June 22, 2013

Live on the Keep Cool trail

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 5:11 pm

9:11 keep cool trailhead
GPS acting weird again; so is the car’s power door lock
9:23 tree on trail
1004 GPS normal. Drier than usual. 0.6mi
1016 time to strip 3700′ skeeters
1027 wild bdry 3900′. End of first steep section. Still steep!
1037 snow on level 4000′
1050 uphill again. Little snow
1102 steep snow spot. Pic
1108 stream pic
1121 heavy snow by stream. Oops. Post-holed to waist
1124 back on trail which is a stream?
1137 4600′ well past the steep stream, traversing toward meadow on deep old snow pic
1201 edge of meadow 4750′. Pic
1210 stopped for lunch. Can’t find a good view tho Shuksan is clear. Damn trees! Pic
1220 no lollygagging today. Outta here. Nervous about car. Pulled fuse but…
1228 heavens to Betsy! I have 4g service. Will try posting thi mess.

I wrote this stuff while hiking the Keep Cool trail, mostly to test out the WordPress App for my new iPhone. When I got to the lunch place I was receiving a good signal from the Mount Baker Ski Area so I decided to try publishing it. Complete wipeout: couldn’t tell what happened, whether saved or not, nothing. Now I cannot do anything with the iOS app – get a message “Couldn’t sync; Sorry, you cannot edit posts on this site” – iPhone is now a brick as far a WordPress goes.

But it did apparently get saved to WordPress since it was in my account (the one I “cannot edit”) when I got home, where it says “Draft saved at 5:06:50 pm. Last edited on June 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm” which is about right. Strange app.

Where I put the word “pic” I intended to include pictures I was taking on the phone, which would be cool. But isn’t.

June 19, 2013

iPhone, uPhone, weAllPhone

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 2:47 pm

Well, if it weren’t enough that I knocked a piece off my car last week, on Saturday I ran my cell phone through the wash!

The old gadgets

The Old

It was cleaner than ever but it didn’t work very well. It is an old (ca. 2006) Motorola flip phone with prepaid service through Tracfone, a MVNO that offers cheap, barebones phone service that runs on the AT&T network. You hear a lot of bad-mouthing about Ma Bell’s stepchild but I have never had any problems with dropped calls or anything and it runs on the GSM system, which means the phones are compatible with most cell networks in the world (unlike the US-only CDMA and TDMA systems). I just have the phone for emergencies and for convenience when traveling, so a prepaid plan is perfect for me – they can get pretty costly if you do a lot of calling and texting (which is terribly awkward on this sort of phone) but I paid about 10 bucks for the phone originally and pay about $90 per YEAR for service. You get a few hundred minutes every year when you renew and it has about 1200 unused minutes that have rolled over for the last 7 years. (My wife has over 4000 minutes on hers.)

So I figured that it was unlikely to come back to life (since I kind of did everything wrong when I tried to dry it out) and maybe it was time for a more useful phone – one with a decent sort of keyboard, either a touch screen or one of those Blackberry-type QWERTY’s with the tiny keys, so that I could text away some of those minutes and have less of a struggle when entering names into the contact list.

This takes on special significance given that the last time I changed phones I had to reenter all of the contacts! The flip phone has a USB connector but nothing happens on either end when I attach it to my computer. They may have fixed this by now, but I have seen no mention on their web site. This whole business of incompatibility between the address books my Mac computers and on the phone is my only major complaint about the Tracfone service.

So I dived into the website and looked closely at about 5 of the phones that can be used in our area and was getting pretty close to picking a Motorola with a touch screen when I looked at the physical specifications: these things are shaped like my iPod Touch or an iPhone, roughly 2-2.5 inches wide and about 4-5 inches tall, but they are over one-half inch thick! That may not sound like much, but given that they do not run apps compatible with Apple’s iOS nor with Google’s Android system or synchronize with any reasonable music or podcasts system, I would still have to carry my old iPod along to cover the many things I use it for. It is only about a quarter-inch thick but that would all total up to a pocket bulge almost an inch thick.

The new iPhone 4sEnter the iPhone

Now I am a cheapskate in many ways. I don’t mind spending some money on nice and useful things, but I really hate just wasting money. [I’ve even been feeling a little guilty lately for not getting more use out of  the expensive camera I bought a few months ago] As much as I like Apple’s gadgets in general and the iPhone in particular, the idea of paying $100-130 per MONTH for service (I actually saw a plan for $550/month) when I can’t even live up to a service that costs about $7.50 just put me off.

