Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Sony Ericsson MW600 Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

My beloved Samsung SBH 500 Bluetooh Headphones died a year or so ago, and it's been a chore finding a suitable replacement. In the interim, I made do with wired headphones, but the last straw came when my ham-fisted handling of the headphones finally created enough wear on my N1 that the headphones just wouldn't stay in the headphone jack, creating sudden music stoppages.

The Sony Ericsson MW600 is by far the most promising of the bluetooth stereo headphones I've tried recently. The best thing about it is that it isn't a fully integrated headset with headphones. Instead, it's a blue-tooth receiver and microphone that turns any standard set of headphones into a bluetooth headphone! Yes, that means my beloved PX100 are now blue-tooth compatible, which grants me no end of delight. Now, this also means you can't be like Uhuru from star trek and hang the headset off your ear, but in practice, any set of ear buds would let you just plug one ear in and clip the microphone to your shirt/blouse so you can talk while hands free in the car or on the bike.

Pairing: the process was straightforward, and I had no problem pairing the MW600 with my Nexus One, my Nexus 7, and my desktop PC. Selecting between them is a little tricky, since the touch strip is a little finicky (and the LED display is difficult to read outdoors), but I managed it. The sound quality is nothing short of amazing. Unlike the SBH500, which tended to be finicky outdoors, the MW600 does not care whether it is indoors or outdoors. There's a built in radio receiver, which also sounds pretty good, even indoors.

The cons? The volume control is a touch strip, and is not great. The forward/back/play/pause buttons aren't clearly delimited, and can be easily confused. I expect that to be no problem as I get used to it. There are reports on the internet that the clip is fragile. I expect the last to hit me eventually, but I've got a bunch of superglue handy.

In any case, I'll be keeping this headset, unlike the other headsets I've sent back. Recommended

Monday, September 24, 2012

First Impressions: Google/Asus Nexus 7

I'm writing this review late, since there are plenty of Nexus 7 reviews out there. However, I did get the Nexus 7 as a birthday present recently, so that's my excuse. Why the Nexus 7, instead of say, one of the latest flock of Kindle Fires?

I could complain about my frustration with not having access to the native GMail App, and how I dislike the forking of Android, even though I understand the business reasons behind them. However, by far the most annoying one is that the latest Kindle Fires simply do not have GPS! Now, you might think that the lack of a GPS shouldn't matter to a device that doesn't have always-on connectivity, but first, Google Maps recently offered an off-line capability (though one that's not quite completely useful --- for instance, navigation absolutely does not work when off-line). Secondly, Frank Spychalski pointed me at this article about using the Nexus 7 for outdoors, and it looked quite usable: you do have to spend $15 for U.S. Topo maps (which is easily paid for by the $25 Google Play credit), but it's a much better screen than say, the Garmin Edge 800, and a better deal than the Garmin Topo U.S. at $60.

By the way, I spoke to a Kindle designer on my recent Birthday Trip and he assured me that the next iterations of the Kindle Fires will have GPS. So what about the device proper? My brothers splurged and got me the 16GB Nexus 7, so the first thing I did after charging it was to login and start loading up all the apps I had deleted from my phone ages ago due to the N1's meager 256MB of internal storage. It's interesting to see which applications makes a difference versus just using the plain old web-browser: apps like Quora, for instance, are surprisingly useful because the web-site is mis-designed for a smaller device. Apps like Delicious, for instance, are required otherwise the other apps wouldn't know how to share to delicious, not because anybody sane would want to use the delicious apps. By far the most sophisticated apps are games. The big screen, high definition display, and touch screen and tilt device makes the games great. The battery life was also decent: I could run MyTracks for 2 hours and change, and still run the machine intensively for the rest of the day without draining the battery. That was a surprise. Outdoors, the screen was usable, though not as bright as I would like it to be.

The speakers are the weakest part of the Nexus 7. They sound pretty terrible. Fortunately, the headphone jack works without fuss.

I paired the Logitech PS3 Media Board to the device (it was what I had lying around, and I'm not about to buy a new keyboard just for the device), and it worked great. My typing speed is as fast as on a real computer, and I couldn't out-type the machine. What's even more impressive was that the touchpad worked! That was unexpected and as a result I can IM as quickly from the N7 as I do from the desktop --- my friends couldn't tell the difference. Despite all that, I still found myself returning to my desktop machine for blogging, and I still refrained from reading important articles on the Google reader app. The truth is, if you're a photographer, you still end up booting your PC to read photos off an SD card, and I can't imagine preferring a 7" screen to a 27" display for serious writing. However, what I do see myself doing is using this to do a quick check of e-mail without booting up my power hungry PC in the morning, checking my Calendar, and so-forth. Also, I had been contemplating buying another laptop for travel purposes so that XiaoQin and I could each have a laptop, and I could see this eliminating the need to carry another laptop. Of course, carrying the Logitech keyboard is not ideal (I'm certainly not about to carry it onto the plane), but on the plane, I expect to just watch movies on it.

