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.


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.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

S24O With a Toddler

I've never participated in a S24O, mostly because back when I didn't have kids, I'd always have time and would use as much of a weekend as possible. This October, however, with temperatures into the mid 90s and our home AC out of commission because of construction, I decided would be appropriate to take Bowen out on his first camping trip, which would turn out to be an S24O, and involved more cheating than the Tour De France.

Preparing Bowen was a multi-month affair. Earlier in the year, I'd set up a tent in the front yard and let him play in it. Then last week, I took out sleeping bags and he immediately took a liking to them, even demanding to sleep in the sleeping bag when we were in the house.

California's State Beach campgrounds book up months in advance, especially on weekends, but there's a little known loophole that only cyclists know about, which is that if you show up on a bike, you get access to a hiker-biker site in many state parks. Not only are those sites unreservable, they effectively never fill up. It used to be that California's State Park policy was that no matter how full they were, they would never turn away a cyclist or hiker. I don't know if that policy had changed, but at New Brighton State Beach on October 4th, there were way more than 5 cyclists that the state park brochure said they had room for. The hiker biker sites used to charged $1 per person, but with California's budget situation, they've since raised the price to $5 per person.

I took the bike I used to take Bowen to and from school, and attached the Yakima trailer to it. This gave us room for the tent, sleeping bags, stove, extra clothing, food, and even his beach kit. With all this and Bowen, the bike weighed in excess of 80 pounds (the Yakima trailer by itself was more than 20 pounds), which meant that riding over the mountain would have been scary, and the bike wasn't quite set up to do that kind of riding anyway. But I said I was going to cheat, so I thought nothing of piling all this into a car, driving over the mountain, and then parking outside the park around the corner where I found some free street parking.

Riding on a bike with that much weight in strange places was quite different, but fortunately I'm a decent bike handler. I wouldn't recommend that anyone with less than competent bike handling skill and a lot of touring experience try the setup I did. Even for me, the descents felt scarily fast, and the climbs, such as they were, were quite painful. Add in a live toddler occasionally fighting you for the controls or wriggling, and most cyclists probably just aren't going to be up for it.

On arrival at the park entrance, we were told that the hiker biker site wasn't going to open until 4pm, but we were welcome to hangout at the beach in the mean time. We took them up on it, and arrived just as a wedding party was breaking up. They thought Bowen was cute, however, and handed him one of the party favor: a paint brush meant for brushing sand off your feet. That meant Bowen played with it for a while, though he also played in the sand and even splashed about in the ocean for a bit, though he discovered quickly that he did not like the cold water.

Back at the park entrance to checkin, we had 2 cyclists ahead of us but rather than charging us $5 a person, the park ranger decided that the park policy was $5 per bike. I was quite pleased with that. I was quite sure, however, if I'd showed up on a tandem the policy would suddenly have been $5 per person once again.

Pitching the tent was easy, and cooking and making dinner went surprisingly well. The funny thing is that toddlers behave better when there's only one parent around, so I could boil water, cook noodles, and even run off and borrow a can opener for the pork and beans without incident. At home, Bowen would have to be almost force-fed his dinner, but here at the campground, he actively fed himself dinner, then helped himself to a banana and apple.

After dinner, we used the coin-operated showers. Kids don't appreciate scenery, so I had to persuade and cajole Bowen into going for a walk to see the sunset, but it was worth the effort.

A near full moon rose in the late afternoon, and lit up the night like a spotlight, but when it came time for milk, Bowen started demanding to go home, refusing to consider getting fed by daddy. Fortunately, by this time there were many families in the campground with lit up campfires, so I visited one of our neighbors with campfires, distracting the little guy from his milk routine. Cyclists tend not to light fires, since it's a chore to get firewood and the equipment required to light it, but car campers and folks in camping trailers usually have them.

