Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: Pearl Izumi Elite Shorts

I have a tradition of buying the same bike clothing if I like the item, and then wearing them to death. On one of my first tours, one of my companions one day saw me hanging up my clothes, and then remarked, "Oh, you have 2 of those shirts! I thought you just wore the same thing every day." Well, in recent years, my shorts have been getting more and more worn out. The last straw came when Bowen one day stuck his finger into a hole in the back of my shorts and said, "Daddy you need new shorts!"

I hate shopping for clothing. My solution is to just go to Amazon and buy shorts and then return the ones that are the wrong size. I initially tried the Pearl Izumi Quest shorts, which fit me in the large. Those were acceptable, if a bit tight. At $28 from Amazon Warehouse deals they won't break the bank, and my experience has been that the cheaper the shorts the longer they last. Then one day, I noticed that Amazon Warehouse had a deal for the Pearl Izumi Elite shorts. I had a big tour coming up, so thought, why not. If they're not worth the price I'll send them back.

Well, they arrived and I have to say they're much more comfortable shorts than the Quest, so I bought another and will tour with them. My experience with expensive shorts is that they tend to wear pretty quick, and one tour with them will probably show up any issues they might have in the long run. In the mean time, however, they're recommended!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Robinson: The Original and Three Covers

This is one of those posts that I write to myself for future reference. I'd been listening to Robinson (by Spitz) in the car when driving Bowen around, so he picked up on it. Then during a youtube session, we found a video performance on Youtube:

OK, so a random Japanese pop song, right? But no, Debbie Gibson (of all people) actually produced an English version cover:
That blew my mind. But my favorite cover of this song has got to be Goose House's duet, with two singers and 4 instruments. That's really worth checking out (watch the motion of the guy's right leg --- talk about multi-tasking):
If that's not to your taste you can go for the a Capella version:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

S24O with a Pre-Schooler: Sunset State Beach Edition

For a variety of reasons, we never managed to schedule a camping trip this year until now. Fortunately, the kids all loved their last trip and kept asking for them, so we decided on Sunset State Beach so that we wouldn't have to keep going to New Brighton. The freeway noise at New Brighton was always audible even at night, and Sunset was quite a bit further from the freeway and probably wouldn't have the problem.

Now that I'd figured out how to get the triplet into the fit, I no longer wanted to bring the single bike and a trailer. This was also my test run to see how the bike handled with all 4 panniers. We drove to the intersection of Sunset and San Andreas, and parked in a dirt parking lot that I'd spied earlier on street view. However, a man drove up and told us it was private property! I begged and cajoled until he relented and let us park on the condition that we assumed liability and that we'd move our cars at the end of the work day to another location on his property. We happily assented, showed him our bikes, and then I assembled the triplet and we were on the way.
When I first handled the bike, it felt like it fish-tailed ridiculously with 4 panniers. The load wasn't excessive, but I was simply not used to it. Bowen's every movement seemed to amplify the shakiness. Soon, however, I settled down and the bike felt like it handled as usual (for a triplet). Unlike New Brighton State Beach, Sunset State Beach had no gated entry time, so we were able to checkin and ride in at an early hour of 2:00pm. There are two minor climbs once in the park to get to the hiker biker site, which is co-located with the group camps. We were initially dismayed to discover that the hiker biker site had zero shade! I opted to pitch the tent without a rainfly and then we could abscond to the beach where it'd be a lot cooler. The site was cleverly hidden behind a bluff that would act as a wind shelter, so other than the lack of shade it was ideal. The lack of shade probably wouldn't bother most cyclists on a Pacific Coast Tour, as most such cyclists would arrive late in the day when the sun would be low and the warmth welcomed.
The trip to the beach on foot was terribly long.It involved traversing the group campground, going up a set of steps to a bluff, and then down a steep bluff. There was an easier route but it didn't look like it would be any shorter. We got down to the beach and played for a bit, flying kites, etc. The kids promptly played in the rising tideline and got themselves all wet, whereupon we had to take them to the showers. The shower facilities were limited: one of the two coin operated showers in the men's room was broken, so there was a line. Fortunately, with coin operated showers, each shower was never too long.

