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Shopping online during the pandemic

I may have mentioned that I work at Amazon. If I haven’t, I do. I think Amazon’s great and I do most of my online shopping there but the pandemic is forcing me to do more shopping at more sites in the search for product availability of things I we want or need. Here are a few tips that have been helpful:

  1. Look beyond your favorite retailer. I typically shop Amazon, but I’m finding a lot of things sold out, so I’ve searched or turned to Target, jet, and Staples for things we want.  You might not think of places like Staples, but disinfecting wipes are definitely an office supply product and they have been available there.
    1. Reminder: if you *do* shop with Amazon, use smile.amazon.com when placing your orders.  When you complete orders from Amazon and use Smile, a portion (0.5%) of your order is donated to the 501(c)3 charity of your choice.  If you don’t use Smile, that money either goes to a referrer (who sent you to Amazon) or just goes straight to Amazon (which is actually not terrible…I mentioned I work for Amazon, right??)
  2. Beware price gouging. This really isn’t necessarily an Amazon-specific problem, but Amazon makes it very easy for Joe Random Stranger to sell anything online. This includes advertising things in the catalog at wildly inflated prices (I saw a simple contact thermometer this morning for $130).  I won’t say anything about what (little) I specifically know about what Amazon might be doing about this internally, but there is public reporting covering Amazon’s response to this which is to try to stop the practice. You’re making your own shopping choices but I just caution people to be aware of whether you think you’re being price gouged because there is still a lot if it right now (as the thermometer example makes clear).
  3. Look for product variations. You might see a page from any of these retailers who lists different variations for the same product on the product listing page.  Perhaps it’s wipes in a different scent or different unit count.  You might land on a page where the default variation is unavailable but clicking through the product variations will find you one that you want.
  4. Expect some delays, but don’t let that tempt you to hoard. Some things might not come for two weeks or more and this may make you want to hoard.  Obviously, please don’t buy excessively above a reasonable extent.  “Can’t get toilet paper for 2 weeks” needn’t trigger a Pavlovian response to buy a 6 month supply of toilet paper.
  5. Consider that some manufacturing is ramping up.  Related to the last point, consider that some things you can’t get today might become more plentiful in the coming weeks if factories are able to safely ramp up, so you *might* be able to cancel an online order in a week when local or other supplies are replenished.

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Keeping in touch during self-isolation via computers

We’re all responsibly self-isolating because we don’t want to get sick ourselves or spread COVID-19 to others.  Here are some ways to chat or video chat during this time.  The “notes” below are optional and can probably be skipped.

Can you cut to the chase and suggest the best option for me?

  • If you’ve got iOS and only care about talking with people on iOS, probably just use FaceTime.
  • If everybody you want to chat with has an Alexa Show, that works well and is easy to set up.
  • Otherwise Google Hangouts or Microsoft Skype are great – or maybe WhatsApp

What you need (you probably already have most of this)

  1. A video camera.  Most likely, this will already be integrated into a cell phone or a laptop, but you can also use dedicated webcams that plug into a computer.  This is how you’ll send videos to other people.  In this, I’ll talk about the mic being attached to a computer, but it could be a phone.
  2. A microphone and speakers.  This is almost definitely integrated into your phone, laptop, or the webcam you’ve already got.
    1. One note: You might find you are better off with the sounds being on your head rather that on the computer.  The two main reasons for this would be (1) there is sound feeding back into the mic you don’t want to send through the chat (like if you type on your keyboard it will create thumps that your computer mic can’t mute out) or (2) you might want to walk around a little while you leave your camear in place (like if you leave a phone in a kitchen while cooking and you walk away a little from the mic and speakers).  The best way to improve this is to use some kind of headset – either a bluetooth hands-free kit or just a wired headset.  Personally I don’t think it is worthwhile to spend a lot of money on this.  I use these $30 Anker headphones for running, but there are plenty of adequate headphones available for <$20.  There are also lots of terrible headphones available at that price point, so don’t just sort by lowest price.
  3. A network that can support video chat. This is pretty easy to understand, but can be tricky to get right in practice.  Basically you need a fairly fast download to get video(s) from the person (or people) you want to chat with, plus the ability to send video to them and a reasonable uplink to send your video out.  You can test your download/upload speeds by using the test available from Ookla’s speedtest.net (or from the app available for phones)
    1. One note: depending on the system you use or your home network (if using a PC) you might need to jump through some additional hoops to configure your network to allow the video chat to work.  You should get stepped through testing and fixing this during the setup of your video chat software.
    2. One note for phones: You might actually learn that your phone gets faster performance when not connected to wifi (when connected to your cell phone carrier).  If you are using a phone, I suggest getting the ookla speedtest application and testing your bandwidth on and off of your wifi.
  4. Software.  This is where there are the most options available and the next section will describe different options, why you might or might not choose them.
  5. People to keep in touch with.  This probably seems obvious, but it’s impacted by the software choice because not everyone is on all software and not all software can do the same things as one another.

What are the hardware and software options?

