Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: The Flash Boys

Books about Wall Street have a way of being incredibly depressing. For instance, Elizabeth Warren's story about fighting Wall Street has a main theme, which is, "Bank meets consumer, Bank screws consumer, ad nauseum." I'm happy to report that The Flash Boys is an exception to this rule.

The book is about high frequency trading: the practice of front-running investor's trades electronically in order to capture the bid-ask spread. It's an obnoxious practice, but generates so much profit that the firms doing so are willing to spend hundreds of millions relocating servers to be closer to the exchanges. Obviously those folks are the villains of the book.

But the book does have a hero, IEX, co-founded by Brad Katsuyama. Lewis follows the discovery (by Katsuyama, amongst others) of the existence of HFT, the desire to build an exchange immune to predation through HFT, and the creation of IEX and its team. The story is told well, as compelling as any thriller you might have read, and I found myself turning its pages furiously. It's also a short read.

I tried to think of ways IEX was built that might make them prone to the kinds of conflicts of interests that have plagued other exchanges, but came up short, so I think Lewis has done the story justice, rather than just acted as PR agent for IEX.

Recommended.

Hat tip to Larry Hosken for pointing me at this book.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: The Inquisitor's Apprentice

I loved Chris Moriarty's Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin, so when I saw that she'd written a series of young adult books starting with The Inquisitor's Apprentice, I didn't hesitate to check them out from the library.

The Inquisitor's Apprentice is set in an alternative history turn of the century New York City. Those were heady times, and historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, and Teddy Roosevelt perform more than just cameo appearances in the novel, lending the novel a lovely "I've been there" feel.

The story's told from the view of Sacha, a 1st generation Jewish immigrant living in the tenements with his parents, who've escaped from Russia and lived through a harrowing past. Sacha discovers that he can see magic performed, and is then conscripted into being an Inquisitor's apprentice.

In this version of New York, magic is real (and everyone knows it), but is illegal, and an Inquisitor is a special department of the police force charged with policing the use of magic and the investigation thereof. Sacha's apprenticed to Inquisitor Wolf, one of the most prominent investigators of the era, and is swept up in a plot apparently intended to end the life of Thomas Edison.

This was an incredibly promising premise to the novel, and had me very excited to read it. The description of turn of century New York is awesome, and Moriarty's description of Jewish culture (especially that of Russian immigrants in New York) is authentic and feels real. The introduction of Jewish mythic elements in the form of the dybbuk, and integration into various pieces of city paraphernalia such as the rag and bone man and china town is well done and taps into your imagination.

Yet the novel falls flat. The protagonist, Sacha, is weak-willed and lily-livered. Rather than taking action, he's dragged into one event after another by his mentor, his friends, and his colleagues. He lacks common-sense, and has no self-control over his emotions. He's a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, and unfortunately, I don't think it was intentional on Moriarty's part. I think she bent over backwards to make a heroine out of Sacha's cohort intern, Lily Astral, not realizing that she'd weakened her protagonist to the point of unlikeability.

The resolution of the novel is also incomplete, obviously setting up for the next novel in the series. I cannot recommend this novel over any of Moriarty's other novels, so I'm not sure I'd get around to reading The Watcher in The Shadows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Powerstation PSX-3 Jumpstarter/Air Compressor

My old cheapo tire inflator bit the dust, and I wanted a better unit. I figured that I might as well get one that could jump start a car as well, since that would eliminate the need for a power cable to the unit.

My preference is to buy on Amazon, but the PSX-3 is one of those items that's much cheaper at Costco, where it retails for $75 instead of the $120. My guess is that the heavy weight of the unit ensures that Amazon will never be price-competitive with Costco.

The unit charges fast and comes pretty much pre-charged. If you follow the instructions and top off the charge every month or so, it'll never take more than an hour to fully charge, even after using it to jump start a car, which I've done a few times.

The inflator has a gauge that's inaccurate (i.e., it under-reads by about 5psi), but if you're using it to top off your tires you should have an accurate gauge anyway.

The jump start is very easy to use, far easier than jump starter cables. You plug in both ends to a car battery, flip the switch on, and then start the car. No worries about sparks jumping, because you only flip the switch after using the alligator clips. It also comes with a flash light.

The unit's a little heavy, and I'm not sure you'd keep one in the car at all times (though it'd definitely be a must-have for car camping), since you'd have to charge it every month, but for what the unit does and the fact that I use it every month to top off the tires (and the occasional jump start), it's the cheapest unit I've found that does the job, and it's far more robust than the cheaper inflators I've seen.

