Monday, July 28, 2014

June 30th: Rosenlaui

I'd originally intended for 3 nights in Rosenlaui to enable some hiking as a break from cycling there. Air Canada had derailed those plans, leading me to want to use these nights at Rosenlaui to launch some bike rides. Secondarily, for whatever reason, the bike box did not contain the fenders I thought I'd packed in Sunnyvale, so I thought I'd use the bike ride to Grindelwald to get some fenders at a bike shop I knew there. Furthermore, Hina was missing long fingered gloves, and Arturo's jacket was so well-used that it was no longer waterproof, and both would benefit from a visit to Grindelwald.

From Tour of the Alps 2014
The bike ride over Grosse Scheidegg to Grindelwald is world famous for many reasons. First of all, it is gorgeous, even in the conditions we did it in. At the top on a clear day you would get superlative views of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Secondarily, just up the road from Rosenlaui, the road becomes car-free, with only the post-bus and residents allowed to drive up the road and down the other side into Grindelwald. Finally, it is a relatively steep grade, though with unloaded bike not much of a challenge. We heard ice fall on the climb, which was surprising to me, as I'd previously only heard it on warm summer afternoons.

Unfortunately, views of the mountains were not to be had at the summit, as a low fog came in and we had rain. It was so cold that I ran into the restaurant at the top to put on my clothes and have a hot chocolate. The following chilly descent convinced Hina that the long fingered gloves she bought in Zurich were worth the exorbitant Swiss prices.

In Grindelwald, I bought a rear fender for my bike from a shop that serviced mountain bikes, while Arturo had his rear derailleur cable capped for free at the same shop. Hina bought some glove liners for her long fingered gloves. Arturo bought some long-fingered bike gloves, and then I took him to the Mont-Bell store where he tried on the same wind/rain jacket that Cynthia bought in the 2010 tour. He loved it, and bought it, while telling me, "Piaw, you're an evil evil salesperson, and you don't even work at the store!"

We zipped down to Interlaken on the fast descent, ignoring the side-trip to Lauterbrunnen valley, and arrived at the Interlaken Ost train station just as the sun was coming out. The huge Coop supermarket there had a dining area with hot food, so we ate a quick lunch before proceeding towards Isetwald in search of the bike path over to Meiringen. 
From Tour of the Alps 2014

I hadn't done the bike path for 7 years, having in recent years taken the route on the paved road along the Brienzersee instead, or eschewing the ride altogether. But I had fond memories of the ride from before, and the dirt path had several attractions that made up for the slower going than the paved road, not least of which was the Gleissbach falls.

The adventure was fun and lots of stops were made, but by the time we got back to Meiringen it was quite late and we had to choose between the Sherlock Holmes museum and Reichenbach falls. We chose the Reichenbach falls since we were sure we would take the post bus up to Rosenlaui the next day, and the most convenient way to see the falls was by bicycle. It had been sunny all the way to Meiringen but by the time we made it to Meiringen we were feeling the occasional drop of rain. The fun thing about traveling with Arturo is that he's very good at spotting hidden Swiss military emplacements, including pill boxes, hidden hangers, and other such devices. All through the trip he would point them out to us. It's amazing what a wealthy country manages to do when it decides that military installations like those are a major priority. Somewhere there's a mountain with launch hangers that wouldn't be out of place in a SHIELD story. After a grand tour of the military installations of Meiringen, we made a quick visit to the Reichenbach falls, which featured beautiful views of Meiringen valley.
From Tour of the Alps 2014

We returned to Rosenlaui valley to find that yes there was a short period during which there was sun in the valley, and Amy had taken advantage of that to do the Hornseeli route, which had all the features I described from my 2008 visit. She enjoyed it and I was glad that she got in a good day of hiking despite the awful fog and rain we had experienced at the top of Grosse Scheidegg. We ate well and took a short evening walk before turning in for what was supposed to be a beautiful day tomorrow.
From Tour of the Alps 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Prologue: July 26-July 29, 2014

Hina Naseer, Arturo Crespo and I planned the Tour of the Alps to start well after the official start of summer in order to get better weather. To that end, Hina and I flew separately to Zurich on July 26th, arriving on the 27th. Arturo had gotten a cheap business class ticket to Amsterdam and planned to train from there to Sarnen on the 29th.