Ultimately, if the Nexus 7 died tomorrow would I run off and buy another one? Probably not. It's still not as good a fit for my life as say, the Kindle Keyboard in combination with a smartphone. In summary, I recommend the Nexus 7 over say, the Kindle Fires or the iPads.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Trip Report: Downieville

This year I resurrected one of my ancient traditions: the birthday trip! In recent years, that practice fell into disuse because when you work and have limited vacation time and your favorite place is the Alps, you tend to spend your vacation days in the high summer instead of during the Indian Summer.
Downieville
This year, my choice was Downieville. Alex had done an expedition several years ago, and highly recommended Downieville Outfitters. I called them, arranged bike rentals for XiaoQin and I, an instructor for XiaoQin, and lodging. Mike Samuel, who had joined me on many previous Tours found out that the trip coincided with one of his rare visits to the Bay Area, and like the champ he is, signed up for it right away. Having committed to the trip, I was suddenly terrified that my mountain biking skills (which were nothing much to speak of) had deteriorated over the years to the point where the baby hills would destroy me, let alone a 4000' single track descent, so Eva, Tom and I went to Wilder Ranch and rode every single track trail we could find. It felt mostly natural by the time I was done, so I still felt chicken. We showed up at the outfitter with pedals, helmets, gloves and cycling attire. They rented us Specialized Enduros, which are fully suspended bike that are very light at 28 pounds each. But it was both our first time on fully suspended bikes and the first time you sit on a bike and it sinks below you is pretty disconcerting. Even with the seat set at the max height, it still felt like we were pedaling bikes that were just a few inches too small for us. This is apparently what it's like when you're pedaling a downhill bike: you're not expected to climb that much.
From Downieville
We got dropped off at the top of the Sunshine trail, and after adjustment, we headed down the hill. I expect descending to be less effort than climbing, but the first few switchbacks had me panting, not from pedaling, but from the sheer effort of wrestling the bike and fighting my instincts, not to mention the terror of falling. After a while I got used to the bike and got a little aggressive, and promptly fell, skinning my knee by just a couple of hairs. This was OK.
From Downieville
Mike was also having trouble getting used to mountain biking again after a 10 year hiatus, so we comforted each other and didn't push --- on anything too questionable, we would stop and walk it. Even being chickenshit, however, our skills noticeably improved by the end of the ride, and we were doing 2-3 foot drops with the seat coming up to my chest a few times without too much panic. We were even getting better about knowing when to stop to raise the saddle and when to drop it.
From Downieville
Who got back to town at about 1:30pm after a 3 hour 40 minute journey. XiaoQin had long since been back to town from her ride with her instructor/guide, and she had had fun though she was also a little freaked out by her first single-track descent. She didn't want to do any more climbing, so Mike and I went in for a second run at Downieville.
From Downieville
From Downieville
What a difference practice makes. This time, both Mike and I made it down Sunshine and Butcher Ranch relatively fast. We could make corners, and could even relax and look at the scenery. We had big smiles at the end of each segment, and could even contemplate doing this as a break from serious road biking. We could begin to see why many downhill mountain bikers were gravitationally challenged --- once you learn to relax on the bike, you can go faster and not spend all your energy fighting the bike. We could even ride some of the sharp rocks that freaked us out, though we still walked far more than all the other cyclists on the trail.
From Downieville
We finished the second run at 5:30pm, returned the bikes, got our pedals back, and had a beer before Mike took off for the Bay Area.
From Downieville
The next day, XiaoQin and I drove up to hike a bit of the Pacific Crest Trail. We didn't go far because it was hot, and we suffered from Europhile syndrome --- once you've seen the Alps, the Sierra just doesn't pretty.
From Downieville
We headed back from the Bay Area pretty happy, and I'll ask XiaoQin if she wants to do any more mountain biking in the future. In any case, I now had a better understanding of what makes downhill mountain biking special, and why people do it. Recommended

Update: Video:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wealthfront's Startup Equity Calculator


Wealthfront has a great startup equity calculator post on their blog that's worth reading for every engineer who intends to work at a startup.

