Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A case of too much privacy

The current brouhaha about the Cambridge Analytica use of Facebook data has gotten lots of people to talk about privacy and the use of Facebook. My take on the situation is that now I know why in recent years there's been a spate of "Quizes on the internet" spreading on Facebook: it's information gathering.

I, personally, think that our "big bad overlords" like Google and Facebook aren't actually making good use of their data. For instance, even after you've already bought a product from Amazon, ads for that product continue following all around the internet. Don't sell me the product, sell me accessories for the product. Or show me competitive products in the hopes that I might return the first one and buy the second one instead!

One particular use case bothers me: when touring, I'll use Google maps to derive a cycling route to a location. After deciding between a few alternatives, I'll fire up my Wahoo ELEMNT app and then try to get it to route me to that location. Wahoo ELEMNT proudly tells me that it's "powered by Google Maps", indicating that they use the Google API to derive their routing directions and then pass that along to myWahoo Bolt. But 9 times out of 10, the route shown to me on the Wahoo ELEMNT isn't even close to what the Google maps app shows me! ON THE SAME PHONE! I want Google to derive from my phone's IP (or other identification) and give me the exact same route I just found on Google Maps. But no. Where's my evil overlord when I need one?!!

One of Garmin's best recently introduced features is Garmin's Heat Maps routing. Unfortunately, they only use it to suggest loop rides. That's silly. When I'm touring, I don't want to ride a loop! I want to get to a certain destination. And since I'm cycling, I want to use routes favored by other cyclists. Heck, I'd love it if Garmin profiled me and gave me the perfect route for when I'm riding on my single bike vs riding on the tandem with my son. But again, despite having all that data (which Google probably also has), they refuse to do anything useful with it.

In any case, I don't want to argue against privacy (or that Facebook shouldn't be punished for not revealing about how that data was used until 2 years after the fact). I just think that when it comes to using customer data, the big tech companies both go too far while simultaneously do not go far enough.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: The Tangled Lands

The Tangled Lands belongs to Paolo Bacigullpi's peculiar brand of ecological fiction: the environmental allegory. This time, he teams up with Tobias Bucknell to bring us the world of the Tangled Lands, a fantasy world where magic exists, but the use of magic makes bramble grow, but not necessarily in the immediate vicinity. This bramble is a particularly evil plant: anyone pricked by it falls asleep (think Cinderella), but unlike in Cinderella, this doesn't put the person into suspended animation: the flesh can still be preyed upon by various creepy-crawlies, etc. In any case, since the fantasy world doesn't have advanced technology, healing, etc has to be done by magic, and this puts the inhabitants of the world in a dilemma. Use magic, and cause bramble to grow (and it's very difficult to cut back), or live without the conveniences and (occasionally) life-saving magic and watch your neighbors do it.

The 4 short stories (2 contributed by each author) in the book explore the implications of this world: the wealthy and powerful use their privilege to crush the less well endowed, and even suppress technologies that could resolve the dilemma. Disappointingly, there's no overall arc in the stories: they're all unrelated to one another, and the result is that while each story is individually in and of itself relatively well-written with good characters, by the end of the second story you feel that the authors of exhausted the implications of the world they've created and are just committed to showing you how desperate the folks who live in it are.

While this in itself isn't a bad thing, I feel like the world has much more potential, and the authors could have made better use of the reader's time and theirs in crafting stories set in it. Perhaps a follow up novel would be much more worth your time.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Columbia Outdry Ex Gold Pants

My old pair of rain pants are so old that I've forgotten when I bought it. I want to say I bought it in Switzerland during one of the more rainy tours of the Alps (hence it must have been outrageously expensive), but it could easily have been in Austria. In any case, this winter, I discovered that it wasn't waterproof any more. (It might never have been waterproof, but the plasticky surface fooled me into thinking that it was)