The folks were very welcoming, and gave Bowen first a marshmallow, and then let him make himself a smore.  I asked them how far ahead they'd reserved their campsite, and they said 7 months ago. They had 3 kids, at ages 3, 6, and 9. I told them this was Bowen's first time camping, and mommy asked the little one (Piper) how old she was when she was first camping. Piper replied, "3". Mommy then said, "No. You were 2 weeks old when you first started camping." The sugar load made Bowen very happy, at which point he was willing to go back to the tent where he let me brush his teeth a second time and go to bed. He complained of itchiness and demanded Benadryl, after which sleep came easily.
He slept well all night, despite the fireworks from the nearby boardwalk and the noisy freeway, but woke up in the morning while I was away from the tent on the toilet. I came back to find him unzipping the tent trying to get out. I persuaded him to get back into the tent, but he was once again whining to go home. So I packed everything up while he helped himself to half a banana. It was beautiful out and the other camping cyclists told me that they didn't expect him to stay quiet all night, and were pleasantly surprised.

After we loaded everything up, we rode back to the car where he sat patiently in his car seat while I uncoupled the trailer, loaded up all the baggage, the bike and everything into the car. He ate half a bag of chips on the way home, and happily demanded his milk from mommy when we got there.

All in all, a good trip but I'd pick a quieter campground next time, and bring marshmallows and maybe a smore making kit.

Lessons for next time:
  • Bring more clothing. Not just because it might get cold (it never really got very cold), but because you cannot under-estimate the number of times he's going to get dirty. He got very very messy.
  • Bring more quarters. Showers are quarter operated. Good thing the ranger station  had change to give me, but I wiped out all their quarters, so the next poor dad who showed up on a bike would have been SOL.
  • Bring marshmallows, smore making kit, and campfire kit. Need to distract the little guy from "mommy milk time."
  • Brush his teeth just before bedtime so I don't have to brush it twice.
  • Buy a battery for my lightweight CPAP machine so I don't have to lug the 5 pound battery in addition to the expensive heavy weight CPAP kit. The short cord hose would come in handy as well.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Gaming the Coding Interview

Paul Graham's essay on how you can't really game startups had me thinking about the coding interview. Google had a lot of studies showing that the interview as practiced by Google wasn't very effective: in other words, interview scores don't really correlate with actual job performance. In part, this is because Google's not a startup any more --- political ability probably determines your promotions and effectiveness within Google than simply being good at engineering. But a major part is also that the coding interview is very susceptible to being gamed.

For instance, if you read Cracking the Coding Interview and were diligent about it (i.e., actually worked through the problems and practiced at them), you'd stand a good chance of doing really well during Google's interview process. Lest you think that this is a recent phenomena, even in 2003, Google's interview process was very similar. I remember being asked to reverse all the words in a sentence, and a few other puzzler type questions, and even during my interview, I remembered one interviewer telling the next one as the hand-off was happening, "this guy knows all the standard interview questions." Back then, Gayle's book didn't exist, but 10 years of interviewing for startups and interviewing at startups had hit me with every interview question that could be easily covered in a 45 minute session.

I will note that Facebook does have tougher interviews today than Google (they're hiring slower and therefore can be more picky), but from what I've seen their interviews are no less subject to being gamed.

When I look back at the interviewing process, there's really only one company that's stood out for having an interview process that couldn't be easily gamed, and that's Wealthfront in late 2012. I only include the date because in between, startups can change a lot and for all I know they could be interviewing like Google today.

The way Wealthfront conducted their interview was by pair programming. The candidate would come in, and pair program real problems with their "interviewer". The experience is intense, and in many ways eliminates the possibility of hiring someone who couldn't even write correct java syntax, or construct unit tests for code he'd just written. It's a good way to go and difficult to game, since you have to actually be able to design, structure, and turn ideas into code all the way to the testing and debugging steps.

Another good idea I've seen at certain startups is to put the culture fit interview first, before any technical interviews get done. The reason for this is if you get a candidate who's stellar on the technical side, it's actually very difficult to reject him for cultural reasons. I can attest to this, as one of my early hires at Google bombed out precisely for that reason, though without doing much damage. By putting the cultural fit interview first, you eliminate the bias to hire, even though you might waste a bit of time.