When we first moved in, the others, based on their experience at New Brighton, assumed other cyclists would show up towards the evening. After my shower, I experienced an epiphany, and told them that we'd have the place to ourselves that night. The reason is that Bicycling The Pacific Coast breaks down the entire trip into 60 mile segments for the reader, and Sunset State Beach did not make it into any of the segments as an end point. Most cyclists stick to the pre-made itinerary, because it effectively guarantees you a campground with a shower every night. As a result, if you're not camping at one of the end points, you'll have the place to yourselves.
After dinner, there was a show, which started with marshmallows, then songs, a game of charades, and a slide presentation about sharks. That was pretty cool, and the kids all had a lot of fun.
The next morning was fogged over, so we woke up, ate breakfast, packed, and rode to the beach. Despite the climb back out (which would have been easier without a load), riding to the beach is recommended over walking there if you have a bike! I certainly wouldn't suggest walking there to a cyclist.

All in all, Sunset State Beach has a lot to recommend it for the cyclist/family camping: it's much quieter than New Brighton (you can park at Seascape if you don't want to risk getting turned out by a property owner or getting your car towed), you will more likely than not get the hiker biker site to yourselves even on a busy weekend. The only minus is that the beach is much less accessible, but that's of little consequence if you have a decent bike. Recommended.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bowen learns to snorkel

A year and a half ago, for the BVI trip, I bought a mask, snorkel, and fins for Bowen. To my disappointment, while he was enthusiastic about wearing them for a trial, he wasn't excited at all about getting in the water with them. Ultimately, he'd swim in the water with a lifejacket and wetsuit, but never got to see the fishes under water until the Punta Cana trip last year.

For a while we'd take Bowen to swimming lessons. But they never really took. Either he didn't click with the teacher, or he'd treat each swim lesson as an exercise in playing. Xiaoqin got tired of spending the money and decided that we'd teach him how to swim ourselves.

I learned to swim when I was so young that I had no memory of how I learned how to swim. It was pretty frustrating for me, and I'd watch Bowen kick and flail in the water getting nowhere and getting demotivated. I then thought of these old mask, snorkel, and fins sitting unused and decided to try them out again.

Well, this time, they worked! I first gave Bowen a kickboard, his swimming goggles, and the fins. Fins amplify your kicking and the minute he got results out of kicking he was motivated to learn. It took less than 15 minutes before he could use the kickboard and maneuver wherever he wanted to in the pool.

After that, it was time to switch to mask and snorkel. He was really skeptical, but I think finally his mouth had grown wide enough to accommodate the snorkel (barely). I also asked if he wanted to stay on the boat instead of snorkeling to see the fishes, and he finally gave it a shot. With kickboard, mask, and snorkel, he could then swim 25m from one end of the pool to another. He got fast enough that he could swim a lap in the time it took for me to swim three.

Then yesterday, he finally was willing to give up the kickboard. He can now float in the water, look down, relax, and go wherever he wanted in the pool. This was huge, since it really meant that he could snorkel in calm waters under adult supervision. As soon as he could do this he never wanted to leave the pool again, swimming from one end to another continuously without needing to be cajoled. He only left the pool after he got cold, asking, "Are we going with Arturo?" I was confused until he reminded me that he wanted to go sailing in the catamaran and go snorkel off the back of the boat!

That's pretty cool. I rarely identify with people who say they're proud of their kids. I still don't: taking credit for your children's achievements feels kinda iffy. But I'm really glad (and pleasantly surprised) that all that equipment actually ended up being used.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Review: My Neighbor Totoro Picture Book

After returning from Japan, Bowen asked for the My Neighbor Totoro Picture Book. Since I hadn't gotten to do long form reading for him in years, I agreed. The book took a while to ship, but when it arrived, he had me read it from beginning to end, at this point probably 20 times.

The book's quality is pretty good, with pictures that are formed from stills from the movie. The translation seems kind of iffy, and of course is not in congruence with the movie, so I occasionally get Bowen correcting me. The book includes a map of the village as well as several still pictures not in the movie.

I can't say I didn't get value out of the book, as it's become the most read book in Bowen's library. I'm getting a little sick of reading it to him at this point, but it's still a great little story no matter how often I read it. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Excellent Customer Service: 2 Great Examples

Most of the time whenever I interact with customer service, I have my expectations set relatively low. From the "high call volume" phone waiting queue to the "I'm sorry but that's not our policy" scripted lines, I'm frequently frustrated, left on hold, and have calls dropped. In fact, one reason why I prefer using a Bluetooth headset to make phone calls is because at least I can have my hands free to do other stuff while listening to "please hold for our next available representative." As such, when I do get great customer service, I have to call out the great companies that provide it.