It has a few interesting data points, one of which is that Hardware Engineers tend to get more equity on average than software engineers. This could be because on average, companies that require hardware engineers tend to go for experienced hardware engineers, while it's not unusual for startups to hire new grads for software engineering work.

Rachleff also makes the point that it makes much more sense to manage your career than to manage your wealth. That's true for new graduates. It's definitely not true for people at the mid-point of their careers, which in Silicon Valley is a much younger age than anyone outside the Valley would believe. I think Rachleff understates how important proper handling of your finances are. After I left Google, I had the privilege of speaking to many people about wealth management. There were a surprising number of people who had more stock than I did with worse financial outcomes almost a decade later. The difference between having a good financial plan and trying to time the markets or relying on a crooked financial advisor are enormous!

In any case, a number of my clients implicitly understand this --- some of them have explicitly turned down multi-million dollar retention packages at big companies (or in some cases refused to even start negotiating for those) in favor of unknown outcomes at startups. Even if those startups do not succeed, the skills they learn and exposure to an environment that requires all their talents, rather than a subset of them, will eventually lead to far more success.

First Impressions: Resmed S9 Autoset with iH5 Humidifier

I've been a CPAP patient for years. For many years, my CPAP machines have been made by Respironics because that was what the doctor ordered. The Respironics machines unfortunately were all bulky, clunky, heavy and noisy. Yes, that includes the latest and greatest System One. To combat the bulk, clunkiness, and weight, for many years I used the Puritan GoodKnight 420E Auto-CPAP machine. That machine was quieter, lighter, and had a much lighter system weight. It accompanied me on nearly every bicycle tour of the alps in recent years, but had one fatal problem: it was fragile. Sticking a machine in a saddlebag is probably the toughest thing you can do to anything, but the Puritan Bennett machines, when taken apart, were found by Pardo to be not designed for robustness.

Well, someone not-to-be-named killed my Puritan Bennett machine last year, and on my recent Portland trip, my Respironics started flaking out. So I took a bit of time to research if I could have a machine that did it all: lightweight and robust for travelling, quieter (so my wife would stop complaining), but still good enough for home use. (The Puritan Bennett wasn't recommended for home use because the machine wasn't as sophisticated in terms of algorithms for matching pressure to your needs)

Enter the Resmed S9: it's light, and has an option to buy a 30W power supply to make the total system weight even lighter, which is a great plus for a cycle tourist. It's humidification system is as sophisticated as the Respironics. The technician at Sleepquest in San Carlos confirmed to me as well that she received fewer repair requests for the Resmed than for the Respironics systems. It also features a heated humidifier hose, a filter cover (which indicates a design for noise reduction which never seems to occur to the respironics people), and is a slicker looking machine in general (not important, because the ideal place for a CPAP machine is as low as possible, out of sight).

The humidifier snaps together with the air pump easily. The machine has a knob and a power button. The knob gives you last night's statistics (including leaks!), as well as a way to adjust the humidifier and whether you're using a nasal pillow, full face mask, etc. One difference from the Respironics is that while the Respironics would automatically turn on when you started breathing through the mask or nose, you have to manually activate the ResMed S9. The machine is quiet. I don't think I'd ever heard such a quiet machine before.

After one night with the machine, I don't feel any different than with the Respironics. Though (I'm not motivated enough to test one thing at a time) I was also trying a new nasal pillow system instead of a full face mask. Looking at the statistics this morning, it looked like I had fewer apnea events than usual using the new machine (and nasal pillow). Obviously, one night does not make a trend, so assuming there's any interest in this, I'll come back in 3 months and post again.

Nevertheless, as far as I'm concerned, this machine is a win-win-win over the Respironics so far. If you're due for a CPAP machine replacement soon, I would recommend that you get this machine over the Respironics just for the reduced noise level alone. Everything else is icing on the cake.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: A Distant Soil, Books 1-4

I first reviewed A Distant Soil in 2005 here on this blog. I recently noticed that the library had books 1-4, and hoping that the story had since been finished, I checked the books out of the library and read them all.

The books were particularly slow going for me, and I realized after a bit why: while many pundits are contented to talk about how you should have graphic novels appeal to girls, Colleen Doran actually went out and did it. The books are full of talking heads, and heavy on text balloons. While there's a "saving the world" plot going on, characters take the time out to worry about their hair. The character oriented pacing essentially led to long sections where characters were flirting, bantering, or teasing each other, rather than the usual sequence of action event after action event.

