Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Super Powereds: Year 1

Super Powereds: Year 1 is Drew Hayes' novel about a college program for super heroes. You could think of it as being "Harry Potter" for super heroes, though having read a couple of Harry Potter novels I'd venture to say that the material here is more interesting and less cliched than the Harry Potter novels.

The premise of the novel is that the world of super-humans is divided into Supers, who have full control over their powers, and Powereds, who have no control over their powers and hence are victims of their powers, rather than super heroes. The result is that even the super-humans are divided into tiers, with some powers obviously more valuable than others.

The shtick behind this novel is that there was an experimental process that turns Powereds into Supers, and then enroll them into a college meant for training Super Heroes. A world where Super Heroes exists have been thought out, and much like The Incredibles, the need for hero licensing has much to do with insurance. I'm glad the rationale wasn't waved away, but I wished Hayes had spent more time thinking and come up with more interesting answers.

The novel started as a serialized web-series, so each chapter is short, and the book is easy reading in a breezy fashion. Character development suffers as a result, but nevertheless, the length of the material ensures that some of what Hayes throws at you will stick, so you do learn to care about the characters.

All in all, the novel is a fun summer read that's not too involved and technical, and definitely was what I needed while cycle touring. Recommended. I've checked out Year 2 from the Kindle Lending Library.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: HDM Z1 CPAP

Two weeks before my 2014 Tour of the Alps, my doctor told me about the HDM Z1. Now, I've been very happy with my ResMed S9. It's quiet, durable, and works well for sailing. However, even with the portable 30W power supply the entire package weighed 40oz, discounting the hose and the CPAP mask. For a cycle tour with big mountains, this was not ideal, and the HDM Z1 at half the weight of the ResMed S9 was very appealing.

There are a few issues with this machine compared with the S9:

  • It is much louder. After comparing this machine with the S9, Arturo found that the S9 was almost silent in comparison. Subjectively, I rate the difference between the machines at 5dB. The HDM Z1 was so loud my wife refused to let me test it. One interesting thing is that adding the HME to the tube makes the machine quieter, which indicates that the increased noise isn't just due to the louder air pump, but also to do with the resonant frequency of the output into the hose.
  • For at home use, there's no elegantly integrated humidifier like the S9. Instead, you buy a Fisher & Paykel humidifier, or you use a HME. HMEs are consumables, and each one is good for only 7 days, which at $6/pop is significant over the usual 2 year depreciation period of a CPAP machine. Since you'll almost certainly need to travel with HMEs, the HMEs add some bulk but not significant weight to the final package.
  • The ResMed S9 is an auto-PAP, adjusting pressure according to how much you need to avoid apnea events. The Z1, however, is a fixed pressure CPAP, so you only get to set one setting, and live with it for the entire trip. My 95% pressure was 9, so that's what I used. I initially didn't think there was much difference for me, but at the end of the trip, I switched back to the S9 and immediately felt more refreshed after a night's sleep, indicating that the auto PAP algorithm on the ResMed is more effective and provides better sleep.
  • There are reports as to the robustness of the machine, with some users reporting failure after 4 weeks of use. HDM offers a 2 year warranty, but that's of no use to you while you're traveling if your machine fails! My trip was only 3 weeks, so I decided it was worth the risk.
Was this enough to offset the 20oz difference between the ResMed and the HDM Z1? No, so if you've been hankering to an independent bicycle tour and the weight/bulk of carrying a CPAP was putting you off, stop reading and just buy it now.

The machine itself is interesting. it comes with the machine, which weighs in at 10oz, and a power supply, which also weighs in at 10oz. I was wondering why the power supply hadn't gone in for more weight reduction, but that's probably because the machine is rated for higher pressure than I use, and so the power supply has to handle that, rather than my relatively low pressure rating. It comes with an adapter for use with the standard CPAP hose. The adapter basically splits the hose so the pressure measuring system can be separated from the output of the pump. You could just leave the adapter in place all the time, but I wouldn't recommend it while traveling, since the tongue of the adapter is in a particularly highly leveraged place, which would cause it to break off.

