Monday, August 14, 2017

Technology On The Road

In case the title wasn't clear enough, this post is about the technologies I use when on the road, at least some of them, but first up the scientist in me wants to define technology.

Of course, when on the road I use, among hundreds of other things, the wheel, internal combustion engine, and modern clothing, all technologies, but to keep this post relevant and at least somewhat timely, what I'm talking about here is more recent technologies, otherwise known these days as high-tech.

But even this is a moving target as the 'high' in high-tech usually only applies briefly.

Back when hominoids, along with our very close brethren the chimpanzee, discovered that they could pick up a femur left over from yesterday's scavenged kill and increase their power and reach by using it as a club, that was the high-tech of the day. But then us hominoids figured out how to split the end of a stick and wedge a heavy stone in there to make the club even more efficient, and the lowly wielded femur lost its 'high', and over time its 'tech' too.

Despite my career in computers and other such stuff, compared to some I'm not much of a technogeek,(Gasp!! I can't even open my garage door from another country with my phone, how archaic am I??) and being a somewhat aged troglodyte myself, I'm sure some of the technology I use has also aged well past its 'high', but just like the lowly club that I still regularly use today in the form of a hammer, the technologies I do use have relevance for me.

If I had to pick the one single piece of high-tech equipment I think I use most it would be my laptop, shown here on my stand-up desk/workstation/library/puzzle storage/keyboard stand/plant-starter/ - well, you get the idea - out in the barn where it lives when I'm not actually on the road.

With it I do the research, research, and more research that defines and enhances most every one of my trips. In addition to using it as a research platform, and for logging fuel mileage and repairs, and tracking trip costs, for the past 15 years I have used the holy crap out of the Delorme Topo mapping software I have installed on it.

Unfortunately Garmin has bought out Delorme and scraped all of its electronic products while keeping only the line of paper maps, (In the world of business, stuffing your competition into the trash is good, in the world of the consumer it sucks!) so Topo, along with the Earthmate GPS devices, two of which I also use, are no longer available. One of these days I'll have to look into reasonable substitutes but for now what I have works so I'll stick with it.

Notice that I didn't mention using my laptop for banking or other asset management. That's because, though I do use it for those things over the secured network at the house, when I hit the road I turn off the laptop's WIFI transmitter/receiver and leave it off until back home again. There are more secure ways to conduct business on the road. (Not only is our home network firewall secured and encrypted but because of our remote location which precludes people getting close enough to tap into the WIFI signal anyway, you can also think of it as air-gaped)

The sharp-eyed may have noticed that on the left side of my laptop is a Sunpak high-speed card reader plugged into a USB 3 port. That's there because, like me, my laptop is no spring chicken and through extensive use the contacts of laptop's SD card reader port have worn to the point where it will no longer read the SD cards from my camera, so I use the Sunpak to read them instead.

As a bonus the Sunpak can also read all sorts of other things such as SIM's, Micro SD's and other, more obscure things most of us never come in contact with.

The sharper-eyed may have also noticed a bit of red-orange hash over on the laptop's right side near the joint between keyboard and display. That's a mil-spec, rubber encased 16 GB USB memory stick. Because of my past life I have a bag fill of these things.

So what? Well some of y'all may have noticed that I'm not the most trusting person and for that reason you will find no personal files, photos, spreadsheets, nothing, on my laptop. All my files, even the temp files and auto-saves created in the background by the various apps, are on one or another of these memory sticks.

Now, if my laptop is stolen, not only will the thief have a hell of a time cracking my device password, if they do there's nothing on there they can use to hurt me. (Just out of malicious humor, when working I kept a 45 character, very complex password with only a few actual letters in it taped to the bottom of the keyboard in my office. Of course it was fake but can you imagine the frustration of someone thinking they had hit the jackpot and trying to use it to get into my system?!!)

Using a USB drive might seem counter-intuitive from a security standpoint since a stick can be plugged into any USB port on any computer and the files read. Well that's true, but only sort of. I do three things to offset that risk.

1) When the stick is not plugged into my laptop, which means anytime I'm not actually accessing a file on it, it's stored in a secure/obscure/non-intuitive location which, for obvious reasons, I'm not going to go into detail about here.

2) If someone with nefarious tendencies, or even just a snoop, does get ahold of one of my drives they will find that it is encrypted and password protected. So without the proper password the worst they can do is throw the drive in the trash. (But of course I've got copies. . .)

3) And if all that fails, any sensitive files on the stick are individually password protected.

All these passwords are unique to each device/drive/file so cracking one only gets you into that one layer or access to that one file.

