Speed Warning Function

Why don’t all our cars have a speed warning function? On the highway, I usually try to maintain a speed between the speed limit and five miles per hour over (never more than that), and I’d like to have a button on my steering wheel that I can push (like cruise control) at any particular speed so that if that speed is exceeded, I get a soft audible “beep” every few seconds until my speed has fallen below the set point.

And, like cruise control (which I never use anymore for safety reasons), you would be able to change the set point as often as you like while driving.

Having this speed warning function would improve safety because you’d be less likely to inadvertently drive too fast, and you wouldn’t have to take your eyes off the road as often to look at the speedometer.

I can’t understand why this isn’t standard equipment on all motor vehicles.

Television à la carte

I don’t have much time for television. Seldom more than 2-3 hours per week, most or all of it on PBS Wisconsin. I usually watch Washington Week, Here and Now (Wisconsin news), and Amanpour & Company each Friday evening, and quite a few of the Nova episodes.

Once or twice most Friday and Saturday evenings, we’ll flip through the broadcast television channels we are able to receive from Madison some 39 miles to the east, and if we’re unusually lucky we’ll happen upon something worth watching. Usually not. And then there’s the damned commercials. I’m sure wherever you are you’ll find as I do that at any given moment, most of the television stations (except for PBS) are airing commercials. Ugh!

When we travel and stay at a motel, we often flip through the cable channels they offer, and once again seldom find anything worth watching (except, perhaps, for PBS and C-SPAN), even though there are dozens and dozens of channels. Here, too, at any given moment, most of the cable channels (except for PBS and C-SPAN) are airing commercials.

I have an aversion to advertising of any kind, and will go to great lengths to avoid watching anything that is interrupted by commercials during the program. Some of you might not be old enough to remember that when cable television first came out, a big selling point was that by abandoning free broadcast television and paying for cable TV, you could watch programs free of advertising. Well, we know how long that lasted. The number of commercials we have to endure has increased dramatically since the “golden age of television” in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

In my opinion, almost all of the television stations offered on both broadcast TV and cable are garbage. I have not subscribed to cable TV since the early 1980s, and have never been a satellite TV subscriber.

The only way I would ever subscribe to any kind of television service (cable, satellite, or internet) is if I they gave customers the ability to pick and pay for only the channels you want. Television à la carte, in other words. And the list to choose from should be huge, including multiple PBS channels, documentary film channels, reputable news channels, foreign English-language channels (or at least with English subtitles), classic movie channels, and, yes, NASA TV. And, please get rid of the advertising except—if need be—in between programs. I would pay extra for this option.

I am also frustrated by not being able to watch many newly-released documentaries (or documentary series) without subscribing to a service. Why should I subscribe to a service when all I want to do is watch one program? Why not charge $12 (or whatever) for each program a person wants to watch?

There is a case to be made for “flipping through the channels” and happening upon a documentary, movie, or television program of interest that you might not discover otherwise, but until some company offers television à la carte with a wide selection, my local PBS station is going to get all of my television dollars. I am delighted that—with the advent of digital television—we now have four PBS Wisconsin television stations to choose from!

Iowa Intercity Bus Service

Another pandemic casualty: intercity bus service. The Dubuque – Waterloo – Cedar Rapids – Marshalltown – Ames bus route shown on the 2015 map below is no more. When I called Burlington Trailways yesterday, they told me that this bus route will not be coming back after the pandemic. What a shame.

Not everyone who would like to ride a regional bus has no other transportation option, though that demographic is sizable and certainly needs to be served. Some of us like to ride a bus because we simply don’t want to drive long distances, especially alone. I lived in Ames, Iowa for nearly 30 years, and go back periodically to visit friends and family. I currently live in southwest Wisconsin, and prior to the pandemic, I was able to board a bus in Dubuque at 10:55 a.m. on any day, and would arrive in Ames on the same bus at 5:00 p.m., in time to pick up a rental car at Enterprise before they closed for the day. On the return trip, I could return the car in the morning, after Enterprise opened, board the bus in Ames at 9:45 a.m., and would arrive in Dubuque at 3:30 p.m. It was all very convenient.

Now, your only choice for using public transportation from Dubuque to Ames is the following:

  • Board the bus at Dubuque at 3:50 p.m.
  • Arrive at Davenport at 5:05 p.m.
  • Layover at the Davenport bus station until 6:55 p.m. (1h50m)
  • Transfer to a new bus and leave Davenport at 6:55 p.m.
  • Arrive in Des Moines at 11:10 p.m., with a 20 minutes layover
  • Transfer to a new bus and leave Des Moines at 11:30 p.m.
  • Arrive in Ames at 12:10 a.m. (no rental car companies open at that hour of the night)

The return trip is even worse.