Recommended.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Hario Mini Mill

Lots of people raved to me about the benefits of grinding your own coffee from coffee beans rather than buying pre-ground coffee. It sounded like a good thing, but I wasn't willing to spend the big bucks that the electric burr grinders cost, nor did I really want to devote counter space to something that wouldn't necessarily get daily use, given that my experience with coffee enthusiasts seems to be that they'll rave about any minute changes in coffee, while I'm simply not that sensitive.

The Hario Mini Mill, at $25, seems worth a try. Sure, it's a hand grinder, so it'd take longer to grind, but on the other hand, the extra couple of minutes is just not a big deal, and if it doesn't work out I'm not out too much money. I bought the Major Dickason's blend, a highly rated coffee now on sale at Costco's for about $13 for a 2 pound bag. The net result is that this isn't quite an apples to apples comparison, since I was using Gaia's Organic pre-ground before.

The first thing I noticed was the aroma. The coffee beans definitely smell quite a bit more than the pre-ground. If you're into smells, this is probably the biggest difference between pre-ground and grinding your own. I'm not into smells.

The grinder's fairly easy to use. Set the grind, then pour coffee beans into it, and then grind. The grinding is very fast about a minute or so, so it's really not a big deal as far as your daily routine is. The big difference here is that grinding your coffee sets the coffee grounds much looser than using pre-ground coffee and scooping it using the Aeropress scoop. The result is you get much less coffee grounds out of 2 scoops of beans than 2 scoops of pre-ground. This makes a big difference, so while I was filling up the Aeropress to level 3 with 2 scoops of pre-ground, for a similar strength of coffee I'd only fill it up to 2 with my own grind.

The resultant coffee smells much stronger than the pre-ground stuff, and the coffee is very smooth. But the taste? I'm sorry, I just cannot tell the difference. If anything, I think the Major Dickason's doesn't taste as sweet as the Gaia pre-ground, but I cannot tell whether it's because of the difference between the coffees, or because the grinding makes the coffee worse.

I bought a can of the Kirkland Decaf (48ozs at $13), and the big difference seems to be that the pre-ground stuff is much harder to push through the Aeropress than the self-grounded coffee. And honestly, if you took away the grinder and made me drink the kirkland decaf, except for the missing caffeine, I'm not sure I'd prefer the self-ground coffee.

I'll keep the grinder, if only because a lot of variety of coffee beans don't come pre-ground, and I really don't feel like grinding it at the Costco grinders which don't ever seem to get cleaned. At $25, it doesn't seem unreasonable. But if you're a casual coffee drinker like me and aromas don't do much for you, I don't think I'd believe any of the coffee enthusiast's enthusiasm about self-grinded coffee. The smell thing is all the self-grinded coffee has going for it. It makes zero different to the taste as far as I'm concerned.

The biggest difference, I think is that the bother of grinding might make me drink less coffee, which isn't a completely bad thing (I'm at one cup a day).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles is the final book of Richard Morgan's fantasy trilogy that started with The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands.

I'm a huge fan of Richard Morgan, but the problem with his approach to fantasy is to take all the complexity of modern fantasy and dial it up to 10. The result is a mix of races (dwenda, aldrain, kilrathi), fantasy (magic, dark magic, and super science) and situations that would take a very long novel to explicate.

Well, The Dark Defiles is a very long novel, but I'm not sure it fully succeeds in the explication. It's also only somewhat satisfying. The three main characters, Ringil Eskiath (the gay Barbarian swordsman), Egar Dragonbane, and Archeth (the last half-breed Kilrathi left on the planet) are split right at the start of the novel, and become only two by the end of the story.

As the story proceeds, it becomes more and more clear that the story is a far future science fiction novel, rather than a standard fantasy. This is all very nice, though it's been done before, it's usually done in some long drawn out series because most such authors seem to think it's a cool trick that should be drawn out. Morgan has no such compunctions and has no issues doing one big reveal after another.

Nevertheless, the book is deeply flawed. While the previous novels in the series do a good job of upending standard fantasy tropes, The Dark Defiles spends a bit too much time wallowing in its own meta-fiction, therefore eliminating any chance that you care about the characters. In particular, Archeth seems particularly dense for being an immortal being whose the last daughter of a race of super-engineers.

Furthermore, even the meta-fiction leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, if the world was so broken when the Kilrathi arrived, why did they bother fighting for it? And the questions of where the random other deities that popped out remains unanswered. Even the fates of our protagonists is annoyingly left untied.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that the book isn't worth reading. The action sequences are done in ways that only Richard Morgan can. You'd be hard put to come up with a better effects budget than what occurs in the mind's eye, and Morgan shows how to do it. Each individual section of the book is comparatively well written, it's just that the whole doesn't quite come together properly and the result is unsatisfying.

Ultimately, the mystery of why this book took so long to come out, and why it was comparatively disappointing is solved when you read the afterword: the author had a son during the writing. That explains everything. Nobody can be coherent after one of those events, and it explains why the novel is so chaotic and unpolished.

