Wednesday/ the new ‘Public Enemy No 1’

It used to be, many years ago, that we would call South Africa’s national telephone company, Telkom, ‘Public Enemy No 1’. (They were a monopoly, and their services were mediocre at best).  Well,  these days that title belongs to South Africa’s electrical utility company, Eskom.

On Sunday, unexpectedly, the utility announced that it had to resort to Stage 3 Load Shedding mode, with widespread power outages. There were more on Monday, on Tuesday, and today. For Stage 3, Eskom implements rolling blackouts per published time periods and areas around the country, that forces a cut in the national power consumption by 3,000 MW.  (About 10%. The country’s power consumption needs at this time of year is around 30, 000 MW).

It now appears that there are major problems with the start-ups of the two brand-new power stations called Medupi (dry-cooled, coal-fired, 6x 800 MW) and Kusile (coal-fired, 6x 800 MW) , and that the utility was not forthcoming about it.

A team of Italian engineers (power supply & power grid experts) has been called upon to come and help devise strategies to get Eskom’s operations to a better place.  They cannot come soon enough .. even though I am sure we have South African engineers that are completely up to the task, if only they were given the opportunity by Eskom’s senior management.

Front page of Die Burger (‘The Citizen’) newspaper from Tuesday: ‘What the Hell, Eskom!’ .. and ‘Steenbras Dam cannot help until April’ (to generate hydroelectric power) | ‘Even Cyril (Ramaphosa, President), is shocked’ | ‘Could cost the country up to R5 billion (US$ 357 million) per day’ (per the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse).
Here’s an online notice of the outage that happened tonight in my area. These power outages hit large and small businesses particularly hard, of course.

Saturday/ the Yurikamome line

This morning, I took the Yurikamome line’s train to the new Toyosu fish market from Yurakucho Station (not much to see there), and then went on to Shimbashi Station. The line offers plenty of great views of the waterfront and of Tokyo Bay.

The Yurikamome line was completed in 1995, and is Tokyo’s first fully automated transit system – controlled entirely by computers, with no drivers on board.  It looks like a monorail, but it is not: the trains run with rubber-tired wheels on an elevated concrete track guided by the side walls.

I had just stepped off the train at the Shijo-mae station close to the Toyosu fish market, and waited for the next one to arrive (to take a picture, of course). Note that there is no rail or rails on the track. The train runs on rubber wheels, controlled by computer.
The bidding for blue-fin tuna happens early (5 am to 6 am) at the market, so by late morning there was no action to be seen through the double-pane windows for visitors. This is a model of the largest tuna recorded (at the old Tsukiji fish market), 496 kg/ 1,094 lbs, in 1986. It just so happened that early today, a Japanese sushi tycoon paid a whopping US$ 3.1 million for a giant tuna at this market – by far the most ever. Let’s also just note that blue-fin tuna is an endangered species due to overfishing. Oy.
The upside down pyramids of Tokyo Big Sight, officially known as Tokyo International Exhibition Center. That’s a giant wood saw in the foreground.
The Yurikamome line runs under the Rainbow Bridge, a suspension bridge crossing northern Tokyo Bay. The railway line is encased in fencing, seen in the middle on the right of the picture.

Tuesday/ new trains, new stations

I have been to Hong Kong many times, and there is always a new construction project, or an extension of the subway rail network to check out.
The new high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou in mainland China opened in Sept 2018, after many years of delays.
Unfortunately my American passport is not much help to get me into the new train and across the border! Aargh.  I would need a confirmed itinerary/ formal invite for a visa, which takes FOUR business days. I will be gone by then – and it’s too much effort for a jolly ride, anyway.