But it seems that you no longer have to buy an iPhone with a contract. I was aware that you could “unlock” a phone after the 2- or 3-year contract expired (at which point you would have coughed up $2000 to $3000) and then move it to one of the MVNO’s. But now you can buy the last three models of phone contract-free off the shelf from Apple, all legal and aboveboard.

Of course the service providers heavily subsidize the cost of the phone when you sign two years away to them, so the “unlocked” phone costs quite a bit more. The thought of spending more for a phone than I spent for my first car did pluck some pretty resonant strings of tightwaddity but I was already lost. I made a couple of ill-fated attempts to get a used unlocked phone on Craig’s List, but on Monday morning I took the plunge – I ordered an iPhone 4s from Apple and drove to Lynnwood (Skagit River bridge detour be damned! There’s another story there…) to pick it up.

Then the service…

I decided to dip one toe into the MVNO market and bought one month’s service from h2o wireless for 10 bucks, since Tracfone does not support the iPhone. I want very much to keep my old flip phone’s number, which is very easy to remember, so the activation process is taking a bit longer than it might have. I put the transfer request in yesterday at 2:30 and they said to call them in 24 hours if I didn’t have service. It is now 2:45 and no service on the iPhone but the flip phone went out of service a couple of hours ago, so I have hope that there is progress. I will go ahead and publish this before I make the call because who knows how long…


Turns out that all I had to do was power the phone off and back on and now everything works! As soon as I got home yesterday I transferred all the stuff (music, podcasts, apps and data) from my iPod Touch and now voice and text work, also. I seem to be having trouble with the Internet Data connection, so the adventure continues.


The iPhone looks kind of cheesy in the photo because I plastered on an old plastic screen protector from an even earlier iPod Touch that didn’t quite fit and had to be trimmed to expose the camera and speaker. I’ve ordered some new screen protectors and a case or two but they won’t be here for a week or more and I am startlingly talented at scratching things.


The old flip phone did actually come back to life – I used it for all the calls to the various service providers – and it seems to be fine. Anyone want an old flip phone?

June 14, 2013

Adventures in the World of Auto Recycling

Filed under: Hiking — geezerwriter @ 3:24 pm
Dust Deflector

Dust Deflector

Last Wednesday night I went to a picnic and pulled the really dumb stunt of trying to back my car into a narrow space by some trees. I realized the car would be brushing away some leafy branches (old car – who cares?) but I didn’t see a heavy old branch with a sharp right-angle bend hidden by some leaves. I heard a noise and stopped to check and saw the branch touching the corner of the car – it looked like the tree was leaning against the car on its elbow. It didn’t look like a big deal so I just drove out and parked elsewhere, but when I got home I saw that a big chuck of the plastic thing that directs the flow of air from the top of car down over the rear window was missing.

Now it’s an old car (2001 Subaru Forester) but it is my most favoritest car ever ever. The new Foresters are OK and probably superior in many ways but they, like all car models, keep getting bigger year by year, and I just like this one, thank you very much.

I figured that it might cost a fortune to replace the thing, auto dealers being, well…whatever they are. So what are my choices?

1. The same as I did when the front bug/stone deflector on the front of the car broke on a trip through Nevada – take it off, throw it away and get on with life.

The front stone guard was kind of cool looking but I had only bought it for my trip to Alaska on those horrible gravel roads (that never materialized). This thing, on the other hand, does a great job of keeping the rear window clean. We had another wagon-type car without one of these things and the window would be caked with mud in the blink of an eye on a rainy day, of which we have several every year week. It would probably work pretty well as is but it looks really bad – makes the car look like an old junker. Which it sort of is, but anyways…

2. Go back and recover the missing piece and try to repair it.

I rejected this notion out of hand when Mike suggested it since I figured that any repair I could manage would probably not last, turning the errant piece into an unguided missile at 70 on some freeway, and would probably look as bad or worse.

3. Buy a replacement – it looks like it would be pretty easy to remove and install.

Number 3 looked like a clear winner, assuming that I could find a replacement without spending most of my daughter’s inheritance. On Wednesday night I had done a bit of searching on the InterWebs but I didn’t even know what to call the thing. Words like “rear” and “deflector” led me to things like differentials and sunroof protectors.