At the Zurich airport, I discovered that my luggage, along with the everyone else who had flown from San Francisco via Air Canada, had been left behind in Toronto at the transfer point. While an annoyance, I'd anticipated this in my trip planning, and so had not expected the tour to start until the 29th. I stayed with Shauna Eggers and Steve Moran, who joined me in 2012 on the BVI trip. Also staying there was Amy Platt, who was on sabbatical and traveling quite a bit.

From Tour of the Alps 2014
Amy happy volunteered to walk me around Zurich so I didn't fall asleep and then succumb to jet-lag. I went for a swim at the local pool, took Steve and Shauna out to dinner. The result was what I thought was the easiest jet-lag I recovery I ever had. I slept a full 7 hours, interrupted only by getting up to go to the bathroom halfway through the night. I even tested the HDM Z1, which I hadn't had a chance to do at home, and found it to be more than acceptable.

The 28th, however, was stressful, because I was waiting for the baggage to show up. What I should have done was to just go to the airport first thing in the morning to search for my baggage and pick it up. Instead, I stupidly believed the airport employee and waited for deliver. By 2, I was a bundle of nerves and after helping Hina with her bike, and headed off to the airport. However, at the train station, I checked the website and found that my bike had been picked up by the baggage service. I fatefully made the decision to turn back.

Unfortunately, despite promises of the baggage service, my bike never showed up. I had a disastrous sleep experience that night. Booth Hina and Arturo had their bikes, so Arturo decided to join us in Zurich  instead of Sarnen, which was looking very unlikely, and meet us in Zurich.

On the 29th, I woke up early, called the airport baggage service, and asked if there was any way they could deliver the bike by 10am. They said that it was impossible, but I could go pick up the bike myself. I went to the airport, grabbed the bike, and came back, which took about an hour and a half. At 9:30, I hurriedly reassmbled my bike, repacked my saddlebag, and headed off to the train station with Hina and Arturo, with a pack lunch graciously prepared by Shauna at the last minute.

At the train station, we bought train tickets, with me producing my passport to buy a half-tax card. When traveling with bicycles, the half-tax card gets paid off very quickly because the bicycle counts as another person for short trips, and costs 12CHF on long trips. I'd originally intended to avoid trains as much as possible, but starting with a Zurich to Meiringen trip effectively meant that just another couple of train journeys would pay it off. Since Arturo also had a half-tax card, having one myself would eliminate any hesitation on using trains to make the tour better. This would turn out to be a good decision later on in the trip.

We arrived in Meiringen at 1:00pm, and immediately rode off to the Lammi restaurant for a great meal to start the trip with.

From Tour of the Alps 2014
Arturo was skeptical that a restaurant could be as great, but when the soup arrived he took a sip and all skepticism vanished. I told him that there was a chance we could eat here again later in the trip on the return, as the return of the 2007 tour ended with a trip over Sustens pass.

We then visited the Aare Schlutz, something I'd ridden past several times in the past but never got around to visiting. Since it was rainy, the schlutz had lots of water, making conditions to visit it ideal.

By the time we were done with the schlutz, it was nearly 4:30, so we decided to ride up to Rosenlaui. I'd ridden up there several times and hence was familiar with the route. But fully loaded and unprepared for the climb, both Hina and Arturo had a harder time. Even worse, Arturo kept running into the post bus that owned the road and every time he had an encounter he would be forced to stop. His schedule had prevented him from extensively training in preparation for the trip, so he had not learned how to start on a hill. Each stop then forced him to walk to the next flat spot in order to start riding again.