Slide 1 of 4: This is the 615 m/ 0.38 mi walk from the Marriott top left, to the new-ish Sai Ying Pun station (opened in 2015). The 200 m/ 0.13 mi to the green bubble where the train stops, is an underground pedestrian tunnel.  Yes, it’s a little walk to get there, but once there, there are 93 destination stations on 11 lines to choose from .. for only for a few dollars!
Slide 2 of 4: The entrance & exit B3 to Sai Ying Pun station. There are several others scattered around the station. The apartment tower was built along with the station entrance.
Slide 3 of 4. (Successfully took a picture without dropping my new phone into the abyss). It takes three escalators (or the elevator) to get to the bottom of the pedestrian tunnel that goes to the train station. There is also a spiral staircase winding around the escalators: a means to get into or out of the station during a local power failure.
Slide 4 of 4. The pedestrian tunnel that goes to the train station.
Here is the cavernous inside of the departure lounge at the brand new Hong Kong West Kowloon station, the terminus of the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link. Those pillars are just enormous, and the roof with its skylights is at least 6 storeys up.
I did not have access to the platform to check out the train, but here is a photo from Wikipedia. This is train G6581, getting ready to leave Guangzhou South, bound for Hong Kong West Kowloon, on the first day of running on the Hong Kong section in September. These trains are built in China.
Mickey Mouse in the arrivals hall of the Hong Kong West Kowloon station, beckoning to travelers to visit Hong Kong Disneyland. I think he looks very cute, and is doing a great job.
Hey! And above ground, the 110-year old tram system on Hong Kong Island is still going strong. Fares are now HKD 2.60 (33 cents US), up from HKD 2.00 (26 cents) ten years ago. Got to pay the bills, right? This was on New Years Eve, with the trams on a modified schedule. All these were heading out in quick succession to pick up people that wanted to travel to the city center.
This pedestrian subway tunnel under Salisbury Road by Victoria harbor was nicely remodeled as well. Pressing the camera shutter makes for instant abstract art!

Sunday/ rain day

The rain is back after a dry week, and we did not see the sun all day.
It’s not all bad, though: the cloud cover and rain keep the day temperatures well above freezing. Today it was 46°F (8°C) here in the city.

Here’s 15th Ave at 4.30pm today – the sun had set at 4.18 pm already. My iPhone Xs should do a lot better than my old 6s in low light. The Xs has a camera sensor (made by Sony, by the way) that is double the size of the 6s, and that has larger pixels as well. Larger pixels catch more light photons per pixel for a sharper, truer picture. 

Friday/ new phone setup: complete

I snapped a picture of the trumpeting African elephant in my wild animal collection for my lock screen, for now.

I think I have my new phone set up, finally. I store a lot of stuff on the phone, not in the cloud. (I might be in the cloud/s, or on another continent, wanting to get to my data).  So I transferred some 12 Gb of music from iTunes on my desktop computer, a selection of favorite photo folders (animals and friends & family photos), and updated my offline Google maps.

I also fired up all my commonly used apps one by one. For some, I had to enter my username again, and dig up the password (from my Excel cheat sheet), but now I think I have most of the passwords saved on the iCloud keychain.

The Face ID facial recognition system on the phone is impressive, but one has to wonder if it is as secure as Touch ID (fingerprint). My other big gripe with Apple is the removal of the headphone jack, something that really made me hesitate to get the new phone. (There is a headphone jack connector available .. but in time I might spring for a new pair of bluetooth noise-canceling Bose headphones. I just refuse to wear Apple’s wireless Airpods, point blank. I think they look silly, uber-geeky, cheeky. And I will be sure to lose them in no time at all).

Thursday/ my new camera, uh – phone

I ran out to the Apple store today to upgrade my iPhone 6s camera to an iPhone Xs camera. (It’s a little joke. Of course the iPhone Xs functions as a phone as well! .. and has a bigger, brighter screen; more powerful processor; and more storage).

Here are some first pictures that I took in Volunteer Park here in Seattle. (Note: The last two pictures will take longer than usual to load over slow connections. I did not reduce their pixel count).

I reduced the pixel sizes of these photos of the duck pond (male and female mallards). These are just to show the 2x optical zoom (top picture), and then setting back to the 1x regular zoom. It’s nice to have choice, and there is a big difference!
Mr Squirrel is nibbling on something, not very perturbed – used to photographers, it seems. This is 2x zoom; original 4,032 x 3,024 pixel size, but cropped somewhat to show just the squirrel.
This is an original size 3,024 x 3,024 square picture. (This is the park’s iconic Black Sun sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, with the Space Needle in the distance). The camera sensor & software does a good job of balancing the intense colors close to the setting sun with the pastels in the sky and the clouds.

