Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Review: Pororo Edison Training Chopsticks

It's difficult to train your kid to use silverware in a Chinese household. This isn't because Chinese babies somehow have a harder time using forks, knives and spoons. It's because we give Bowen a fork and spoon and maybe a baby knife, and then sit down and pick up chopsticks to eat. Understandably, he becomes upset and fascinated with chopsticks, thinking that we're denying him cool tools. But the reality is, his training period with silverware would be prolonged by quite a few years if he tried to use chopsticks unaided.

It got to the point where my wife has frequently declared that she'll switch all of us over to forks, knives and spoons so he'll have decent role models, but a lifetime of habits is difficult to break, and we've never quite done it. (If you're used to eating out of a rice bowl, you'll understand: eating with a knife and fork using a bowl is impossible)

During the Tour of the Alps, however, Arturo told me that he learned to use chopsticks using special training chopsticks. I searched on Amazon, and sure enough, up came the Pororo Edison Training Chopsticks. They're $7 online but I'm sure if you went to Daisho or something like that you could buy them for $2 or however much they actually sell them in Japan or Korea.

These are very cute. Cuter than even the picture on Amazon's website depict. Furthermore, they work! Within minutes of fitting the rings on the chopsticks into his fingers, I dropped some vegetables into a bowl and he picked up a piece of cauliflower with the chopsticks and stuck them into his mouth and ate them! He even learned to bite off a small piece at a time and eat them that way. This worked with lettuce, but then when I gave him something difficult to pick up with the chopsticks (some rice), he finally understood and relinquished the chopsticks and picked up the spoon.

These are great and I highly recommend them. You probably need to buy more than a few pairs so you can have a clean pair for every meal.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Reflections on Cycling Skills

My book, Independent Cycle Touring spends a significant portion on cycling skills. When people think of cycling, they mostly consider it a fitness activity: one where the emphasis is on how fast and how hard you can ride. Sure, aerobic capacity is important, and I'd never be one to dismiss the importance of fitness.

The reality, however, is that on the road as well as off-road, cycling is a highly technical sport. In recent years, the kind of fitness approach advocated by books such as the Cyclist's Training Bible and cross-fit type activities has led to an interesting phenomenon: of very strong fit cyclists who cannot handle their bikes and crash in situations that are just slightly technical. In the past, when it took a year or two to get fit enough to climb up to Skyline, by the time you saw a cyclist in the mountains, they were generally good bike handlers. Today, I see lots of cyclists who can't descend safely, many who can't ride safely in a paceline, some who can't start from a grade, and most can't even handle a front-wheel skid. This is endemic of a culture that prizes data, and bike handling skills simply cannot be measured with a stopwatch, GPS, or bragged about on Strava, so many cyclists ignore them.

As a result, you find cyclists who avoid pleasant riding on dirt roads, cycling in the rain, pace-lining, or worse, cyclists who repeatedly ride the same route over and over for fear of trying a new road. It's no wonder that the most popular Garmin GPS is the Garmin Edge 500, a GPS that cannot show you where you are on a map!

I once had a cyclist say to me, "Piaw: I've ridden with you for 6 months, and there's never been a ride where you didn't go off-road." By contrast, someone I know once crashed his bike riding up a driveway because he approached it at an angle and slid out. As far as I can tell,  he never rode his bike again. You cannot get better at technical cycling by staying within your comfort zone. You can only do so by constantly riding in challenging circumstances in order to improve your skills. Doing so can avoid a crash and save you from some pain later!

