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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Review: Netflix's Altered Carbon

To say that I'm a fan of Richard K Morgan is an understatement. I've bought and read everything in the Takeshi Kovacs series, including Altered Carbon. I'm not usually a fan of TV, however, so when I heard that Netflix adapted it into a TV Series, I didn't even think about using my free trial. Then some idiot signed up for Netflix using my e-mail address, essentially deciding to turn on my free trial for me.

OK, so I started watching it to see if it was any good. I'm not going to hold back from spoilers, because that's the only way a fan of the book can properly review the TV series. The big change is that Reileen Kawahara got changed from being the big bad to Kovacs' sister. That's probably done to heighten drama, but doesn't make any sense: the series depicts Kovacs going from CTAC conditioned soldier to shooting down members of his own squad, and then asks us to believe that he would RD (real death) his own sister. The actor portraying Ryker's sleeve simply wasn't good enough to convince us that Kovacs would do this.

Other changes: the Envoy training is changed from being part of the protectorate to being part of a Quellist uprising. This is of course unbelievable in and of itself, so Quell herself becomes the inventor of the sleeving technology. They also weakened the Envoy conditioning.

The latter is the worst part of the conversion in the TV series. In the novel, Kovacs is smart, and figures everything out. In the TV series, he's a reactive person who only figures anything out when he has it shoved in front of his face and it's so obvious even the dumbest person in the audience can understand it.

There are lots of tonal changes. For instance, the book is actually much more brutal and violent than the TV series (I know: if you've seen the TV series, you wonder how it could actually be worse, but the interrogation at the Wei clinic is one major example --- in the book Kovacs is sleeved into a woman's body so that the torture would be more effective, something that probably wouldn't be acceptable when shown to a mass audience). That's understandable and I'm quite OK with it.

All in all, the TV series could be seen as quite good if you haven't read the book. If you have a choice, however, read the book first. If you've already seen the TV series, go read the book. I re-read it for this review and it's a different experience and significantly better. Morgan manages to restyle Raymond Chandler for a more cynical world, and brings a unique stamp on it that's compelling reading. It might be a great mindless read, but if you pay attention, it's got much deeper themes in it that's worth your attention as well.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review: 3M Safety Glasses

One of the kids in Bowen's school showed up with these cool wrap-around safety glasses that appeared to fit him really well, so I asked his mom where she got them, hoping that they wouldn't be too expensive. The response, "his grandfather got them from Home Depot. They're 3M safety glasses!"

I never visit a physical store if I can help it. It turns out that Amazon sells them in a 4-pack for $10.36, and you can get them in gray or in clear. The sidepieces are flexible enough to wrap around even a little kid's head, and the nose pieces are soft enough that neither Bowen nor Boen have complained about them. You've probably seen lots of pictures of Bowen wearing them on this blog, so you can decide for yourself whether they're fashionable enough for your kid. All I care about is that Bowen likes them enough that when he lost his dark glasses in Italy, he'd rather wear the clear ones than the dark glasses we bought as replacements at the first store we found that had them, and it's more important that my kids wear eye protection than that they look fashionable.

At these prices, you won't cry if the kids loses them, sits on them, or abuse them in any way. They're sturdy enough to survive a bike tour and then some. Eye protection is essential even if you're not cycling: UV exposure can cause cataracts.

I hope my sons never need prescription glasses. As long as they don't, these are the best bang for the buck UV/rain/wind/dust protection anywhere. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Google WiFi

I usually try to stay away from Google's hardware consumer products: it's quite clear to me that Google's product managers suffer from a severe case of Apple envy, and as a result tend to go for an unimaginative copy of Apple products rather than technical excellence.

Our problem is that the house we're currently living in is huge, too much even for our old "Dark Knight" router to cover. There was a sale on the Google WiFi 3 pack during the Amazon Prime Day, so I picked it up, hoping the mesh network coverage will work out.

