Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: Writing Creative Nonfiction

I checked out Writing Creative Nonfiction from the library, because why not? Non-fiction is what I write most of the time (at least, intentionally), and I have a fondness for non-fiction. It's also a Great Courses program, which has established a great deal of credibility with me over the past year or so.

One of the most interesting things I learned about the genre is that Creative Nonfiction used to be called Literary Journalism, of the sort Ernest Hemingway practiced. It was only called Creative Nonfiction after people started using that technique in other contexts.

In any case, the course is mostly about writing of the generic sort, so the lecturer spends a lot of time covering basic writing. I found that very disappointing, because so much of what makes non-fiction hard, for instance, is that you can't just make up dialogue --- and if you've lived through it, you'll have to tape every conversation so you can reproduce it later. That's not even something she talks about!

Furthermore, some of the techniques seem really fishy to me. For instance, she's very fond of indirect discourse. It turns out that indirect discourse (especially the untagged kind) is ambiguous in English. It's unattributed, so it lets the author inject speech into a character's mouth without having to substantiate it with any kind of reference, since that indirect discourse is also the author speaking. That seems really really iffy to me, but it's apparently such a mainstay of fiction and non-fiction writing that it's widely accepted, and she encourages the use of it as a tool so you can make up dialogue or conversations without having to have recorded the actual words that were spoken in some form or another.

Ultimately, creative non fiction is the use of the novelist's toolbox to non-fiction or personal writing. It's interesting that (according to the lecturer anyhow) it's by far the best-selling genre today, leading to scandals like A Million Little Pieces, where a novel was essentially passed as non-fiction in order to generate awesome sales.

One interesting lecture in the series is "How not to have your friends and family hate you." It's a great lecture, and if you're planning to write a family history or memoir, is definitely worth the price of admission.

My biggest criticism of the lecture series is the lecturer herself. She loves to pepper her sentences with verbal diarrhea. For instance, "You wouldn't want your readers to be bored, would you?" If you added up all those extra two-words she tacks on at the end of every other sentence, I'm sure you could save at least half an hour of run-time on the entire series of lectures.

Is the course useful? I'll let you decide. I wrote many of the daily trip segments of this year's Tour of the Alps report "creative fiction" style, rather than my preferred Jobst-style. If you think that it was an improvement, then the course is recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: The World According to Garp

I tried to buy a copy of The World According to Garp on my Kindle, but apparently there's no Kindle version. As a result, I borrowed the dead-tree copy from the library. Now that I've read the book, maybe it's a deliberate decision by John Irving, as the novel is set in a world pre-1970s. That meant that there were no car-seats, no internet, and certainly no Kindles.

My first exposure to the novel is from "watching" the movie at the student lounge in my dorm at Cal. I put "watch" in quote because I think I was either doing problem sets or grading homework, so I wasn't paying much attention, and only raised my head when someone made a comment about the movie. Nevertheless, it made somewhat of an impression, so 16 years later I decided to go to the source and see what the hype was all about.

The movie was supposed to be funny, as was the book. It's not funny in the Douglas Adams/British-style, but in the Garrison Keillor style: kinda dead-pan, and deliberate in its humor. Certainly, some of the situations are hilarious, and the setups are long in coming and thus funnier when they do come. The themes, events, and reflection of both the times and feminism work well, but only in the context of the time of the novel. (The pivotal event in the novel, for instance, could never have happened once car-seats were mandatory) That's a reflection of how much safer the world has gotten, but also a reminder of how violent the USA was in the 1960s, when people of political significance were getting murdered and assassinated everywhere.

Did I enjoy the book? Somewhat. In many places, it greatly reflects the life of a writer. In other places, it feels as fantastical as any book marketed as "magical realism." Would I recommend you read it? Maybe. You have to like the Garrison Keillor type voice (I don't, not unless your name is Larry Hosken). You have a strong sense of the absurd (which I do, which is why I did find some of the situations funny). You have to enjoy "literary fiction" as a genre (I don't). So for me, the book was mixed, but maybe you'll like it if your response to the previous 3 statements was positive. Otherwise, you might be better off watching the movie instead.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Building a bike for a Tour of the Alps

In my book, Independent Cycle Touring, I refrained from giving specific equipment advice as much as possible. That's because I don't know what tour you might be doing, and to be honest, for most people, there's no reason to buy a new bike just so you can do a tour. Just use whatever bike you have.

