InReach Mini: It Could’ve Been a Contender

Because many of my motorcycle trips are solo, and take me beyond cell phone coverage (although not off road!), I’ve been interested in satellite-based text messaging devices. As a class, these basically give you the ability to send (and sometimes receive) SMS/text messages by way of orbital satellite networks. Which makes it much harder to go off grid…and more likely that, if you need help off grid, you’ll be able to let someone know.

The Garmin InReach Mini (their latest offering) seemed to be an ideal choice. Small. Can work with your cell phone via Bluetooth, making it easier to compose and read messages (i.e., you’re not limited to a handful of keys and a tiny screen). Uses the Iridium network, which seems to provide the best coverage of the alternative networks (not that I plan on being in Northern Canada anytime soon). And it offers a wide array of monthly service plans — which you have to have for the device to be of any use — that can be put on hiatus during the rainy season when you’re not on the road much anyway.

So I bought one.

And it’s turning out to be a mistake.

First and foremost, the Garmin InReach website (necessary for setting up, configuring and managing the device) is not very well designed. Activation was challenging, made more so by being offered important advisories on how you ought to configure your device…after you’re part way through the activation process. And don’t get me started on how many emails you need to set up an account, add a device and participate in the Garmin community forums (three, in fact; bizarre).

But the really bad problem was that only about 25% of my test messages ever arrived. With no indication that there was any problem sending them (i.e., the Mini reported success, but the message never got where it was going).

After some back and forth with tech support I learned that I happened to be using my new Mini during a period when AT&T was rejecting messages (perhaps as a result of mistakenly classifying them as spam). Go me.

It also turns out that this is not the first time AT&T has suddenly stopped accepting InReach Mini messages. A tech support guy I spoke to says it’s happened more than once in the last six months. But, good news! The problem always goes away after a few days. Only to re-occur, randomly, at some point in the future.

There is a workaround: send email messages rather than text messages. Fortunately, and despite the fact that this is not disclosed anywhere I could find in the Garmin documentation, emails cost the same as text messages. Judging by what they look like on the receiving end, I suspect they are just text messages, embedded into a simple email template.

Unfortunately, for me and almost everyone else I know, email lacks the immediacy of a text message. Text messages pop up on your phone. Emails you have to go read. And immediacy counts…particularly when you’re in a difficult, bad or emergency situation.

Moreover, who’s to say the emails won’t someday be spontaneously rejected? Granted, emails don’t get delivered by way of your cell phone carrier. But since Garmin doesn’t seem to know why the text messages are being rejected, despite repeated occurrences of the problem, I’m a little hesitant to embrace the workaround as solving the problem.

Besides, it really torques me that Garmin didn’t disclose its repeated problems with AT&T, which stretch back for at least 6 months, somewhere in their advertising. I spent a lot of time researching the Mini before buying one, and I never came across any mention of this problem (which is part of the reason for writing this lengthy post). They should’ve done so, if for no other reason than it might put more pressure on AT&T to define what would be required for a permanent fix 1.

So I regret to say that, while it looks good on paper, if you’re on an AT&T cell phone account I’d stay away from the Mini.

In fact, I’d require any purveyor of this technology to confirm they haven’t had problems with particular carriers suddenly and mysteriously not delivering text messages.

The Golden Chain and Mt Hamilton

Merced River Gorge along California 49

I didn’t expect to be able to squeeze another long ride in this year before the rains set in. But with Barbara heading off to Boston for a week, and a suddenly dried out forecast, the chance was too good to pass up.

Plus, I managed to complete, finally, my aborted ride past Mt Hamilton and the Lick Observatory.

Click on the motorcycle icons in the map image below for details (you can also click the Go Fullscreen button to enlarge the map).

You can download the Google Earth file from here; just ignore the warning about not being able to show you the file on the page that’ll open up. Click the download button and you’ll get the file.

Monterey Peninsula, Indian Valley & the Pinnacles

Or, rather, behind the Pinnacles. The Monterey shoreline, from the Pacific Coast Highway. And, no, I was stopped in traffic when I took this. You don’t think I’m insane enough to take a picture with my iPhone camera while I’m riding, do you?!?