  • Board the bus at Ames at 10:20 p.m.
  • Arrive in Des Moines at 11:05 p.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus at Des Moines
  • Arrive in Chicago at 5:35 a.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus in Chicago
  • Leave Chicago at 6:30 a.m.
  • Arrive in Davenport at 9:55 a.m.
  • Transfer to a new bus at Davenport
  • Leave Davenport at 10:10 a.m.
  • Arrive in Dubuque at 11:25 a.m.

A parenthetical note about this trip. The eastbound bus arrives at the Davenport Flying J’s Travel Shop, 8200 Northwest Boulevard at 1:55 a.m. Instead of going on to Chicago, you could take a 16-minute cab ride the 7 miles to the Burlington Trailways bus station in Davenport at 304 W River Dr. and then wait at the bus station for the 9:55 a.m. bus to arrive that will take you on to Dubuque. Or rent a motel room to sleep for a few hours first.

This is crazy! Who would put up with this unless they were desperate and had no other travel option? Certainly not a good way to build demand for public transportation across a broader demographic, is it?

Public transportation has been underfunded for decades in the United States and it shows. We ought to be ashamed. We really do need a much better bus and passenger rail network, with good intermodal connections.

Sadly, there was not a single news article on the internet that announced or lamented the cancellation of the Burlington Trailways bus route from Dubuque to Ames (and beyond). I guess intercity bus service isn’t deemed newsworthy, as many bus passengers are considered to be second-class citizens at best.

Another sign of the times: neither the bus companies nor anyone else posts bus route timetables on the internet, and even the Amtrak ones are hard to find these days. They all want you to enter your origin and destination on their website, but what if you want a “big picture” timetable for the entire route? You’re usually out of luck.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and Las Cruces

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited currently runs just three days a week between New Orleans, LA and Los Angeles, CA. There continues to be a lot of interest in making this a daily train, and I hope that happens soon.

The Sunset Limited stops at 22 cities and towns. These are listed below, with stops having a station building and waiting room shown in bold.

New Orleans, LA
Schriever, LA
New Iberia, LA
Lafayette, LA
Lake Charles, LA

Beaumont, TX
Houston, TX
San Antonio, TX
Del Rio, TX
Sanderson, TX
Alpine, TX
El Paso, TX

Deming, NM
Lordsburg, NM

Benson, AZ
Tucson, AZ
Maricopa, AZ
Yuma, AZ

Palm Springs, CA
Ontario, CA
Pomona, CA
Los Angeles, CA

As you can see, the Sunset Limited makes only two stops in the great state of New Mexico, and both of them are small towns (Deming 14K, Lordsburg 2.4K) without a station building.

Las Cruces, home of New Mexico State University, is by far the largest city in southern New Mexico, with a population of 103K and a metro area of 218K. It is not served by passenger rail.

Currently, if you want to utilize the Sunset Limited from Las Cruces, you need to board a Greyhound bus in Las Cruces at 1:20 a.m., and after you arrive at the Greyhound station in El Paso at 2:30 a.m., you need to take a cab or walk 0.4 miles in the middle of the night to the Amtrak station where you’ll have to wait until 1:22 p.m. to catch the westbound train or 3:10 p.m. to catch the eastbound train. Or later, if the train is not on time.

Returning to Las Cruces from El Paso involves arriving by train westbound at 1:22 p.m. or eastbound at 3:10 p.m., taking a cab or walking the 0.4 miles to the Greyhound station, and then waiting for the 3:25 a.m. bus to Las Cruces, where you will arrive at 4:30 a.m.

How’s that for convenience?

Would it be possible for the Sunset Limited to make a stop at Las Cruces between El Paso and Deming? Yes, but…

In order for the Sunset Limited to make a stop in Las Cruces without building a new rail line, it would have have to leave Union Pacific track and take BNSF track to Las Cruces, then on to Rincon, where it would take Southwestern Railroad track through Hatch and down to Deming where it would rejoin the Union Pacific track, adding 41 miles and some additional time to the trip both eastbound and westbound.

Other option would be to connect Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to the Sunset Limited by adding a new passenger route between Albuquerque and El Paso, with stops in Socorro and Las Cruces along the way. The rail between Albuquerque and Belen is owned by NMRX, and between Belen and El Paso by BNSF. Alternatively, the new passenger route could run entirely on BNSP track if you took the Rail Runner Express from Albuquerque to Belen with the new passenger route running between Belen and El Paso.