Now, if the question is: "I'm going to join you on one of the Tour of the Alps. I know there's going to be intense suffering. How do I reduce it as much as possible without breaking the bank, given that all I have right now is a mountain bike and a low quality hybrid?" Then you're in the situation Arturo Crespo was in earlier this year, and I do have specific recommendations!

For Arturo's bike, I recommended a Rivendell Roadeo geometry in Titanium (he ended up with a Lynskey) built around long reach caliper brakes and a 2x10-speed SRAM drive train. The key contact points were based around carbon fiber brake levers, SPD pedals, and a Brooks C17 saddle. In practice, he never really got used to the C17, and you can substitute SPD pedals for any kind of pedal that gives you a walkable cleat, because I don't stop riding up a mountain just because there's some walking required to get through the pass on the other side.

OK, so what if you don't have the budget for a titanium frame? Dan Wallach put together a spreadsheet with most of my recommendations. Paired with the Soma Smoothie ES and a steel fork, the entire thing would probably cost about $1700 or so. (Note that a Rivendell Roadeo frame by itself is $2200, so don't assume that Arturo went Titanium because he wanted a lighter bike --- he just wanted a faster delivery time than Rivendell was willing to promise. Ironically, after he got his frame from Lynskey, Rivendell sent around an e-mail saying that they were now willing to sell the demo bike that he test rode and wanted to buy! So there's nothing wrong with the steel Roadeo --- it won't be as robust as the Ti frame that Arturo got, but it'll be tough enough)

Key features:
  • Long reach caliper brakes. Disc brakes are not reliable enough (rotors warp). Cantilevers and V-brakes are too finicky. People who think caliper brakes don't stop when wet just aren't using the correct brake pads. My caliper brakes (Tektros) are now 8 years old and I was over-taking people with disc brakes coming down Stelvio in the rain. If you're a poor bike handler, disc brakes won't make you any better. By the way, Arturo says that it took a huge amount of faith for him to go against the hype and marketing behind disc brakes, but after touring with his bike he agreed that it was the best approach.
  • 36-spoke wheels, front and rear with CR-18 rims. These aren't the lightest on the planet, but they're not that heavy. The Shimano hubs have to be overhauled even when new because Shimano lightens their hubs by shipping them with next to no grease inside. The weirdest thing about the wheelset I picked is that the cost to overhaul them at a bike shop ($60) is 2/3rds the price of the wheels! But if you're paying for assembly, the shop will do an overhaul as a matter of course.
  • Integrated brake levers/shift levers. They're not as reliable as my preferred bar-ends, but if you change out the cables on an annual basis they seem to be reliable enough. My friends who ride with them do survive my tours nowadays, so it's probably just that I've had bad luck with them in the past. On the other hand, I only change out my cables when they fray, so clearly there's a maintenance advantage to them. Note that I went with SRAM instead of Shimano: Shimano in their infinite wisdom have made their mountain bike and road bike drivetrain parts incompatible, and if you want low gears you want the mountain bike deraileurs, cranks, and cassettes, but road handlebars and brake levers/shifters are still appropriate for long days in the saddle. Since Campagnolo doesn't make mountain bike parts, that leaves SRAM. Fortunately, SRAM makes all of its parts compatible (road + mountain), so mixing and matching SRAM works great. Note that compatibility is a non-issue if you use bar-end shifters in friction mode. It's only the indexing systems that get screwed up by Shimano's inane design.
  • 10-speed. 10-speed parts are starting to be hard to find. Get them while they last, since 11-speed wheels are weaker because the wheels have to be dished further!
  • Carbon brake levers. Arturo was surprised I bought these, but raved about them on the first cold mountain descent. Carbon is an insulator, and on a cold day, these levers stay warm to the touch, unlike metal brake levers which conduct heat away from your hands. Well worth the money and effort to hunt them down.
  • Ultra-low gears (in this case, 26x36 low)! To quote Phil Sung: "Low gears are the highest bang-for-the-buck suffering reduction purchases available."
  • No high gears. On a tour of the Alps, you're only going up or down. Don't expect to do any flat riding. So a high gear of 39x11 granting only 95 gear inches is plenty. This is not a bike with which to sprint a gentle descent in the peloton doing 45mph is feasible. The regular bike shops will happily sell you those types of bikes. Don't ask me to help you with a bike if you want to sprint or do 4 hour centuries in a pace-line carrying no load.
  • No racks. Saddlebag only. Racks just add weight, and if it doesn't fit in the saddlebag, you have no business bringing it!
It's significant work to buy parts and build the bike yourself. But you end up with a much more "fit-for-purpose" bike. I'm actually jealous of Arturo's bike, since because of the new technology, he has a much better shifting and lighter drive train that's also lower maintenance! He was particularly pleased despite the amount of money he had to shell out --- "I expected to get an incrementally better bike, but I got a much better bike!" In particular, the Rivendell Roadeo geometry is significantly better than other touring bikes or even "club touring" bikes out there. If you have never ridden a Grant Petersen design you owe it to yourself to try the Roadeo (I'm not so much a fan of his 650B wheeled designs, so I'm only going to single out the Roadeo for praise). Nobody else even comes close.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Navigation and Trip Statistics