I don't want to over-emphasize this, since cycling is still by far safer than Motorsports. Arturo said early on in this year's Tour of the Alps that cycling felt dangerous to him, since he was descending mountain passes at speed without wearing armor or a protective roll cage around him. While this is an understandable reaction, it is entirely false. While on a descent you might approach motorcycle speed, that's at most one third of your time spent cycling; for every hour you descend, you have to climb three hours in order to make it to the descent. Most crashes are single-vehicle crashes. Even if you fell off your bike while climbing, your injuries are likely to be minor. Motorcycles and cars, however, move at speed regardless of grade, which makes them a heck of a lot more dangerous because the drivers have to be alert at all times.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: DuraAce 7700 Freehub

I recently toured the alps with my DuraAce 7700 freehub. It finished the tour as quiet as it started, but it was an unusually dry tour, with relatively little riding in the rain.  For many years I avoided touring on these hubs on the theory that I wanted to save them from wear. This year, I finally decided to go all out for lightweight and brought these wheels into touring service since they'd operated for quite some time as a "daily driver" in California.

I compared the hub with several other hubs in a previous post, but let me summarize the details. With a wR of 21mm, the hub had the potential to build up the stronger wheels than any other hub on the market. On this, the hub did not disappoint. I've had the wheels since 2006, and they've been ridden hard on and off road. I broke one spoke when my derailleur shifted into the spokes, but other than that, the wheel has not even needed truing despite my recent tour and otherwise daily riding.

Mechanically, however, the hub's not very well sealed. Despite my Campy Chorus front hub being subject to significantly more rain, over the same maintenance interval, the freehub has had more water penetration whenever we took both hubs apart for service. This does not bode well for the long term life of the hub, though unless you damage the race, merely replacing the bearings and overhauling the hub frequently might be more sufficient.

The freehub portion, however, was disappointing. When Cupertino Bike Shop recently overhauled it, the freehub started making a ton of noise. It looked like it was near the end of its life, and none of the usual suppliers for that shop had a replacement part for it. I eventually found an eBay vendor that sold me some new old stock for an outrageous price, but it turns out that Ultegra parts from the same era are also compatible, so that's what I can do in the future.

The biggest impediment to frequent overhauling of the hub, however, is the need for cone wrenches. I do own them, but they're finicky, and make bearing adjustment much tougher than they should be. When I compare them to the Campagnolo front hub's adjustment mechanism, the cone wrenches I have to wield feel primitive and unnecessary.

Why not build new wheels? First of all, the double-butted 15gauge wheelsmith spokes used to build this wheel are no longer available. Secondly, the latest generation 11-speed hubs build weaker wheels, since Shimano was forced to dish the wheel further to accommodate that 11th-speed.

In retrospect, the best Shimano hubset to have built a wheel out of would have been the (also now out of production) Dura ace 7900 rear hub. These hubs were the last of the 10-speed hubs (but were also compatible with 8 and 9 speeds), so were as strong as the 7700, but eliminated the need for cone wrenches, making overhaul easy with just a pair of allen wrenches. Phil has these on his bike, and they were excellent.

In any case, I recognize that a review of the 7700s at this stage is obviously late and obsolete, but it's useful to keep track of what properties of hubs are important for long term maintenance. In any case, these aren't really recommended, though in the light of all the miles I've put on them, I cannot really complain.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 3-5

The Wolf Among Us is Telltale Game's point-and-click puzzle adventure set in the world of Fables.  I previously reviewed the first two episodes and enjoyed them. Now that all 5 episodes are out and I've finished them, I thought I'd review them in retrospective.

First of all, many have said (and I agree) that these games don't really work well in episodic format. They're structured very much like a TV show, but TV shows only have a lag between episodes of a week, which isn't enough to get you to forget about the previous episode when you watch the new one. The time lag between these episodes were about 2 months, which was enough for me to need to watch the "what happened previously" entries in order to remember what happened. Luckily for you, if you're reading this, The Wolf Among Us is all out so there's not going to be a lag for you.

I'll confess to being a huge Fables fan. I consider it one of the best written graphic novel series out there today, and if you haven't read them, go do so now, starting with the entire trade paperback collection. The Wolf Among Us is a prequel to the series, so playing the game before reading the comics won't cause any spoilers, but also won't give you the delicious sense of context that the game provides.

Episode 3 was fun, as we discover wheels within wheels and that Crane is a bad guy, but not the mastermind we expected. Episode 4 felt like a filler: short, and full of nothing but build up. The finale made up for all that by providing an exciting fight sequence that finally resolves all my problems with Telltale Game's engine while still providing a satisfying story. The ending drags on for a bit too long, but it does resolve all the loose ends in the plot.