The machine comes with a micro-SD slot, but I didn't have time to buy a micro SD card to put in the machine, so did not test the software or get details about my apnea events while using the machine. Given that the primary symptom of my apnea is incredibly loud snoring and my roommates did not kill me while I slept, however, I think we can safely say that the machine works.

You can buy a Powershell battery for the Z1, which is basically an integrated battery for camping and other off-the-grid uses. The battery is also incredibly light at 200g, with the downside being that you can only charge the battery with Powershell, so you can't charge multiple batteries at once, for instance. Since the Tour of the Alps is a hotel-based credit card tour, I opted out of buying one and did not test it.

The biggest feature of the machine, however, is the weight and size. It's truly remarkable, and done (as far as I can see) without exotic materials like carbon fiber, titanium, or magnesium, which means that there's ample room for even lighter, more premium versions. The cost of the machine is around $600, which is affordable and much cheaper than a planet ticket to Europe these days. The cost/weight reduction ratio is much better than the typical weight reduction measures on bicycles, so this represents an exceedingly good deal for cycle tourists who carry their own baggage.

All in all, I'm very impressed, and would highly recommend this product.

Startup Engineering Management Gets a 2nd Edition

Startup Engineering Management has been doing so well that I added what I learned over the last few years to it and gave it a 2nd Edition. It's a book that's attracted a surprising following, indicating that there's interest in the no-nonsense, non-political approach to management that I espouse for startups.

This new edition includes a whole new chapter on process analysis, sections on justifying hardware selection based on the great reception my Wharton talk got, and also a foreword by Harper Reed, who endorsed the book early in its life.

Along with the new edition, the price has gone up from $21.95 to $24.95 for the digital edition, and the paper version has also risen to match the price with An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startup. If you've bought Startup Engineering Management in digital edition since April 23rd, 2014, you've already received a free upgrade to the 2nd Edition in the mail.

If you bought a digital copy earlier, the upgrade price is $5, and what you need to do is e-mail me the original receipt from Paypal or Google checkout. Once I've verified the purchase, you'll get an invoice via paypal and an upgrade. Thank you all for your support!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tour of the Alps 2014

This is the place holder page for the trip report for the 2014 Tour of the Alps. Look for day to day route descriptions, reviews of equipment used on the tour, and of course photo links here.

We'll start with all the GPS tracks (in GPX format) for the tour.

Equipment Reviews

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance is Elizabeth Warren's account of her life, from her humble beginnings to becoming a Harvard Professor and then United States Senator. The cynical would consider this the start of her bid for the 2016 presidential nomination, much like The Audacity of Hope was for Obama.

Here's the thing: I'm an unabashed Elizabeth Warren fan, ever since she wrote The Two Income Trap with her daughter. I would support her nomination for presidency, and I certainly think that she's a far better choice than Clinton would be, and I voted for Clinton during the primaries in 2008.

The book's well-written, as you would expect from a Harvard Professor. My wife, who doesn't usually read books that I checkout from the library, picked it up and kept reading despite herself. Warren is funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and very good at writing for a general audience. For instance, she mentions how she won the home economics prize in high school, but leaves out the process she went through to get tenure. The latter would have been more interesting to me, but much less interesting for the general public.

The book also covers her work on the TARP oversight panel as well as all the hidden games that went on with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These were by far the most interesting parts of the book to me, exposing how bank lobbyists succeed in getting what's good for the financial industry passed by congress again and again, while ignoring the needs of people who aren't as well heeled. She estimates the amount of money the banks spent opposing first the CFPB, and then scuttling her appointment as the director at well over $500M, or half a billion. If it is true that you can best judge a person by the qualities of her enemies, then Elizabeth Warren is truly one of the best people you'll find anywhere.

The last third of the book is about her own run for senate, and while interesting, it's all relatively recent news, so you might already know it. In any case, it is fun to relive that election especially with Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" shenanigans. I definitely hope the GOP keep up the good work on that front this November.