Yes that's a lot of passwords to keep track of!! But I have a fairly simple way of making each one unique  yet re-callable without resorting to a spreadsheet or a password-vault. Again, for obvious reasons, I'm not going to go into details here.

If my laptop crashes, or is stolen, I have all my working data available on a memory stick that I can plug into any computer, including a replacement right from the store.  In addition I make a fresh backup frequently, sometimes daily if I'm doing a lot of computer work, that is encrypted and protected by yet another password, and yes, I have more than one copy of my backups secured in various, well protected places, to improve my odds of being able to get to at least one of them. (though none are on the cloud because a) everybody has access to the cloud, b) the cloud is managed and secured by fallible humans, c) the cloud is forever!) I should also note that all my backups are made with a commonly available backup app so I can unpack them just about anywhere.

For maximum security I always use a 30 to 35 character password, or at least the longest one a device, app or web-site will allow. Each extra character added to a password increases the difficulty of cracking it by a whole bunch! (Think exponentially.) and if you avoid dictionary words it gets even harder to crack. (Crackers like dictionary words because they are easy.  Even though the English language alone has over 1 million words, to a computer 1 million is not all that many.)

Not to get into a long-winded tirade here, (you can go do your own research if you want, maybe starting here) despite what the idiots in charge of security at many web sites that force the use of complex passwords but limit you to 10 digits would have you believe, I can create a 15 character password using only lower-case letters that will be more secure than any 10 character complex password. And if I can get in one of my 30+ character, non-dictionary-words passwords I'll be dead by the time a cracker gets through it! (To come up with a re-callable non-dictionary password try using the first letter of every word, along with the case and punctuation, of a sentence that means something to you: "My Aunt Mary makes the best cherry pies in the world! But, if I sneak just 1 piece she makes me sit in the corner for 30 minutes!" would make a good strong password (Except I know it now so don't use that!) Don't use popular lines from movies for a password!! It's astounding how many passwords out there right now are a variation of "My name is Groot" and "Attention, all beings within the Vega system. Your freedom to cause pain and suffering has been revoked" is very popular with many of the SyFy fan, 'first letter' crowd, but the good crackers are updated frequently to check for popular things like this!)

OK, I'm getting off subject here but one more thing before I get back to the technology.

All this may seem overkill; password protected devices, physically secured files, no files available at all, encrypted disks, additional password protection on individual files, etc.; but the holy grail of security is layers. Make each layer difficult and by the time the bad guys are through one or two they will either have given up or been spotted.

I'm so security paranoid I even changed the destination path for this screen capture to protect my actual path. . . sick huh??

Now back to the original point of this post:

One of the apps I use on my laptop quite a bit is Photoshop Elements 9 which came packaged with one of my cameras.

With it I can clean up the bluish haze of long telephoto shots taken with my relatively inexpensive lens, I can brighten up shadows to bring out details if necessary, (I shoot most photos with the exposure setting down anywhere from 1/3 to a full step because blown-out highlights are forever but detail in deep shadows can still be brought out.) but one of the most common uses I have for it is to batch-process the photos destined for this blog.

There are two of us using our limited bandwidth out here in the sticks and uploading full 4000 x 3000 pixel photos that run in the 3+ MB size range wouldn't help, so I use Photoshop's batch-processing to cut them down to 1600 x 1200 which gets them down to the 1 MB range.

When actually on the road my laptop has two primary functions.

As shown here, it acts as my GPS using Delorme Topo in conjunction with an Earthmate USB GPS puck.

Topo has the usual routing feature with  that squirrely "3D" view and the talking head telling you when to turn and all, but I started reading paper maps about the time I started school so am very comfortable with them and use the GPS strictly in overhead, north-to-the-top mode with no routing. It keeps me informed of where I am while I make all the decisions about where I go.

Topo allows me to split the screen, the nice big laptop screen not the typical puny little portable GPS screen, into two different views. Each screen stays centered on my location. One, the one on the left is a high altitude view that gives me a picture of where I am relative to whats in a roughly 30 mile radius around me. The other view, the one on the right, is a close-up view that lets me see every road and most driveways within a mile radius of where I am. I can also adjust both these views to a higher or lower zoom level if I want. (I can actually track myself to a particular pump in a gas station at the highest zoom level if I ever needed that kind of accuracy. . .)

As you might be able to see in the photo, I usually leave all my map pins, those markers pointing out places I've heard, read, or been told about that I might want to visit someday, active while I'm traveling just in case I spot something coming up that I want to check out.

The second major function of the laptop when on the road is as my entertainment center. Since I don't have a sound system or TV in The Van, when I'm tired of reading I turn to my collection of DVD's played through the laptop's reader. (No tablets for me because I need the reader and don't want to have to mess with a separate device.)