Yet another option would be to add a short passenger route like Rail Runner between Las Cruces and El Paso along 42 miles of BNSF track.

The best non-rail option would be to have a dedicated Amtrak thruway bus between Las Cruces and El Paso that would be in sync with the Sunset Limited train schedule and take you directly to and from the Amtrak station in El Paso. (The wonderful Van Galder bus service that runs multiple times per day between Madison, Janesville, South Beloit, Rockford, and Chicago serves as an excellent model as to what can be done by a well-run bus company.)

Finally, a shuttle between Las Cruces and El Paso in sync with the Sunset Limited train schedule could be offered, similar to the RoadRunneR shuttle that runs between Lamy and Santa Fe for the Southwest Chief stop at Lamy.

Retirement Challenges

I retired from my full-time position on May 21, and am now working three hours a day, Monday through Friday, for the same company, 100% remote. It is intense work, but at least it is only 15 hours per week now, and the pay is good.

There are a lot of potential projects that present themselves for an encore career, but I’m finding that I live in the wrong place to do any of them. Some are going to be impossible to do without substantial help from others.

One thing I’ve learned, especially during the pandemic, is that I need to be with people in the work that I do. A 100% remote interaction with others is unsatisfying, and I certainly don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that.

The project I am most excited about is Mirador Astronomy Village. Nothing like it has ever been done in the United States before.

Mirador would be a residential community that is astronomy-friendly, and the majority of that residential community would be permanent residents (in other words, not vacation homes for the wealthier among us). Mirador would have no dusk-to-dawn lighting, and no one living there will ever have to worry about a neighbor putting up a light that trashes their view of the night sky or shines into their home. Mirador would have a public observatory and provide regular astronomy programs. Mirador would also have private observatories for research, astrophotography, and visual observing.

Ideally, Mirador would be located where it is clear most nights and winters are mild. New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas immediately come to mind.

The challenges? Mirador is going to need a land donation and a group of people who can take some financial risk to build it without jeopardizing their personal economic stability. Astronomy is such an important part of my life that I am willing to move, even to a remote location, for the opportunity to live in an intentional community of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. What I don’t know is whether there are even 20 others in the entire United States who would make the move for such an opportunity. Running a classified ad in Sky & Telescope for a year accomplished nothing other than “great idea, let me know when you get it built.” Well, even though I have passion, knowledge, and leadership skills to make this project a success, I do not have financial resources beyond providing for myself and my family. I can’t personally fund a development.

Many other projects and activities interest me. None of them can I do in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

  • Provide astronomy programs at a public observatory
  • Volunteer at a classical music radio station, perhaps even hosting my own classical music program, or at least providing recordings and commentary
  • Volunteer for a symphony orchestra
  • Bring the best music of new and neglected classical composers to a wider audience
  • Passenger rail
  • Paved off-road bicycle path
  • Develop a comprehensive outdoor lighting code/ordinance that has support, will get enacted, and will be enforced

One current activity related to classical music is necessarily 100% virtual. Back in April, I created a groups.io discussion group called Classical Music Little-Known Favorites. I posted a note about it to the hundreds of people I am connected to on LinkedIn and Facebook, and that garnered only a single subscriber. Since then, I’ve been working diligently to find interesting and accessible classical music to feature. I am pleased with the results so far, only no one else is posting anything. Still only one subscriber besides myself. There must be at least 20 people in the entire world who have a passion to seek out and champion the best classical music that is not yet commercially available. How do I reach them?

Currently, my astronomical work is focused on stellar occultations by minor planets for IOTA. I spend about 20 hours per week running predictions, recording the events from my backyard observatory, analyzing the data, and reporting the results. My backyard observatory is wholly dedicated to this work. Wherever I end up living, I would like to continue these observations. This adds the complication that I will need access to a dedicated observatory for occultation work—either my own or one that I share with other occultation enthusiasts. That observatory should be within walking distance of where I live.

I would like to live closer to my daughter and her family in Alpine, TX. Even though I would prefer to live somewhere not too far from civilization (thinking quality health care, mostly) with a unpolluted night sky, I am beginning to consider moving to a larger city like Tucson or Las Cruces where I can better pursue my classical music interests in addition to astronomy. Tucson has direct Amtrak access to Alpine (a huge plus), but Las Cruces has no connection to Amtrak. The Sunset Limited needs to come to Las Cruces (between the El Paso and Deming stops), or at least there needs to be a bus that takes you directly to and from the train station in El Paso.