Wednesday/ car key fobs: for the birds

I see I will have to get a Faraday pouch for my Toyota Camry’s key fob. (A pouch with radio signal shielding in the lining, so that it forms a barrier for emitting or receiving radio signals). There has been reports in Seattle of car thieves using signal amplifier kits to steal cars that use key fobs.

Reports of these shenanigans by thieves are also on YouTube, going as far back as 2013. It makes me wonder if the fancy 2019 models I see in the car commercials on TV, are any less vulnerable. And what about driverless cars? They will be no good if they can be hacked into.

Here’s how the signal-grabbing-and-amplify kit is used to steal cars. Thief A picks up the signal through the front door. The signal is relayed and captured on the device Thief B has. Thief B opens the car, and his device allows him to start the car, and to drive away (presumably after Thief A had hopped in as well).

Monday/ Amazon’s new HQ2 times 2

Amazon says it will eventually employ 25,000 workers at each of its two new locations, and the impact on the surrounding areas might be big. (Raise rents and property prices & add to traffic congestion). [Picture from New York Times].
Word had leaked out by Monday night (before an official announcement from Amazon), that the two sites of the much anticipated Amazon HQ2 (second headquarters) will be Long Island City (in New York City) and Crystal City (in northern Virginia, just south of Washington DC downtown).

I think – I’m not sure – that it’s good news for Seattle that HQ2 will be split in two. Seattleites were fretting that HQ2 might eventually become bigger than Seattle, and this seems to make that less of a possibility.

Tuesday/ the Facebook dilemma

I just watched the two episodes on the public television channel called ‘The Facebook Dilemma*’ – and did not find it reassuring.  Facebook has a long history of being too late to address disastrous uses of their platform: for hate speech, for spreading lies, for sowing distrust and division. Should anyone trust them again, ever?

*Facebook should be reinvented (run with different functionality & algorithms) or even be shut down, but it has become too big and powerful.

Congress – and the citizenry – have a responsibility as well. Do we care enough? Here’s former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos: “We’ve had two years since the main part of the Russian attack against the 2016 election, and very little has been done as a country, as a government, to protect ourselves,” Stamos told FRONTLINE. “We have signaled to the rest of the world that interfering in our elections is something that we won’t really punish or react to.”

Is Facebook ready for the 2018 Midterm elections? The answer: Nobody really knows – nor does Facebook. Here’s the Facebook ‘War Room’ with the Facebook election team. The team will do real-time monitoring on election day, to monitor fake news stories and delete fake accounts. [Picture from Frontline at https://www.pbs.org]

Wednesday/ gas pipeline explosion

There was a big gas transmission pipeline explosion in Prince George, BC, Canada, on Tuesday.  Even though it is 500 miles away, it is impacting us here in Seattle as well, since we get some of our natural gas from Canada.

Our local gas utility company is requesting that everyone to turn down their thermostats, and limit the use of hot water and electricity for a day or two. (Natural gas is used for some electricity generation).

Here’s the results of a few online searches I did .. these gas transmission pipelines are typically 36 in (0.92 m) in diameter, and pressurized to 50 times atmospheric pressure.
Interesting map of gas transmission pipelines in the United States. Check out the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Texas & Louisiana – whoah. That’s where all the refineries are, that produce natural gas and other products from crude oil.

Wednesday/ got my ‘Presidential Alert’

‘No, Trump didn’t write it’, soothed CNN’s notification about the Presidential Alert. This ability was actually requested by Congress in 2006, and has been many years in the making.

Everyone in the United States with a smartphone got a ‘Presidential Alert’ this morning – a test by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Man! Does that mean Trump can spam everyone with a stupid message from his phone? Mercifully, not. These messages are generated & sent from a special FEMA notebook computer, and by law, must be for true emergencies only.

