor did we see anyone in trouble. Still, in retrospect, I think we should have brought them. For one thing, the river is moving pretty fast. It's possible to get tangled in logs or branches at the side of the river unexpectedly. If one person got in some kind of trouble, it would be tough for anyone else in the group to help, because they'd have to fight the river's current to get back upstream.

Take a break?

I'd recommend taking at least one break along the way to stretch out and perhaps warm in the sun. There are some small "beaches" along the shore.  We waited too long to take a break and by that time we were all pretty chilled.

What to wear?

Wear a swimsuit or something else that you don't mind getting wet. Also wear some kind shoes -- I wore old running shoes. I'd suggest the shoes be closed-toes to protect yourself from rocks.

What do you do with your stuff?

We left all our clothes in our car at Barber Park. But what do you do with your keys? I was afraid of the electronic key fob getting wet if I carried them along on the float, and also of just flat losing the keys in the river.

My solution was crude but simple. I hid the keys under the lip of car's bumper. It worked. I'm not sure you want to try the same thing, but you should think about what you'll do before you head out.

When should you go?

I'd pick the hottest possible day because the water is so cold. I would also pick a day later in the summer when the river slows down a bit.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How to set a default browser when Windows 10 won't let you

Microsoft wants to force you to use its products in Windows 10. So it can make it very difficult to set your default browser to anything but Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge.

I didn't want either of those, but found it difficult to change. Here's what worked for me:

1. Click on the Windows start icon on the bottom left.

2. Click on Settings -- the gear-like icon

3. Click on "System"

4. Click on "Default Apps"

5. On right side, scroll to the bottom and click on "Set Defaults by App"

6. Click on the browser you want, such as Chrome or Firefox

7. At the bottom, click on "Set this program as default."

Worked for me!

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Hike to Louie Lake near McCall, Idaho

Louie Lake
Louie Lake is a pretty alpine lake hidden in the mountains of central Idaho. It's a nice reward at the end of a modest hike that starts near the town of McCall. You might want to bring a lunch to eat on the shore of the lake, or if you dare, plunge into the lake's chilly waters.

The hike to Louie Lake is around four and half miles round-trip -- not terribly long, but be aware that the route in is a steady uphill climb, some of it steep. You gain about 1,500 feet in elevation in all.

Some online guides say this trail can be a hard to follow. That's not really true, as long as you stick to a simple rule: Just keeping going up. 

Driving in, the last five miles or so are on a winding dirt road. At the parking area, you'll find the Louie Lake trailhead toward the right end (as you arrive). There is a sign for the trail, so don't assume you've found the trail if you don't see it marked. If you immediately cross a creek on a log "bridge," you're on the right trail.


Key point: When you hit a fire road (logging road?), follow it uphill. Do NOT cross the road and follow the trail down on the other side. Stick to the road.

Soon after that, you will see a crudely painted sign pointing Louie Lake hikers to the right. My first instinct when I saw this was to take a 90-degree turn right and follow a trail down. That's wrong. Just slightly tilt to the right side of the road at the sign and continue to go up. Stay on the road.

Have fun!

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Book review: "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler"

I first heard of the book, "From  the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" somewhere around third grade. But it wasn't until I was well into my 50s that I read it for the first time, aloud, to my two kids.

I'd always had the impression that this was a fun, and funny, book. I mean "mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" sounds silly right off the bat, right? So I was surprised how serious the book is. Author E.L. Konigsburg uses the story about two kids who run away to live in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to make some serious points about growing up.


The premise seems rather kooky. A sister and brother run away from home to live at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. They avoid the guards by hiding in the bathrooms and manage to get locked in each night. I kept hoping for some "Night at the Museum"-type craziness to happen after hours, but the only thing that came close was when they bathed in the fountain at the darkened museum restaurant..

Instead, Claudia and Jamie find themselves looking into a mystery: Is a sculpture called Angel really the work of Michelangelo? Their investigation pushes the story ahead, and takes them eventually into, yes, the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Konigsburg does well developing the interaction of Claudia and Jamie and you can see them maturing in the story. Mrs. Frankweiler helps them understand the meaning of their quest.

Still, I don't know if the story is really interesting enough for young readers.  There's no real danger and the surprises are fairly mild. It sticks to a fairly narrow story line following the daily lives of Claudia and Jamie. And the character of Claudia, who is bossy and nitpicks her brother's grammar, rubbed my daughter the wrong way. She called Claudia "annoying."

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tap cards expire and Metro won't refund your money

As I entered the Civic Center subway stop in Los Angeles a few nights ago, I pulled out my wallet as I always do. My wallet contains my Tap Card, the "ticket" that stores money for using Los Angeles Metro rail lines.

All I have to do -- and I've done it well over a thousand times -- is slap my wallet on the Tap Card circle as you enter the station's gates and the turnstiles unlock.

But on this day something different happened. I tapped my wallet and pushed the turnstiles -- and they did not move. Huh?  I tapped again, and again the turnstiles remained locked. An adjacent screen read, "Card is expired."

"Tap Cards expire?" That was what almost everybody said when I told them this story. Just like me, few of my train-riding friends knew that Tap Cards have an expiration date. How would you know? There's no expiration date on the card.

Indeed, Tap Cards do expire, although I still have no idea why. I spoke to two Metro representatives and neither could tell me.

The problem, in my case, was that I still had $35 stored on my card. What to do?
I called and asked Metro:

Could I go to a Metro ticket machine and transfer the money to a new Tap card? No.