The Garmin Vivoactive survived the Tour of the Alps with flying colors, as expected (see original Long Term review). Pengtoh also brought along the newest version, the Garmin Vivoactive HR, which includes a HRM mounted on the underside. Since we both uploaded our tracks to Strava, we got a chance to compare the accuracy of the two devices side by side.

The most important difference is that the Garmin Vivoactive HR has a real barometer. That means that it gets real altitude/elevation data. For instance, on the Grimsel and Furka day, my Vivoactive got an optimistic 8031', while Pengtoh's Vivoactive HR got a much more realistic 6850'. The most accurate device was probably Arturo's Garmin 810, which gave us 6969'. The Edge 810 is probably more accurate because it has a temperature sensor, which is essential to giving an accurate air density measurement as the day warms up. Arturo's 810 died in the middle of the tour from water damage, however.

Garmin provides a temperature sensor for its watches. The $24 question is: does the Vivoactive HR use that to adjust the air density measurements in order to get more accurate elevation data? The main reason not to have a temperature sensor on the watch proper is that your body heat would heat up the sensor, granting in accurate temperature readings, which would invalidate any results from such computation. Garmin doesn't say and doesn't publish technical explanations for altitude/elevation measurements.

Suffice to say that with the addition of a barometric measurement, the Vivoactive HR is now high on my list of devices to upgrade to before the next tour of Alps. Pengtoh says that the HR function works well even for cycling for him, which is another big benefit.

The limited battery life of the Vivoactive was such that I had to carry an external battery to charge it mid-day (usually at lunch), but the Vivoactive HR that Pengtoh had is good for 16 hour stretches with the GPS turned on, which eliminates even that weakness.

By the way, one of the most hilarious aspects about the Tour of the Alps is that the Vivoactive is clearly designed for sedentary people who don't do massive bike rides. It was funny during the tour to look at the watch and see it register 4000-5000 calories a day (a massive under-estimate, by the way, since the Vivoactive doesn't know that my bike was carrying a touring load), while the Garmin Connect app's "Insight" feature kept telling me that I was being less active than usual, while the Garmin "Auto Goal" feature kept telling me that I'd missed my "step goal" for the day. The poor Vivoactive kept scaling down its "step goals" and missing them during the entire tour.

Given all that, the need for a dedicated cycle computer is no longer apparent except for the navigation features. In rural country towns and alpine country with few roads, the Garmin Edge 800 performs admirably. However, Google Maps has also improved to the point where in urban areas or places with dense road networks it's actually more useful. The smart phone touch screen interface is also better than the Garmin maps screen. It's strange that Google Map's cycling directions are sporadic --- we had availability in Switzerland, no availability in Italy, and full coverage in Austria and Germany. But in any case, when it was available, the provision of elevation changes en-route means it's a much better source of information than Garmin's offering.