The MSRP of The Wolf Among Us is $29.99. At that price, you'll feel cheated of content. But if you're patient, it will inevitably go on sale for about $5. Anywhere below $10, this is good value and a good story worth picking up and playing.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: Anker X201 Replacement Battery

Ever since I got Xiaoqin her Surface Pro, she's relinquished my (by now ancient) X201 back to me. Laptop batteries usually get killed by heat and being fully charged, and the X201's was no exception. A few months of using Android Studio on the laptop while being plugged in killed the original OEM battery, which would have been down by 40% in regular unplugged use, but was down to 10 minutes of run time. The thing about the X201 is that the keyboard's still the best you can get for a laptop of this size and weight, and writing doesn't consume lots of CPU power, so I use this as my primary writing machine, relegating the desktop to heavy-duty work like Lightroom, Premiere Elements, and InDesign. Even with 2 Moore's cycles in place, newer laptops still have not caught up to my 2009 desktop's performance.

For a fairly new laptop, it would have been worthwhile to hunt down an OEM battery and pay full price for it. For a laptop that's been well-used (albeit upgraded), I settled for the Anker X201 replacement. Anker warranties the battery for 18 months, but the biggest problem with non-OEM battery is that they have a melt-down which could set your laptop on fire. I've had a 3rd party Macbook battery warp so badly that it wouldn't fit in the battery slot any more after I wrestled it out of the slot. Of course, nowadays, Macs don't come with user-replaceable batteries so the optimal solution would be to throw away the Mac and buy yourself a real computer with replaceable parts.

The battery plugged in snugly into the battery well, and surprisingly, the Power Manager on the Thinkpad recognized the battery! I didn't expect that and was impressed. The manager says that the battery's good for 47.34Wh while the specifications claimed 49Wh, indicating some minor deterioration while the battery was sitting at Amazon's warehouse. On initial charge, the battery indicator said the battery's only good for 2 hours, but after 4 charge cycles it now says 3 hours. This is more than good enough for my general use of the laptop, and comparable to the OEM battery.

Newer machines such as the Surface Pro and Macbooks no longer have user-replaceable batteries, making it worth while to hang onto older machines such as the Lenovo Thinkpad for as long as you can. The Anker goes a long way towards helping that out. Recommended.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is Thomas Piketty's magnum opus about the future of capitalism and the implications thereof. It is by far and away the best book I've read this year, and I doubt if I'll read a better book in this decade. It's a combination of economics, political economy, history, literature analysis (of Jane Austen and Honore Balzac no less) and big-data analysis that had me getting up early to read it. In my younger days, I would have devoured this book non-stop in a matter of days, ignoring food, sleep, and work. It is more exciting than any combination of science fiction novels, and in many ways fulfills the idea of economics as psychohistory.

The central premise of the book is the inequality r > g. Through human history, while growth rates have usually been around 1%, the return on capital has usually been around 5% (in real terms, not nominal terms). You might question this 5% number as contradicting Bernstein's 2% number. Note that Bernstein's numbers includes major catastrophes, such as the world wars wiping out most assets in Europe. From a personal finance point of view, such events usually mean that you care a lot more about staying alive than your portfolio! The implications on wealth accumulation is fairly straightforward: if you can accumulate capital such that you can live on less than 5% over a long period of time, you can reinvest the remainder of your capital income and grow well above the growth rate of the economy, leaving you not only with increasing assets, but also freeing you and your heirs from ever having to work for an income ever again. In the extreme case (let's say you're Bill Gates), you can live on 0.01% of your income from capital and essentially reinvest all the proceeds, creating dynastic level wealth. The Hiltons, Kennedys, Rockefellers, and Kochs are of course in this category.