Could I transfer the money online at the Metro's "TaptoGo" website? No.

Could they transfer the money to a new card and mail it to me? No.

Could they refund my money? No. (I don't see how that's legal.)

The one and only option was to buy a new Tap Card for $1 at a machine and then call Metro back and transfer the dollars from the old card to the new one. Keep in mind that every call to Metro requires a minimum of 10 minutes on hold.

Also, since I am part of an employer plan that pays half the cost of riding public transit, I will have to call the administrator of the plan and get my new card entered into their system.

One very inconvenient option. It's almost as if Metro wants people to give up on the money they have on their old cards -- and maybe they do. It turns out that millions of dollars goes unused on old Tap Cards, and that amounts to pure profit for Metro.

I guess that's why Tap Cards expire.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Book review: "Shark Tank -- Secrets to Success"

"Shark Tank -- Secrets to Success" is a fun book for fans of the ABC TV show "Shark Tank."

The book gives you the back story behind nine sets of entrepreneurs who appeared on the show to ask the panel of "sharks" to invest in their companies.

Author Michael Parrish DuDell gives us stories of successes and failures, and emphasizes the "lessons" to be learned from each entrepreneur's experience.  Frankly, I liked learning about the problems and mistakes most, because those are rarely shown even when "Shark Tank" does an update on a particular business.

You get some view behind the scenes of the show, but I would have liked more on that element.

DuDell offers a kind of "rah-rah," let's-root-for-this-entrepreneur perspective. At one point, referring to a problems faced by one entrepreneur, he writes, "instead of backing down she doubled down." The writing is adequate, but don't expect anything too deep.

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

The mysteries of Millikan High School sports

Let's say you're a parent considering signing up your daughter for the girls cross country team at Millikan High School in Long Beach, California.

You probably have many questions, such as:
  • Who is the coach? How can I reach him or her?
  • How do I sign up my daughter? Are there tryouts? If so, when?
  • When is the season, and how long does it last?
  • When are practices?
  • Is there training during the summer?
  • How much does it cost?
Logically, you head to the official web page of the Millikan girls cross country team where, as I write this, you will find exactly NONE of the answers to those questions, Here is the page:



That's right, absolutely no information at all. Not only that, it says "Cross County" not "Cross Country."

It's worth noting that Millikan High School is not some tiny, podunk school that is only now learning about a thing called the Internet. Millikan is a 4,000-student high school, with 185 staff members, in the Long Beach Unified School District, one of the largest districts in California.

In case you think I just happened to catch the Millikan girls cross country page at a bad moment, note that the page, misspelling and all, has remained unchanged for 10 58 consecutive days.

By comparison, anyone interested in cross country at nearby Wilson High School, also in Long Beach, will find a full-fledged website dedicated to the team with a complete roster of both boys and girls teams, bios and pictures of the coaches, and complete competition results from the past three seasons.

Is it just the girls cross country team page at Millikan that's weak? Hardly.

The boys cross country page, as I write this, has an announcement about tennis, and nothing else. The boys water polo team page has the same announcement, an outdated schedule and nothing else.

Nine other teams have only an outdated schedule on their pages and no other information: girls basketball, track, girls water polo, baseball, boys golf, softball, girls swimming, girls golf, and boys volleyball

The gymnastics page deserves special mention: It has an outdated schedule and -- get this -- an eight-sentence report about the results of a meet from March. Hey, that's not bad, right? Well, keep in mind that the meet was in March 2010 -- six years ago.

It's disturbing that so many organizations don't recognize that their web site is their face to the world. It's the first thing people see when they come to learn more about your group. It's a page people will return to again and again -- if it is useful and up-to-date.  Sadly, these Millikan pages are none of those.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Notable consumer data breaches:

Oct. 2013: A Vietnam-based identity theft ring allegedly stole data for 500,000 Americans, then posted the information for sale on websites, including superget.info and findget.me.

June 2013: Hackers targeted 15 financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and E-Trade, as part of a nearly two-year-long scheme that involved hacking into customer accounts to steal at least $15 million.
  
Oct. 2012: Barnes & Noble said data thieves hacked into payment devices and may have stolen customer credit and debit card information at 63 of its stores, including 20 in California.

Jan. 2012: Zappos.com was the victim of a cyber attack by a hacker who accessed customer information on the company's internal network and systems. The company said the potentially exposed information included names, email addresses, billing and shipping addresses, phone numbers and the last four digits of credit card numbers.
Oct. 2011: Groups of identity thieves took $13 million from consumers, banks and businesses through a worldwide credit card fraud operation that involved shopping sprees at local malls, officials said.
June 2011: Hackers broke into Citi's online account site and stole names, account numbers and email addresses of about 200,000 Citibank credit card customers in North America.
August 2008: The Bank of New York Mellon reported that a security breach involving the loss of backup data storage tapes affected about 8 million more individuals than originally thought.
  
August 2008: The FBI arrested a former Countrywide Financial Corp. employee and another man in an alleged scheme to steal and sell sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers, of as many as 2 million mortgage applicants.

August 2008: Federal authorities said they had cracked the largest case of identity theft in U.S. history, charging 11 people in the theft of more than 40 million credit and debit card account numbers from computer systems at such major retailers as TJ Maxx and Barnes & Noble.
July 2008: Hackers broke into Citibank's network of ATMs inside 7-Eleven stores and stole customers' PIN codes, according to recent court filings that revealed a disturbing security hole in the most sensitive part of a banking record.

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