Friday, May 27, 2016

Bowen's First Bike Tour

It was time for Bowen's first overnight bike tour. We grabbed the bike, detached the front section, and stuffed it into the Honda Fit. Since mom wasn't coming along, we could fit both of us in the car with no problems.

We drove to La Honda, assembled the bike, installed the panniers, and then rode off up Haskins hill. It was a beautiful clear day, and we could get sunlight through the trees in the Redwoods. The climb took a little while but the descent to Pescadero was beautiful as usual. Riding onto North street on the approach, Bowen opted to bypass the goat farm, and we ended up at Norm's market around 1:00pm. It'd been quite a while since I'd last been to Norm's market, and I was impressed by the newly installed bike repair station. Bowen told me that we weren't really bike touring, because we'd put the bike in the car and driven out, rather than just riding from our house!
We took our time with lunch, and left for the pigeon point lighthouse around 2:00pm after buying groceries for dinner. It was only a 6 mile trip but we opted to use Bean Hollow road, and despite the tailwind it took us an hour to get there. We didn't wait very long before Calvin, Kevin and Pamela showed up and we checked in, grabbing the sunset spots for the hot tub.

Bowen and Calvin upon seeing the dorm rooms immediately asked to be on the top bunks. Once 2 boys are around it was a chore getting the bedsheets installed. But we did it and eventually managed to get them to go play outside.

We had unusually good luck with the weather, since the projected rain didn't show up, and we got a glorious sunset from the hot tub.

The next morning we had an unusually still weather, and so left the hostel unusually late, around 8:30am. We rode back through Bean Hollow road but opted to take Stage Road to 84 instead of going back over Haskins hill. This gave us 1600' of climbing, but with Pomegranate Clif bars (Bowen's favorite), it took us only 2.5 hours.

It never ceases to surprise me how much difference each age brings in a child. It took Bowen all of 3 months to decide he didn't like having seat belts on the bike. But recently, he started taking advantage of the seat belt: whenever he wanted to have something in his hands (like a drink, or a clif bar), he would ask to have me belt in him. With the biggish descents enough to scare him this time, he also asked for the seat belt whenever we had a big descent. This was great.

We arrived back at the car around 11:15. Bowen loved the hostel, the hot tub, but declared that "uphill makes me slow, and downhill tickles me, so I only like no-hill."

I've had people ask me whether Bowen ever gets bored on the bike, but with so much to see and do, and with nearly every trip being new to him, that hardly ever happens. I think adults who never ride bicycles for long distances simply project their own experiences onto kids who don't have the same attitude. All in all our little overnight trip had us riding 41 miles with about 2400' of climbing.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: Do Fathers Matter?

Do Fathers Matter? is a book about fathers as parents. As a father myself I checked out the audio book from the library and eagerly listened to it hoping to find a few interesting pieces. Let's see if I can summarize what I got out of the book:

  • Until recently, nobody thought that fathers made a difference to the kids other than bringing home a paycheck. In fact, nobody even thought that fathers bonded with babies the way mothers did.
  • As a matter of fact, infants appear to prefer to play with fathers. The current thinking is that it's because mom's always feeding the baby or changing his/her diapers, but when daddy shows up it's play-time!
  • Dads play differently with children than moms. In particular, fathers are more likely to rough-house with the kids and present them with challenging, unpredictable situations. This is important preparation for an unpredictable, stressful world. In fact, a study shows that in very young kids, it's OK or even preferred for the parent to push the kid to the point of crying before backing off.
  • Older dads (anyone over 30!) increase the risk of schizophrenia among their children. This may not show up until in the late teens.
  • Interestingly enough, older dads also pass on longer telomares to their children, and to their children's children, granting them longer lives. No explanation was given in the book as to why this occurs.
  • Dads still don't do as much as moms in terms of child-rearing, but studies are starting to point out that this may actually not be because dads are uninterested in child-rearing. In particular, moms frequently discourage fathers from parenting by constantly criticizing the father. It turns out that in couples where the woman actively encourages the father to spend time with the children, not only does the father typically do more of the work with children, he enjoys it more as well. (Duh!)
  • Missing dads seem to hurt daughters a lot --- rates of teenage pregnancy and increased risk taking seem to be a lot higher for daughters that did not have a father in the house when they were growing up. No corresponding study has been done on the impact of missing fathers for sons, but some speculation was presented in the book. In one interesting study, even asking daughters to write an essay about a negative experience with their fathers led to increased risk-taking!
  • Certain genes coming from mom or dad are actually imprinted in such a way that marks those genes as coming from mom or dad. The details behind that imprinting is discussed quite a bit in the book, and reveals the evolutionary tug of war between mother and fetus: it's in the interest of the fetus to absorb as much as possible of the mothers' resources, while it's in the interest of the mother to try to spread out what she's giving to several children in order to diversify the portfolio of her children.
All in all, interesting stuff, but less deep than I expected. Worth a quick browse from the library.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: Uncharted 4: A Thieves End (PS4)