In alphabetical order.  All of these have a “con” that they are limited to interact with people with accounts in that system (e.g. you can’t use an Alexa device to chat with someone who is on Hangouts or vice versa)

  1. Amazon Alexa / Echo. $230 for (optional) Echo Show device.  Free with Alexa app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: one-to-one video calling between people who have an Amazon account and a phone number.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on a phone, log in with Amazon account, register by validating your telephone number.  You can then place calls to your contacts using their phone number (which they must have validated, also).  You have the option (from your app) to call their phone, or to call their Alexa device.
    3. Pros: Good integration with Amazon’s devices.
    4. Cons: Only allows person-to-person calls (No group calling)
  2. Google Hangouts. Free with Hangouts app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on your phone or visiting the website, you log in with your google account.  You can then do audio, video, text chat with your contacts who you look up by their Google account.
    3. Pros: Good integration with all of Google’s services (like Gmail), supports multi-person video chat, can work in the browser (from http://hangouts.google.com/) without additional software.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  3. Microsoft Skype. Free app for phones and computers.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone or computer, log in with your Microsoft account, and find contacts by email, name, or SkypeID.
    3. Pros: Multi-person chat. Skype is one of the oldest platforms for video chat and has a large base of people with an account.  Never-the-less, for whatever reason it does not seem to be the most widely used.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  4. WhatsApp. Free app for phones (and, it seems, computers?
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat and walkie-talkie like video messaging.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone, register and login.
    3. Pros: Multi-person video chat (up to 4).  Pretty widely used by young people.
    4. Cons: No callouts
  5. Zoom. Web-based chat, frequently used for business and group settings
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: More professional system that supports chat that functions more like a meeting (time is scheduled, large groups are supported, attendees may dial in from a telephone without a computer at all).
    2. How to use: An organizer registers a zoom account and sets up a meeting (requesting a time) and meeting connection information is then shared with selected meeting invitees.  Invitees then connect to the meeting at the scheduled time using (A) the meeting ID and (B) meeting pin (distributed with the meeting information).  Invitees may join from a telephone.
    3. Pros: Good free platform for meetings with a large number of people and including people who only want to join via telephone.
    4. Cons: Cumbersome to set up ad hoc or spontaneous chats.

Apple has a thing too, called Facetime.  Like most Apple things, it only exists in their closed platform and unless your friend or family has an Apple phone or device, you cannot communicate with them.  I specifically don’t recommend it because at a minimum it requires someone go spend hundreds of dollars on Apple’s expensive platform.

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Signs of life

Is this thing still on?

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What to do when your cable modem doesn’t work

I got a call from my sister about her internet connection dying.  Here’s what I do in this situation – my internet is cable modem (CM) and my ISP is comcast.

  1. Attempt a reset by the ISP.  Through remote reset, the ISP can re-initialize your router and this may help.  If they *can’t* remotely reset your router, that seems like an indication that they may need to physically send someone to your home, doesn’t it?
    1. Gory details: Cable modems function on a standard called DOCSIS.  You probably don’t hear about this or think about it much but periodically your ISP may start nagging you insisting you need to upgrade your cable modem to a newer model to get the best service.  This probably means there is a new DOCSIS standard out, or they are offering support for a new standard and unless you get a newer modem, they won’t be able to sell you more expensive service.  You’ll probably only find yourself in this situation if you choose to buy your own cable modem rather than leasing one from your ISP – and you should almost definitely do that.  Newegg offers a bunch of DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modems for under $60 and that’s what you’d probably pay in lease fees after 1 year.  Plus, why pay Comcast for this?
  2. Attempt to reset it yourself through power cycle.  Simply unplug the CM, wait a minute, then plug it back in.
    1. Waiting a minute may or may not be a magic amount of time (depending on your ISP, your CM, or the service you’re getting from your ISP with your CM).  Go ahead and wait a full minute though.
  3. Attempt to get in to the configuration for the cable modem and figure out what’s wrong from the logs.
    1. If you lease your modem, then your ISP has probably locked this down and you won’t be able to reach it (so go back to 1 or 2).
    2. Otherwise, it might be http://192.168.100.1 – so give that a try.
    3. Or, it might be printed on the bottom of your CM so get a flashlight and go try to take a peek.
    4. Or, you can do a web search for your CM model and probably find its default address that way.
    5. Assuming you were able to reach your cable modem’s configuration page, as it boots, you should be able to see a few useful bits of data:
      1. Where, in the connection negotiation process, it is failing.  This may or may not help
      2. Signal strength information.  The two most interesting values will probably be signal-to-noise (should be ~32dB or higher) and power (should be between ~-10dBmV to +10dBmV).  If your numbers aren’t in those ranges, you probably have an issue with your line connection somewhere and a technician will have to come to the house / line to assess where the problem is
      3. Full logs.  If you’re hitting a problem, you’ll probably find your logs end when they hit that snag and you may be able to research based on that information.

I hope this is useful!