The book revolves around a brother-sister pair who escaped from a lab where they were confined, only to discover their origins. They're separated and kidnapped by two factions of an alien race, and they learn about the alien race and the power structure from two different directions, neither of which are telling the complete truth, and neither of which have the complete picture.

The result is a plot and story that's slow, long and drawn out, and action that drags. But the artwork is gorgeous. The men are beautiful, the women a good diverse lot, not all of whom served as love interests for the male characters, and the aliens unfortunately all too human (which given the nature of the story, makes sense). There's no science at all in this story, so it's not properly science fiction, but rather fantasy. There's a significant amount of sex in this story, so this isn't something you would hand to your 12 year old. (If you're looking for something for that 12-year old, please try Jeff Smith's delightful Bone)

I was wondering why the story line hadn't been completed yet, so I checked on Colleen Doran's web-site: it seems that she's still trying to finish the story. I'm not sure I can recommend this book to everyone: it's hyper-targeted towards girls, and I had to make myself read it. Check the first book out of your local library and if it grabs you read the rest of it and be prepared for a long wait to the finish. That's one of the problems with the independent artists, with no commercial pressure to push to finish the story, there's no way to tell when it'll finish, if ever. (I'm looking at you, Mark Oakley)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Now Available on Amazon: Independent Cycle Touring

That was the shortest "out of print" period in history. Thanks to the magic of automation, Amazon now has copies of Independent Cycle Touring available for sale. It qualifies for free shipping to anywhere Amazon ships to.

Now that's customer service! (AirBnB)

Yesterday, I wrote about my less than satisfactory experience with AirBnB. Today, AirBnB's customer service rep contacted me and said they did an investigation, and did find the cleaning fee to be inappropriate. They've reversed the charge.

Every company will screw up at some point or another. What seals a customer's loyalty is how they deal with the screw up. AirBnB clearly shows that they understand this. My wife and I will probably be willing to give them another try in the future because of this.

Independent Cycle Touring now sold out!

Independent Cycle Touring just sold out of its first printing. To date, this has been the book that's taken the longest to sell out, which is a pity.

The paperback book will be temporarily unavailable until I get Amazon to stock it. When it does come back in stock, it will cost $39.95 rather than the previous $29.95. Why? Because Amazon takes a hefty fee in exchange for the "marketing" I get for selling in on the biggest e-commerce site in the world. On the other hand, it will mean that my UK customers will get free shipping! Originally, I had hoped that the book would sell quickly enough that I could go with a big printer and lower the price further, but it's clear that compared to my other books, this one doesn't sell as well, and I will stick with print on demand.

In the mean time, electronic copies are still available and I've lowered the price to $11.95 to reflect my reduced margins. It's still the best cycle touring book ever written, and yes, I've verified that it reads rather nicely on the Kindle Fire, which means that it should do fine on both the Nexus 7 and the iPad.

Market Efficiency

Most companies understand not to cheap out on machines for engineers. The cost of a top end development machine is about $5,000, and when you're shelling out $100K a year, even a brand new machine every year just doesn't cost that much (in practice, nobody upgrades every year --- there's enough overhead when switching machines that doing it every other Moore's cycle --- 36 months makes much more sense). And every bit of increased productivity means you get that much more out of the $100K/year asset.

But once in a while, companies come across an under-priced engineer. Whether because they're inexperienced and didn't know how to negotiate, or whether they were initially offered less compensation because they were an unproven quantity, it's extremely tempting to keep under paying them for as long as you can get away with under paying them. What's happening in this case is that management thinks that they've stumbled across an engineer who's an idiot savant --- that somehow it's possible to be a great engineer who happens to be clueless as to his net-worth. There's no doubt that such people exist (I know some of them), and if you're at a big company that risk might pay off, but it's an insane risk to take at a startup where every engineer matters.

Here's what eventually happens. The engineer has friends, and eventually his curiosity will lead him to compare compensation with those friends. When he learns that he's significantly underpaid, he'll get pissed off enough to interview, and if you're lucky enough, to ask you for a raise. At this point, you'll have to give him a raise. If you're smart, you'll give him a raise, and compensate him for his lost wages as a result of you underpricing him in the first place. Most companies might do the first but rarely do they do the second. The consequences of not doing the second is that the engineer you've pissed off is out interviewing, and will end up with higher offers and you'll end up paying back those lost wages anyway, assuming you manage to keep him. If you don't, you'll spend that money recruiting and training a new engineer to replace him.