Anyway, it's a surprisingly fun read, well written, humble, and very much worth your time. Elizabeth Warren for president!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Frozen Planet

I picked up Frozen Planet because there was a deal, and someone told me that his kid couldn't stop watching it. As a parent, you never get to watch anything from start to finish, unless it's Blue's Clues, Curious George, or a video of trains, so I was intrigued by the idea that I could actually watch a BBC Nature Program with Bowen.

I'd love to say that Bowen watched all the episodes from start to finish with fascination, but the reality was, he fixated quickly on polar nears, and only wanted to watch the parts about Polar Bears. There's several very cute sequences where the mommy polar bear is leading her two cubs to the frozen ice, and Bowen asked, "Where's daddy polar bear?"

Series like Frozen Planet or Planet Earth frequently get mentioned as "nature porn." This utterly demeans the people who work on these shows, because not only are these shows much much harder to shoot than porn and require a much tougher budget, but the education value and the entertainment value is much denser. As a nature photographer, I'm far more appreciative of the effort it takes to capture the footage found in these shows than most people, and on top of that, video is an order of magnitude harder to capture and edit than even photographs.

What I love about the series is that while it covers all the usual photogenic species like Killer Whales, Polar Bears, Seals, and Penguins, it also doesn't neglect the less photogenic species like the 14 year Wolly bear moths. Many of the capture is done using time lapse photography and looks beautiful. The series also doesn't shy away from predator violence, though the cuts do frequently come after the prey is taken down and before the dining. It certainly wasn't overtly distressful to my toddler to watch those.

The last two episodes of the show cover people's lifestyles on the poles of the planet, as well as the impact humanity is having on the frigid landscape. Unfortunately, the BBC succumbs to their national origins and strongly depicts the British expeditions to the South Pole while sidelining Amundsen's and Nansen's much more successful bids.

Nevertheless, for sheer breath-taking beauty and amazing footage (the footage of baby cubs in a den with the mother blew me away), this is definitely a series to buy and watch in Blu-Ray 1080p video. Do not compromise on video quality. This is what you bought a high definition set for, and there's no reason to settle for less.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: God of War 3

If you're an old fogie like me and grew up with D&D in the mid-80s, you'll remember the publication (or your discovery) of Deities and Demigods. Now, purportedly the purpose of listing all the deities is to provide the DM with background for the mythos behind his game, rather than providing the deities as monsters to kill. But if so, why provide stats?

Anyway, God of War 3 does something very similar to Deities and Demigods. Many of the deities from the Greek mythos are lovingly brought to life and animated on a computer, precisely so you can hack and slash at them and kill them. The protagonist, Kratos, is amazingly one note, alternately growling and grunting, though he does get more than a few lines. In any case, you wouldn't be playing God of War (any of the series) for the story. It's a bare skeleton on which to hang set-pieces.

The mode of play in God of War is the brawler. You have a choice of 4 primary weapons with which to beat up your opponents. I write these words casually, but having played Devil May Cry, I'm amazed at how much more accessible God of War is. The controls are just right, and the complexity of the game is such that even a neophyte can pick this up and play. The same could not be said of Devil May Cry, which I gave up on pretty quickly.

I've come to the conclusion that the Sony LA studios (which includes Santa Monica as well as Naughty Dog) are delivering video games as an experience, rather than the "we'll make tough games" which is what my impression of the older-style video games are. The difficult part of doing these types of game well is pacing, variety, and player experience management. If you get pacing wrong, the game doesn't flow and feel like a cinematic experience. If you concentrate too much on one type of game play, then the game feels repetitive, and again doesn't feel cinematic. If you make the game so hard that the player dies often, then you frequently break flow for the player, and the game no longer provides a roller-coaster ride experience. That Sony Santa Monica and Naughty Dog both manage to deliver these experiences consistently is the main reason I think Sony's stock is under-rated.