My first example is Wealthfront. They have what I consider to be an excellent product. Recently, they had a screw up with a contribution. This in itself was unusual, what really was excellent was that they proactively called us to tell us about the screw up. This is how you handle a screw up with a customer: "we screwed up, it's our fault, we take full responsibility for it, and we want to make it right." That in itself is unusual. What followed next was that they offered to give us a lifetime fee waiver. Now we already have a lifetime fee waiver, and upon telling the customer rep that, they were surprised, but treated it as a challenge rather than an obnoxious obstacle. My wife and I were pleased by their resolution of the matter and now we're not just customers but also shareholders in the company. If you're using a human financial advisor, unless it's Vanguard, I highly recommend that you consider switching.

My second example today is Garmin. Garmin has an undeservedly bad reputation amongst loud-mouthed internet forum posters. Part of it is justified: if you're the kind of person who buys the latest gadget, Garmin's new products almost always have teething problems. But if you're a mid to late adopter, buying products even as early as 3 months after introduction, their products outperform the competition and now I'll add customer service to the list of their advantages. Recently, my vivoactive stopped charging. I noted that I was out of warranty, but called them anyway. The customer service rep noted that I was out of warranty, but immediately said, "It's only been by a couple of months, so we're going to extend your warranty." We established that it really wasn't charging, and she offered to exchange the unit. I noted that it was equally likely (if not more likely) to be the charging cable that was faulty, and she immediately sent out a new charging cable. When both the charging cable and new unit arrived, it clearly was the charging cable, so in the future if this happens again (I'll admit to having abused the old charging cable quite a bit, so it's unlikely this will happen to you), I'll just buy a new charging cable.

When I encounter particularly poor customer service, I don't hesitate to call it out, but both Wealthfront and Garmin deserve to be called out for excellence in customer service. Only Amazon regularly exceeds my expectations this way. In this age of machine learning and automated phone responses, the human touch may turn out to be the only way to delight customers and stand out.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Review: Origins of the Human Mind

Origins of the Human Mind is a Great Courses lecture series about the evolution and development of the human mind. The topic is complex and interesting, and made more so by the fact that it's very much an area of open-ended research, with many unresolved problems and issues we still do not understand.

Stephen P. Hinshaw's lecturing tone and cadence reminds me very much of the William Hurt character in Dark City: he pauses, takes a breath, says a phrase, and then pauses again. I wonder if William Hurt used Hinshaw as the model for his performance in that movie. I mention this because if you hated that cadence of speech you may not enjoy this lecture series, even though the content is very good.

Hinshaw covers first the easier, developmental side. How does the human mind develop, and what are the stages it goes through. When does theory of mind first develop, and what are the vulnerabilities and critical periods a child goes through. This is great stuff. He debunks "nature vs. nurture", noting that very often it is the interaction of genes and the environment that creates a problem (or future mental capability or condition), and that the more we know about how genes interact with each other and the environment, the more easily we can intervene in order to head off issues right from the beginning. For instance, people with certain kinds of genes cannot be exposed to certain kinds of foods or it could damage brain development, and we're just in the opening phases of this class of research. He also does a very good job of explicating the difference between boys and girls' development, noting the particular vulnerabilities each gender has.

The evolutionary side is more challenging. As Hinshaw notes, behavioral changes leave no fossils. But there are several major mysteries that he posits solutions to:

  • Why is mental illness so prevalent? Schizophrenia is as high as 1% of the population, and other conditions such as ADHD, autism, and bipolar disorder are also dismayingly common. The potential answer here is that some of the genes that confer properties like ADHD actually provided advantages in the past (and in fact, without the existence of mandatory schooling, ADHD might not actually exist as a disorder as children would never be forced to sit still for such a long time). In particular, families of many people with bipolar disorder turn out to be very successful in business and the arts, which indicates that many of the properties taken to the extreme in that condition are properties that actually aid in reproductive success.
  • Why are humans prone to prejudice (racial or otherwise). Here the deep rooted treatment of other tribes as non-human seems to be deeply embedded in human's psyche, and might have been selected for in order to tightly bind tribes of humans.
  • Why are humans so susceptible to religion? Religion here appears to have been used as a binding force to secure cooperation in groups exceeding Dunbar's number. Over time, the groups that succeeded in securing such cooperation out-competed the groups that did not do so.
Hinshaw ends the lecture series with a very personal story about his own father's bipolar disorder and psychotic breaks. That lecture ties together his themes very neatly: while the study of the human mind is ultimately a scientific endeavor, to attempt to do that endeavor without understanding and using the power of story telling that's deeply rooted in humanity's origins would be a mistake and leave much of the richness of such study behind.

All in all, I really enjoyed this lecture series, and would highly recommend it.