One shudders to think what significant national crises would justify every American to be alerted. I can think of a few. Nuclear war (‘Hey everyone: Kim Jong-un & I are no longer in love, so just so you know, I sent him some ICBMs’). A meteor hit from outer space. A massive electromagnetic pulse from a sun flare (that may very well wipe out FEMA’s ability to send the alert altogether).

 

Friday/ where the iPhones are

Checking out the newest iPhone Xs in the store. The phone is about as wide, and a half-inch longer, than my iPhone 6s, which is acceptable. The enormous Xs Max is too big for me.

I finally went down to University Village mall to go check out Apple’s new store (and new iPhones*). There used to be a perfectly fine Apple store inside the mall, but I guess it was just not cool enough, and so they built a new stand-alone store, just steps away from where the old one was.

*I should probably upgrade my 2015 iPhone 6s at some point soon! The new camera lenses on the iPhone Xs, and the bezel-to-bezel OLED screen would be very welcome.

The style of Apple’s new store in University Village is minimalist with large glass panels and 14-ft high ceilings inside. (I took the picture in panorama mode; the roof is flat with a straight edge).
Work tables and seating near the large screen form the center focus point of the store. The large screen is used for art, and for product displays (of course), but also for coding classes for kids. (Picture by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Thursday/ Trump’s Space Force

Vice President & Trump Pleaser Mike Pence talked about Trump’s proposed Space Force today.  Trump wants the new proposed branch of the military (the 6th, after Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard) in operation by 2020. Um. It’s a moon shot alright.
1. The new Space Force would have to be authorized by Congress.
2. How about a Cyber Force first, to shore up our cybersecurity?
3. Where will the money come from? The United States is 20 big Apples (trillions) in debt, and will now add another every year (Trump tax cuts).
4. Impeachment proceedings may very well start in 2019.

The Washington Post’s concept of a cheesy new gold Space Force One for Trump (note the ‘100% coal powered’, and ‘Make Space Great Again’ lettering).

Monday/ save the rainwater

Residents of Cape Town recorded a record low water usage of 505 million litres (133 million US gals) for the city per day for last week. Still, the target is 450 million litres per day (50 litres/ 13 US gallons per person per day).

Day Zero (no water for faucets) continues to be pushed out, and the winter rainy season has started – but it is still uncertain how much rain it will bring.

Dam Levels in the Western Cape on May 7. The big red boxes at the top says This Week 16.5% | Last Week 16.6% | Last Year 20%. If only that giant Theewaterskloof dam could come up to the 47.6% level of the little Wemmershoek dam! [Graphic by Grafika24, from Die Burger newspaper]
Here’s a sign I saw yesterday for a new apartment building here in Seattle, called Stack House. I think these big rainwater tanks should become part of the building code for big buildings – and hey, for houses, as well.

Saturday/ Jeff Bezo’s (very) long view

Check out this interview that Mathias Döpfner had with Jeff Bezos in Berlin. They cover a lot of ground, and towards the end (skip ahead to 38:00), Jeff reveals why it is so important that humans (eventually) colonize other planets.

Picture tweeted on Sunday by Bezos, after another successful New Shepard reusable launch system. It uses a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL), suborbital crewed rocket that is being developed by Blue Origin as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism.

In a nutshell: as the animals that we are, our bodies burn energy at a rate of a 100W (of which 60W is for our brains). So: we need 100 W just to be alive. But a modern, civilized human – living in a climate-controlled house, and traveling, and working – easily burns 10 times that 100W, in terms of his or her energy usage. On Earth, the number of humans will keep increasing, as will their energy needs, as civilization progresses. We have become more efficient at harnessing resources from Earth and our sun for energy, but it will not be enough. We have to find extraterrestrial resources to harness, and to generate energy from, to ensure that humans can survive another 1,000 years and more.

Still from businessinsider.com, from the interview that Mathias Döpfner had with Jeff Bezos in Berlin.