The marketing literature claims 3000 square foot coverage. In reality, that's going to be true only if you have the primary unit in the optimal section of the house. Since we couldn't choose where to put our primary unit, the coverage isn't quite there. I was surprised by how close the units have to be: the instructions say the units have to be about 2 rooms apart, which is about 20' or so. The wifi units don't really work together: they all want to link themselves to the primary unit rather than doing an extra hop through an intermediate wifi point. So much for smart configuration.

Setup is easy, though time consuming, as the setting up of the WiFi unit requires an app which seems to take forever to run. The unit in the office got a wired connection to an ethernet hub and serves 4 computers. Speeds on computers in the unit reading and writing to our Windows Server in the equipment closet went from about 50Mbps to 150Mbps, which is a significant speedup.

Unlike the Dark Knight router, Google WiFi serves only one access point, rather than letting you split coverage between 2 bands. This makes covering units very easy (only one WiFi password to remember) but also means for instance, that you can't deliberately set certain devices to certain channels to avoid conflict. Google claims that the software does the right thing automatically, and provides testing features in its app for you to check wifi speed.

The units require a reboot about once a month or so. The irritating part about this is that the mesh would break down and tell you inane things like: "move the mesh wifi points closer together" even though the units had worked correctly the day before. You just have to pick the "reboot" option and hope everything comes together.

All in all, Google WiFi was surprisingly decent for a Google hardware product. As of this writing, the TP-Link Deco (based on the same hardware) is cheaper ($170) and comes with Alexa, so it's potentially better, but I've had bad luck with TP-Link hardware in the past, so I'm not about to experiment. It's nowhere as good as having wired Ethernet all over the house, so if you have an option there I'd still recommend that you run wires.

Recommended.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter is Blake Crouch's novel about a man who's kidnapped by a mirror world substitute. Rather than a serious or speculative novel, it's structured as a thriller, and doesn't spend much time actually discussing quantum mechanics, despite the author's proclamations.

The protagonist, Jason Dessen, is kidnapped and drugged one day, and wakes up in a world where he's a famous scientist, and he was never married and had no kids. He discovers that his alternate world counterpart has invented a machine that can traverse the multiverse, and he escapes to find his family.

Crouch is a screenwriter, so the novel reads a lot like a movie would, with lots of action, dialog that performs exposition instead of stream-of-consciousness descriptions, and obvious places where the camera cuts from scene to scene. The writing is fast paced and smooth, and zero thinking is required on the part of the reader as everything is spoon-fed to you.

This makes Dark Matter a reasonable airplane novel, and can be recommended as such. If you want deeper stuff go elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: Nomatic Minimalist Wallet

If you're like any regular cyclist, jersey pocket space is at a premium. This leads to certain routine behaviors like getting a zip-lock bag and just putting in a bit of cash, health insurance cards, id, and just one or two credit cards into it before going on a bike ride so the jersey pocket can contain other stuff like food or your garage opener.

I saw the Nomatic Wallet on sale (2 for $15), and decided that it might be a nice alternative to a zip-lock bag. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do, to the point where I've pretty much retired my 3-year-old BigSkinny.

The wallet has a main compartment that will hold a few cards (the claim is 15, but I'll be surprised if you can stick more than 8 cards in there). On the other side, there's a key and cash wallet. You shouldn't attempt to stick coins in there (unless it's very few coins) or you will almost certainly lose them.

In use, it's fast to get cards out of the wallet, but much slower to get cash or keys out. The wallet bunches up the cards together so that you'll notice if the wallet falls out of your pocket when you're sitting down, for instance, which is a good feature, and better than the zip-lock bag solution, where if the cards are diffused, you might not notice the entire bag falling out of your pocket.

For travel use, I still think the BigSkinny passport wallet is the right solution for most people, but for domestic use where you're not carrying passports this has turned into my daily use wallet, to my surprise. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Review: Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci is Walter Issacson's biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. It covers his life in great detail, covering his entire life.