I never buy games on pre-order. I'm the kind of person who can wait for months, buy it on discount, and then resell it for a profit. But Naughty Dog has won my trust over the years, with the Uncharted titles being for me the best blend of action, adventure, story, and exquisite art direction. They just don't make movies like these any more, and I couldn't help myself. (It also doesn't hurt that Amazon gives you a 20% pre-order discount, making the price easier to swallow)

Uncharted 4 is the last of the Nathan Drake stories. The graphics are nothing short of amazing. Bear in mind that the PS4 is weaker than my 7 year old PC from the point of view of compute power, and has a GPU that's weaker than the one I bought in 2013. That's pretty weak stuff, but I never saw anything on the PC that even comes close to how pretty Uncharted 4 looks. Heck, if you compare Uncharted 4 to the latest Pixar movie, you'll see that in many ways, the Pixar movie cuts corners and goes for an art direction that favors computer animation, and requires gobs of rendering power while the game goes for a realistic (albeit gorgeously beautiful) look and yet is rendered in real time by the PS4. Just thinking about it makes me want to pick up my jaw from the floor when I think about the experience.

The thing with these "movies as game" video game experiences is that it's all about pacing. Uncharted 4 has a very different pacing than Uncharted 2, the (previous) best of the series. While only 2 chapters in Uncharted 2 had a "walking simulator" feel to the game, that sort of pacing and free roam exploring with no threats occupies huge sections of Uncharted 4. This gives the player plenty of room to breathe, but unfortunately also adds to the game as far as being sort of a "one shot". A lot of the value of the game goes away on a repeated play through.

The music, art direction and action sequences are all very well done (though the boss fight at the end is a bit of a let down). But what makes the game work is the consistent attention to story: the characters are treated with respect, and at every reveal, we're drawn further into the story. At this point, let me provide a spoiler warning so you read no further if you haven't played it and the story matters to you.

The story takes place years after Uncharted 3, when Nathan Drake has settled down to a boring job as a technical diver. Then his long lost brother Sam shows up and we go into a flash back as we finally learn how the Drake brothers got their names, and how that quest led to the current state of affairs. Note that Sam's never been mentioned in any of the previous games, so this bit of ret-conning strains any suspension of disbelief you might have had, but it's done decently such that you don't feel like it's too wrong. Sam, of course, is lying through and through, but again, it's a reflection of what's been driving Nathan Drake through the previous games. The quest takes you from Italy to Madagascar, and the flashbacks get you a view of Panama. It's all very pretty. And, it's a chase after pirates. This made this a particularly good game for me after reading Pirate Hunters.

There are lots of references to the previous games throughout the story. If you've played through all the other stories, I think you'll get a lot more out of Uncharted 4 than someone who just started with this latest (and supposedly last) installment. I think above all, Uncharted 4 sells you on the character relationships and what they do for each other. And it doesn't do it just in dialogue and cut scenes, but also in the way the characters act. In one of the early scenes, I had Nathan Drake to a stealth take down of an enemy, and I fully expected to have to immediately turn and take out the enemy next to him. To my surprise, I saw that Sam Drake had already taken down the other enemy. I was stunned. To my mind, this is why the Uncharted series does better than even the rebooted Tomb Raider. When playing as Lara Croft, you feel as though the world is full of idiots who can't even find something that's right in front of them without you having to "quest" for it. As Nathan Drake, you're part of a team --- your wife might take out the enemy who's shooting at you, your brother might be trying to distract another one, while your old buddy Sully's scrambling to catch up to you. You're rarely alone in this game and as a result you feel much better about its milieu.

This is not to say that Uncharted 4 is perfect: it's not. As a game, the Tomb Raider series does a better job: the cover system's better, and the collectibles and upgradeable weapons all provide crunchy mechanics that force you to make full use of your skill. But none of the characters in Tomb Raider ever make you feel like you should care about them (not even Lara Croft), while that's not true in Uncharted 4.