You might argue that a startup can't afford cash and raises. You might be right. But there's no excuse even then: if you can't afford cash, then you can provide additional equity. Equity is even better, since you can tie that to a vesting period, which would keep the employee loyal for years to come, and raise the bar for anyone else trying to poach your employees.

One of the things that impressed me about Google was its willingness to raise new graduates to market rapidly --- it was not unusual for a new graduate at Google to get a 30% raise on her first promotion, reflecting her increased value. However, Facebook was even better in that regard. I've had reports of Facebook granting retention packages even before the new employee's first year is up for review! This is a great approach, because the employee considers this unasked-for raise a gift. What happens to you when you receive a gift? You feel obliged to give back. So not only have you made a high performing employee happy, you've ensured that he's going to work even harder for you, at least in the near term! Contrast this with the employee mentioned above who had to ask for his raise (after realizing that he was underpaid): he didn't feel like he got a gift, he got screwed. Even raises that come from promotions don't feel like a gift, because the employee felt like he had to work for it.

Regardless of the performance of its stock, I've made the statement in recent years that Facebook probably has the best engineering management in Silicon Valley, and this is just one example of what they do better than anybody else. (Note: the author does not own any Facebook stock)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: AirBnB

We used AirBnB twice this time on our recent trip in Europe. The first stay was a 4 day stay at the beginning of our visit to France, and the second stay was a one night stay.

I'm a big fan of AirBnB the company, so I wanted to write a positive review of my stay, but both stays left a bad taste in my mouth, for different reasons. The first place was fine. The price wasn't exactly cheap, and it wasn't in a great location in Paris, but it was quiet, and the place while not super-duper clean, was acceptable.

However, after we moved out, the owner contacted us and asked for a cleaning fee. When we asked to see why, she sent us a picture of a stove surface that would have taken us 3 minutes to clean up (at worse), and a few pieces of tissue scattered on the living room table. The cleaning fee wasn't stupendous (35EUR), but we certainly felt as though she deliberately didn't meet us when we left just so that she could make a little bit of extra money off us. [Update: AirBnB has since refunded us the "cleaning fee" --- what a great company!]

The second stay was much worse. The pictures and the text described the place as suitable for 5 people. But when we showed up, it was clear that the pictures were deceptive: two of the "rooms" were really a single space, separated by a single stair case. The third room was a child's bedroom with a roll out mattress. The place was very small, and there was practically no space for Bowen to play freely. For one night it was OK, but we would have been mad if we'd tried to stay there for a few days. Worse than that, the person who ran the apartment lied on the AirBnB site about her address, which meant that my instructions for the airporter pick up address was wrong. This wasn't a big deal, since I could call and change the pickup location, but it lended the entire affair a bit of a sleazy feel.

Contrast this with my experience in europe with Booking.com. We used them for 4 locations in France and Austria, and each time the bookings along with the reviews have been exactly what we wanted. The prices were also comparable to AirBnB.

In short, traveling with a family is probably the wrong model for AirBnB. I suspect that if we had been a couple traveling on our own, AirBnb would have served up much better offerings than comparable hotels. As it is, I think I would have been better off booking a hotel and paying a bit more for our stays. While this experience isn't necessarily enough to put me off AirBnB in the future, I think I will avoid them when booking trips for my family.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trip Report: Portland

