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Friday, December 13, 2019

Review: Woom 5 off

Bowen's been mountain biking enough that I bought him wider tires for his Woom 4. Of course, while corresponding with Woom about the maximum tire size I could fit on the 4, the owner casually mentioned that the Woom 5 off was going to be available soon.  He met the height requirement (50") right on his birthday, so I ordered the Woom 5 off. We expected to hold on to the bike for several years between Bowen and Boen, so I ordered a pair of "road" wheels as well so we could easily swap between mountain bike and road bike configurations.

The salient features of the Woom 5 off vs the regular version (other than the $200 premium) are the carbon fork and the disc brakes. The off also comes  with wider ties, suitable for mountain biking. I'm well known for my dislike of disc brakes. However, I hate the cantilever/V-brakes that come with the regular Woom bikes even more: those are even worse!

My lack of experience with disc brakes meant that putting together the bike was an unusually bad experience, culminating with Woom sending me off to the local bike shop to resolve a persistently bad brake rub situation that turned out to be partly my fault (I didn't realize that the big plastic piece that came with the wheel was the disc brake side axle washer), and partly theirs (the rotor was out of true). Woom paid for the work, which turned out not to be expensive ($18), but obviously made me feel very good about company. The spoke protector was also out of alignment, and they had sent me 2 left-sided pedals instead of a left and a right! This was an unusually poor experience, but Woom made everything right.

The bike is light and Bowen loves it. The easy stopping power of the discs meant that his hands no longer hurt on steep off-road descents, which was one of the main reasons to go with a disc brake! The wide tires are surprisingly light, and if you're not a stickler like me for maximizing your kid's experience with cycling, I'm not sure it's worth the expense of an extra set of wheels to get the lower rolling resistance of road bike tires. (Though I could be wrong --- if Bowen decides to go touring on his single this would be an essential purchase anyway!)

Color me impressed. It's extra expensive, but if you have more than one kid in the family, it's probably worth springing for the disc brake version of the Woom bikes rather than the regular. The reduction in hassle compared to cantilever/V-brakes in itself would be worth it.


Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: Rising Stars Compendium

I tried to find Rising Stars after reading Straczinski's autobiography, and to my surprise it wasn't available from the library. Fortunately, it was available through Comixology Unlimited program with a 30 day free trial, so I checked it out that way.

Good Superhero books are difficult to write: all the tropes have been explored at this time, and the giants of the field, Watchmen and Miracleman (both written by Alan Moore) have yet to be surpassed even decades after Alan Moore has left the field.

Unfortunately, Straczinski's Rising Stars doesn't come close to any of the giants. It's not even as good as Frank Miller's run on Daredevil collected in Born Again.

The premise of the story is that a single event caused the birth of a hundred odd kids with super powers, and of course the government gathers them together and brings them up together. The consequence of this one time event is explored. There are a few interesting twists (such as a person who's invulnerable but has no other super powers), but mostly there aren't any interesting new twists save for a single villain whose multiple personality disorder manifests her powers.

The story starts with a murder mystery, but the murder mystery is unfair (the power behind it was never disclosed to you until after the fact), and the resolution to it is unsatisfying. Then the last third of the book gets really hokey and unbelievable. You might think that this is an unreasonable  expectation for someone reading a comic book to expect believability, but in this case it was so egregious it was dumb. (no, radiation poisoning is not a contagious disease!) To top it off the ending is hokey and  dumb.

I can't recommend this book. I don't understand why it got any of the acclaim it did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: Magic for Liars

Magic for Liars appeared in several year's end "best-of" lists, so I picked it up with high hopes. It's set in a parallel world to our reality where magic exists, and the novel takes place mostly in an imaginary private school in Sunol. The viewpoint character, Ivy Gamble cannot perform magic, but is the sister of a talented magician who's part of the faculty at the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, and when a teacher at the school dies, Ivy as a private investigator, is brought in despite the authorities pronouncing suicide.

So far so good. A murder mystery, a magical high school, and a viewpoint character who can get the magic system explained to her by the magical characters, and by grit, smarts or a combination of other personal qualities, will solve the mystery, lead a denouement, and grant us closure.