So I dropped into the local Subaru dealer after Thursday’s hike. I expected to find that it would cost more that the Blue Book value of the car but maybe I could get a part number and a description to aid in my searching. The nice man at the Dewey-Griffin parts desk had to dig out a tattered and dog-eared old binder but there it was, part number and all. He typed it into his workstation and, Lo and Behold! the price was a measly, paltry $75. Maybe a bit much for a piece of plastic, but it is a very useful and very large and very sturdy piece, so I was reaching for my wallet as he checked for availability and whoops! they don’t make or stock those any more!

The new, larger Forester with its 30-35 highway MPG was looking better momentarily.

Back to the Internet

But now I knew that it was called a “rear dust deflector” and I had a nice, complicated part number! So now I could put out a more focused search query: “dust deflector” Subaru E7510FS000 – the quotation marks should eliminate hitting on “bug deflector” and the part number should be ornate enough to avoid false hits.

And I did get some promising looking results but when I delved deeper they were all referring to model years 2003 and later. Even eBay came up empty.

I had passed up a couple of sites that looked a little strange and seemed to be in the used parts business – I presumed that meant junkyards. They produced lots of stuff for a 2001 Forester (it is not at all hard to find essential mechanical and electrical and even trim parts, but my thing was an accessory) but nothing about dust deflectors. But they proffered a service where you can enter information about the part you want and they would distribute it to a “network” of “auto recyclers”. I picked one called “Automotix” – it looked a little dodgy but I went ahead and put in my request, whereupon I was asked for $5.95 to “qualify” my request so that I would be taken more seriously. By junkyard owners!

But they said it would be refunded if I actually made a purchase and I guess I was feeling desperate so WTF, why not?

A Step Back

The main reason I had dismissed option #2 was that I assumed that the deflector was made of something like Lexan (polycarbonate) which is extremely strong (e.g. bulletproof “glass” and football helmets) but also extremely hard to work with. But I had learned that the deflector is actually acrylic plastic and back in 7th grade we little mackerel snappers had made a short weekly trek to the local public school for shop class, including a unit on acrylic fabrication. We didn’t make anything more sophisticated than a cookbook holder but we did learn that you could bond acrylic with a solvent (I think we used acetone). It wouldn’t fill any gaps but if you had a really tight fit between two parts it would soften the acrylic and allow the molecules to interact, forming something more like a weld than a glue joint, reported to be as strong as a solid piece of plastic.

So back to the Internet to find “how to bond acrylic”, where I found the usual melange of helpful / contradictory / authoritative / boneheaded results and settled on methylene chloride (dichloromethane) as the solvent of choice. This is some very nasty stuff – it used to be the most common ingredient in paint remover. It has been largely supplanted by more environmentally friendly potions for that purpose but it is still the stuff you want to use if you want to actually, really get cured paint off something. So I ordered the smallest quantity I could find (I’ll probably use 1cc or less) and went back and recovered the missing piece.

A Step Forward?

Meanwhile, back at the junkyard, a response had popped up from Automotix. It looked suspiciously like an automated response, referring to “your part” rather than “your dust deflector” but it gave a toll-free number for a “Midwest Distributors” in Gilbert, Arizona. It was getting weirder and weirder (Arizona -Midwest?), I got disconnected a couple of times, talked to some really brusque, even surly, guys. But at least they gave a physical address (which checked out on Google Maps) and I finally got the Exterior Parts division, where Jake didn’t have any “dust reflectors” listed, but I should take a picture and email it to him so he could “go out and look at the car.”

Still not completely un-weird. But, again, why not?

After I sent Jake the photo, another response popped up from Automotix: an outfit in the Twin Cities could ship my dust deflector immediately upon receipt of my remittance for $877.55! Strangely enough yesterday I had “joked” to my hiking friends that it would “probably cost $750” to replace it. Click “delete.”

And within 5 minutes I got Jake’s reply, which I quote in its entirety:

100 plus 35 frt

At this point it was all so weird that it couldn’t be anything but genuine. A scammer would put on a much better show! So I replied, asking how we might consummate this transaction; again, I quote:

name address cc and experation date and cvt 3 dig code on the back i
can email you tracking done deal

I probably should have called him back, at least, and given him the data on the phone, but I was just having way too good a time.

So now I await two shipments  – a big piece of plastic and a small bottle of toxic waste. Between the two of them my car should soon be as good as new old. Ain’t modern life grand?