Portland 2012

My brothers and I decided to take our parents to Portland for my mom's 70th birthday. This was the first family trip for a while, though unfortunately my youngest brother couldn't make it for private reasons. We arrived on Friday to the warmest I've ever seen a pacific northwest city. It was well into the 90s. We walked over to Powell's Books, the biggest bookstore in the Western Hemisphere.
From Portland 2012
I'd been to Powell's before, but this time I was disappointed. The maps section used to be full of used old maps that were great finds for cyclists. This time, I couldn't even find a decent map of Austria. I looked for a The Danube Cycleway and couldn't find it, despite it being easy to locate on Amazon. Clearly, the days of big bookstores being useful are over. My father did find a book in the meager Chinese section that was well priced, so he bought it.
From Portland 2012
We then headed over to Deutsches Brewery for some beer tasting and dinner. The beer was ok, the dinner was so-so. My brother finally made it over to the brewery and we all had a family dinner, and then visited the Powell's bookstore again for a short browse. It was warm still when we headed back to the hotel.
From Portland 2012
The next day started with breakfast at Mother's Bistro, which is apparently a Portland institution. It was not bad, but nothing to write home about. We then walked about the Portland waterfront. We found the Oregon Martime Museum, which was actually a paddleboat, but it was closed. Walking away from the waterfront, we wandered into the Portland Saturday Market, which was actually opened both on Saturday and Sunday, but wasn't opened early enough for breakfast.
From Portland 2012
From Portland 2012
We then took the train to various city parks, which were all linked together: the Garden of Solace Vietnam memorial, the Hoyt Arboretum, the Japanese Garden (admission charged), and the Rose Garden.
From Portland 2012
Of the lot, the Japanese Garden and the Garden of Solace were most impressive, but weren't really much to write home about. What did surprise us was that the buses servicing the park did not run on Saturdays! That seems such a bizarre decision that I can't imagine what went on in the heads of the city department that considered this move. We ended up with a long hike back to the MAX line at the end, having wandered far away from it. We hopped onto the Max line back to the Saturday Market to pick up some food-truck lunches which looked better than they tasted.
From Portland 2012
After lunch, we visited REI and the Keen stores just in case there were any sales that would make the 0% Oregon sales tax worth while. There weren't, so we went back to the hotel and then headed over to see Premium Rush, having dinner at the theater. After dinner, my brother and I hopped over to Voodoo Donuts to see what the fuss was all about. Unfortunately, while the lines were unbelievable, the donuts weren't.
The next day, we rented a car and drove over to the falls on the Columbia Gorge. The gorge didn't seem like much of one, more like riverbed with a few peaks nearby. We hiked Mahkeena Falls and Multnomah falls in overcast conditions, which was ideal for a walk. The trails weren't particularly crowded, but there were clearly enough visitors to justify the paved trail.
From Portland 2012
After the hiking, we felt the need for lunch, and drove on to Hood River to the Full Sail Brewery & Pub, which would provide the best meal of the trip! The food was excellent (including the french dip steak sandwich), and the beers tasty. We then visited Cathederal Ridge winery for some wine tasting, but apparently the wines of the region weren't as impressive as the micro-brews.
From Portland 2012
From Portland 2012
We then switched sides of the river for the drive back, stopping by every so often to admire the railroad tracks (which had great views of windsurfers and paragliders in what was a very windy region) and parks with names like "Drano Lake." We then took a stop at the Bonneville Dam just in time for the last ranger-guided tour of the day.
From Portland 2012
I can heartily recommend the Hydropower station tour. Not only do you get to see the power generators in person, you get to walk on them, and if you're lucky enough to be there when the publicly exhibited generators are generating power (we weren't), you get to look down through the windows and see the stators and shafts moving. I was impressed by the service intervals for these machines (4 years between service), and how slowly they turned (only 60-70 rpms) given the amount of power they were generating.
From Portland 2012
After the tour, don't miss the fish locks. We were lucky to arrive at the start of the Salmon run, so we got to see quite a few rather large fish in the locks.

We got back to Portland and had dinner at Karam, a Lebanese restaurant. The lamb dishes were great, but don't order any beef there. It's cooked way too dry.
From Portland 2012
On Monday, we had breakfast at the Bijou Cafe, which served an excellent breakfast. We then headed to the airport on the public transit system and back home uneventfully.

Conclusion: Portland physically most reminded me of Bordeaux, with the small size of the downtown area and the big central river running across it. The food, of course, doesn't compare to Bordeaux, and neither does the wine. The beer, however, is significantly much better than French beer, and if you're there, do drive out to Full Sail Brewery because it's great food and excellent beer. Do take the time to do the brewery tour if you can manage it.

Would I go out of my way to see Portland again? Probably not. But it's a fine weekend trip if you've never been there before. Portland's a bike friendly city, but personally, it's hard to beat the Bay Area for cycling goodness.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: Whiteout Volume 2 (Melt)

Whiteout: Melt returns to the world introduced in Whiteout. Carrie Stenko, the protagonist in the first book, returns, this time to investigate an explosion at a Russian base which is suspected of harboring weapons.

Along the way, she meets her Russian counterpart, and they start tracking down a group of suspects who absconded with some valuables.

Unlike the previous story, which was a murder mystery, this one was essentially a thriller, with the identity of the criminals provided right at the start and then the story turns into a pursuit through the Antarctic wilderness. The story is simple, but Carrie gets no character development (and she clearly didn't learn from her previous outing into Antarctica).

It's fine as an airplane read, but it's too short and I finished the book between the plane leaving the gate and reaching cruising altitude. My problem with both books is that they didn't make any use of the graphic novel medium, and could easily have worked as prose novels instead. And if you really want to learn about Antarctica, I suggest you go to the source: read Roland Huntford's The Last Place On Earth instead.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Review: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Where Good Ideas Come From is a book about the history of innovation. As a book, however, it's not terribly innovative, with only one or two new ideas in the entire book.