If you're a fan of the fantasy genre, this book's definitely worth reading because it does a good job of being very different from what anyone else has done in the genre. If you're a fan of Richard Morgan, however, be prepared to be very disappointed. It's more ambitious than Altered Carbon, but fails far short of those ambitions and hence is probably the second weakest book in his portfolio.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review: Africa

It is no secret that if you want to use your HDTV to the max, you attach a blu-ray player to it and then play one of BBC's nature documentaries. When I first upgraded to a HDTV in 2009, I watched Planet Earth, and it was an experience to behold and enjoy. When I upgraded to my new LG Plasma Display, I picked up Africa just to see.

What makes the BBC blu-rays so great is that they're made and formatted for the standard HDTV screen. Movies are formatted for the 1:37:1 aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio, and as a result when you watch a movie, you get black bars at the top and bottom of your image, which means that Baraka, for instance, while being mastered in 8K before being down-sampled to 2K, looks gorgeous, you don't quite get to make full use of your 1080p display compared to what Africa or Planet Earth provides.

Africa comes in 6 episodes, with 3 episodes per disk. Each episodes spans an hour, and covers the Kalahari, the Svannah, Congo, Cape, Sahara, and a wrap up episode that covers the bigger picture. Each episode comes with a behind the scenes section that's about 10 minutes long. The footage is nothing short of amazing, including Starlight cameras that reveal the nocturnal behavior of black rhinos, and a slow motion capture of a battle between 2 giraffes in a desert.

I'm normally very impatient with every "behind the scenes" documentary, because most of the time I'd watch them and say, yeah, you had a multi-million dollar budget, good for you. But some of the footage that the series provided were so jaw-dropping that I actually looked forward to the "behind the scenes" documentary. In one of the episodes, the crew shot silver ants in 50C heat in the Sahara desert, which looked brutal as heck.

I wasn't looking forward to he last episode, because normally these documentaries tend to be a huge downer. After all, nearly every non-insect species featured in the TV series is nearly about to go extinct (one good reason to own this Blu Ray). But the last episode was actually surprisingly optimistic, including detailing a huge multi-country plan to surround the Sahara with trees to prevent further desert incursions.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the series. Since you can't easily stream the series without losing video quality, the best way to enjoy it is to borrow it from a friend, rent it, or watch it over the air (though I'd be surprised if the presentation is better over the air than from a blu ray).

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Trains for Toddlers

Bowen is a train fanatic. He says so himself, and I'm not sure I can disagree. The big problem with train sets is that there's an annoying number of standard, and some of them (but not all), are cross compatible. We ended up with two different non-compatible sets.

The wooden sets are mostly cross-compatible. The best way to get started is to buy the track pieces separately from the trains and the special pieces. That's because if you buy them together, you end up with an extremely expensive set. The best deal on the tracks can be found on Amazon where you get 56 pieces of the track pieces in various configurations for $29. This is much cheaper than the big brands, and more importantly, comes with the male/male and female/female connecting pieces. You cannot beat the price and the quality in my experience has been great. What you want to do is to avoid the kits that come with fragile pieces like railroad crossings. Those will get broken due to the poor packaging that inevitably come with the cut-rate prices.

For the special pieces, you can buy the name brand ones. Even though those are more expensive, they won't be broken easily (either by the child or by shipping). We bought the Brio railroad crossing and he loved it so much that he took it with him to the train station and used it to imitate the real crossings. It was hilarious at first but he never gets tired of doing this so now I'm annoyed.
For the turntable we could get away with the cheap ones because those aren't fragile.

Trains from brand name manufacturers are always expensive. The best thing to do there is to wait for a sale and then pick them up. I first bought a battery powered Salty, but it turned out that he prefers to push the trains around the track himself (or better yet, get daddy or mommy to do it for him), so now I buy the cheaper non powered wooden trains. We haven't gotten around to any of the special overpasses and things like that, but I'm sure the time will come when he's ready for it.

The other non compatible set  we started with were the Take-n-play series. These are quite a bit fancier, but turned out to be far more expensive. We started with the Great Quarry Climb, which has a fun mechanical climbing bit, and great rolldowns as well as a turntable, and then followed up with the Misty Island package. To my surprise, the packages do actually fold up and put away nicely when you're done, and the constrained design means a younger toddler can play with them fairly easily. The little play pieces are also fun. However, you can't buy cheap knock-offs, so you end up with expensive connector sets that aren't comprehensive or satisfying. And forget about railroad crossings and other such fun things. Those don't exist in the Take n play world.

The net result has been that we're likely to expand the wooden sets but unlikely to add to the plastic sets. Or maybe he'll just outgrow playing with trains eventually.