This was a ride I did last week, starting out from and ending up in Santa Cruz. I was a little hesitant going the coastal route southbound, because of the possibility of rain, but I managed to avoid precipitation. Not counting riding through a cloud at one point, of course. But that wasn’t rain; it was just riding through water droplets suspended in the air.

The northbound leg, going off of US 101 at San Miguel, was stunning (so was the Monterey Peninsula, but one expects that). Hard to believe you were not that far away from one of the more heavily-traveled north/south roads in California. Definitely worth it.

The Google Earth map file is available here. Ignore the warning page you’ll land on after clicking the link — it’s just telling you there’s no previewer installed for Google Earth files — and click the download button to get the file.

Click on any of the icons below for details. You can also enlarge the map first.


Through Darkest Europe

Saint Thomas Aquinas, courtesy of Wikipedia

I just finished a new alternative history novel written by Harry Turtledove. I definitely recommend it…even though there’s no dramatic conclusion to it. Plenty of drama, lots of action, good character development…but no major wrap-up of an overriding theme.

Alternative histories are tales that explore what-might-have-beens had some critical event gone a different way. In this case, it was Thomas Aquinas, St. Aquinas, who, rather than trying to incorporate Aristotelian rationality into Christianity, rejected rational discourse in favor of maintaining faith. Because Al-Ghazali, a corresponding figure in the Muslim world, elevated the importance of rational discourse, the modern scientific, rational, increasingly secular world grew out of the Muslim kingdoms rather than their European counterparts.

By what was in effect our time, it’s the Muslim world that has to deal with European dictatorships, barely functional European states, European refugees and immigrants seeking a better life, European suicide bombers, etc.

If this road not taken sounds a bit arcane, you have to remember that Turtledove was at one time (and may still be) a professor of Byzantine history. He is intimately familiar with how the various Mediterranean/Western societies evolved. Some of his earliest alternative history tales are set in a world where the Byzantine Empire never fell…because Mohammed, later Saint Mohammed, became a devout Christian, rather than the founder of Islam.

All in all a fascinating speculation on what can happen when rationalism is rejected or accepted, regardless of a society’s underlying religious orientation.

North Coast Trip – May, 2018

I just realized that I never published anything on this blog about a great motorcycle trip I took up the north coast of California last May. Let’s rectify that right now!

Click on the icons in the image below for more information. You can also click on the Full Screen button first to enlarge the map.

You can download the Google Earth route file for this trip here. Be forewarned that you’ll first be taken to a page that complains about not being able to preview the file for you; just ignore the warning, and click on the download link that appears.


I had no idea that one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century was seen and captured on film by accident. Check out this link:

Borman’s quote about what he saw is famous. But when I see that image of the Earth coming over the dead lunar horizon, I always think of a passage from a favorite sci fi novel: “A sapphire. Yes, another stone; but this one is a precious jewel, because it holds beings who are aware.”

Thanx to my buddy John Williams for bringing the video to my attention!

Sierra Ride (September, 2018)

I just got back from a three day motorcycle trip up into the Sierras, and exploring the California Delta to boot. It was a real blast, and I got to see and experience some really neat stuff!

Click on the icons in the images below to get the details. You can also enlarge the images first by clicking the Full Screen button.

You can download a Google Earth file of my route from the following link. Be forewarned that it will first open a page complaining about not being able to preview the file; but if you click the download button, you’ll be able to download the file itself.

Google Earth route map

Social Justice and the Corporate Form

The other day I was having lunch with my good friend Seth Rosenblatt, whom I met years ago when we both served on the San Carlos Elementary School Board. Among many other things, Seth is my go-to guy on economics.

At one point during lunch we ended up talking about how each of us thinks allowing corporations to play a role in politics causes significant distortions of our society. That’s been a difficult problem for lawmakers to address, even though it’s a widely understood problem. Why? Because of the choice we made as a society to grant corporations many of the legal rights associated with flesh-and-blood individuals.

But why was such a choice made? It’s certainly not an obvious one. Whatever else it might be, a corporation is clearly not a living, breathing entity.

The answer lies in an aspect of human nature often overlooked in discussions of economics by lay people: humans are risk averse. We will reject, say, a $1 dollar bet that gives us a 50% chance of winning $2…even though, arguably, we are, on average, no better or worse off by placing the bet, and so shouldn’t care one way or the other. In fact, we instinctively demand much more than a better-than-breakeven return before we’ll place any bet.