June 11, 2013

Snow, snow, go away!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , , — geezerwriter @ 9:00 pm

Since we are planning to go up the Excelsior Pass Trail on Thursday, I had planned to go up today and check out the snow level. But I’m still feeling the effects of a very big weekend of choral singing. And there are those two blisters on my little toes from the long flat hike last week – it’s always the flat hikes that give me trouble.

Wells Creek Snow Depth

Wells Creek Snow Depth

Anyways, I stayed home and mowed the lawn and lazed about the house.

Luckily the good folks at the National Weather and Climate Center of the National Resource Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, have been kind enough to install some remote snow monitoring stations in the North Cascades and elsewhere. I’ve built a little spreadsheet into which I can download their data and generate some graphs.

The graphs to the left show the situation about a thousand feet feet below the Cougar Divide trailhead along Wells Creek Road – about 4000 feet above sea level. The lower graph shows the actual Snow Depth and the upper one the “Water Equivalent” of that snow – how deep the water would be if you could melt all that snow and somehow keep it from running off down the hill. It basically measures the total mass of the snow, ignoring the air that is trapped therein.

The red lines are the averages of “average” years – I graphed all the data and saw that they tended to clump together, except for a few years that were much lower or higher than the others. So I dropped those “outliers” from the average.

The orange and green lines are 2011 and 2012, respectively, which were very heavy snow years. In 2011 the Department O’ Truckin’ was not able to clear Mount Baker Highway to the end.

And blue is this year. On the Snow Depth chart we are already below average and the Water Equivalent is dropping steeply; it is down to 8.5″ and decreasing about 1″ per day.

Now this information has to be taken with a grain of salt – it is only one spot in a region of  tiny microclimates, the sensors have not been seen or touched by a human since the road closed last fall, etc. But the year-to-year comparison has a good chance of being valid.

But I’ll present it as pretty good news for hikers. We had a lot of snow in the middle of winter but it seems to have stopped (pretty much) quite awhile ago and has been melting like crazy in the recent warm weather – remember how Hidden Creek was roaring last week. And the place we are hiking this week is directly across the North Fork Nooksack Valley – a little further from the “snow fence” effect from Mount Baker (so there tends to be less snow) and on the south-facing side of the valley (so it melts faster). Getting to the Pass (over 5000′) is very unlikely, but I think we have an excellent chance getting to 4000′ feet without hitting snow, which would give us a nice hike in the woods and over two thousand feet of elevation gain. And, of course, we can always continue for aways on the snow – traction tires are advised.


1. It is my impression that the Water Equivalent, while harder to picture, is the more dependable of the two measures since it is easier to measure.

B. The last three years have been well above “normal.” Are we seeing the emergence of a new “normal?”


Filed under: Geology, Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — geezerwriter @ 8:00 pm
Hidden Creek

Hidden Creek

Last Thursday an even dozen of us geezers made the long drive down through Skagit County, despite the risk of being caught up in the traffic due to the the recent collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River, around to the east side of Mount Baker and all the way up to the top of Baker Lake to hike the East Bank Trail as far as the mouth of Noisy Creek. It is a wonderful hike through an old growth forest above the shore of Baker Lake, about 10 miles round trip with roughly 1000 feet of ups and downs along the way – not usually enough to justify a 140 mile round trip drive, but we are getting pretty tired of hiking on the coast and eager to get into the mountains. This area is less than 1000 feet above sea level so the winter snows, if there were any, are long gone.

(You can read more about the hike on my friend DJan’s blog D-Jan-ity.)

But there was plenty of snow on the high ridge above us, as evidenced by the roaring meltwaters in Hidden Creek, which we crossed about halfway along. That smokiness in the background is not fog or mist, since it was warm, dry day – it is all spray from the creek. We had to shout to be heard over the waters’ roar while standing on the bridge, and this isn’t even the one they call Noisy Creek!

A few months ago I blew part of my daughter’s inheritance on a new camera and I’ve been meaning to publish some of its pictures and describe its cool features, but for now I’ll just show a couple. The main reason I bought the new Sony RX-100 is that it has a larger light sensor than most point-and-shoot cameras, making for less “noisy” pictures. When one crams a whole lot of pixels into a tiny sensor, the electrons can “leak” from on pixel to another, giving a messy, smeared effect especially in low light situations. The larger sensor will allow me fewer excuses – on another day I will show off more of its abilities.