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TVR 2013 Recap

tl;dr

I haven’t been running much but aimed for 9 “miles” (6:40 pace/1600, 1:40 pace/400) for the TVR 1hour classic.  I hit it (pretty precisely; to paraphrase Stephen Colbert: Niemeyer, it’s German, bitch) and just a little over.  Thanks to Greg Crowther for being the kind of visible, competent runner to do things like this and make shlubs like me try, too, and thanks especially to Katie for her support and Elizabeth for some day forgiving me for being the reason she spent an hour of her life before her 2 month birthday hanging around a track.  Maybe next year I can aim for 16,000?

This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend Greg Crowther’s run for the Titus Van Rijn 1-hour classic. I didn’t make it, but I was motivated enough to take part myself.  So with the road to hell being paved with good intentions, I waited until flag day to finally drag myself to the track at Lower Woodland Park, near Green Lake and I put in my hour.

I haven’t been training much (my first daughter was born just over 6 weeks before race day) and I initially thought “OK, I’ll aim for 30 minutes at an 8:00 pace and take it down to 7:30 and see how I’m feeling.” This would have been 7.75 “metric miles.” I’m no contender for anything in any local races but it turns out I’m not that out of shape, nor am I that unambitious, so instead I decided to just aim for 9 metric miles.

“What’s a metric mile?”  Most tracks are 400m and 4 laps on a track is 1600m.  A mile is slightly longer than this (1609m) but for this I set my goals laps – so “metric miles.”

So, flag day (the deadline by which people participating in TVR must complete their runs) rolled around and after work Katie agreed she would come with the baby and they would support me on the event. Fortunately, most people have better things to do on a Friday night than run around a track for an hour, so almost no one was there for my 36 laps.  It might make some sense to warm up a little for a distance this short, but I didn’t really, and after a quarter lap jog back and forth, I started my watch.

My target distance comes out to 6:40 pace per 1600 and 1:40 per lap, 0:50 per 200.  This is nice and easy to calculate and check splits many times throughout the hour.  I’ve only been on a track two or three times in the past 2 months, but my first quarter split was right on and basically all my miles were, too.

The first mile felt a little more challenging than it probably should have, but I started getting into a groove shortly after that.  I’d left an Ultimate Direction gel flask on one of the benches with a little water and one Gu in it and I grabbed that for a sip after I cleared mile 3.  Unsurprisingly, this was actually super refreshing.

The middle third was when things started to feel a little challenging.  Katie is the best support anyone could ask for, but Elizabeth was getting restless and on every lap at least 50m before I got to them, I could hear her starting to cry a little. You might think “the sound of my crying baby might really get a fire burning in me and help me knock out some solid splits!” but you would probably be wrong.  It makes you want to quit and want to help your baby.  At least that’s how it made me feel and how I bet it would make most parents feel.  So I asked if she could take the baby on a stroll (the vibration of our new – and excellent! – Bob Revolution knocks her out) and got a few laps where I could just focus a little more.

The remainder of the event was pretty typical. It was hard, it got harder, I disassociated a little, focused on my breathing a little, focused on my form a little, thought about the event happening at the same time in Iowa City for my cousin that I was missing, and before I knew it, I was in the 7th mile – the last third.  At this point I was pretty sure I would make it but still wanted to quit pretty badly.  All of my miles had been very close, but I was afraid I was losing a couple seconds in the aggregate (I was watching the splits and if I hit 6:40.8 for 6 miles, I would have almost 5 seconds to make up if I wanted to get my target). I grabbed my gel flask and drank the last two sips as I headed toward the home stretch (meaning “remaining 12 laps”).

Mile 7 was tough and 8 was tougher, but the weather was cooling.  As I started the last mile, I looked at my cumulative time on my watch: 53:26.  This means my last mile would need to be 6:34 which isn’t crazy at all, but definitely let me know that I would need to push to make it.  And I wanted to quit – blah blah blah the same things every runner says – however here it was a little different because this isn’t a race, there wasn’t (really) an audience (OK, Katie understands this a lot better than I and she would know if I blew it or not), and I haven’t been training at all. But I thought of a couple things: first, I was 90% of the way done and now is not the time to throw in the towel.  Joe Gray said something similar to that in a recent interview I read – how it’s not until things start getting challenging and you see how you deal with it that you really start to understand what you’re made of. And, also, my cousin who I felt I was – if only in some personal and ceremonial sense – running for.  So I plowed through, crossed the 9 mile line with time to spare, started to stop, heard Katie yell “Go all the way through!” and picked it up a little to run until the full hour was complete, adding 33 meters on to my target.

Ultimately, races are tests of mental and physical fitness and they shouldn’t be that different from workouts.  The line between race and workout is certainly a lot thinner with the TVR 1-hour run, but it adds a new, interesting dimension on all of that and I’m very glad I participated.  I’m also super happy I was able to pull off that time because it wasn’t clear that I should be able to, given my training the last months with the baby, so I feel great about that, too.  And of course I’m incredibly lucky to have a good support crew – including one of the runners I respect most.

The event doesn’t end on the track, though.  Afterwards, participants are encouraged to indulge in a black cherry soda so before the night was over I had to find, and drink, some of that, too.