I'm not much of a movie-on-DVD kind of guy but I do have a collection of TV shows, everything from early adulthood (Rockford Files, The Bob Newhart Show) to more modern stuff, (China Beach, Northern Exposure) at least modern to me. I've never counted them up but I probably have hundreds of half and one-hour episodes with quite a variety to choose from, and at one or two a night it's going to take me a long time to get through them all. (And by then I'll have forgotten so can start over again!)

OK, enough with the laptop. On to the smart-phone.

Along with the obvious functions of phone and email (nobody texts me so it isn't even in my plan) there's actually quite a bit of stuff I can do with the phone that the disconnected laptop can't touch.

In the photo above I have my phone mounted right on the laptop making it easy to glance at as I'm driving (Combat strips are another bit of high-tech that I use!) because I happen to be making a long trip here, using major roads in order to cover a lot of ground quickly, Google Maps real-time traffic is a great tool for spotting those snarled up construction zones in time to seek out an alternative route,
such as one of Arkansas infamous multi-mile construction backups I recently avoided on I30 just east of Texarkana by taking to the parallel US 67, or this (pictured above) on-going mess on I70 at Terre Haute that I was also able to slip around because I was forewarned.

Of course this won't work when I'm out of service, but that's pretty rare anymore along major roads so it's no big deal.

To make this feature even more useful, instead of Google Maps I usually run the Allstays app, which uses Google Maps, including the live traffic feature, as a base layer, but also has some additional useful information that can be overlayed. In this case, since it was mid-day and I wasn't looking for a campground at the time, I cleaned up the clutter by using Allstays filter to only show me rest areas, fuel stations/truckstops and Walmarts.

Why Walmart?? Because with a quick tap of a finger I can see if a particular Walmart has gas, in other words a Murphy's station. True, Murphy's diesel is anemic crap that gives noticeably lower miles per gallon, probably because it's mixed closer to the 20% mark than the 5% mark with ethanol, but combine the already low price with saving another 3 cents per gallon by using a Walmart gift card, which I carry just for this reason, and it's still worth it, especially if the alternative is a name-brand truckstop that could be 20 or even 30 cents higher.

Any app that relies on tracking your location while you are on the move sucks a huge amount of power so I keep the phone plugged into a charger when using it like this.

Another phone-app I use quite a bit on the road is Weatherbug.

Here I've forced it to look at Cloudcroft New Mexico since I'm writing this from the house and I'm not about to let you see where that is, but normally when I want a weather update on the road I turn location on and then the app shows me the local weather.

In addition to the current conditions, I can look at an hourly forecast if I want to see how soon it will cool down to comfortable sleeping levels tonight, or a 10-day forecast for longer-range planning purposes. If I want to see the weather someplace else, maybe a spot I'm thinking about heading to, I just type in the location and Weatherbug takes me there.

While northbound on a recent trip  I stopped at a rest area south of Fort Wayne Indiana because I could see a large afternoon storm complex out there in front of me. The radar map on Weatherbug told me that if I just sat tight for a half hour or so and had dinner, the storm would blow off to the east and I would miss it. By waiting a few minutes I not only stayed out of the rain, I also stayed clear of the 4 or 5 vehicles I passed that didn't wait, or slow down, and hydroplaned right off the road, in at least one case, taking out an innocent vehicle in the process. (What is the matter with us that we are so damn stupid we don't slow down on wet roads?!! At this rate we deserve to go extinct.)

In addition to using the phone's browser for on-the-fly research, I also use a few other apps. Nothing fancy, just couple that make finding information about certain places, and making reservations while on the go, simpler.

So while I'm not what most would consider a heavy user of my phone, (I have never even come close to using up my 2G's of data.) it certainly simplifies certain things when I'm on the road.

Even so, I treat my phone with a degree of skepticism.

For one thing, since I'm the kind of person that thrives on seeking out remote places most likely to not have any signal, I need to be prepared to do without, for another, it's hardly a secure device. (And if you are a Verizon user, as I am, apparently your provider is rated as the most likely to roll over and spread it's legs when the Feds come knocking on the door for info!!)

How many of y'all secure your smartphone with a 4 digit code? (Oh crap! Again with the security? Oh, and if you are one of those that doesn't secure your phone at all, it's not just your info, clearly you are content with exposing it to the world, but what about all your friend's, work-colleague's, and business associate's contact info, birthdays, addresses, meetings, appointments, etc. that you are putting at risk? ) Did you know that most phones allow you to use an 8, 12, or even longer passcode??