As such, for future trips, a Vivoactive HR (or whatever replacement model available at that time) coupled with a waterproof phone (with an international data plan!) capable of Google maps and a bike mount for the said phone potentially the better touring solution. You'll always need paper maps for large scale coverage and designation of scenic routes which Google will probably never provide, but you've always needed them anyway. This is a huge change from previous years, where the lack of international data plans and incompleteness in offerings from Google Maps made such use of phone navigation lacking.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Cameras on Tour

On this year's tour of the Alps, we had several cameras in use:
  • My 2013 Sony RX100
  • My Moto G3
  • Arturo's Moto X Pure Edition
  • Pengtoh's iPhone 5s
  • Pengtoh's Galaxy S6
OK. The RX100 is in a class of it's own. The only drawbacks it has is that sharing is a pain --- I have to pull the SDcard, plug it into an SD card reader, plug that into my phone, and then run Nexus Media Importer and Photo Mate R3 to get a pictures. It takes time (which we had, since we had nothing else to do at night anyway), and while the photos are exporting, my phone is essentially useless for 15-20 minutes since photo processing chews up all the CPU. The other drawback is the lack of GPS. It's disappointing that in 2016, I still cannot find a high end large sensor compact camera that gives me RAW and GPS location.

The Moto G3 is pretty useless as a camera. I only used it when raining or as a last resort. It's better than no camera, but barely so. There's no doubt that if it shot RAW I could salvage more from the pictures, but let's face it, the phone is so cheap that was never going to happen.

The Moto X Pure is better, but suffered from hardware issues when exposed to water.

Pengtoh's iPhone 5S is very strange. When he used it to take pictures, the images as shown on the phone looked very impressive. But it also has a smaller screen (and lower resolution) than both the Moto X and the Galaxy S6. So when he uploaded the photos to Google Photos and I looked at all the pictures from both phones at once, it was obvious that whenever I saw a picture that looked good, it almost always came from the Samsung Galaxy S6. So while the iPhone seemed to produce better photos during the trip, when it comes to actually good photos, the Samsung phone did a much better job.

Ultimately, I have only a few requirements for camera equipment on a bike tour:
  • I must be able to operate it one-handed and without having to look through a viewfinder or at a screen. I used to think this is impossible for a phone, but Pengtoh and my own experience with the Moto G has proven this wrong.
  • It should be weather resistant if at all possible. Obviously, of the list above, only the Moto G3 would have fit this bill.
  • It should produce as high a quality image as possible.
I think the best camera you can bring on a tour of the Alps is something like the Sony RX100 or the Canon G7X Mark 2. But if you have to be like Arturo and Pengtoh and rely on your phone for everything, it's very clear that the Galaxy S7 is what you want.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Long Term Review: Moto G 3rd Gen 16GB Edition

In the time since my initial impressions of the Moto G (3rd Generation) last year, I've had a good long time with my Moto G3 in and out of California: Japan, Iceland, and the European Alps. I also bought my wife a Moto X Pure. In the mean time, Motorola has released the 4th generation Moto G, the Moto G Plus, and of course there are other countless smartphones you can buy.

First, the strengths: the Moto G3 has proven to be a tough, durable phone that's truly waterproof. I used it to shoot photos in Hot Springs, rode with it in the Tour of the Alps in my pocket with no hint of any problems, despite rain, hail, and snow. By contrast, Arturo's Moto X Pure started giving problems early on in the trip, and while he had a workaround for the problem it irritated him to no end. This alone means that the Moto G3 is better than the 4th generation Moto Gs (which aren't waterproof), the Moto X Pure (also not waterproof), and pretty much every other phone except the Samsung S5, S7 series (note: the S6 is not waterproof!), the iPhone 7 (hey, if even Apple can do it, anyone should be able to do it), and the Xperia waterproof series (M, Z, etc).

