Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review: Whiskerella

Bowen is now reading so well that he's able to finish books by himself, including Whiskerella, and the previous book in the hamster princess series, Giant Trouble. Right now, I can still keep up with his reading, but I can see a time in the near future when I won't be able to keep up with what he's reading.

Whiskerella is the send-up of Cinderella, and involves a poor girl hamster who's forced by an evil fairy godmother to attend balls she doesn't want to go to in order to entice a prince into marrying her. The send up of the familiar fairy-tale tropes is hilarious, and quite a bit better than some the previous books in the series. And of course, it's always fun to read about a fairy-tale princess who'd rather beat things up than wear a nice dress, no doubt a great role model for kids.

The book is fast paced, mixing up prose with comic book balloon dialogues, and therefore suitable for any kids transiting into books with more text and less pictures. (Not a problem with Bowen,who seems to prefer text-heavy books to comics, much to his comic-book-loving father's chagrin)


Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: China Rich Girlfriend

China Rich Girlfriend is the second book in Kevin Kwan's rich people trilogy that started with Crazy Rich Asians. As the title implies, this one is about the wealthy Chinese rather than wealthy Singaporeans.

With more mandarin and less Hokkien, the book is chocked full of footnotes, which are at least as much fun as the main text. What I didn't notice the first time (but my old ACS pal Terence Chua pointed out) is that some of the names in the book are funny in-jokes that are only available to those who speak Hokkien. Some of them are as funny as Neal Stephenson's "Hiro Protagonist."

The first half of the book is a made-for-Hollywood extravaganza worshiping the gods of wealth and conspicuous consumption. Not being a fan of fashion or luxury brands, most of it went by for me in a blur that's only peripherally related to the plot. When the plot gets going in earnest, it turns out to be shallow, but at least Kwan doesn't get lazy and we get a new villain instead of a rehashed version of what the first novel was.

The book's a breezy easy read, and a great airplane novel. I've already placed a hold on the next book in the series.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: Free Food for Millionaires

After reading Pachinko, I saw that Min Jin Lee had another book called Free Food for Millionaires. I checked out the book and instead of a foreword or preface, the book had a long essay about how she wrote the book under trying circumstances and struggled to complete it. I felt obliged to read the book after that.

Unfortunately, the book is horrid. The main protagonist, Casey Han, a Korean American who graduated from Princeton with a full scholarship, makes one incredibly bad decision after another. She continually spends money she doesn't have, goes into debt, ignores offers of help from friends, takes up relationships she shouldn't have, has affairs she shouldn't have, and does crazy messed up things. If this was one of your friends you would shake her or just stop dealing with her because being that kind of messed up would eventually screw you over too.

I kept reading in the hope that the book has some redemptive value. But it doesn't. The book ends with the protagonist making even worse decisions and I wanted to scream. I want the hours I spent reading the massive 577 page tome back. Go read something else. Or play a video game. Or watch a movie. This book has no redeeming value and is not worth your time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: Hamster Princess - Ratpunzel

Ratpunzel is book 3 of the Hamster Princess series. Each book in the series takes a familiar fairy tale and plays with it, though some fairy tales are more obscure than others.

Ratpunzel, of course, is a variant on Rapunzel. This one is less interesting than the previous one, as Ratpunzel doesn't actually let down her hair, but lets down her tail. There are some fun little jokes here and there for parents who are reading it to their kids, but mostly I'm having Bowen read it because it's at a level that's perfect to him. (Yes, Amazon lists it as a grade 3 book, but I'm not letting Bowen see that --- it's fine for your kid to read a couple of grades ahead and ask you questions, though apparently Bowen doesn't have any trouble understanding it)

I can't recommend the book otherwise. Read it if your child is interested. It doesn't contain anything objectionable whatsoever.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Labor Day Lassen Volcanic National Park Trip

My complaint about last year's backpacking trip was that I continually heard jet plane noises all day and all night. So this year, Arturo suggested Lassen Volanic National Park. The big concern was the smoke from the recent fires, but a check on the webcam seemed to show crystal clear views. On Friday August 31st, Arturo drove all of us up to Red Bluff, where the smoke filled the air and Bowen started coughing. We quickly checked into our hotel room and turned on the AC, whereupon his cough went away.

The next day, we went into the National Park and at the visitor center, Arturo got a backcountry permit just before the mad rush landed upon our volunteer ranger. The ranger told him that the area we'd planned to visit, the cluster lakes had been burnt 2 years ago and might not make a good trip. He suggested a longer loop. We visited the mud pots and Lake Helen before heading over to the trailhead by Summit Lake.

