Jun 19

Garmin VIRB Action Camera – DO NOT BUY

A few months ago I bought a Garmin VIRB Elite “action camera”, their alternative to a GoPro. The camera itself is nice, but the editing software that comes with it is totally, completely unusable.

Any attempt to play videos captured with the VIRB gives the error message, “An error occurred playing this video”.

Other applications can play the videos just fine. But the selling point for the VIRB is that it can integrate GPS data, altitude data, speed and other information into dashboards on the video. That functionality is only possible via the software that came with the camera, which is totally broken.

On their support forums they acknowledge that it’s broken, that it’s been broken since at least April, and that they have no estimate for when they will have a fix.

I’ve contacted Garmin to ask them to let me return the VIRB for a full refund. I’ll let you know what their response is.

DO NOT BUY.

…Sam

Jan 07

Muriel Wright Lights

The Muriel Wright Residential Center, located in Santa Teresa County Park, operated continuously from the 1960s until 2012. It housed and provided rehabilitation services for youth offenders who didn’t need to be held in the traditional “Juvenile Hall”.

The closure of the Center in 2012 was not widely publicized. In fact, the County website still says it’s open.

In February 2013 the Center will be converted into office space for the Santa Clara County Parks administration, including the Volunteer Program.

The Wright Center has always loudly announced its presence to the neighbors through its bright and disruptive lights. While the rest of the Santa Teresa Hills are parkland and ranchland, dark after sunset, the Wright Center was always brightly lit. Normally the degree of light pollution generated by the Center would have been a source of controversy, but as the facility was after all a “jail” of sorts it made sense to have bright exterior lights to prevent escapes.

However, now that the Wright Center is a run of the mill office building, those lights can no longer be justified, and need to be switched off.

Consider this view of the Center as seen from the surrounding neighborhood.

The lights of the Muriel Wright Center made sense when it was a juvenile jail.  As an office building they no longer do.

The lights of the Muriel Wright Center made sense when it was a juvenile jail. As an office building they no longer do.

The photo above was taken from a mile away from the Center.

Because the Wright Center is hundreds of feet above the residential neighborhood, its light pollution impacts an enormous number of people. Thousands of people are directly impacted by the light pollution from the Wright Center. Here’s a map courtesy of www.heywhatsthat.com which shows the areas that can see the lights; areas in red are polluted by the Wright Center’s lights.

Areas in red can see the light pollution from the Muriel Wright Center.

Areas in red can see the light pollution from the Muriel Wright Center.

Now that the Wright Center is just an office building, the exterior lights need to be brought down to a sensible level. There’s no way to justify this ongoing impact to the community.

…Sam

Dec 10

Is a smartphone GPS Good Enough?

Submitted for your approval.

No.

The Garmin’s recorded track (red) precisely follows the actual trail as shown by Google Earth.

The Samsung phone (blue) … is usually in the right zip code.

Details:

Garmin 62st, latest firmware. GPS was clipped to a belt loop of my pants during the hike.

Samsung Galaxy S3, running “GPSLogger” from Google Play. Phone was in my shirt pocket during the hike.

Oct 17

Umunhum Beginning

The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) Board met tonight to determine the fate of the Cube on Mt. Umunhum.

Here’s the Mercury News article describing the results.

The bottom line is that the Board chose Option A … to preserve the Cube for 5 years, and to use that time to seek partnerships in the local community to help pay for the preservation of the Cube. MROSD will spend more than $400,000 to stabilize the Cube and make it safe for people to approach from outside, and for potential funding partners to visit.

This truly is a Beginning for Mt. Umunhum. We now have the opportunity to “put up or shut up” … to find funding sources and partnerships to make the Cube something that MROSD can afford to live with.

There’s plenty of work to do in the weeks and months to come. One or more groups need to take the lead in putting together “Friends of Mt. Umunhum” or “Umunhum Conservancy” non-profit organizations, which could then raise funds and figure out a larger plan for the Cube, working with MROSD. There was a lot of good discussion in the audience after the meeting, with ideas being swapped and contact info being exchanged. I’m sure we will see at least one such organization founded in short order.

Several of the MROSD Board members made it clear tonight that this is NOT the decision they expected they would make. They struggled with this decision for years … and some of them only recently came to accept that the Cube should remain. I’m grateful to the Board for their earnest attempt to balance their fiduciary responsibility to MROSD with the goals of the broader community.

And the MROSD Staff has been efficient and professional through the entire 2 year process that led to tonight’s decision. I’m sure they will be just as great in the 5 years to come.

Did we get everything I had hoped? No. I could list some things that I wish were different. But there’s really no point. As I noted to someone recently, “some times you have to just admit that you won and stop fighting”.