Having had a great experience with the Columbia Mens Titanium Outdry Ex jacket, I bought the Gold Titanium Outdry Pants, which strangely enough are not actually gold, but are the same color as the jacket I bought. Whoever names these clothing items at Columbia must be even more color-blind than I am. (And before you tell me that it's obvious that "Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Titanium" must be obviously grade levels for gear quality, I have searched in vain on Columbia's website to see if there's any rhyme or reason to the metal-type they use in their branding and have found nothing)

The pants are relatively light at 286g for my size (size small, in both jacket and pants). They come with belt loops in addition to the elastic. That's good, because the elastic is insufficient to keep the pants up on my svelte waist, so I had to add a belt. It's also not good, because that means I have to carry a belt on tour! The pants also fold neatly into a pocket that's labeled "packable," a neat feature with no counterpart in the jacket! (Again, no rhyme or consistency in their product-line) The packed size is quite big, but the packing protects the shiny material so it won't wear out prematurely in  your pannier or saddlebag.

In practice the pants are big enough that I can wear normal (non-cycling) pants under it and ride comfortably. The pants flare out a bit too much at the bottom, so if you're a cyclist you MUST use ankle ties or the pants will get caught in the chain/chainrings eventually. Yet another thing to carry on tour. Clearly, it's designed more for hikers than for cyclists. Some complain that the pants are noisy, but they must be hikers: on my bike I can't tell, mainly because the rain drowns out any noise from the pants.

The pants do stay dry (which included time not just cycling, but also fixing a flat tire in the rain). They're also nice and warm (though how much of it was that I was wearing a whole layer of hiking pants underneath, I don't know), maybe a bit too warm. Not a problem on tour: just don't wear leg warmers under these pants. I wish the color was something bright (like the jacket), but again, these seem designed for hiking and not cycling, but I'd say that they're very good for what they do, and well worth the price. (Around $90 or so on sale) I'm discovering that I must be a Columbia fan, because my favorite pair of hiking pants (bought so long ago that I don't remember when) also say Columbia Titanium on them.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Why I'm not a Strava Premium Customer

Those who know me probably know that I'm a big Garmin and Strava user. Since the day Strava became free for all users to upload their rides, I've connected my Garmin devices to Strava and uploaded nearly every ride to Strava. (I don't make every ride public, since there's no point cluttering up my friends' feeds with every run to the grocery store, drug store, etc) When I write my tour reports, every day has a Strava route map front and center.

I was wondering why I was so opposed to paying for Strava, despite using it so much. Then one day, I got yet another ad on my feed remind me to pay up for Strava so that I could get my Suffer score. That triggered an "aha" insight. I don't ride my bike for suffering. I don't even ride my bike for exercise. One of my favorite jokes (that's occasionally attributed to me on the internet) came in the form of the Zen Koan:
A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, "Why are you riding your bicycles?"
The first student replied, "The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!" The teacher praised the student, saying, "You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do." 
The second student replied, "I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path." The teacher commended the student, "Your eyes are open and you see the world." 
The third student replied, "When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, nam myoho renge kyo." The teacher gave praise to the third student, "Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel." 
The fourth student answered, "Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings." The teacher was pleased and said, "You are riding on the golden path of non-harming." 
The fifth student replied, "I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle." The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, "I am your disciple."
 Strangely enough, the only time when I felt like I was willing to pay for an internet cycling service was with RideWithGPS, where I once found an interesting route, downloaded it to my Bolt, and then rode it with great happiness. (The web-site, unfortunately, was barely usable on a smartphone, which made it mostly useless when touring) Maybe RideWithGPS will provide a "pleasure score", or a "scenery score", or a "singing with children score."