Wait a minute, you say, isn't the world GDP growth more than 3%? Isn't China growing at 7-8%? This is where historical data comes in. Piketty provides convincing evidence that these numbers can only occur because of (1) population growth, and (2) catchup with the modern economies. In other words, Europe could only grow at 6-8% a year until it caught up with the USA at the frontier of technology and infrastructure, at which point it devolved down to 1-1.5% growth. The same happened to Japan, and will happen to China. It's reasonable to expect the world to degenerate to that case eventually, but the developed world is already there.

Even more impressively, Piketty has current data. This data in particular, shows that the top 1% in Europe and USA already own more than 70% of the capital assets in their respective economic arenas. Even worse, there's reasonable evidence that because of the existence of tax havens, these estimates are low. Piketty analyzes total capital known to be in existence, and reveals that the world owes more money than exists in developed country accounts. The remainder of the dark capital exists in tax havens and is likely to be around 10% of global wealth.

How bad can things get? Here, Piketty turns to history for data and to literature to make it real. This section of the book is impressive and amazing to read. During the Gilded Age (called Belle Epoque in the book), the wealthy commanded 90% of the capital in their respective countries. Fully half of the population (then and now) owned essentially nothing or had a negative net-worth, and there was no middle class. There was effectively no inflation, which explained why Austen and Balzac would provide numbers in terms of income for the characters in their novels and expect readers to understand what situations each character was in. Worse, there was no way for anyone to get ahead by hard work or education: even judges could at most make 5 to 7 times the average income, compared to the wealthy heirs and heiresses who would have 30 to 60 times the average income from the capital they inherited. Hence, the plots of those novels always involved marrying someone so wealthy that they could provide a dignified existence (meaning that they could hire enough servants to take care of the needs of daily living, given the non-existence of refrigeration, cars, etc).

Lest you think that this state of affairs could only occur because of a stagnant technology, Piketty reminds the reader that automobiles, steam engines, etc. were all invented during this period. It was hardly a period of stagnation. Yet because all new technology required capital, the inventors didn't make off with the lion's share of the profits.

So how did the situation change? Was it the progressive income tax? Was it the introduction of inflation? The answer was that it took 2 world wars to essentially destroy most of the existing capital stock in Europe in order for a more egalitarian post-war generation to exist. This essentially created a middle class that owned about 40% of the wealth and consisted of 40% of the population. 50% of the population continued to own no property, while the top 10% owns 60% of the wealth. In the U.S., punitive taxation levels of 90% kept inequality low, essentially keeping the American middle class from suffering the same fate. Piketty points out that the 90% tax rate was hardly ever paid. Instead, what it did was to keep executives (who essentially set their own pay) from asking for compensation at that level. When those tax rates were dismantled in the 1980s, CEO and other executive compensation sky-rocketed in response.

So how does the world look going forward? It looks grim. We are currently in a situation where in the US and Europe, capital from inheritances and capital from savings through work average about 50%. By 2050, if things don't change, we could easily see a return to inequality levels seen during the Gilded Age: most high net-worth households will be those who are inherited, and once again, your path to success would lie mostly in marrying rich rather than hard work and entrepreneurship. The dystopia of Blade Runner or Elysium never looked more likely than through Piketty's statistics. To balance that out a bit, Piketty points out that the European and US welfare states do cushion the blow somewhat: elderly poverty is down substantially since social security was introduced, and the European safety nets are even more generous. Of course, there's no shortage of the usual suspects wanting to tear that down...

Is there any possibility of change? Piketty proposes a global tax on capital, essentially a wealth tax. This is by far the most disappointing section of the book, not because such an idea wouldn't work, but because the political climate just wouldn't allow it. Furthermore, he works in lots of other issues that have very little with inequality and other topics covered by the book. For instance, he covers ways to pay down the national debts of various countries with a one-time exceptional tax. Since Piketty is French, he spends a lot of time discussing the Euro and the need for Eurozone cooperation and sanctions against tax havens, which is an international problem.