The picture above is cropped from a vertical, about 30% of the original. It is not a great picture but it shows pretty good color rendition in low light.

At our destination we enjoyed a splendid view of Mount Baker including as a special treat a substantial cloud of steam from the crater.

Baker from Noisy Camp

Baker from Noisy Camp

The crater is that notch between the two peaks (named for Generals Sherman and Grant). It is always giving off steam but it is often obscured by other cloudiness or blown away by strong winds. It is my understanding that the steam does not come directly out of the volcano, but results from the ever-present snow at that altitude melting and seeping down into cracks until it is boiled off by the hot magma that lies below the surface.

And that picture is not a great one, either, but it is an example of one of the new camera’s many fancy tricks – it automatically noticed that it was an extremely high contrast situation, from the hikers in the deep shade on the beach to the snow on Baker. In a single image either the hikers would be black silhouettes or the mountain would washed out to bone white. This camera, without being asked, took three quick pictures at different exposures and blended them into one. This is called High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing and has been available as a post-process after the images are uploaded to the computer but this gadget does it on the fly.

More Noises

Baker River GPS error

Baker River GPS error

Near the end of the hike, as we approached the trailhead, I glanced at my GPS and noticed that it was indicating that we were quite far from the track that it had it had recorded in the morning. I was pretty sure there weren’t two trails! And sure enough, when we got back on to the earlier track there was no second trail and no sharp turn. The picture on the right (you can click to enlarge it) shows a number of tracks from previous times we had hiked this trail all looking roughly the same and the new one, in bright red, following along with the others but then turning sharply to the right and bouncing around a bit before resuming a northeasterly course roughly parallel to the true one. It even shows us going well out into the river (I think we would have noticed that!) before getting its act together at the bridge.

Hoypus Hokum

Hoypus Hokum

Now I don’t watch the GPS all the time, but I had noticed in the morning that it was showing an accuracy of about 30 feet. However that spurious track is a couple of hundred feet from the true one. We were in a pretty deep valley but it was a clear day in a light forest and all the rest of the track looks pretty normal.

And this is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of thing. Last year (or was it two?) we were hiking at Hoypus Hill in Deception Pass State Park on another clear, dry day (water, in clouds or on trees, can absorb radio waves and interfere with GPS reception), in light forest cover but this time on the top of a hill with no mountains blocking the sky (another potential GPS vexer) and I got the track shown in red on the map to the left. It has roughly the same S-shape – it even flattens out for a while near the middle of the S – but veers way off from the true track. . And it eventually drifted  back “on track.”

Cub Creek Crud

Cub Creek Crud

And then there was the time on the Cub Creek hike on Stewart Mountain east of Bellingham – again a bright, clear day, near the top of the mountain with a hill on one side blocking some sky but not much. And this time we were walking on a level road so the tree cover was minimal and the true track was right there on the map on the GPS device. We were proceeding east-to-west when the track veered off, again keeping the same general shape – notice that there is a small, gentle inflection about halfway along that shows on both tracks. In this case the red track takes a sudden screeching turn to the left and zips back to the road.

What gives?

So how is this possible? The GPS knows nothing about its direction of travel (I usually have the compass feature turned off since it eats a lot of battery time) or the shape of the trails – it just receives signals from a number of satellites that allow it to triangulate its location. It is supposed to know where it is at any time, but that’s all. And if the signals are weak or otherwise inadequate the device will show that by raising the “accuracy” distance or just bailing out entirely. In these cases it appears that the device was still receiving signals that were good enough and consistent enough to allow it work through its algorithms and come up with what appeared to be a “good” answer. And they were good enough to get the overall shape of track correct.

The Explanation ? ? ?

I was musing about this with DJan at the end of the Baker Lake hike and I remembered that at the time of the Hoypus Hill hike someone (probably DJan herself) had mentioned that we were in a period of high sunspot and solar storm activity.  And she said that that was true again now! I know almost nothing about such things but I poked around a little on the Interwebs and confirmed high activity on Thursday and higher yet on the Hoypus Hill day; Cub Creek was middling, but definitely not low.

Again, I have no idea how solar storms could do this, but a burst of radio frequency noise could conceivably fit with the notion of a widespread but temporary disruption of radio signals – after all those satellites are way up where the solar wind could get at them.

But still this is deeply weird. The only lesson that one can surely take away from this is to be very careful about trusting a GPS device. They work very well most of the time but you should always be looking for the possibility of error.

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