Needless to say, Uncharted 4 comes highly recommended. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should buy a PS4 just for the game, I'd say that if you own a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play it. After you're done picking your jaw up from the floor, you might consider that it's not very replayable and sell it, but while you're playing it there's no question that this is a unique and satisfying experience.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review: Rayman Legends (PS Vita)

I rarely review games that I can't (or won't) finish, but I'll make an exception for Rayman Legends. Rayman Legends is a platformer, which is my least favorite genre. But the reviews were all rated so highly that I picked it up on a sale, and I have to say that the reviews are mostly right.

The game doesn't have any story to speak of. Or if it does, the story's lost on me. As with every platformer, the goal of the game is to move from left to right, jumping, flying, punching, or running as needs be. There are 5 worlds, each of which has their own gimmicks, and each level is different. What you do have to do, however, is to rescue certain characters and pick up lums (basically mario coins) in order to unlock further levels or special bonus items (some of which are levels from a previous game, Rayman Origins).

What's interesting about the levels is that they're actually very well designed. The gimmicks are fun to figure out, and at least one world in each level is a musical level. In a musical level, you run and jump according to the beats in the soundtrack (though you must use your eyes as well, since sometimes you have to punch) in order to complete the level. One of the tracks is eye of the tiger, and it's a lot of fun. On the vita, you even get special "murphy" levels, which introduces a character you guide through a level using the touch screen. It's a nice change of pace, and some of those levels are quite creative as well.

What I disliked is that you have to rescue a lot of characters in order to unlock the whole game. While I could unlock all 5 worlds as a casual player, the 6th, musical-only level would need me to go through and play all the levels repeatedly until I got a perfect score and rescued every character in order to unlock. Not only would that result in very sore thumbs, I just don't have the time to do it. For any other game this would cause me to be unhappy and not recommend it, but Rayman Legends is packed full of content that I'll forgive this.

This game is worth picking up on a sale, and while you're unlikely to finish it all the way, you'll get enough out of it that it would be money well spent. Recommended.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: What It Is Like To Go To War

After I read Matterhorn, I went to see what other books Karl Marlantes had written, and the non-fiction work What It Is Like To Go To War showed up.

Partly a treatise on war and its effects on the young men who are sent out as warriors to do dirty jobs that their elders thought up, part a "behind the scenes" memoir about the events that went on in Matterhorn, it is uneven but still worth reading (or in my case auditing via audiobook).

The first thing you notice if you've already read Matterhorn (especially in as close proximity as I had) is how little fiction was in Matterhorn. By the time you're done with this book, you'll realize that calling Matterhorn is only fictional in the sense that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is. Names have changed.  In the novel, you don't see the medals that Marlantes win as a result of his actions, that's pretty much it.

What you do get out of this book that isn't apparent in Matterhorn was how much Marlantes liked combat. At one point, he noted (and this is where audiobooks really suck compared to reading a real book --- I can't search the book and pull out the quote) that as a 21 year old XO with a gunnery sergeant and a PFC on a mission, he had a staggering amount of firepower available: he could rain down artillery shells from 3 artillery fire bases, he could call in fire from the heavens as napalm via air-strikes, he had specially custom made machine-guns capable of tearing apart the entire landscape. And then there were the RPGs, LAWs, and grenades. The jeep he was in was so bristling with firepower that he actively wanted the enemy to try to stop him, just so he could get a chance to use it all. His jeep was a veritable chariot of the gods. And society actively handed a 21 year old with that much power to maim, kill, and destroy, and asked him to do it!

Repeatedly, the book emphasizes rituals. A lot of the problems with the Vietnam war was that there was no transition between the arena of war and civilian society. Marlantes describes a desperate battle to evacuate wounded battles during a mission, where the helicopters were so crowded that he had to leave on his R&R by hanging on to the lip of the door with his legs in the air. Hours later he was in Australia. No wonder reports of soldiers carousing and otherwise going crazy were fairly regular during R&R --- they were still charged with adrenaline from the fight. Marlante points out that in today's wars, it's more insidious. With drone warfare, you could be killing people via video camera during the day and still go home for dinner.

Marlantes covers PTSD, and not surprisingly suggests again that better training in the form of philosophy and room for reflection and "talking down from the warrior state" for the returning veteran be a strong part of military tradition.