The central idea Stephen Johnson advocates is that the environment has to be right for new ideas to develop. A great new idea by itself in the wrong environment is death. For instance, Charles Babbage's Difference Engine was a success, while the Analytical Engine was too far ahead of its time to have any discernible impact.

To bolster this thesis, Johnson points to many analogies. For instance, coral reefs are comparatively productive, while the rest of the open ocean does not support as diverse a collection of underwater life.

His other big idea is that even within an individual, the most productive people don't just have one project, but have multiple projects and lots of different hobbies. The main reason for this is that having such a diverse set of interest is generative: it makes it more likely that you'll be able to cross-connect apparently unrelated parts of your life. (He doesn't mention that having lots of different friends would most likely be also good for similar reasons) In most cases, the breakthrough doesn't come about as a result of a single a-ha insight, but comes through constant and consistent exposure to the problem space over long periods (decades is the usual answer). He even points out that "Eureka" moments described by scientists (for instance, the description of the Benzene as a ring structure by Kekule) came about only after pondering the problem for a significant amount of time.

Unfortunately, Johnson does not take his story to the ultimate conclusions: that our current tendency towards specialization in the sciences almost seems designed to thwart otherwise fruitful cross-pollination between specialties and sub-specialties, at precisely the time when such collaboration would be useful. He points out that recent productive innovations (such as the Internet, the World-Wide Web, and even YouTube) come about as a result of government funded research and academia, where capitalism plays very little role, while less open structures have stagnated.

In the end, I wonder if Johnson ended up reading his own book, since one cannot avoid that the path American society is leading down (the massive reduction in our science budget as well as increased specialization in subfields) would lead to less innovation in the future.

Nevertheless, his book is worth reading in that it's short: fully half the print pages were devoted to bibliography and references. And even if he doesn't correctly draw the correct conclusions from the data, you could.

The Bible Repairman and Other Stories

When I heard from Larry that Tim Powers had a new short story collection out (The Bible Repairman and Other Stories), I picked it up on the Kindle during a trip after searching the local library catalog.

The title story sucked me in through the sample. Now, you have to be in the right mood to read a Tim Powers story, so you can't just plow them through and chew them up like candy. But that's not a bad thing. It means that you can keep the book on your Kindle, munching on one story as you get into the mood. All the last stories have at least one used book dealer or writer as one of the characters. While writers probably will never go out of business as long as there are stories to be told, the used book dealer or rare book collector is probably the last of a dying breed, and I wonder if these stories will make sense 50 years in the future.

The big surprise was that the last story in the book is in some sense a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, one of Power's best but least known work. (Hardcover editions are selling for over $100 on Amazon) It's a long, satisfying story and well worth the cost of the book alone, but wouldn't be as good if you hadn't read the aforementioned novel. In any case, reading the story made me want to run out and buy the novel so I can read it again.

Recommended.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Review: Premium Rush

We needed an excuse to visit the Living Room Theater in Portland, and Premium Rush was available at a reasonable time, so we paid a visit.
From 2012-08-30
The theater is pretty cool, laid out with tables and comfy chairs (more comfortable than the usual multiplex) in a cosy environment where you can order dinner and have it served at your chair like you were at home. The result is that you forget about the screening quality, but treat the movie as though you were at home watching it, albeit without the ever convenient pause button.

The movie's plot is predictable and simple. You can also read a regular person's review. But what does a serious cyclist think of it? Well, I'm happy to report most of the movie's pretty accurate. The common bike accidents (even car-bike collisions) are due to the cyclist doing stupid things like riding wrong way, getting door'd, and of course, mixing it up with pedestrians and not behaving like a vehicle. Unfortunately, the lay audience would probably watch this movie and think about how dangerous cycling in a big city is rather than that a cyclist behaving the way the protagonist does in this movie would be an idiot.

There are several points of unrealism in the movie. First of all, the villain of the movie manages to get around the city of New York faster in a car than a strong cyclist can do it. That's impossible in any big city, even one as small as San Francisco, let alone New York. If car drivers could get about faster in New York than cyclists could do so, then bike messengers wouldn't have jobs.

There's also a bike race that's entirely unrealistic. A cyclist with a derailleur bike with brakes could simply draft the fixie and win in a final sprint. The fixie couldn't possibly draft the derailleur bike with brakes because the derailleur bike could brake harder than the fixie could. Of course, both cyclists in the movie are testosterone-filled boneheads rather than intelligent druggies/road racing cyclists, but as the only professional cyclists around who don't take have to performance-enhancing drugs to succeed, one would think that they'd be familiar with the tricks of the trade.