From Tour of the Alps 2014
All was forgotten, however, once we reached Rosenlaui, where Amy was joining us for two nights. Lovely Rosenlaui is now the default starting point for many of my trips in Europe: we book the rooms at Rosenlaui before buying tickets based on availability at Rosenlaui. The descriptions at the hotel's website don't do the location justice, and most unadventurous types are turned away by the lack of en-suite bathrooms. Christine and Andreas turn away large tour groups and tourist buses. This suits me just fine: as a result, the place is devoid of all the usual tourist groups, and the food is superlative. You still need a reservation far in advance in order to secure a room, but nearly everyone is a serious hiker, as the hikes in the region are rugged and difficult, with no infrastructure other than the post bus. The net result is that Rosenlaui is one of the few places in Switzerland where you can hike for hours without seeing another person.

I slept well that night, having had exercise, great food, and other worries eliminated not just through the events of the day, but also because Rosenlaui has no cell signal and hence protects you from distractions.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Long Term Review: Dell Venue 8 Pro

After field-testing the Dell Venue 8 Pro, I committed to it for this year's Tour of the Alps by buying a 64GB microSD card and bringing it as my only tablet/reading device for the tour. It was easy to justify because not only could it process photos, it could also upload rides to Strava, Garmin Connect, and Facebook.

Overall, the device was fast for most activities. Strava, Facebook, reading, and watching movies are all I/O bound activities, and the I/O available on the device is more than sufficient for those activities. Unfortunately, importing 25MB RAW files from the camera to the device is also an I/O bound activity, and writing to the microSD card is SLOW. The net result is that using Lightroom was unsatisfyingly slow. You would wait hours for the import to happen. That's OK, since you can leave the tablet on overnight and let it work.

The big problem happens when you try to edit the pictures. First of all, the atom processor is about 1/8th the power of my desktop, so you'd expect Lightroom to chug a bit. Well, a bit isn't a good description. It chugs a lot, and unfortunately, I think it has more to do with the I/O architecture than with the processor. Watching the task manager's monitoring output confirms that while the CPU does peg occasionally (especially during export), most of the time, the CPU is actually idle, leading me to believe that it's the reading and writing to the microSD card that's the real bottleneck. It could be that loading everything into onboard storage would work better, but unfortunately, I didn't buy enough onboard storage to test that scenario.

Nevertheless, I did manage at least one Facebook post a day, and the results of the photo manipulation demonstrate that even for Facebook posts, Lightroom is light-years ahead of its competition.

Now, the biggest disappointment is the active stylus. Being an old-fashioned desktop application, Lightroom is remarkably resistant to touch input for cropping and delicate manipulation such as my favorite ND grad filter tool. The hope was that the active stylus would help there. Unfortunately, this hope was dashed. First of all, the stylus uses a AAAA battery, which is impossible to replace anywhere in Europe while touring. This is exacerbated by a hardware bug: putting the stylus near the tablet would cause the battery to drain. This is an unacceptable bug. But even when the stylus was working, it wasn't very responsive, leading me to believe that the I/O problems plagued by low-end tablets swamp any technology Dell was able to apply. So while I dreamed of being able to write blog posts, etc while touring, it just didn't happen because I was too frustrated by the touch keyboard for more than the occasional Facebook status message.

Is this enough to get me to not recommend the Venue 8 Pro? No. It simply does everything else too well, and even my Lightroom frustrations weren't enough to keep me from using it, simply because the output is just so much better than anything else out there. What it does mean, however, is that I'm waiting for someone to package the Surface Pro's technology into an 8 inch tablet with a passive stylus (or even better, into a Phablet form factor --- I'm happy to trade off screen size to ditch an entire gadget on the trip and use the weight budget for a portable keyboard). If/when that happens, I'd be more than willing to pay a premium for the upgrade. Sadly, however, I'm guessing that it's going to be a long wait.

All in all, however, the technology is impressive. Just 3 years ago, I was happy to forgo any tablet solution in favor of having an honest to goodness Kindle for reading purposes. This year, the Kindle stayed home, and it looks like it will stay home for the foreseeable future in favor of this multi-purpose, useful device. I can see my frustrations disappearing with just a few more Moore's cycles.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Super Powereds: Year 1

Super Powereds: Year 1 is Drew Hayes' novel about a college program for super heroes. You could think of it as being "Harry Potter" for super heroes, though having read a couple of Harry Potter novels I'd venture to say that the material here is more interesting and less cliched than the Harry Potter novels.