Overcoming risk aversion is precisely the reason the corporate form was developed centuries ago. By law, a corporation shields its investors from bad economic bets: they can lose their investment, but irate customers, victims, etc., cannot come after the investors’ wealth or income that has not been invested in the corporation.

But why did we put that risk shielding in place? It clearly isn’t in the interest of people whose interests are, or could be, harmed by corporate failures.

The answer is simple: because it made us, individually and collectively, enormously wealthier than we used to be. Whatever problems they cause, there’s no denying corporations have dramatically increased collective and individual wealth and income. That’s why every human culture I’m familiar with has allowed the use of some kind of corporate form.

Risk aversion, by keeping us from placing reasonable bets, denies us the benefits reasonable bets produce. Those tantalizing benefits encouraged us to figure out a workaround for the limitations of our nature. If we had to squint past treating an artificial construct as a something similar to a living, breathing entity…well, humans are very pragmatic. We don’t argue with success, however much rationalization we need to do to justify it.

Besides, it was an easy step to take. Most people would reject as immoral and unethical punishing someone because their friend, without their knowledge or consent, injured someone economically. Once you accept a corporation as an entity in its own right, granting investors a risk shield follows naturally from that same perspective*.

But here’s the thing: despite how it’s sometimes described by business people lost in rapture, the corporate form is really just a dodge, a convenient fiction. It’s purpose is to let us, collectively and individually, create wealth and income that would otherwise be unavailable because of the limitations imposed by human risk aversion.

Why haven’t we thought about using the exact same logic in the realm of healthcare? Or having a decent place to live?

We all know talented and capable people who are kept from living up to their potential — and thereby benefiting all of us, not just themselves — because of the accidents of fate. A seriously ill family member, preventing someone from using their talents and abilities in a new, more demanding role at a different company, when pre-existing conditions keep people from getting health insurance. A child who has to “play it safe”, or drop out of school, because of the loss of a family member, or because he or she is an orphan.

People who worry about having a roof over the heads of their family rarely have the bandwidth to launch new economic enterprises, no matter how smart or talented they are. If you have to worry about starving, you’re not going to be able to use whatever creative talents and abilities you have, except in the pursuit of food.

These kinds of risks clearly limit what we are willing and able to do as individuals. Even more so than how the risk of losing one’s wealth limits one’s interest in investing it in new, valuable ventures.

So it’s not surprising that most advanced societies have taken some steps to mitigate the impact of such risks. Things like Social Security and Medicare were enacted, at least in part, to do so. Another example is public education. In addition to everything else it does, being better educated makes you better able to assess and manage risk.

Let me close with the following question: if giving people more peace of mind, and some kind of backstop to life’s vagaries, frees them to be more creative and economically active — which benefits all of us — why aren’t we doing more to insure against such risks? After all, based on the wealth (pun intended) of experience we have with the corporate form, we already know the payoff is there!

Something to think about.

* To keep things simple, I’m ignoring cases where investors knowingly participate in causing economic harm through a corporation. The law contains provisions for “piercing the corporate veil” for that, and other situations, when the facts justify it.

That’s One Way to Move In!

There’s a new apartment building going up on Walnut Street in San Carlos, just north of San Carlos Avenue. That in and of itself isn’t unusual…but the way it’s being built is, at least for San Carlos.

That’s because it’s being assembled out of modules that are built off-site and trucked to the construction site. I’ve been told this may very well be the wave of the future, because it allows for economies of scale that are hard to achieve otherwise. Particularly since most multi-family dwellings aren’t built out of uniquely different units; they tend to draw from a set of plans, perhaps unique to a site, that reoccur within the overall building design.

Here’s a video of one of the units being installed (click to enlarge):

Apartment Module from Mark Olbert on Vimeo.

Early in the video, if you look carefully behind the crane’s boom you’ll see one of the engineers giving hand signals to the crane operator, to move the module into position. Towards the end, if you look at the right side of the video, you’ll see a contractor tightening bolts to warp the module into its final position (warp being an ancient nautical term not having anything to do with antimatter, dilithium crystals or Zefram Cochrane :)).