Saturday/ Earth Day

Tomorrow is Earth Day.  Let’s all pledge to 1. make more use of public transport where possible, and 2. to make our next car an electric one. Electric cars still make up less than 1% of global sales. Yikes.

Here’s a red Tesla Model 3 on display at the Bellevue Square shopping mall today. The sales rep says the wait is 12 months. Business Insider reports that Tesla is now nearing 2,500 in weekly Model 3 production: a BIG improvement over the low ‘production hell’ numbers at the end of last year.

Wednesday/ robot in the parking lot

I spotted a Knightscope security robot today, in a shopping mall parking lot in Bellevue. These are autonomous 6-ft high, 400-lb machines, filled with sensors.  The robot scans the environment around it to create 3D images, and to check for unusual situations. I am sure they can already capture car registration numbers. Hmm .. and eventually, recognize the ‘FBI’s Most Wanted’ humans through face recognition?

It appeared to me this Knightscope robot in a Bellevue parking lot was doing a test run. They can upload their data to the cloud, but this one was tethered to the car behind it (thin blue cable). The Microsoft campus nearby is said to have a few of these roaming around already. 

Friday/ do not trust Facebook

Recent cover of German magazine Der Spiegel: ‘Die Falle Facebook’ – the Trap that is Facebook. Be careful. Do not be this guileless user, that just divulges everything/ clicks on everything/ believes everything, on Facebook.

I am not deleting my Facebook account, but they have lost my trust. Facebook will do almost anything for money. A sample: they enabled Russians to buy fake news ads (and pay in rubles) for the 2016 US Presidential election scandal, they enabled hate speechers to find target audiences on Facebook; allowed third parties to extract personal data, and then failed to follow up to make sure the data is deleted (the Cambridge Analytica scandal); scanned  images and links sent from Messenger.

So now I go in every other day into my Facebook settings, and I am systematically deleting anything that they can use to sell me stuff.  No more favorite movies or books, deleting my interests, do not enable just anyone to view my profile, do not enable face recognition in my photos, delete all connections to other apps. Sending money with Facebook? (yes, it can be done). Never.

Saturday/ Tesla Model 3 spotting

We spotted a Tesla Model 3 across the street while we were having a beer and a bite at Elysian Capitol Hill Brewery on Saturday night.  It’s amazing how much smaller in size,  just 11 inches in length can make a car look (185″ long vs. 196″ for the Model S).  I liked the styling and the lines on the Model 3 a lot.

Check it out! (That’s me, standing in the rain). This brand new Tesla Model 3 is a dark metallic grey. Its owner ponied up at least $50k for it. Only about 1,500 of these cars were produced in the last quarter in 2017. Tesla hopes to get production volumes up to 5,000 Model 3s per week by June.

Friday/ what a tangled web we weave

Bloomberg Businessweek calls the Spectre and Meltdown security vulnerabilities in billions of Intel & Apple computers all over the world, that became public early this January, ‘staggering security flaws’. (Intel is getting most of the flak. Ninety percent of the world’s computers, and 99% of servers, run on Intel chips).

So ..  is there a somewhat straightforward explanation of these two types of  attacks? And what is a poor sap such as me to do with his computers and devices (besides taking up a life in the woods and refrain from using them)?

It turns out almost all the big tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others) have worked together since June 2017 to create software patches so that hackers would not exploit the flaws.  But fixing the problem for all platform and hardware combinations still has a long way to go.

As always, users should update their Linux, Windows, Apple MacOS or Apple iOS device operating systems, as soon as upgrades and fixes become available. Use proper passwords (and change them from time to time). Never click on links in suspicious e-mails (or: ‘don’t run someone else’s code on your machine’). Consider installing a Java script blocker such as uBlock Origin for browsers.

The problem is that the patches are causing PCs to freeze up or slow down, among other issues. Linux inventor Linus Torvalds called Intel out and says some of the proposed fixes are ‘complete and utter garbage’.

Highly simplified descriptions of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. They have even been given their own ‘logos’ by the teams that identified the flaws, and that are working on solutions for fixing it.