Splits – Friday 6/14/2013, Lower Woodland Track, Green Lake, WA. Sunny+warmish at start (~7:20) to overcast+coolish by finish (~8:20PM)

  1. 6:39.70
  2. 6:41.70
  3. 6:39.86
  4. 6:39.38
  5. 6:41.14
  6. 6:39.40
  7. 6:45.26
  8. 6:40.49 (53:26.93)
  9. 6:33.98 (last 433m)

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Thanks for the socks

As I got off the bus near the Space Needle – I noticed I missed a call from my dad and noticed it was from his cell phone.  This is weird – it’s never been entirely clear that my dad is able to turn the phone on (the last time it showed a sign of life, I realized my sister was visiting and sending text messages from it).  I called back and greeted my dad:

“Hi – I missed your call this morning?”

“Oh – Patrick – you got my voicemail?”

“No – I just called right back…”

I didn’t make it to Iowa City this past December for Christmas.  Tickets started at about $800 and seemed to just keep going up – but I found a much more affordable fare after the holidays and I spent a cold January weekend in Iowa. I’d talked with my grandmother around Christmas and she was, as always, a delight to talk with, but I could tell she wasn’t feeling well.  She’d been up and down with some sickness and injuries during the year and I remember her telling me on one call “You know, Patrick, I’ve lived a good life.”  It’s really hard to hear someone say this.  It’s not really made easier when you know it’s true, but I suppose it might help.

When I visited in January the latest news was pretty promising.  I’m really a rube when it comes to human health, but it seemed her symptoms might be a sign of pneumonia-of-some-type or maybe-some-cancer and it looked like Marian might be feeling symptoms from the pneumonia (which had a less-bad prognosis).  A few hours and one call later, it was pretty clear it was the cancer.

I visited as much as I could over the weekend but it was pretty clear that entertaining company – though she was, again, as always, great company – wasn’t really easy on Marian. We had a nice dinner at Blackstone.  I came nattily dressed in LL Bean’s finest addition to their catalog for winter 2012, but the weekend really came and went quickly.  In the 6 weeks since then, the news has been pretty clear and pointing in the same direction: her health was getting worse and pain increasing.

So it shouldn’t have come as any real surprise as I stopped while taking with my dad under the shade of a tree near Seattle Center where the homeless seek refuge from the rain.

“Marian died this morning.”

But of course it was a surprise, and awful, and I stood there sobbing in the rain and not knowing what else to do.

My dad put my mom on, who had been spending a lot of time with her mother these past months. My mom told me how Marian was still getting around and doing all sorts of things that I know would have made me think “You really shouldn’t be doing that…”  And I could only think that yes, she did live a good life.  I know she knew she was loved and she made her love known to the people that were important to her.

There are a lot of ways we measure our successes and failures in life, but really that’s about all that it comes down to, isn’t it?

IMAG1049

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Programming a key for the Toyota Prius

Recently the key in my Prius has gotten really worn out. When I have asked my local Toyota dealer about getting a replacement key and getting it programmed for the car, I’ve been quoted a price of ~300-500 per key. Obviously, this is crazy, so I’ve been doing some research, ordered a replacement key off eBay, and found a number of things I wanted to collect more neatly for my own future reference or for others.

I’m not done with this process – I will update this post as I learn more or make more progress.

Dismantling the key and its main parts

The key fob consists of a few main parts – a good visual overview of this is on this site.  The entire block is referred to as the fob.  On the top of the fob is a small sliding lever.  If you slide this ~60% open, you can slide out a conventional metal key.  If you slide the lever all the way open and then apply pressure and push up on the back (the no-button side) of the fob, this will slide the case off of the fob.  From here you can see a sticker indicating your fob’s part number – mine is a B31EG.  There are multiple Prius key fobs for different car models, some of which have smart entry and start, some which just have the remote control keyless entry feature.  Below the sticker is a small, square plastic cover attached by four screws.  After removing these screws, you can replace a CR2032 watch battery that powers the fob for two of the key functions described below.  On the front of the fob (at least with my B31EG) the keyless entry buttons are surrounded by a sealing, rubber face.  This can be peeled back and I did – however I think it probably destroys your fob.  On mine, none of the buttons or keyless features were working already, anyway, so I had nothing to lose – but keep this in mind.

A thread on PriusChat.com indicates clarifies that there is no programming of the key, you program the car to accept the key.  A Prius will accept up to 5 keys to be paired with it (I don’t know how to purge an old key from the Prius). The Prius key fob has four functions and each of these functions is set independently.

The physical, metal key

As mentioned above there is a physical key embedded in the fob.  This is only used (on my 2004 Prius) to unlock the driver’s side door.  This is a physical key so there is no “programming” to do, but obviously it needs to be cut. Online advice recommends to have a locksmith cut it rather than simply going to a local hardware store.

The passive key that starts the car

This function allows you to turn on the car by placing the key in the car’s fob slot and pressing the Power button.  This works using some magic induction from the car (possibly passive RFID?) so if the battery in the key fob is dead, this will still work. I have successfully paired a replacement B31EG with my Prius by following instructions in this thread on priuschat.  This was pretty easy.