What really tears at my heart is Marlantes' description of his return from Vietnam. It really was true that young women spat on the veterans, many of whom did not really want to go to war. At least that part seems to have changed for the better over the years.

I recommend this book. It's not nearly as consistently good a book as Matterhorn, but if you enjoyed Matterhorn, you'll want to read this book for the behind the scenes exploration of what happened both before and after the events in the novel, which you will never look at again as fiction.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancilliary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, but it took me multiple tries to get into the novel enough to read it. Upon completing it, I understand why: it's the kind of novel that seems almost designed to win awards, rather than read well, or even necessarily be a fun read.

The going is slow, and the protagonist, while she reveals who she is fairly early on, doesn't make a lot of sense --- a lot of what she does appear to be counter-productive, and for someone who's supposed to be a hyper-intelligent AI, her plans appear vague, ill-formed, and her abilities only show up in the physical realm --- either being an impossibly good shot, or being hyper-aware of how she appears to other AIs who are similarly sensitive.

The innovative parts of the novel are interesting: the primary villain isn't really one, and the motivation of the main character, Breq (formerly known as the AI ship Justice of Toren) is obscure and spoken of only at a distance.

Ultimately, however, I never cared about any of the characters in the novel, and the milleu isn't really explained/exposited well. This might be forgivable if the viewpoint character was merely human, or an unreliable narrator. But well, the viewpoint character is a multi-thousand year old AI, and she's not unreliable (in fact, she's supremely reliable at the conclusion of the novel).

I don't think this novel deserves it's Hugo/Nebula though it's quite conceivable that the year it won was an unusually poor year for novels. In fact, though I did finish the novel, I'm not excited to go out and read the next one in the series, which means that I can't really recommend it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: Lonely Planet Tokyo, Kyoto, and Japan

Compared to the cost of a trip to Japan, buying guidebooks is cheap. So when the local library ran out of copies to checkout, I didn't hesitate and bought all 3 Japanese guidebooks. I also bought the Japan Touring Mapple from Omni Map.

In all cases, the pull out maps were pretty useless. They cover too small a section of the city, and aren't referred to at all in the text. I have to ask why they even bother!

Lonely Planet Tokyo: Their recommendation of Homeikan for best-allround Ryokan was great. Not only is the service amazing, their breakfast is good, their baths are great, they have an onsite laundry machine, and the area is quiet. The place is also incredibly affordable. This alone paid for the price of the book. The recommendations for SkyTree and the bigger shopping areas such as Akhibahara and Shinjuku could use some work. The advice on Nishiki Market could also use more color (such as "show up well before noon as the wait outside restaurants is north of an hour at lunch time"). But I'll forgive them all that because of the recommendation of Homeikan. The omission of a subway map is also questionable.

Lonely Planet Japan: Their coverage of the Matsumoto area was great. I'd discount their comments about renting a car and driving if you're from California. If you regularly drive Highway 1, Highway 9, visit the Sierras or the Trinity Alps, you're used to much worse driving conditions than anywhere in Japan. Rent a car and go where you please! Their recommendation of Sugimoto Ryokan was outstanding. Their recommendation of Ougatou more questionable, not because the hotel was bad, but because they probably should have prefixed it, "which was the best season to go?", with the note that late Spring might not have the best conditions. Their disparagement of the Yudanaka Monkey Park was unwarranted, but if the book hadn't contained a sidebar on it I wouldn't have known about it and wouldn't have been diverted so we could go there. Their mention of Obuse was also a worthy side trip.

Lonely Planet Kyoto: Their neighborhood description caused us to pick Yumiko's AirBnB listing.  Huge win. The photos are also really good. We basically picked where to go by flipping through the photos at the front of the book and then going there. The restaurant recommendations were also decent. The only thing I can complain about is that they said that if Kyoto is booked solid, you can stay at Nara instead. I think that's a mistake. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto has next to no subway, so rapid transit from Kyoto station is nearly non-existent. You're stuck with buses, which are really too slow and frustrating to get anywhere quickly. If you're visiting Kyoto, stay in Kyoto. Ignore all advise to do otherwise, in this book or elsewhere.

All in all, these 3 books were worth the money. It's unusual that I take trips where the visits to cities is more important than touring the countryside. But Japan is unusual: the country side in Japan isn't really all that pretty, especially the mountain roads. The cities are where all the action is, but are crowded as heck. So these types of guide are more useful than is usual.