We won tonight. Now the work begins.

…Sam

Oct 14

Umumhum Speech

The pivotal meeting on the fate of the Cube on Mt. Umunhum is this Wednesday night. I hope you can attend!

During the Public Comment period before the Board votes, anyone wishing to address the Board may do so, probably for 2 minutes. I plan to make a short speech…as I’m sure many others will as well.

Several people have asked me what message I would recommend that other speakers give to the Board on Wednesday. I figured the best way to do that is to share the remarks I intend to present.

Here’s what I’m planning to say to the Mid-Pen Board on Wednesday, more or less.

I’d like to take a minute to walk through the decisions that I think you need to make tonight.

First and foremost, the Board needs to unambiguously take a position on the Cube. Assuming for the moment that money isn’t an issue … do you want to keep the Cube on Mt. Umunhum? Or do you want to tear it down? You need to vote separately to clearly answer this question tonight, separate from the other alternatives before you.

If you think your open space charter requires you to tear it down, then I urge you to reconsider whether Mid-Pen is the proper organization to control the summit of Umunhum. Vote instead to divest it to a group with a more appropriate mission than yours, who can appreciate it within their charter.

If you’re comfortable that the Cube fits into your charter, and if you WANT the Cube to remain on the mountaintop, then you can make all of this end tonight by voting for Option 3. I hope this is your choice.

If you WANT to keep the Cube, but want outside help in finding funding for it, then you have some work to do.

Options A or B as proposed by Staff won’t do it. They need a couple of additional actions.

1. The Board needs to be on the record as saying they WANT to keep the Cube.
2. The General Manager needs to be on the record as saying HE wants to keep the Cube.

Frankly nobody is going to spend 5 years trying to find funds for this project unless you are all publicly on board. If the Board and GM can’t – or won’t – do that, then Mid-Pen isn’t a viable PARTNER in that project.

In short, both the Board and Staff need to be invested in the Cube – personally as well as financially. Because it lacks any credible financial involvement, Option B is not a viable option.

If you’re willing to take those additional actions tonight – plus including any necessary repairs to prevent damage to the Cube itself in the first 5 years – then Option A might be a reasonable way forward. If that happens then I can envision a productive partnership between Mid-Pen and the other proponents of the Cube going forward, and would personally help with that effort.

…Sam Drake

Oct 12

Umunhum Endgame

On Wednesday night the Board of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District will decide the fate of the Cube on Mt. Umunhum. In previous discussions about the Cube on Mt. Umunhum, three options have been discussed:

  1. Remove the Cube entirely
  2. Remove all but the base of the Cube, or
  3. Keep the Cube intact and seal the entire structure

I and most public respondents have argued strongly in favor of Option 3…preserving the Cube.

Today Mid-Pen posted the “board packet” for the October 17 meeting. (Warning, it’s a long document.) The document describes the decisions that are on the agenda for the meeting, provides the Board and public with detailed information about various options and the General Manager’s recommendations to the Board.

In addition to the three options that have been considered before, this document now describes two additional options for the Board to consider:

  • Interim Action A: Near-term repair and securing of structure while seeking external partnerships, and
  • Interim Action B: Near-term fence around structure while seeking external partnerships

Both options A and B would “provide time (approximately 5 years) for proponents of the tower to seek partnerships, outside funding, and other additional resources to allow for implementation of Option 3.”

Option A would make necessary repairs which would allow the public to come near the Cube, including sealing all external openings, replacing stairs and guardrails, and fixing cracks in the structure … but only on the first floor. Cost: $414,000.

Option B would simply put a temporary fence around the Cube to keep everyone away. Cost: $74,000.

I, for one, welcome these new options as an attempt at finding a compromise over the issue. However, I think both options are somewhat flawed.

First, let’s dismiss “Interim Action B”. It’s not worthy of consideration, either by those who want to save the Cube or by the Board. If the Board simply throws a fence around the Cube … without doing repairs … the optics are horrible for the Board. Public sentiment won’t be “oh, it’s wonderful that the Board is trying to save the Cube” … rather, it will be “they are hoping the roof falls in and does their job for them”. It doesn’t make anyone any happier, doesn’t take any pressure off the Board … and thus is both a political failure as well as an ugly sad mess.

Interim Action A contains a grain of a good idea, but as written is quite flawed. But I think it can be salvaged, and turned into something that I for one would heartily support.

What’s good about Option A?

It buys time.

It lets work to open the summit to visitors continue unimpeded.