Reflections on a Crash

The other day, I belatedly realized I’d never written about my motorcycle accident, which occurred Sunday morning, May 24, 2015. Given how significant an event it was (at least for me!), I’m going to rectify that omission right now.

The accident took place on Pescadero Road, between La Honda and Pescadero, along the uphill climb off of California 84. It’s a relatively wooded twisty, without much direct sky exposure, but not especially challenging (I just road it today, without any problems). Of course, I had less than six months riding experience at the time of the accident, and there had been some light rainfall the night before in the area, so there were some puddles on the road. Moreover, there were, and still are, a few road heaves — small but sharp bumps — some of which are on curves. I suspect I hit one of them that was next to a puddle, lost control, and went down. Or maybe I lost control dodging some animal crossing the road. 

Motorcycle Crash – Pescadero Road – 5/24/2015

I doubt I’ll ever know, because I have no memory of the accident. Turns out forming memories takes time, and while you’re not normally aware of that, if you get knocked unconscious, it’s not uncommon for “pending” memories to just disappear and not come back. When I asked the Stanford neurologist who had treated me if there would be any problem with me revisiting the accident scene, she said “It’s not like the movies, sir; lost memories don’t come back, because they were never formed in the first place.”

In any event, down I went…and, hitting the ground, even at no more than 25 MPH, without the benefit of seatbelts, air bags, and a nice metal shell, can cause a lot of damage (25 MPH is about 36 feet per second). So I broke every rib on my right side, some in multiple places, gave myself a minor concussion (which would’ve been far worse if I hadn’t been wearing an excellent, full-face Shoei helmet) and knocked myself out.

For a day.

Punctuated initially by a few brief snippets of consciousness, like when I briefly came to in the back of the ambulance, staring at the ceiling, thinking “this isn’t right”, all the while hearing one of the paramedics telling Barbara, on my phone, “he’s all right [really?], we’re taking him to Stanford, you can meet him there”.

Me during my first day at Stanford; taken by my wife, I think, in an attempt to convince me not to ride again - click to enlarge

But how, you may ask, was I found to be taken to Stanford? After all, Pescadero Road is lightly traveled at the best of times, and there’s even less traffic on Sundays.

Well, it turns out I was running something called CrashLight on my iPhone, which is an add-on to an app called Eat, Sleep, Ride, which allows you to log and track your motorcycle journeys. CrashLight monitors your smartphone’s sensors to determine if a crash has occurred. If it thinks one has, it sounds an alert and starts a count-down clock, which allows you to cancel false alarms. If the alert isn’t canceled, once the count-down completes, CrashLight notifies your emergency contacts, by phone, text message, email, or any combination of the three.

In my case, it notified both my son and my wife via text message. She didn’t get the message because she was outside gardening, but she heard the phone ring when my son called to say that he thought I’d had an accident. She immediately called 911…and was able to tell them where I was, because the CrashLight message contains the phone’s last known location, based on GPS monitoring.

I was a big believer in CrashLight before my accident, and I became a huge proponent of it afterwards. The CrashLight team keeps improving the product, along with the rest of the Eat, Sleep, Ride app, making it easier to use and less prone to false alarms. I particularly appreciate how quickly the programmers respond to issues that get raised; they’re really responsive.

Now, admittedly, one of the biggest limitations of CrashLight has nothing to do with the app. It’s just that if you’re out of cell phone coverage when you go down, the emergency messages can’t get out. So I still make it a point to share my itineraries with my family before I hit the road.

But I’m hopeful that even this limitation will be removed, by linking CrashLight to a satellite-based text messaging device like the Garmin InReach, the BriarTek CerberLink, or the soon-to-be-released SomeWear Labs’ SomeWear device. These all use the Iridium satellite network to enable two-way text messaging from any place on Earth where you have a view of the sky.

They’re not cheap (hundreds of dollars for the devices, and an Iridium SMS account is required). But, to me, that’s still cheap insurance to carry when I’m off exploring the backroads.

Because you see, my wife was unsuccessful with those ICU pictures. I still love to ride, mended ribs and all. In fact, I just recently upgraded my steed to a Yamaha FJR-1300ES.

See you out on the highways and by-ways. Ride safe!