It was 11:00am by the time we got going, so the first thing on the agenda was lunch. Since there was a steep climb following the lake, we just ate lunch at the summit lake.
After lunch, the trail headed steeply uphill to about 7000' before it started descending. I felt tired, which was strange because I'd slept well the night before. Then I realized that it must have been the altitude. "I swear I was fully acclimated when climbing Stelvio earlier this summer!" "You lose it fast!" Darn. Your body is the laziest thing on the planet. Bowen also started whining. The backpack, which had his water bladder, his bunny, and some clothes started to become too heavy for him, and Arturo feeling sorry for him, just took his entire pack and strapped it onto his backpack.
We realized that our original goal of heading to Rainbow Lake had to be modified. We got to Echo Lake, but a big sign on the lakeside said "No camping" in no uncertain terms. So we proceeded on to Twin Lakes, where at the side of the trail there was what looked like a perfect campsite. We put down our packs and scouted around and it looked great, so we pitched our tents and then went swimming in the lake.
Lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park are the strangest things in the world. In the Sierras, you'd see streams clearly feeding a lake, and streams flowing out of a lake, but in this park, there was no apparent source or sink! Arturo guessed that these were lakes formed from spring snow and the lake levels would diminish over the summer and then get refilled over winter. There were "tide lines" along the lake that supported this view. But this phenomenon meant that every lake in the park was a surprise: you're not going to hear a stream as you approach, and that's the typical cue that a lake is nearby for the rest of us.
After the swim, we got changed and walked to the other lake that was part of the Twin. We looked for a loop trail around our lake, but it wasn't there. When we got back to the campsite, we saw a doe and two babies. They were completely unafraid of people and sauntered around our site. "We'll have to take down all the clothing that's drying overnight before turning in tonight," said Arturo. "Deer will eat anything that's got even a bit of salt in them."

We had dinner and discussed what to do next. Doing the rainbow lake loop that the volunteer ranger had suggested was clearly too ambitious, so we had to choose between staying at Twin Lakes and doing a day hike, or going through the burnt area based on the original plan that Arturo had. We stared at the map and I noted that the ranger had mentioned that the burnt area was around Cluster lake. "Did he say anything about Big Bear or Little Bear lakes?" "No, so there's a chance it could be unburnt." We didn't have any information, but at least there was an alternative. "Besides," I said, "If it turned out to be horrible, it's only 3.5 miles away from the car and we can have a long day and find a National Forest service campground to camp at." "Let's wait till tomorrow morning and see how Bowen feels."

Since we had all day on the second day to do whatever we liked, we slept late and woke up at 7:00am, getting a beautiful picture of the reflective lake. We'd ran out of drinking water in all our hydration packs, and so Arturo gave Bowen a lesson on how to purify water using Aquamira, a chlorine based purification system that gave a much less objectionable taste than the usual iodine tablets, but at the expense of the complexity of setup, and of course, the lack of iodine supplementation.
 We packed slowly and only got underway at around 9:00am, and headed down to the second Twin Lake and the trail intersection with rainbow lakes. The twin to our lake was slightly bigger and quite pretty, with a larger established camping area right next to the Pacific Crest Trail. At that intersection, we saw the backcountry ranger station, and met our first PCT through-hiker, who was going south bound.

The burnt area became very obvious, and we soon lost our constant tree cover. Despite the burn, the trees were not burnt to the ground, just that all the leaves were gone. The day before, Arturo had taught Bowen how to distinguish pine from fir trees, but today there couldn't be any distinction. One interesting thing, though, was that with the leaves stripped from the trees, sound traveled very well. As a result, whenever we got close to any kind of ridge that could reflect sound, any shouting would bring back a bunch of echoes. Once Bowen discovered this, he would repeatedly shout and scream just to hear the echoes. The nice thing about the backcountry is that with no one else around to be disturbed, he could do this until he got tired of it, with no one telling him to shush.
Bowen had stuffed his cap into the sleeping bag prior to my packing it, so he didn't have a hat today. I offered him mine but after a half hour of wearing it he got tired of it and gave it back at me. We had lunch at Feather lake on the only sheltered section of it. This was followed by a chain of lakes one after another, some not even named. The named ones included Silver lake and Cluster lake, where there was a trail intersection with the Noble Emigrant trail. "That's strange," said Arturo, "I have a marker here on my GPS. I must have hiked here on the Emigrant trail, had lunch at the lake, and then checked out the intersection before turning around."