But seriously, that's a small nit on the book. I haven't even covered many of the side-topics that Piketty covers in the book. For instance, there's a huge discussion of slavery in the US in the antebellum South. This was a tour de force, as Piketty shows how much wealth slaveholders had: essentially, the northern US states were poor compared with old Europe, but the southern US states were wealthier, and of course, with a correspondingly higher wealth inequality. There cannot be more impoverishment than the inability to own even your own labor, and Piketty's statistics and graphs show the benefit of being on the other side of that equation in stark relief.

Piketty also discusses the American education system in contrast with the European systems, and how elite American colleges perpetuate the inequality that already exist in society: the majority of their incoming students come from the top quartile of society. He does point out the advantages of charging insanely high tuition, so you do get something for your money. Nevertheless, this goes a long way towards understanding why elite American colleges' acceptance tests seem very similar to the old-school European finishing school, complete with piano-playing and other tests of altruism and "leadership." They essentially have not drifted too far from those original prototypical elite institutions.

Finally, is there anything practical you can learn about personal finance in this economics book? The answer is yes. The first of which is that real-estate is a mug's game. Today's real-estate yields about 3-4%. Why so low when all other capital earns 4-5% real returns? The answer: real-estate is the only capital today subject to Piketty's wealth-tax. That wealth tax seems small: 1-1.5% of property value per year. But since it's levied every year, it imposes a drag on performance that's much higher than the capital gains tax, which are the subject of inter-state competition and hence tends towards zero over the long term. Piketty points out that the higher up the wealth ladder you go, the lower the proportion of real estate owned in the portfolio because of these characteristics. In other words, it's better to be equity-heavy and house poor than equity-light and house rich. The other lessons are fairly obvious: you want to have the lowest costs possible (both in investment costs and living expenses) so that your capital has the highest chance to compound. The bigger your portfolio, the faster the money will grow: Piketty points out that there's no difference in performance between Bill Gate's portfolio and Liliane Bettencourt's portfolio, even though one was a brilliant entrepreneur and the other is the heiress of the L'Oreal fortune. Capital is indifferent as to how you came by it. Furthermore, the largest portfolios grow the fastest. The elite university endowments for instance, grow at 8-10% a year, since once you get past a certain size you can take advantage not only of relatively expensive wealth managers through economies of scale, but you also have the ability to buy illiquid assets that cannot be easily sold and hence command a risk premium.

In the writing of this review, my biggest fear is that I haven't convinced you that you must read this book. Not only does it give you tools with which to analyze the world (and Jane Austen's novels --- you might even be able to avoid having to read them at all, since Piketty does such a great job of picking out the essentials), it also gives you the context of why we are still feeling the effects of world war 2, 70 years after the event.

Highly recommended. Pay whatever price you have to, ignore whatever pressing assignments you have to, read this book. It is that good, and whether or not you disagree with the politics, there's plenty in here for you to exercise your intellectual muscle on. Go to it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Anker 40W 5-Port Desktop USB charger

We have 3 tablets, 2 phones, 2 kindles, an external battery pack, a camera and several more electronic items in the house, all chargeable via USB. We had chargers scattered all over the house but still somehow never had enough chargers for everything. Worse, some chargers could only charge low power device, so we would plug some devices into certain chargers and they wouldn't charge and we wouldn't realize it until much later.

If my name was Dan Wallach, I would buy a wireless charging pad and spend millions of dollars (after including institutional overhead) retrofitting all my devices to take wireless charging. Fortunately for you, my name isn't Dan Wallach and I'm a lot cheaper than he is, so I opted for the Anker 40W 5 Port charger instead, which at $26 ($20 on sale if you can find a coupon).

The device looked huge on Amazon's website, but in practice it's fairly small:  about the size of a deck of cards. What's nice about having so much power is that you can effectively get 2 amps or more a port, which means that you don't have to fuss around with which port would charge which device: they'd all work for any of the devices. In addition, unlike cheap chargers that come with your phone, these don't draw parasitic power when nothing's plugged in.

This device is so handy, I can see myself bringing it along on sailing trips or car trips. (Not cycling trips though!)

Recommended, if your name isn't Dan Wallach.