But that's still not really good enough since I'm only allowed to use 0 through 9 or a limited variety of 'slides' even long passcodes on phones are far more vulnerable than those on full-keyboard devices, so I keep no full names, addresses, photos, banking URL's, schedules or other personal info on my phone because not only is it more likely to get lost or stolen than my laptop, it's more easily cracked.

One final note about my cell; any phone outside of a service area, which is where I seem to be quite a bit of the time, uses up a whole bunch of power trying to find that non-existent signal so I turn the phone to airplane mode. That way I still have a clock/alarm/timer (Usually the only one I have with me on a hike or when The Van is parked and the dash is dark.) as well as access to the photo I took as a backup to my paper map, but I'm not burning through the battery.

Speaking of trails and trail-maps, I really like my Earthmate PN-60 hand-held GPS. I carry it when hiking, kayaking, biking, or anything else that's more than a casual lunch-break stroll around the park.

I primarily use it to keep track of where I am, and as a mostly solo excursionist it gives me just that much more confidence and peace of mind when I'm out there alone. But I also find it useful as a mid-excursion planning tool. I can check on how far I've come, how long I've been out there, when sunset is, the moon's state tonight, and what the terrain around me is like, (The base layer is Delorme Topo so I've got all that terrain and features info at my fingertips.) all of which is helpful when deciding where to go next and when I need to turn around and head back.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't rely on the thing exclusively for finding my way, after all, it is a fallible bit of equipment, so I always have a hardcopy map of the area in my pocket as well as a digital copy on my camera and phone. When I'm out there I'm constantly looking around, especially back the way I've come, to keep myself oriented, aware of my surroundings, and what the return trip is going to look like, (Who knows, if the hiker that stepped off the Appalachian trail in 2013 for a bio-break had looked back and noted a couple landmarks maybe she wouldn't have gotten lost and died a few weeks later of starvation and exposure.) but it sure is comforting to be able to confirm my observations with the GPS.

For instance, I was once hiking one of the few mainland trails of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore when I was stopped by a swollen and fast-moving creek I didn't want to risk crossing on my own. Not ready to just turn around and go back, I knew Lake Superior was off to my west and if I could get there I could walk the lakeshore back to the trailhead since I already knew I hadn't crossed any major waterways that could stop me. What I didn't know was just how far away the lakeshore was and what the terrain between here and there was like. After consulting the GPS to help decide if it was feasible, I did some bushwacking and shore-walking, salvaging what could have been a busted hike.

Another fun thing I do with the GPS is record my tracks then upload them into my laptop-based Topo so I can see all my excursions at a glance, like the one above of a 7.5 mile hike in Caprock Canyons. There at the yellow arrow is where I came across a solitary, shorts-and-tennis-shoe hiker that had run out of water and wasn't sure where he was. At the red arrow is where I started bushwacking a more interesting route back to the campsite but ran into a herd of Bison so retreated back to the main trail before I pissed them off.

Back in the day, the CB was the tool for keeping tabs on road conditions; and Smoky if you were into speeding, which I never saw the point of since the reward of arriving a few minutes earlier never out-weighs the risk (which is not just excessive wear on your vehicle and tickets but- well - you know, death, either your's or someone else's) but as technologies improved all the professional drivers moved over to the new and improved, leaving mostly the foul-mouthed and angry behind there on channel 19.

Even so, you can see by the deteriorating hand-cord in the photo above, that I've had my CB a long time and it's still there in The Van. That's because of another fact about technology:

It will fail!

One of the greatest dangers of technology, besides following Suzy Talkinghead down the boatramp and driving right into the lake, is becoming dependent on it.

I keep my CB because it receives the 10 NOAA weather channels for those times I'm out of cell service, or maybe I've dropped my precious phone into a creek somewhere (WooHoo! Now I have an excuse to go get the latest new-and-improved model!!) and can't get to my Weatherbug app.

If I can't get to Delorme Topo because my laptop has failed, I can fall back to Google Maps on my phone, if that isn't working I still have my handheld GPS.

If my GPS fails out there on the trail I have my paper map in my pocket as well as a digital copy on the camera and phone.

I could go on since there's still plenty of other technologies I use on the road, but this has hit the high-points of the ones I use, and frankly, even I'm getting a little bored with the subject by now.

Technologies come and go, so will always be a moving target, you have to decide for yourself just how much effort you want to put into chasing that target.

The main point is, technologies have certainly enhanced my on-the-road experience, but I'm careful not to become reliant on any one device or app because after all, it's not about the technology, but rather about being out there and experiencing some of what this earth has to offer in the short time available to us.

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