Most importantly, it causes those of us who say we want to save the Cube to “put up or shut up”. If we think the money to save the Cube is easy to find … we need to get off our butts and help find it. I, for one, welcome that challenge … and will personally donate money and time to that effort.

What’s wrong with Option A?

First, proposal A – like B – doesn’t include any work to stabilize the Cube itself. It includes work to make sure people can walk up to the Cube without having something fall on them … but doesn’t include work to prevent the Cube itself from deteriorating over the next 5 years. Those who love the Cube will still worry that Mid-Pen is just trying to stall, hoping that the Cube will fall down or be so damaged by weather or time that there’s no option but to tear it down.

Second, the language of proposal A – also like B – is one-sided and antagonistic. It says, quote, “this is a new interim action to provide time (approximately 5 years) for proponents of the tower to seek partnerships, outside funding, and other additional resources to allow for implementation of Option 3″. No where does it say that Mid-Pen will help. No where does it say that Mid-Pen won’t hinder that effort. No where does it say Mid-Pen WANTS to keep the Cube. It simply says “OK, the clock is ticking … you activists better get busy”.

In short, it doesn’t cause Mid-Pen to buy in. By doing that it continues the cynical belief that Mid-Pen wants the effort to fail, and still wants to knock down the Cube. If that’s what they want, they can hinder the effort in numerous passive-aggressive ways. Want to give money to the effort, but want to meet the Mid-Pen staff first? Sorry, they’re out of town. Want to visit the site? Sorry, nobody is available. Want to see plans? Sorry, can’t find them today. Want to donate money, but only if the Mid-Pen staff and board are invested in seeing the Cube preserved? Crickets.

How could Option A be made viable?

Easy.

1. The Mid-Pen Board needs to pass a resolution stating that they WANT the fund-raising effort to be successful, and the tower to be saved. Whether it will be successful or not nobody can tell … but they need to publically say that they hope it is.

2. The Mid-Pen General Manager needs to say, on the record, that he WANTS the fund-raising effort to be successful, and the tower to be saved. If the pro-Cube activist public still worries that Steve Abbors is working against them, not a true partner, this isn’t going to work. He needs to unambiguously buy in to wanting to save the Cube, not just kicking the can down the road a bit more.

3. Option A needs to include not just safety repairs, but also any other repairs urgently needed in the next 5 years to prevent further damage to the Cube itself. That makes it clear that this isn’t simply a stalling tactic. Those of us in South San Jose remember the debacle of IBM Building 026 all too well.

With two small changes to the language … and a 15 minute press conference … I think Option A provides a fantastic end to what could have easily been a very ugly situation. It gives us the option to preserve the Cube … and makes Mid-Pen a partner in that effort. The fate of the Cube will truly be in our hands.

Sep 23

Save The Cube!

A new site dedicated to saving “The Cube” on Mt. Umunhum has been started…check it out.

http://savethecube.org

Sep 20

The Fate of Mount Umunhum

After decades of waiting and years of planning, the future of Mt. Umunhum and its iconic Cube is about to be determined.

The Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), the mountaintop’s current owner, has completed the planning process. They have solicited public feedback, analyzed various options, and determined their costs.

At their October meeting the MROSD Board is scheduled to decide the fate of the Cube atop Mt. Umunhum. Should it be torn down or left standing? Three options are up for consideration:

1. Demolish the Cube and return the site to a natural state
2. Demolish most of the Cube, leaving some walls from the first floor to represent where the Cube once was, or
3. Seal the Cube and leave it in place.

I think it is in MROSD’s best interests – and those of Santa Clara County residents – for the Board to choose a fourth alternative.

Public feedback as expressed at MROSD’s public meetings is wildly in favor of preserving the Cube. Many of us believe the Cube is important historically, as a legacy of the Cold War, and should be preserved on that basis. Others believe the Cube adds significantly to the South Bay landscape. In South San Jose we are lucky to have two “castles in the air” looking out for us – the Cube on Mt. Umunhum and the Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. For those of us in San Jose who live our lives under their gaze, for either to disappear would be a huge loss.

Yet the MROSD is reluctant to keep the Cube. While Mt. Umunhum is owned by their District, it is a distant outpost. The District stretches from Los Gatos to Pacifica. Most members of their Board don’t live under the gaze of the Cube, and don’t “get” it’s importance. Worse, since San Jose isn’t part of the District, the people that would be most impacted by the loss of the Cube have no voice in the decision. The Board represents many locations … but not San Jose.

Even more fundamentally, it is becoming clear that the goals of the Open Space District – to preserve Open Space, of course – are incompatible with the needs of Mt. Umunhum. The summit is a historic site and could be an attraction on par with Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais. The site begs for amenities – a Visitor’s Center, the Cube itself, historic interpretation, perhaps even Hang Gliding and Backpacking camps. This beautiful and historic site deserves to be treated as the gem it is.