By and large, the phone has been performant. While it could be faster for running Nexus Media Importer or Photo Mate R3, I never felt like more speed would have given me a better experience --- just a shorter wait time for my exports. I never felt like it was slow for uploading to Facebook, etc., which was the case for the (much cheaper) Nokia 521.

Battery performance was good. Except for the one day when I had a mega train trip after a plane ride with no place to recharge except a small portable battery, I never had any battery problems with the phone. It always ended the day with plenty of charge left to do photo processing, Skype calls, Google hangout calls, and plenty of text messaging and Facebook posting.

Support for SDcard storage was also huge. I had a 64GB SD card installed on my Moto G. I filled it with videos, audio books, music, and never ran out on the plane or on tour. I used the Moto G to process photos from my Sony RX100 (yes, at 25MB per picture!) from RAW to JPG using apps on the phone. Even with the 64GB SDCard (on top of the built-in 16GB primary storage), I was still occasionally having to manage storage on the phone and delete videos after watching, etc. I have no idea how people with iPhones or Nexus phones manage. There's no such thing as too much local storage capacity if you're a traveler!

Now, where are the compromises? The first big compromise is the number of bands the Moto G3 supports. The USA Moto G3 only supports 4 LTE bands: 2, 4, 5, 7, and 17. There's no version of the Moto G that supports all the bands that say, the Moto X Pure does. What this means is that occasionally in Iceland and in Europe, while my wife's or Arturo's Moto X Pure was getting a signal, I was getting nothing. It's irritating but not the end of the world, though it does mean that the "true" flagship phones like the Sony Xperia series or the Samsung S series do give you something for the insane prices that the manufacturers demand.

The camera is a joke. Now obviously no phone camera can come close to what the Sony RX100 that was in my pocket provide (though nowadays, I'd recommend the Canon G7X II). But on one day when it was rainy I would hide away the RX100 and use the Moto G instead as my main camera. What a mistake. Better to risk damaging the nice camera than to have the crap pictures the Moto G provides.

Finally, I think nowadays 16GB of primary storage is no longer sufficient for a heavy phone user. At least 32GB is required. Since adoptable storage doesn't mean what you think it does, primary storage is required for apps and OS updates, so I think sadly, that means if my Moto G breaks, I'd have to buy a waterproof phone that has more primary storage rather than buying a (now much cheaper) Moto G3.

Suffice to say that I still highly recommend the Moto G3. It's flaws are completely understandable, for the price, and the reality is that the phones that have similar features cost way more than what the Moto G3 would cost you. It easily outperforms phones 2-3X the price. It is truly a pity that Motorola gave up on waterproofing the new generation Moto Gs. If given a choice between the 3rd and 4th generation models, buy the 3rd gen!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Canon EF-S 55-250 F4-5.6 IS STM

I picked up a manufacturer refurbished 55-250mm IS STM lens for the EOS M3 on sale for $141.36 after tax and shipping. There were a few reasons for this: the 50mm/1.8 that I had was not officially supported by the M3, with super slow focusing. It's useful to have a longer lens, and the 250mm is equivalent to a 400mm lens. While the M3 system has a much smaller lens, the EF-M 55-200, not only does that lens cost more (more than 2X more), it's also slower and has a shorter range.

This is an impressively good portrait lens. We brought it with us to Iceland, and at the 55mm end, even without being opened wide, you still get a nice background blur.
In fact, when I look at the Iceland pictures, whenever I see an outstanding portrait, it's almost always the 55-250.
For such a large zoom range, it's not very bulky, about equivalent to my 70-200mm/4L. Of course, that lens is much faster but doesn't have IS. Even with the 250mm range, however, I still had to resort to severe cropping for any bird pictures:
But that's OK. The M3 with its 24MP sensor lets you do a ton of cropping and still have great pictures. As an environmental portrait lens, it's also pretty great:

All in all, especially given what I paid for it, this is an outstanding lens. I highly recommend it, and it has earned its place in the camera bag.

(All photos by Xiaoqin Ma, except the first one)