The premise of the novel is that the world of super-humans is divided into Supers, who have full control over their powers, and Powereds, who have no control over their powers and hence are victims of their powers, rather than super heroes. The result is that even the super-humans are divided into tiers, with some powers obviously more valuable than others.

The shtick behind this novel is that there was an experimental process that turns Powereds into Supers, and then enroll them into a college meant for training Super Heroes. A world where Super Heroes exists have been thought out, and much like The Incredibles, the need for hero licensing has much to do with insurance. I'm glad the rationale wasn't waved away, but I wished Hayes had spent more time thinking and come up with more interesting answers.

The novel started as a serialized web-series, so each chapter is short, and the book is easy reading in a breezy fashion. Character development suffers as a result, but nevertheless, the length of the material ensures that some of what Hayes throws at you will stick, so you do learn to care about the characters.

All in all, the novel is a fun summer read that's not too involved and technical, and definitely was what I needed while cycle touring. Recommended. I've checked out Year 2 from the Kindle Lending Library.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: HDM Z1 CPAP

Two weeks before my 2014 Tour of the Alps, my doctor told me about the HDM Z1. Now, I've been very happy with my ResMed S9. It's quiet, durable, and works well for sailing. However, even with the portable 30W power supply the entire package weighed 40oz, discounting the hose and the CPAP mask. For a cycle tour with big mountains, this was not ideal, and the HDM Z1 at half the weight of the ResMed S9 was very appealing.

There are a few issues with this machine compared with the S9:

  • It is much louder. After comparing this machine with the S9, Arturo found that the S9 was almost silent in comparison. Subjectively, I rate the difference between the machines at 5dB. The HDM Z1 was so loud my wife refused to let me test it. One interesting thing is that adding the HME to the tube makes the machine quieter, which indicates that the increased noise isn't just due to the louder air pump, but also to do with the resonant frequency of the output into the hose.
  • For at home use, there's no elegantly integrated humidifier like the S9. Instead, you buy a Fisher & Paykel humidifier, or you use a HME. HMEs are consumables, and each one is good for only 7 days, which at $6/pop is significant over the usual 2 year depreciation period of a CPAP machine. Since you'll almost certainly need to travel with HMEs, the HMEs add some bulk but not significant weight to the final package.
  • The ResMed S9 is an auto-PAP, adjusting pressure according to how much you need to avoid apnea events. The Z1, however, is a fixed pressure CPAP, so you only get to set one setting, and live with it for the entire trip. My 95% pressure was 9, so that's what I used. I initially didn't think there was much difference for me, but at the end of the trip, I switched back to the S9 and immediately felt more refreshed after a night's sleep, indicating that the auto PAP algorithm on the ResMed is more effective and provides better sleep.
  • There are reports as to the robustness of the machine, with some users reporting failure after 4 weeks of use. HDM offers a 2 year warranty, but that's of no use to you while you're traveling if your machine fails! My trip was only 3 weeks, so I decided it was worth the risk.
Was this enough to offset the 20oz difference between the ResMed and the HDM Z1? No, so if you've been hankering to an independent bicycle tour and the weight/bulk of carrying a CPAP was putting you off, stop reading and just buy it now.

The machine itself is interesting. it comes with the machine, which weighs in at 10oz, and a power supply, which also weighs in at 10oz. I was wondering why the power supply hadn't gone in for more weight reduction, but that's probably because the machine is rated for higher pressure than I use, and so the power supply has to handle that, rather than my relatively low pressure rating. It comes with an adapter for use with the standard CPAP hose. The adapter basically splits the hose so the pressure measuring system can be separated from the output of the pump. You could just leave the adapter in place all the time, but I wouldn't recommend it while traveling, since the tongue of the adapter is in a particularly highly leveraged place, which would cause it to break off.