But these buildings and amenities would be the antithesis of Open Space. MROSD is, after all, an Open Space District. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. And so MROSD sees the structures and immediately their mindset is “tear those down”.

It’s becoming clear that the choice before the MROSD Board – keep the Cube or tear it down – asks the wrong question.

The real question is: should MROSD own Mt. Umunhum? I’ve become convinced that the answer is “no”. MROSD does a wonderful job at managing Open Space. But Umunhum’s summit should not be Open Space. It wants to be much more.

A more natural steward for the summit of Umunhum is the Santa Clara County Parks (SCCP). While MROSD’s charter is to preserve Open Space, the County Parks charter more strongly embraces educational and historic goals. County Parks has great experience providing historic interpretation, and Visitor’s Centers, and Camping, and even Hang Gliding.

Compared with any other comparable local District, SCCP is well positioned for this mission. SCCP is blessed with a dedicated Park Charter Fund providing it funding directly, outside of the County’s general revenues. And as it turns out, just a month ago the County Board of Supervisors re-confirmed that SCCP should focus its land acquisition efforts on sites of “County Wide Significance”. Umunhum clearly fits that definition. Even better, County Parks would be a local steward for the summit…not an absentee one.

I believe that MROSD should transfer control of the summit to SCCP. SCCP could manage the Cube and amenities at the top; MROSD could continue to administer the open spaces of the mountain. A true win/win situation.

There is ample precedent for this sort of cooperation between the two agencies. For example, at Rancho San Antonio the Open Space itself is owned by MROSD, but the lower parking and restroom developments are provided by SCCP.

If MROSD decides to tear down the Cube to turn the summit into Open Space, they guarantee themselves years of lawsuits and pain. It would be far better for them to admit that the site does not fit their mission, and instead transfer it to a more appropriate steward.

Update on September 24:

Thanks to Scott Herhold from the San Jose Mercury News for helping to promote this idea … and linking to this blog!

Scott’s “Save The Umunhum Tower” page is a great resource.

Also, please take a look at savethecube.org.

Sep 10

Energy Not-So-Smart

A few months ago I had a conversation with someone online about light bulbs. (Yeah, my life is pretty empty.) We were discussing the phaseout of 100W light bulbs and whether the next generation of bulbs was “ready” to replace them.

My house had an assortment of oldy-tyme incandescent light bulbs and florescent ones. The florescent bulbs certainly use less power, and their color is better than they used to be. But their slow start makes them annoying for some spots.

I realized I didn’t have any LED light bulbs in the house! OK, time to try a couple. I like experimenting with new technology to see what’s great…and what’s not so great.

LED lighting is new, and LEDs bright enough for lighting a room still don’t quite exist. The technology is difficult, as I understand it mostly in managing the heat from the light. Compared to incandescents, LED lights run cool … but the heat that they DO generate is all emitted in a microscopic little spot (as is the light). So instead of a big bulb full of glowing filament, you wind up with a brightly glowing spot the size of a grain of sand. Getting the heat out of that tiny spot … without blocking the light … is a huge engineering challenge.

So I took a deep breath and bought a GE Energy Smart A19 bulb…model LED9A19/830. It’s billed as a replacement for an olde time 40 W incandescent, but uses only 9 watts. And because it uses LEDs the package says it lasts 22.8 years! Wow! And costs about $30! Wow! OK, I’ll buy one…for Science. :)

GE Energy Smart A19

Our master bedroom has a small walk-in closet, so I put the new bulb there. A 40 watt light is enough for the small space, instant on is nice there, and it doesn’t get a lot of usage. If that bulb was going to last 22.8 years, that seemed like a great place for it to be.

Six months later, naturally the bulb is dead. I can’t say I’m honestly surprised. The bulb worked quite well, and I was completely happy with it when it worked. The light was pleasing and it was indeed bright enough for the small closet space. No noise or flicker or anything … it Just Worked. Until it stopped. 22.2 years earlier than advertised. :)

So with a $30 bulb that lasted for 2% of its expected lifespan, I want a refund or replacement. I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep receipts for light bulbs, and I don’t keep the original factory packaging. Do you? This ought to be interesting, then.

I started by going to the manufacturer’s website.

This is the Worst Web Site Ever.