  1. [in/out*4] Insert old fob into slot and remove it 4 times in a row, then insert it a fifth time and leave it in.
  2. [open/close*6] Open and close the driver door 6 times (leaving it closed)
  3. [out] Remove the old fob from slot – the car is now in programming mode.
  4. [insert new, wait] Insert the new fob and leave in the slot for a full minute. Watch the blinking red anti-theft light on the dashboard.
  5. When it stops flashing and goes dark, your new fob is all set. Remove the new fob and you’re done.

Keyless entry (the remote control buttons)

This function enables pressing the remote control unlock/lock/panic buttons on the car and it relies on power from the fob internal battery.  Instructions on this vary and seem like they may depend on the model of the fob, the model of the Prius, or both.  I have not yet successfully completed this and am working on refining these steps, but the longest set of steps say to do the following:

  1. [open] With the driver door unlocked and no fob in slot, open the driver door.
  2. [in/out/in/out] Insert and remove the old fob into slot twice within 5 seconds
  3. [close/open/close/open] Close and open driver door twice.
  4. [in/out] Insert and remove old fob once.
  5. [close/open/close/open] Close and open driver door twice again.
  6. [in/close] Insert old fob in slot and close door.
  7. [power/power/power] Without pressing the brake, press power button, wait a second, press it again, wait a second, press it a third time to turn car back off.
  8. [out] Remove old fob from slot. You’ll be in “add mode” at this point. The car will lock and unlock doors to verify it is in add mode. (the precise number of times the car locks/unlocks the door is model specific – but it should do it at least once)
  9. …from this point on, the steps are not clearly written and I don’t know what works – further editing is needed…
  10. Press both buttons on old/new fob simultaneously for 4 flashes of the red LED on the fob.
    1. For a silver logo fob, the timing does not matter, but it is important to hold BOTH the old and the new FOB buttons simultaneously (e.g. hold down the lock and unlock buttons of a FOB but not simultaneously do it for both FOBs holding down all 4 buttons at the same time. I did this only once so I am not 100% certain about the sequence, but this is what I think worked for me:
    2. first press down both buttons of the NEW FOB simultaneously, car responds with locking/unlocking TWICE (not sure this step is even needed as car responding with locking/unlocking TWICE implies this is not a programmed FOB yet for this car)
    3. then, say 1 second after the car stops locking/unlocking due to step above, press down both buttons of the OLD FOB simultaneously,
    4. then, say after 1 second, press the LOCK button of the NEW FOB. Now, IF SUCCESSFUL car responds with locking/unlocking ONCE implying this new fob is now programmed/paired with this car.
      (iv) As already mentioned in previous posts, you have 40 seconds to play around with the steps in (iii) above. I had to play around a bit since it was not clear to me if one should first use the NEW FOB or the OLD FOB in the sequence of simultaneously pressing both keys. What is clear is that one needs to use BOTH FOBs
  11.  To end this programming, open a door or put the fob in the slot.
  12. Even though I don’t think it matters, I actually tried the smart key features after I drove the car for a minute while having the new fob in the slot. The smart key functionality worked fine.
Additional steps from another site:
  1. [no key, driver open, driver unlocked] The vehicle should be in the following condition-A. The key is NOT inserted in the ignition, B. The driver’s door IS open, C. The driver’s door is UNLOCKED.
  2. [in/out] Insert the Key into the ignition switch and then pull it out.
  3. [lock/unlock * 5] Press the Master Door Lock Switch 5 times from Lock to Unlock.
  4. [close/open] Close the Driver’s door then open it.
  5. [lock/unlock * 5]. Repeat step #3.
  6. Now select the mode by inserting the key into the Ignition Switch and turning it to the “Run” or “On” position. The programming mode is determined by the amount of times you go from “key off” to the “key on” position and back before pulling the key out.
    1. 1 time is the “Add” mode. This is used only on some models and it allows you to add a remote to the already existing remotes. The ECU confirms this by locking and unlocking the door locks automatically after you remove the key.
    2. 2 times is the second mode which will erase all previously programmed remotes and allow you to program new ones. The ECU confirms this mode by locking and unlocking the door locks twice after you remove the key
    3. 3 times is the third mode which tells you how many remotes are already programmed to the ECU. It confirms this locking and unlocking the door locks the amount of times applicable to the remotes coded. If no remotes are programmed then the ECU locks and unlocks the door locks 5 times. The ECU will hold up to 4 remotes at any one time.
  7. Press the Lock and Unlock buttons on the remote simultaneously for 1.5 sec and then press either button by itself for 1 sec.
  8. The ECU will perform the Lock/Unlock automatically to confirm that the 1st remote is stored by the ECU. Repeat step 7 immediately with another remote and continue until all remotes are registered.
  9. Shut the driver’s door and try all remotes.

Smart entry and start

This is the function that enables all the “magic” functions of the car.  This lets you grasp the doorknobs and will unlock the car if you have the key with you, lets you press the rubber buttons to lock the doors from outside the car (and prevents those buttons from locking the key in the car), and lets you press the “Power” button to turn the car on without putting the fob into the slot.  I have not found instructions on how to program this.