At a high level all of those properties are true of this book, and the setting is somewhat fresh and there are a few red herrings thrown in. Yet the book fails on several levels:
  1. The magic system is never explained, so the mystery is not fair. In other words, at the denouement, rules that were previously laid down in the novel were broken, so the reader has no prayer of solving the mystery on his or her own, except through the meta-mechanism of: "it's always the spouse." This is unsatisfying for many obvious reasons.
  2. Despite the setting being a school, there's not enough faculty or students in the novel to grant you a feeling of reality. You get the impression that this is a play that's designed for 5-6 characters, and despite the apparent setting you're stuck talking with/thinking about the same 5-6 characters. (Which means that if you took a random guess you would be right 1/6th of the time)
  3. OK, you can claim that (1) is never necessary in a Raymond Chandler novel. But Chandler's novels (and many sterling examples of the genre, such as Altered Carbon) have protagonists that are witty, sardonic, cynical with brilliant turns of phrases, while Sarah Gailey's Ivy Gamble is an alcoholic person who's out of touch with herself, and shows no scintillating wit.
I got to the end of the novel, but didn't feel that the pay off was worth the effort. After I was done I felt like cleansing my palette and going off and reading some decent Raymond Chandler instead.  If this novel wins any awards it'll be because of politics rather than good writing (like All the Birds in the Sky) Not recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal

I've done quite a bit of negotiating for clients, on several occasions negotiating 7 figure sums (and in one case RSUs that turned out to be worth in the 8 figures), but I'm always trying to improve my art. The Art of Negotiating the Best Deal is a great courses audio series that came highly recommended.

The first couple of lectures were repetitive, boring stuff. It's not until chapter 8 where Professor Freeman gets into BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Settlement), which I feel is the first effective method (and the most effective method for most engineers) when it comes to negotiating compensation: basically, if you don't have any alternatives that pay better than the company you're negotiating with, then you have no leverage.

Starting with chapter 8, however, Professor Freeman gets into a framework for negotiating that I think is potentially useful, including a framework for discussing different types of negotiations: distributive negotiations (zero sum games) vs non-distributive negotiations. One interesting point  that he makes is that stepping away from the negotiating table and taking time to prepare is a great approach and often improves outcome. This fact alone explains why my clients frequently do better than clients who try to negotiate on their own: to make full use of my services they have to step away from the negotiation and call, e-mail, or text me and wait for a reply, and that distance keeps them from panicking and accepting a suboptimal offer.

Similarly, the framework introduced in chapter 14, "I FORESAW IT" is a good one to use and encourages people to try for creative negotiations.

There are several places where Freeman clearly doesn't negotiate as much as I do in certain domains. For instance, he claims that you can negotiate vacation as part of a compensation package. In my experience, it's very rare that companies do so. On the other hand, some of his case studies are great: there's one example in chapter 14 where an apparently great deal turns out to be a terrible one, and Freeman explains why and how.

For parents, there's also a chapter about negotiating with kids. (It's a stand-in for negotiating with difficult people) It's good and I wish there was more of that in this audio series.

All in all, I thought the series could stand more of the case studies I described above, but even I learned quite a bit from it so I can recommend it!

Monday, December 09, 2019

Review: Becoming Superman

Despite not being a fan of J. Michael Straczynski after reading Superman - Earth One, I picked up his autobiography Becoming Superman, which received rave reviews. It's a book that deserves its rave reviews.

Straczynski's childhood life was horrific, ranging from a mom who dropped him off the roof of a house, to an abusive, alcoholic control-freak dad. It's a clear ode to a man who was clearly a dandelion, who as a teenager that he decided to be whatever his dad wasn't. (Some of us who didn't have abusive childhood made that decision as well, but obviously we didn't have so much of an anti-role model as Straczynski). His parents apparently successfully killed one of his siblings, and his horror of childhood was such that in his early adulthood he had an irreversible vasectomy just so he wouldn't be able to father any progeny.

The story of Straczynski's life is interspersed with a mystery, a name repeatedly showing up in his childhood mentioned by his parents, which later shows up as a denouement for the autobiography. Along with all this is a rinse and repeat expose of what writing for Hollywood is like, his time on various TV animation series, and how he tried to fight the censors, some of whom actually thought that the Necronomicon is a real book.

This book answers a few question I'd always had. For instance, why was Babylon 5 so unwatchable for me, despite getting all those rave reviews. And of course, all the politics behind how Deep Space 9 came to be.

In any case, I found this book not just profoundly readable, but also fun to read, despite all the horrific scenes and descriptions of Straczynski's early life. Recommended! The book makes me want to read more of his comics, even though Superman - Earth One didn't make me a fan.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Review: RAVPower GAN Slim 45W USB-C charger

I hesitated over buying the RAVPower GAN charger for a long time, only opting to pull the trigger when I knew I had a trip upcoming where I was going to bring my XPS 13. With 45W of power over USB-C, this replaced the 144g Dell charger with a much slimmer and lighter 78g device. I was worried that the device would be awkward to use because of its long flat profile (no doubt for better heat dissipation), but it turned out that my biggest problem was that the device is too easy to pull off a power socket (no doubt because its long body provide lots of easy leverage).

Nevertheless, as only one of two chargers I brought on this trip, it did its duty charging the laptop, various phones, and also the tablets and camera (with a USB-C to USB-A dongle). In use, the device got warm but never got hot, and it's reliable about charging everything I own. Recommended. While there are lighter devices out there, they tend to cap out at 18W or 30W making them useless for charging the laptop.