So the page offers up pictures of three GE Energy Smart LED bulbs. If you hover your mouse over each page, a button appears that offers to show “More Detail”. But clicking that button doesn’t show more detail! Instead it takes you to a general search page for “Light Bulbs”, that doesn’t have any mention of LED lights on it at all. There’s even an “Advanced Search” button on the site that lets you select bulbs based on “Bulb Type”. But “LED” isn’t a type! There’s Incandescent, and Halogen, and Mercury, and a dozen others … but no LED at all! Trying to dig into the web site “reveals” (hah, bad joke) almost no information about the LED A19 bulbs.

OK, so let’s try to contact GE.

The Contact page says I really should contact my retailer. I bought the bulb at Orchard Supply Hardware … a bunch of nice people, but without a receipt I wonder if they will really be able to do anything. I’ll contact them to see. But I also want to contact GE. So let’s go to the “Contact Us – Product Concerns” page … aka what the URL says is the “Add Complaint” page.

This page requires a name, postal address and email address … and a 5-digit Product Code. Um…looking all over this light bulb there’s no 5 digit code anywhere. Clicking the helpful-sounding “Find Product Code” link takes me to a general page which is all excited about the Lorax … but which has no hints on finding the Product Code. Clicking the link for “5-Digit Product Code” brings up a popup that helpfully explains that the Product Code is on the back of the light bulb package. Uh, yeah. My bulb that lasts 22.8 years is dead … and I’m supposed to keep that package for all 22.8 years? Ahahahahaha.

I finally found a link on the gelighting.com website that would bring up a photo of the retail packaging of the bulb. The photo page helpfully lists the Product Code … 62180. Great! So I fill in my name and address in the Contact … er, Complaint … page, enter the Product Code, and type in a few sentences with my complaint.

Naturally the GE website refuses to accept my complaint, claiming that the Product Code I entered is not valid.

So … what have we learned?

1. LED lights are a new technology.

2. The technology isn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

3. The GE website is totally awful.

4. GE just barely acknowledges that they even make LED lightbulbs.

5. Their comment and complaint processes, which may be reasonable for traditional bulbs, make no sense at all for pricey long-lasting LED bulbs.

I will contact Orchard Supply, and will call GE tomorrow. But so far … GE LED Lightbulbs and the business processes surrounding them are Not Ready.

Update 1. I called GE Lighting, and they said they would send out a mailer to get the dead bulb returned as well as a coupon for another GE product. No hassle. I pointed out the contrast between how good the phone support was and how horrible the web site was. The nice lady noted that she hears that comment a lot and that a web site update was coming soon. OK.

So … next update in 10 days or so. :)

Update 2. 9/21/2012. The promised mailer has not yet arrived. I will call them again.

Update 3. 9/26/2012. I never got around to calling GE, but today a replacement bulb arrived. I’ve plugged it in where the old one had been; we’ll see how long this new one lasts!
…Sam

Aug 17

Santa Clara County Park Charter Fund

Here in Santa Clara County the County Parks are funded via the Park Charter Fund. Voters have repeatedly approved that a dedicated slice of county tax revenues go directly into the Fund. The Park Charter Fund is used for land acquisitions for county parks as well as maintenance and operation expenses.

For several years certain members of the County Board of Supervisors have been trying to figure out how to divert the Park Charter Fund to purposes other than those that the voters intended. Rather than having it pay for County Parks … typically more rural, less developed and more regionally focused than City Parks … why not use those funds to build playgrounds in new urban developments? Or if a developer builds a shopping center in a wetlands area, maybe use the Park Charter Fund to buy land for a new wetland somewhere else?

These may or may not be good ideas. But they aren’t what the Park Charter Fund was intended for by the voters who approved it. Everyone knows the sort of experience that County Parks provide, and those who voted in favor of the Park Charter Fund reasonably expected those funds to go for that purpose … not swing sets in residential neighborhoods.

The Mercury News correctly describes this as an attempt by the Supervisors to turn the Park Charter Fund into a “slush fund” for anything that they want. Susanne Wilson and Blanca Alvarado, both former Supervisors themselves, say that the Board faces a “critical test of leadership” and needs to keep the Park Charter Fund focused on regional parks as voters intended.

The agenda for this Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting was just posted, and as expected the topic of diverting the Park Charter Fund is on the agenda (item 14). The supporting materials are from Page 123 to Page 162 of the “Agenda Packet”. Both the Agenda and the Packet are available here.

The Board has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of staff hours over the past few years trying to come up with some figleaf to justify this diversion, so far unsuccessfully.

Please consider attending THIS TUESDAY’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors to speak against this proposal. I am planning to be there.

In addition, please contact your Supervisor and express your displeasure with the Board’s actions.

Enough is enough. They’ve been trying to do this for years. Tuesday is the time to put an end to it.

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