What sort of variety does God of War grant you, other than the basic brawling game play? To begin with, the game grants you several set pieces that give you scale. It opens with a fight sequence on the back of a Titan, and the camera pans, zooms in and out all throughout the experience, which is exciting, cinematic, and very satisfying to play through. Not all the boss fights are so dramatic, but by and large they are very well done. The game provides several mini games in the form of finishing moves that are guided by Quick-Time events. These are much hated by game journalists and reviewers, but God of War does them correctly, and actually enjoyed them, as opposed to the ones found in Tomb Raider. And yes, there's a sex QTE mini-game (the camera pans away, so even though it's a rated M game, it doesn't venture into interactive porn). The environmental puzzles provided by the game are also fun, and interesting enough, scaling from the trivial to the intensely difficult by the end of the game. Finally, there are also several flight sequences where you navigate an asteroid field as the Millennium Falcon. Oops. Wait, no, Kratos sprouts wings and has to fly through obstacles. These aren't as much fun, but they do break up the sequences nicely.

The cut scenes are rendered beautifully and look like they're rendered by the game engine. So much so that during the first flight sequence I thought I was in a cut-scene rather than in-game, and died because I didn't realize I could control the character!

 What are my criticisms of the game? Well, it's rated M, which means lots of blood and gore. Definitely not for the pre-teen. The finale fight was kinda anti-climatic, after everything you'd been through. The story, as previously mentioned, serves merely as a justification for killing everything in sight. The use of Greek mythos, however, is fairly true to the source, though unfortunately with the M rating, you couldn't really use this game to introduce your child to it.

All in all, I think it's a fun game, though not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed it. For me, it came just a notch below the Tomb Raider Reboot, and just above Drake's Fortune. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vitamin D, Sunscreen, and Race

On my first bike tour, I went to Washington State, intending to cycle down to California. All through the tour through the rainy state, I got jokes about the weather, like "This isn't tan, this is rust!" But one piece of advice that came through consistently was the need to wear sunscreen. I even got advice such as, "You can get sun-burned even on a cloudy day in Washington." My recent review of Solbar SPF 30 sunscreen drew similar comments such as, "You need to reapply sunscreen no matter what."

Here's the deal. I'm Asian in origin, and was born and grew up in South East Asia. Most advice about sunscreen is based on research on white people. So very little of it applies if you're not white! For instance, when UK researchers exposed a group of South Asians to varying amounts of UV equivalent to peak summer sun exposure in Manchester UK, they concluded:
The authors noted that in this follow-up study, even with a three-fold increase in UV exposure, those of South Asian ethnicity are not able to make sufficient vitamin D at northern latitudes wearing casual clothing. Those receiving the larger doses of UV radiation were left with an average vitamin D blood level of only 15 ng/mL.
In case you're wondering, you're supposed to get 30ng/ml blood level to have "sufficient" vitamin D, and there's evidence that more is better, by quite a bit!

OK you think, that's Manchester England, not exactly famous for sunny times. But what about California? Surely you get sufficient sun exposure in California, right? Well, no. Not if you take the usual advice and wear sunscreen. In 2006, my doctor checked for vitamin D in my blood and concluded that I was suffering from vitamin D deficiency. This was despite being a cyclist and spending tons of time outside. The culprit: sunscreen. I took vitamin D supplements and stopped using sunscreen in the morning and evening hours.

OK, what if you're from more northern parts of the continent? My wife, who's northern Chinese and very pale, was also diagnosed last year with vitamin D deficiency. The same study concludes:
Based on the studies by these authors it will be difficult, if not impossible, for those with darker skin to achieve a natural vitamin D level from sun exposure alone, particularly if they do not commit to getting full-body sun exposure.
 So no, if you're Asian, or basically any color except white, ask your doctor for a vitamin D check the next time you have an annual. I bet you'll be shocked at the results. And no, if you're Asian you cannot possibly get sun burn on a cloudy day. No way, no how. That's white person talk.

Finally, if you're a whitey, you might want to take Mike Samuel's advice from the 2007 tour:
If you're the only fair-skinned whitey in the group, carry the sunscreen