What's interesting to you about Da Vinci might or might not be interesting to me, and we all pick and choose what we like. But the nice thing about this book is an explanation of how or why Da Vinci's important works were interesting and important. I enjoyed Issacson's explanation of why his portraits were so long sought after: Da Vinci would layer his paintings, adding a brush stroke here and there, year after year to create a translucent effect on the portraits. For "the last supper", he constructed the painting so that the perspective would look correct from various parts of the room, which was innovative both in the use of perspective as well as integration into the area where the room was.

Much has been made of Da Vinci's inventions. Issacson points out that many of the drawings that are used to illustrate these might actually have been drawings meant to prepare costumes or props for pageants and stage plays or big events, rather than meant to be used for actual military or architectural purpose. This information would have caused me to view the various Da Vinci exhibits I saw in France several years ago.

Da Vinci was the ultimate (and probably most famous) renaissance man. He was curious about everything, drawing tons of illustrations and investigated science before Newton. That curiosity did not translate, however, into advancement of human understanding for his time, because he didn't care about publishing. Despite his notebooks having a wealth of detail, what happened was that after his death his notebooks were sold and scattered, and no one actually went back and condensed all that detail into books that could be reproduced and learned from. As a result, a lot of the knowledge was independently rediscovered much later (including his insight as to how the heart valves' fluid dynamics worked). All this happened despite the fact that he had two proteges that he was close to.

One thing that was revealed in this book is that Da Vinci was a master procrastinator. Either that, or you could call him a perfectionist. He would take 14 years to work on the Mona Lisa, never delivering it to the person who commissioned it (though it seemed like once he took a liking to the work he never intended to deliver), but just adding a brush stroke here and there over the years. So he died with the Mona Lisa near him. This habit of procrastination was so famous that the city of Florence tried over and over again to write contracts to ensure that he would deliver, in one case even goading him a long, by commissioning a painting from him, and then also commissioning one from Michaelangelo for a wall right next door to the one he was supposed to paint. (This particular story backfired: neither artist finished his painting) According to Issacson, this made Da Vinci an artist, instead of just a master painter.

There are lots of other stories about Da Vinci that stood out in this book, and many lamentations of "what-if", mostly related to Da Vinci's lack of concern about publication. His one publication that made a big contribution to mathematics happened when he teamed up with a mathematician who was writing a text book. A similar collaboration almost happened with a physician, but that physician died of a plague (ironically) before anything came to fruition. Da Vinci was like the archetypal professor with tenure: he could essentially explore whatever he liked, without concern about delivering sufficient commercial success to make a living.

I wished I'd read this book before visiting the Louvre or visiting any of the Da Vinci exhibits, so I would recommend this book to anyone who was about to visit any of those.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Things I would have done differently

I'm always thinking of ways to improve the next tour, and if there was anything I could have done differently to improve the experience. Of course, it's very likely the next time we do a tour Boen will want to come along as well, so we may or may not finally break down and do a supported tour. On the triplet, we'll definitely have to scale back on the degree of difficulty and passes that we need to ride.

First, the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt cannot serve as our primary navigation device. I'd like to replace it with either a Garmin watch that can do navigation, or a Garmin head unit that can do navigation. I'd like to replace the tail light with a Garmin Varia Radar as well, so some thought will have to go into compatibility and mounting options.

I think the bike tour from Merano to Trentino and Verona was a mistake. It was too hot, and not at all suitable for a summer trip. In retrospect, what I should have done, knowing what I know now, was to take the train from Bolzano up to Fortezza and then ridden over to Dobbiaco and then Misurina. That would have provided easy access to Cortina and then gotten us to the Badia area for riding in the Sella Rondo Bike Day. On the other hand, it was nice to see Lake Garda, which was new to me on this trip.

In any case, hammering up the two hard days right after Fuessen while jet-lag wasn't very smart. I probably should have taken it easy, and not promised Bowen "breakfast in Austria, lunch in Switzerland, and dinner in Italy." I probably could have stretched that out a bit so as to get a bit more rest in the afternoon on those days

I should not have switched brands for melatonin. Perhaps the correct approach next time for combating jet-lag is to get stronger medicine, but I guess I'll have a chat with my sleep doctor prior to the next trip.