I am concerned about the direction this country is heading, and that is entering into my future plans, too. I am a non-religious progressive who believes that local, state, and federal government should be strong, competent, and efficient. There can be no higher calling than a life dedicated towards public service. I am pro-government, pro-tax, pro-education, pro-science, and anti-gun. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere where Trump got the majority of the vote in 2020. If the current Republican insanity continues (and they have most of the guns), we progressives may be forced to consider forming our own country. Or moving out of this one. Before things get any uglier. Living in an enlightened and compassionate society requires giving up some of your liberty and freedoms for the health and well being of everyone. That’s a given.

Email Overload: “Digest” It

Like many of you, I have more than one email address. One of those email addresses I use as a catch-all for nonprofits, political organizations, and commercial entities.

Over time, the volume of email I’ve received at that address has increased exponentially. Many senders subscribe me without my having ever opted in, and many senders send multiple emails a day (or per week)—and they don’t always give you the option to opt down. I unsubscribe from many every month, but the emails I receive daily keeps on growing.

I’m tempted (often), to unsubscribe from everything, but every once in a while I get an email that is important enough or useful enough that I’m glad I got it.

What to do? I am making a conscious effort to cut all of the insidious time wasters out of my life (this becomes much more important as we get older), freeing up precious time for what is most important. Email is one of the worst offenders.

Many online discussion groups have a “daily digest” option with all of the posts for the day being assembled into a single email, with a topical index at the top. I would like the ability through my email service provider to batch together emails from a variety of senders into a single daily email. It would work something like this:

  1. Create a list of email domains that you want batched (facebookmail.com, ewg.org, onefairwage.org, etc.)
  2. Activate the digesting service so that all emails coming from these domains gets batched into a single daily email with the subject line and sender of all the emails listed in the top section, followed by the full contents of the emails in sequence below that.

You’d have the option to receive the email sorted by time received in either ascending or descending order. You’d also be able to add or remove email domains from your list at any time.

Sure, it is going to be one long email for many of us, but it would go a long way towards reducing the clutter in our inboxes.

Another option would be to have an email service provider (unfortunately, digest.com is already taken) that will provide you with a pass-through email address that does this digesting for you, then forwards the daily email to the email address of your choice. You would update your senders with the pass-through email address. Let the digesting begin!

Best Jacket Ever

Little did I know at the time, but a decade (or was it two?) ago, I purchased a jacket at the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center store that is the best, most comfortable, most durable jacket I have ever owned. And, as often is the case with the most extraordinary products, it is no longer available.

Best Jacket in the Known Universe
Kitt Peak logo on the front of the jacket

Port Authority made the jacket in Sri Lanka, but a search of the Registered Identification Number RN 90836 indicates that San Mar Corporation is the owner. The product ID is Port Authority J-755.

Port Authority made the jacket in Sri Lanka
Port Authority style number J-755, registered identification number RN 90836

My jacket has faded quite a lot over the years, as demonstrated by the upturned collar below.

Though the Kitt Peak Port Authority J-755 jacket is, sadly, no longer available (wish they would bring it back!), as of this writing I was finally able to find something fairly close: the Port Authority J754 Challenger. I ordered one from A2Z Clothing (True Navy/Grey Heather) and will report back here after I’ve had a chance to evaluate it.

Update May 14, 2021

Received the Port Authority J754 Challenger in the mail yesterday from A2Z Clothing. I’m very happy with their service. This jacket is similar enough to the Kitt Peak jacket that I’ve ordered two more. (I’ve learned in recent years that it is a good idea if you find an article of clothing you like to order two more right away for later use, because there’s a high probability that when you need to replenish, it won’t be available any more.)

There are some differences. The collar of the new jacket is 22″ wide and 4″ deep. The Kitt Peak jacket collar is 19″ wide and 3″ deep. I prefer the less substantial collar of the Kitt Peak jacket.

The new jacket is made in Vietnam, and the old jacket was made in Sri Lanka.

Old Jacket
shell: 100% nylon
body lining: 75% polyester, 25% rayon
sleeve lining: 100% nylon
inter lining: 100% polyester resin coated
J-753, RN 90836

New Jacket
shell: 100% nylon
lining: 100% polyester
sleeve lining: 100% nylon
insulation: 100% polyester resin coated
J-754, RN 90836

Forever Stamps

The United States Postal Service has issued a number of enticing forever stamps in recent years, and I’ve begun accumulating stamps faster than I use them. Sound familiar? If so, why not use them for extra postage items—even if you end up spending a little more than is required.