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How I make calls, starring Google Voice

I’ ve tried to explain this a couple times recently to some people and my system is a little complicated so I decided to describe how it all works. Rather than talk about all the pieces and how they fit together, I think it’s easier to understand as a story of what bits and pieces I incorporated and what made them compelling because I made this switch over the course of more than a year.

What is it?

Google voice is a free service from google (at http://voice.google.com) that can overtake, extend, and greatly improve your experience with your cell phone. When you sign up for an account, you will pick a new phone number – your google voice number – and when this is set up, you can use it for sending and receiving text messages and calls.  Additionally, there is a slick voicemail replacement system that you can point your phone to so that your voicemails are stored in and managed by Google Voice rather than using whatever your cell company offers.

Voicemail replacement

My first use of Google Voice was to use it as my phone’s voicemail system.  I think voicemail is a giant pain. 9 times out of 10, the result of listening to a voicemail is either “can you call me back so we can figure something out?” or “here is a short message that would have been much more easily consumed (by the call recipient) as a text message.”  There are a couple benefits Google Voice offered, and the switch was pretty painless:

  1. The app (for Android, but available for other phones) does speech-to-text dictation. Now I can read messages rather than needing to listen to them (usually much faster).
  2. The messages are archived online. Have you ever wanted to save a voicemail in your regular voicemail inbox? Humans are emotional animals and we build attachments to sentimental things, but boy does voicemail make this taxing. Trying to skip past “saved” messages or go back and listen to bits and pieces of messages is a giant pain. With Google Voice as your voicemail provider, you can search for these in your browser (or in the app on your phone), see individual messages and callers (no more 9-9 to skip to the end of the message and choosing to re-save, blah, blah, blah) and so on.
  3. The messages can be played via computer. This is often less intrusive to the day than spending picking up the phone, clicking “call voicemail,” waiting for the call to answer, and browsing to new messages using that terrible interface. This isn’t a giant win, but it eliminates some annoyances and it is useful.
Text messaging replacement
This took longer to decide to switch.  The ability to use this comes automatically when you get your Google Voice account, though. In the same web UI where you see voicemail, there is a small, simple to use form for text messaging.  I tried this a few times but it’s a little weird for recipients to initially start receiving messages from you from an unrecognized number. Eventually I stopped caring about that in favor of the nice features it adds:
  1. Ability to type text messages on a computer keyboard – this is way faster and more convenient than tapping them on a phone.
  2. Automatic archive of all text messages – you might not care, but having this archived and searchable is really convenient.
  3. Ability to resume a text message conversation from multiple clients – whether it’s your computer, phone, or another internet connected device (Android or iOS), you have access to your whole text messaging history. This can be really nice.
  4. And, potentially, texting is now part of your data plan – you don’t need a separate texting plan (or you can downgrade to a cheaper one)
The only exception is for MMS (image / video) messages – Google Voice can’t send these, so recipients still receive this type of messages from the number assigned by your phone carrier, not your google voice number.
Number switchover for calling
This is the only thing that’s really left: broadcasting your Google Voice as your official phone number for incoming and outgoing calls.  This effectively “changes” your phone number on people (though your old phone number still works).  Here’s why this is compelling:
  1. You can set up the Google Voice number to proxy to multiple of your phones. When someone calls my Google voice number, three phones ring: my cell phone, my work phone (during work hours), and a home phone that I have.
  2. You can take the call on whatever phone is most convenient. If I’m at home, I prefer to pick up my home phone. This phone is comfortable to hold, has good call quality, and it won’t chew up my cell minutes. If I’m at work, I prefer to answer on my work phone for the same reason and also that my carrier doesn’t have great coverage at my work. Otherwise I use my cell phone.
  3. You can hand off the call to another phone, if it’s more convenient. I’ll often make or receive a call at home from my home phone, need to take my dog for a walk, and just pressed “*” during the call. This makes my other google voice phones ring so I pick up my cell phone (which was just conferenced in to the call), hang up my home phone, and now I can go for that walk.

So what’s the setup?

  1. On my cell phone, I configured it to change the phone number used for voicemail to the Google Voice voicemail number. This makes all the voicemail stuff work.
  2. On my cell phone and an internet connected device, I have the Google Voice app installed – this lets me send and receive text messages on any of these (as well as in the browser).
  3. On the Google Voice website, I have configured my google voice number to make all three of my phones ring – I also have a rule set up so that calls are not forwarded to my work phone during off hours when I am not at work.
  4. One more thing – my home phone is not connected to any phone providers at all.  I have an an OBi100 VOIP system plugged into my internet connection and configured to interact with my Google Voice account.  This was surprisingly simple and (until / unless Google start charging for Google Voice), all my home calls are free and go over the internet.

In closing

Google Voice is awesome.  It does a lot, you don’t need to adopt all of it at once, and everything it does, it does really well (to date).

I should also mention internet calling: this is possible, but the results are touch and go. I took a trip to Beijing earlier this year and I used my Google Voice number with another, great Android app called GrooveIP to make VOIP calls. This worked amazingly well. Almost no lag, as long as I had a reliable internet connection, I could comfortably make reliable calls. The call quality was actually better than I remember regular overseas telephone calls in the early 90’s. However, when I returned to the US and tried using this, I found >1 second latency in the call (this is well beyond “noticeable”). So the promise of this seems a little ways off, still, but I think it will get here..