As I get older, I realize that the best things in life aren't easily quantifiable or captured in a single (or multiple) number(s). My best rides have always been the ones so good that I felt like stopping every few minutes to take pictures because it was just too pretty to pass by.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Long Term Review: Cressi Galileo

It's been about 18 months since I last reviewed the Cressi Galileo, (original review) so now it's time to revisit the product and provide a recommendation. One big change is that Amazon has started carrying the goggles in their USA store. The price, at $60 is incredibly high, so I recommend getting one from Amazon UK, where it is just 24 pounds. Shipping from the UK to the US doesn't exceed $5 (though it does take the better part of a week), but cheap-skate that I am, last year while doing Bowen's bike tour I ordered an extra pair to bring home in case my first pair wore out.

I swim twice a week for about half an hour each time. The goggles are still holding up fine, though the crevices in the goggles have gotten moldy. That doesn't bother me very much, but if it bothers you you can get rid of the mold by soaking them in white vinegar. Unlike previous pairs of goggles that I've owned, the tempered glass in these goggles absolutely do not fade or turn milky white with UV exposure. These truly are goggles for life.

A few caveats: they're heavy: so much so that when I travel I don't bring them, but instead buy a pair of cheap goggles that will get discarded after the trip. The weight savings might not be a big deal if you're car touring or sailing,  but for bicycle touring or back-country camping these definitely get left at home. Secondly, as mentioned before, they seem designed to fit really big heads.

If they fit, these are the longest lasting goggles you'll ever have. (They're basically like diving masks without the nose coverage). Recommended.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Accubattery

I will admit to not usually reviewing apps, but I'll make an exception for Accubattery, which was good enough that I paid to remove ads from it. The idea behind Accubattery is that if you want to prolong the life of a lithium ion battery, what you want to do is to (a) keep it cool, (b) don't deep discharge it, and (c) don't charge it to the maximum charge level.

Accubattery is an app that helps you do (c). Obviously, (b) is already well within your control, and (a) is not usually within your control. The app lets you set a charge alarm to remind you to unplug your phone from the charger once it hits about 80%. If you can do so consistently, the number of discharge cycles you get out of the battery goes from 300-500 cycles to about 850-1500 cycles, basically tripling your battery life. This is not so  big a deal if you tend to buy cheap phones like I do, but if you're the kind of person who spends big money on phones, this app would let you hang on to your fancy phone for longer.

If I run cheap phones, why do I care? The main reason is that most of the time, I don't really tax my phone. Which means if I start the day partially discharged, I don't care. But when I'm bicycle touring, I'll start the day with a full battery every time, since the phone becomes a crucial information tool. (I've had days when a weather forecast at lunch completely changed my route and gave me a much better experience than I would have had otherwise) So to some extent I do want to preserve battery life on my phones, despite it being no big deal if I had to replace my phone prematurely.

The other use of Accubattery, of course, is that the app will tell you what the current charge capacity of your phone is, so you know when you either need a new battery, or need to recycle your phone and replace it altogether. The information provided is detailed, though 2 of the screens provide conflicting information. I sent a query about this to their support e-mail address (which wasn't easy to find), and got back a satisfying answer on how to use the "battery health" info.

It's a good app. Recommended.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Review: Eufy Genie Smart Speaker

The Eufy was on sale for $20, which made it even cheaper than the cheapest Echo Dot. For some reason I thought it was made my Anker, and bought it for the master bedroom. It's missing a few features that the Dot has, such as being able to use it as a bluetooth speaker, but in practice, I didn't use that feature very much. It does have an audio out, unlike a Google Home, which means that you can use it to drive the nice speaker system that's attached to your TV.

The far field microphone isn't as well implemented as Amazon's, and it seems to misunderstand me more than an echo, but works just fine for setting times, listening to audible books (which is a big deal in my opinion), and listening to music. (I have it positioned so that it's easy to move it into the bathroom for showers, etc)

Is it as good as an Echo Dot? No. But if you can get it for $20, it's a bargain. As a result we now have an Echo in the dining room, an Echo Dot in Bowen's bedroom (for the nightly audio book), and this Eufy in the master bedroom. Recommended.