The machine comes with a micro-SD slot, but I didn't have time to buy a micro SD card to put in the machine, so did not test the software or get details about my apnea events while using the machine. Given that the primary symptom of my apnea is incredibly loud snoring and my roommates did not kill me while I slept, however, I think we can safely say that the machine works.

You can buy a Powershell battery for the Z1, which is basically an integrated battery for camping and other off-the-grid uses. The battery is also incredibly light at 200g, with the downside being that you can only charge the battery with Powershell, so you can't charge multiple batteries at once, for instance. Since the Tour of the Alps is a hotel-based credit card tour, I opted out of buying one and did not test it.

The biggest feature of the machine, however, is the weight and size. It's truly remarkable, and done (as far as I can see) without exotic materials like carbon fiber, titanium, or magnesium, which means that there's ample room for even lighter, more premium versions. The cost of the machine is around $600, which is affordable and much cheaper than a planet ticket to Europe these days. The cost/weight reduction ratio is much better than the typical weight reduction measures on bicycles, so this represents an exceedingly good deal for cycle tourists who carry their own baggage.

All in all, I'm very impressed, and would highly recommend this product.

Startup Engineering Management Gets a 2nd Edition

Startup Engineering Management has been doing so well that I added what I learned over the last few years to it and gave it a 2nd Edition. It's a book that's attracted a surprising following, indicating that there's interest in the no-nonsense, non-political approach to management that I espouse for startups.

This new edition includes a whole new chapter on process analysis, sections on justifying hardware selection based on the great reception my Wharton talk got, and also a foreword by Harper Reed, who endorsed the book early in its life.

Along with the new edition, the price has gone up from $21.95 to $24.95 for the digital edition, and the paper version has also risen to match the price with An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startup. If you've bought Startup Engineering Management in digital edition since April 23rd, 2014, you've already received a free upgrade to the 2nd Edition in the mail.

If you bought a digital copy earlier, the upgrade price is $5, and what you need to do is e-mail me the original receipt from Paypal or Google checkout. Once I've verified the purchase, you'll get an invoice via paypal and an upgrade. Thank you all for your support!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tour of the Alps 2014

This is the place holder page for the trip report for the 2014 Tour of the Alps. Look for day to day route descriptions, reviews of equipment used on the tour, and of course photo links here.

We'll start with all the GPS tracks (in GPX format) for the tour.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance is Elizabeth Warren's account of her life, from her humble beginnings to becoming a Harvard Professor and then United States Senator. The cynical would consider this the start of her bid for the 2016 presidential nomination, much like The Audacity of Hope was for Obama.

Here's the thing: I'm an unabashed Elizabeth Warren fan, ever since she wrote The Two Income Trap with her daughter. I would support her nomination for presidency, and I certainly think that she's a far better choice than Clinton would be, and I voted for Clinton during the primaries in 2008.

The book's well-written, as you would expect from a Harvard Professor. My wife, who doesn't usually read books that I checkout from the library, picked it up and kept reading despite herself. Warren is funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and very good at writing for a general audience. For instance, she mentions how she won the home economics prize in high school, but leaves out the process she went through to get tenure. The latter would have been more interesting to me, but much less interesting for the general public.

The book also covers her work on the TARP oversight panel as well as all the hidden games that went on with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These were by far the most interesting parts of the book to me, exposing how bank lobbyists succeed in getting what's good for the financial industry passed by congress again and again, while ignoring the needs of people who aren't as well heeled. She estimates the amount of money the banks spent opposing first the CFPB, and then scuttling her appointment as the director at well over $500M, or half a billion. If it is true that you can best judge a person by the qualities of her enemies, then Elizabeth Warren is truly one of the best people you'll find anywhere.

The last third of the book is about her own run for senate, and while interesting, it's all relatively recent news, so you might already know it. In any case, it is fun to relive that election especially with Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" shenanigans. I definitely hope the GOP keep up the good work on that front this November.

Anyway, it's a surprisingly fun read, well written, humble, and very much worth your time. Elizabeth Warren for president!