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Running clubs in Seattle

I’ve run all my life but only got “serious” about it in 2007 when I decided to run the Portland Marathon. That year I ran a lot of races, including CNW‘s Firecracker 5k (which I mention below), SRC‘s Cougar Mountain 13 miler (which is vaguely alluded to) and Portland. I also paid dues to join both SRC and CNW that year (though I didn’t understand these in the context of USATF club affiliation).  In 2008 my memberships to both lapsed and I asked myself which club I should stay affiliated with.  The summer of 2008, I went to a Club Northwest board meeting and presented this letter.

Members of the board of Club Northwest,

To clarify: this is really about running and doesn’t touch on field sports.

My name is Patrick Niemeyer and early in 2007 I started getting much more involved in the local running community. I saw the 2007 Firecracker 5000 fliers which appeared to advertise a great deal for race registration for Club Northwest members:

  1. Club Northwest membership and the discounts and perks (Northwest Runner subscription, fashionable bright orange t-shirt) that go along with it
  2. race registration for one low, low price,

so I signed up.  I remember running the race and wondering “who is this ‘Shelly’ I’m trailing that everyone keeps cheering for?” and who I tried, and failed, to catch (who I later learned was board member Shelly Neal).  It wasn’t my first race but it was the first where I self-identified as a runner and over the past year I’ve incorporated running into my life to the point where it’s hard to imagine my life before or without it.

However, as we’ve just passed July 4, 2008 and with it the most recent Firecracker 5000, I’ve let my CNW membership lapse and started to wonder whether I should renew. Though I take part in many races, including those sponsored by CNW, I haven’t attended the All-Comers track meets, I don’t go to the front lines of races wearing a bright orange CNW singlet, and I’ve realized Northwest Runner subscriptions don’t require CNW membership. In talking with running friends about CNW, I’ve realized that many of them don’t even understand that membership into CNW is open. Their impression is that CNW begins and ends with the elite runners they see at races and I’ve found myself correcting the perception.

Meanwhile, I think there is greater clarity about the role of some of the other running communities in Seattle to which I belong.  I’m thinking specifically of ChuckIt and Seattle Running Company/Club.  As a monthly dues club, ChuckIt feels more like it fills a specific niche and doesn’t make as much sense to discuss in this context, but SRC feels much closer to CNW – and I have to guess this is a topic which has come up before.  If I were to characterize SRC and CNW to someone unfamiliar with local running groups I’d say that SRC conducts and evangelizes trail running or ultra running and CNW conducts and evangelizes more traditional track running.  I’d say both have a significant roster of elite runners, but SRC events and participation feel, for whatever reason, like they appeal to a wider base while CNW feels like it more directly serves a specific elite base.

None of what I’ve said may be quite demonstrably true and I can’t speak for “runners of the northwest” but I feel the impression I’ve described is probably pretty accurate among runners who are familiar with, but not members of, either club.  So, finally, this leads me to my two questions.

First: I wonder whether CNW realizes or agrees with the impression that (again, speaking only about running) the club is focused on elite local runners?

Second: if this isn’t the case, I wonder whether the board has plans to assess the image of CNW to help someone like me who is maybe an occasional AG placer but not an elite runner understand why they should become or renew their membership?

To reiterate: my points are really not to ask why CNW isn’t more like SRC (or even ChuckIt), but to ask the board to help clarify what membership in CNW means and help understand who CNW wants as its members? I suspect these aren’t questions which will be answered in a short conversation but sincerely look forward to any conversation this generates.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration,
Patrick Niemeyer

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Squak half recap

Today I ran the 2012 Squak 1/2 marathon trail run put on by RD Roger Michel’s Evergreen Trail Runs. Roger is probably still at the mountain while people from the full and 50k are crawling toward the 10 hour course cutoff.  Here’s my recap of the trail and race, which – despite the opening tone of this post – was excellent.

The course

The information on the site is, in my opinion, pretty lacking.  There’s a course map that shows the route and the course description tells you that there is 3,650′ of gain and there is a prize for the first person to make it to the 1800′ peak on Squak, but I was still left with questions – the answers would look something like this…

The course starts near the trailhead / parking lot at the south side of Squak. You immediately start to climb on a main, wide access road at a pretty constant elevation gain. After a mile or so, you cut to the right for an out & back on what Roger calls a “lollipop” (where the beginning and end of the out & back are a shared / 2-way trail). There was a lead pack of four guys and I was in fifth through here, about a minute back. This comes early enough on the course that by the time you get back to the 2-way stick of the lollipop, you’re unlikely to see anyone else in your event so the trail is clear / runnable.  The lollipop is not flat, but it has some moderate ups and downs.  A lot of this section of the trail was really overgrown, the only part of the course like this. At times I was running through heavy fern coverage and really couldn’t see the trail, making things maybe a little bit dangerous. Eventually, you get back to the road, though and start climbing, again at about the same rate of gain from the start.  I was about 1 minute behind the lead pack on the road and trimmed that to ~45 seconds at the aid station, however I didn’t see them again after this point.