The current value of a forever stamp is 55¢. If you have a postal scale at home to weigh the envelopes you want to post, this handy guide will show you how many forever stamps to use for envelopes of different sizes and weights. (Mail within the U.S. only)

Standard Envelopes (≤11.5″ long, ≤6.125″ high, ≤0.25″ thick)
  • 0 to 1 ounce: 1 forever stamp
  • 1 to 4 ounces: 2 forever stamps
  • 4 to 8 ounces: 3 forever stamps
Large Envelopes (11.5-15″ L, 6.125-12″ H, or 0.25-0.75″ T)
  • 0 to 1 ounce: 2 forever stamps
  • 1 to 4 ounces: 3 forever stamps
  • 4 to 7 ounces: 4 forever stamps
  • 7 to 9 ounces: 5 forever stamps
  • 9 to 12 ounces: 6 forever stamps
  • 12 to 15 ounces: 7 forever stamps

If you are mailing a standard envelope that has one or more of the characteristics in DMM 101.1.2, add an ounce to the measured weight to cover the non-machinable surcharge.

If you are mailing a large envelope that is rigid, is non-rectangular, or is not uniformly thick, then take your envelope to the post office to mail because you will have to pay parcel prices.

Smaller Portions, Please

Some facts about U.S.:

  • The average adult weighs 15 pounds more than 20 years ago
  • 40% of adults and 20% of children are obese
  • The average adult is eating ~300 calories more per day than in the 1970s
  • Beginning in 2015, more money is spent eating out than eating at home
  • Restaurant portion sizes have quadrupled since the 1950s

It’s true, we’re eating away from home more often, and the portion sizes we’re being served at restaurants are usually larger than they need to be. Have you ever had a totally satisfying meal at a restaurant that doesn’t leave you feeling like a beached whale afterwards? A well-prepared and well-presented meal does not have to be large to be loved.

Large portion sizes at restaurants are particularly a problem for those of us who are conditioned to eat everything on our plate, and who don’t like to take leftovers home.

Restauranteurs, please step up to the plate and fight obesity by making your standard portion sizes smaller. If a customer wants a larger portion, they should have to ask for it.

References

Briefing: The obesity epidemic. (October 18, 2019). The Week, 19(946), 12.

Cell Phone Fiasco

I am one of the holdouts who really has no interest in carrying around a smartphone everywhere I go. I spend most of my day in front of a computer screen, get far too many emails to keep up with, and have even less time for social media. I treasure the precious little time I have to be “unplugged” and do not want my treasured (and increasingly rare) face-to-face interactions to be interrupted by technology—nor do I want to be distracted by it.

To me, a screen is to be viewed, not touched. I much prefer a physical keyboard, and web browsing on a large screen. I hate all the pop-up ads on a smartphone browser, and all the places you go to accidentally while swiping to scroll.

For several years, I have had a great basic cellular phone with a slide-out keyboard, the LG Cosmos 3.

The LG Cosmos 3 – A Basic Phone with Slide-Out Keyboard

I do more texting than phoning, so this phone works great for that, and it is smaller than a smartphone. Recently, the charging port on my LG Cosmos 3 gave out and I could no longer charge the phone.

LG Cosmos 3 Charging Port
USB to Micro USB Charging Cable

There has got to be a better way to charge a phone like this that avoids all the wear and tear plugging and unplugging the micro USB plug into the phone. I first took the phone to a couple of phone repair shops in Madison, but they both said they could not fix or replace the port. I then took the phone to Verizon. Here’s what I found out:

  1. Verizon cannot fix the LG Cosmos 3 charging port.
  2. The LG Cosmos 3 is no longer available.
  3. The LG Cosmos 3 is a 3G device, and Verizon will be shutting that network down on 12/31/19 so even if the phone could be fixed, it won’t work after that date, nor will any other 3G device.
  4. No cell phone is currently available with a slide-out keyboard.

What?! No basic phone with a slide-out keyboard for texting? After spending several hours researching other cellular phone service providers and manufacturers, I discovered that no 4G/LTE phone with a slide-out keyboard exists. My only basic phone option was to go back to a flip phone where texting would require the multi-tap entry system on 12 keys. Slow and tedious, like it was on earlier generations of cell phones. This is progress?

After a second visit to the Verizon store, I decided to purchase the LG Exalt LTE flip phone. My very positive experience using the LG Cosmos 3 gave me a good reason to stick with LG. Though I like the LG Exalt LTE phone, texting is tedious. I really hope that LG will release an LTE version of the Cosmos 3. LG Cosmos 4, perhaps?

If you feel as I do that cell phone manufacturers like LG should once again offer a basic phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard, please sign this petition on Change.org:

https://www.change.org/p/lg-ask-manufacturers-to-make-a-4g-qwerty-flip-phone