Bowen got tired of carrying his backpack again and once again Arturo packed it into his bag. Upon reaching Big Bear Lake, we spotted what could be a nice campground on the other side of the lake from the trail, and voted to check it out. "That way we won't have to share Little Bear lake with the father/son pair that passed us earlier." comment Arturo.
There was a site, but it wasn't legal. The flat spot was less than 100' from the water. "What will the ranger do if they catch us?" "He'll make us pack and and move." Bowen thought about it and decided to keep hiking to Little Bear lake, which was just over a little hill from where we were." On the way there, however, we witnessed a burnt tree fall over, making a thunderous cracking sound. Once we got to Little Bear, we spotted a nice looking flat area that would make a great campground, with no burnt trees nearby to fall on us.
We pitched our tents, unrollwed all our sleeping mats and bags, and unpacked, then sat on the logs to recover. After we'd rested, we went for a swim in the surprisingly cold lake, though once you were in there and swimming, it was obviously much warmer than the usual snow-melt-fed Sierra lake.
We swam until we got cold, made decaf coffee and tea, and then had dinner. We looked at the map and computed that it was 3.5 miles to the car. "Let's see. If we get up at 6:00am, have an efficient breakfast, and left by 8:00am, we could be at the car by 11:00am, and that means with a 6 hour drive we can be at Fenton's at 5:00pm for dinner!" Bowen declared he wanted 2 packets of oatmeal for breakfast, and that was all we had, so I'd have to eat lunch for breakfast, but that was OK, because with such a short walk we could definitely make it to the car before then, and Arturo knew there was a sandwich shop before the park exit. Since no fires were allowed because of the dry conditions, Bowen had to make his marshmallows on the camping stove again.

The next morning, I got up at 6:30am, and started making hot water. We took our time with our breakfast, leaving at 8:46am. The hike out was uneventful and cool, since it was still early and we were now in a forested area. When we returned to the lollypop part of the loop I didn't recognize the trail at all!
Bowen this time happily carried his entire pack all the way. Clearly, he had acclimated to the altitude as well, since the day actually have quite a bit of steep climbing right at the start. We got back to the trailhead at 11:30, stopped for lunch at Manzanita lake, and then headed right to Oakland on the lightest traffic I'd ever seen and had dinner at Fentons before returning home. What a great trip!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Granite Gear Crown X60

Massdrop had a Granite Gear Crown X60 for $120. The Amazon price appears to be $200, so this is a significant discount. My old Lowe Alpine Contour IV was a 6.5 pound pack, though it carried a lot more, while this one was 40 oz or 2.5 pounds. The pack comes in Regular or Long, and if you're 5' 10", you're as tall as you can be before you must switch to the long, which weighs just an once more.

The pack is a single compartment with no separation, which means you can efficiently pack clothing, etc. around irregularly shaped items. The hip belt (removable and adjustable) has 2 zippered pockets, which are big enough to swallow the G7X Mk II)The lid has 2 slim pockets which are just the right size for cycling gels or little packets of peanut butter, and can be detached easily.

On our backpacking trip I carried 2 sleeping pads, 2 sleeping bags, both our clothing, lunches, pillows, and all assorted camping gear for a 3 day trip. It's an effective carrying system and had external straps for tying sandals, tent, and quite possibly a bear canister or sleeping bag. Compared to my old backpack all the buckles are a lot smaller, as are the straps. The main weight savings must come from the frame: it's now a plastic stiffener rather than metal. Nevertheless, the item comes with a limited lifetime warranty, which means that the smaller size didn't mean that the items were more fragile.

After carrying for 3 days, I was quite impressed. I think if I had to do it all over again, I would have gone for the longer version of the pack, but the pack itself was cheap and light and I'd buy it over again with no regrets.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: Klymit Static V2 sleeping pad and pillow

Costco had the Klymit Static V2 sleeping pad with pillow at an astounding price of $80 for 2, so I picked it up for our annual backpacking trip. It's much more compact than the thermarest, which meant that 2 of them would fit in my Granite Gear Crown 60 backpack easily, along with the pillows. These pads are rated R1.3, which means that they're astoundingly low insulation, but since the intention is only to use them during the summer, it's OK.

The marketing literature claims 15 puffs to blow them up. I counted 20 puffs. There's an air escape valve so you can't over pump the pad. My advice is to pump it up to the limit, because that adds to the comfort. At night, if it gets cold enough, the air inside the pad will shrink in volume and your Bowen will wake you up and tell you to add more air to the mattress.

The shape of the mattress is great, and the texture keeps you from sliding off the pad. The pillow is also surprisingly good, and didn't leave me regretting the weight it took to bring them along. The kit also comes with a repair kit, and if you're carrying 2 of these you can save some weight by bringing only one repair kit but I didn't bother.

All in all, for the price, it's an astonishingly good deal. Recommended.