This entire leg is (according to Roger) “4ish” miles until you get close to the summit where there is the only aid station on the course (I was out at 43:16). From here, you veer off the road onto what is probably the steepest, most technical part of the course for an ~1 mile downhill. This is very rough going and I knew going down it that I would probably not run back up when the course comes back and climbs along this leg (full/50k’ers were walking back up the ascent here, too).  During the descent I let two guys pass me who I didn’t see again.  After that descent, you wind around on some rolling trails for what feels like a long time before coming up on another 2-way stretch of course. This shared stretch felt long – close to a mile and it has a fair amount of climbing. Eventually you’re on 1-way trail again and this starts a descent until you arrive back at the same trail from which you left the aid station and start the difficult climb back to the aid station. Around this time, two more 1/2 runners passed me, putting me in 9th where I stayed for the rest of the race.  A stronger runner would probably run this uphill, but it is hard, steep, and modestly technical, so I walked and everyone around me (others in the half and by this time I was passing a few from the full and 50k) was, too.  This is another “4ish” mile leg until you get back to the aid station (my time out, split time: 45:59, total: 1:29:16).

As you leave the aid station, you complete the short run up the service road until reaching the radio towers on top of Squak Mountain. Then you start the penultimate descent along the 2-way trail where you were going upstream on the previous leg. This gets a little hairy because of the number of runners, but is manageable as long as you keep your head up and keep the other eye on the terrain.  You’re heading downhill here so most people are happy to yield the course to you.  After the 2-way descent, you veer off for the final climb, leading to the final descent on the course.  However, based on the start times for the events, at this time you’re coming up on a lot of the slower 12k runners.  This could be helpful or inspiring for some people, but it gave me an excuse to walk a little in a section that was perfectly runnable and in hindsight, I wished I’d run all or at least most of it. This uphill comes at a tough time in the course but it isn’t that hard. Eventually you crest, though, and start a fast, twisting downhill that continues basically all the way to the finish.  Along this stretch, you can see trail signs pointing back to the trailhead with distances, which is nice.  I don’t know how long this whole section was but I’d go with “4ish” again. I could still see 8th place ahead of me for much of this leg, but didn’t reel him in – I just passed a bunch of others who were out for longer (or maybe shorter and slower) days as I rolled down to the finish. You cross the service road with about 400m to go to the finish and end back near the parking lot.  My leg split 35:07, finish time 2:04:22.

So in summary

  1. Short, modest service road climb
  2. Rolling “lollipop”
  3. Continue service road climb to AS1
  4. Fast, technical descent
  5. Long rolling leg leading to climb along 2-way trail
  6. Fast, easy descent leading back to hard (but shorter) climb back up 4 to AS2 (formerly AS1)
  7. Short service road climb to radio towers, followed by longish easy descent but on 2-way trail
  8. 1-way trail climb to final peak,
  9. Long descent back to parking lot

One slightly frustrating thing about my race

I don’t have anybody to blame about this, but trail runs are just hard to calibrate and set goals for.  In any ultra I’ve done, my strategy is pretty simple: start slow, try not to lose much time on uphills, try not to blow out my legs on the downhills, try to stay strong in the last miles (this is very hard).  At the end of one of these, I really don’t know if I’ve run well or accomplished much more than being out for a longer-than-normal long run. Each course is so different and the fields that show up for these is so different that it’s hard to tell anything based on time or placement.

Today I ran a 2:04:22. Going into the race, I didn’t know what to expect (elevation gain doesn’t give you a complete picture, either – at Chuckanut there was a lot of snow on the course and there were some really dangerous, slippery rocks). So I looked at times from the 2010 and 2011 races. My same time in either of those years would have put me in 3rd and had me finish 4 minutes ahead of the next runner but today I was 9th.  I’m not disappointed with the time, but starting the race I thought “OK, I guess I could aim for 2:30, maybe 2:20, maybe faster” (2:30 would have been 9th last year – 9th 2 years ago was 2:50ish), but obviously that’s not what I should have aimed for and obviously maybe I should have aimed to be even faster today.  I’m not disappointed that I didn’t, but this fall my plan is to run the Chicago marathon and to break 3:00.  I have a pretty good idea of exactly what will be required to do that and I will know almost every step of the way whether I’m on track to meet that goal.  I also know what that goal will mean in terms of my fitness and capabilities as a runner.

So I definitely had a good experience today, I’m certainly happy with my time, and I don’t think I would have finished ahead of the guys in 8th, 7th, or faster had I just aimed for 2:00, but I feel like I could say I pretty much crushed my goal but I’m not super thrilled about that because now I wonder whether I set a really easy target.  Anyway (or despite this) I would enthusiastically recommend this race to any others who enjoy trail running. Oh – and I have to give some credit to Roger and the organizers for what I felt were terrific course markings.  Looking at the course map, I thought “this looks incredibly easy to get lost on,” but the entire race was very, very easy to follow.

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