Having said all that, if you could turn off your brain, it's a perfectly enjoyable movie. My parents both laughed and enjoyed the movie despite not being completely versant with English (the movie is very thin on plot, as I said). Watch it for entertainment, but if your mom already worries about you riding your bike, tell her it's a stupid movie not worth her time. You wouldn't even be lying.

Review: Whiteout Volume 1

Whiteout: Volume 1 is a mystery story about a serial killer in Antarctica. I wish I could say that it worked for me, but I think this is one of those stories that would have worked better in prose format than in a graphic novel format.

First of all, the book assumes a lot of knowledge about Antarctica that the common reader might not know. For instance, my first impressions about serial killers in Antarctica was: "Hey, it's a bunch of science stations. Very few scientists become serial killers, and there's probably only 12 of them anyway, so how the heck could this be credible?" A novel would have explained to me that my misconceptions were wrong with statistics and some facts, but the comic couldn't do so.

Then there's the motivation for the killings. Again, while plausible, I think it would have been a really thin line. Finally, there's no map showing you where all the places our U.S. Marshal/Detective visited, to get a sense of scale. The transitions are not well done.

The plus side: the art fits the story as well as any art could, and the characterization is good. Rucka doesn't hesitate to put his protagonist through hell. And it's just perfect for an airplane read.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Review: Cinderella from Fabletown with Love

Cinderella was one of the first spinoffs from Fables. It's a spy/thriller-type romp about Fabletown's own superspy, who comes complete with special magical bracelets courtesy of the magic users on the 13th floor.

While I love the concept of Cinderella as a superspy, and the art was enjoyable, the plot was a bit thin. Our superspy immediately runs into her counterpart from the Arabic kingdoms while tracking down some folks who are (naughty naughty) trading in magic items, and from then on it's like the story runs on rails. There's actually very little character development, and while we do see all her magic facilities in use, there's nothing that changes the status quo in Fables land, which while understandable, doesn't feel very real compared to Willingham's run on the series.

While this is enjoyable airplane reading, I think for the $10.50 or so you are expected to pay for graphic novels nowadays, you're better off checking it out from the library and spending your hard earned money elsewhere.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Review: Chinglish

Top level summary: Go see it now. You only have until October 21st!

Chinglish is David Henry Hwang's play about misunderstandings due to translations between Chinese and English. Those misunderstandings happen with multiple language pairs, including Japanese and even German, but David Henry Hwang also wrote M. Butterfly, a Tony winning play (and a movie worth watching) that's nothing at all like Madame Butterfly. So when he writes something it's well worth watching.

The play is currently running at the Berkeley Rep, and your experience starts when you enter the door of the theater, where they've cleverly introduced bilingual Chinese-English signs, with deliberate literal translations to get you into the mood. Well done! Despite the rave reviews about the plays, I was very concerned that all the reviews came from white people, who might not actually know enough Mandarin to know whether the Chinese in the play are portrayed correctly.

I needn't have worried. The play is funny, right from the start, even including a presentation about the use of simplified Chinese versus traditional Chinese, leading to an understanding of the etymology of confusion in translation today. This is great stuff, and you literally could not make this up. The plot revolves around an Ohio businessman who goes to China trying to sell signs as part of a city contract. He engages a Business Consultant (a foreigner with decent Mandarin skills), starts talking to the consultant's connections, and hilarity ensues.

If that was all that went on to the play, you'd get your money's worth from the laughs alone. But David Henry Hwang tries to do a lot more with the play, and impressively succeeds! The business plot is great, and at one point, one of the main characters has a dialog that makes no sense, but by the end of the play when the reveal happens, everything the character says makes sense in retrospect, which is an impressive achievement. There's a philosophical musing about the different expectations Western people and Chinese people bring to marriage, and (at least according to my wife) the play displays a subtle but thorough understanding of politics, business, and corruption in today's China. I will note that M. Butterfly is not allowed to play in China, and my wife thinks that no Chinese director will touch Chinglish with a 100 foot pole. (It will play in Hong Kong in March, however) If you've been reading the news about Bo Xilai, keep in mind that this play was written and produced before that story hit the headlines!

As far as the Berkeley Rep's presentation is concerned, the actors are all good, with the exception of Michelle Krusiec, who has an inconsistent Mandarin enunciation. Sometimes, she pronounces perfect Mandarin, and other times, she betrays an accent that sounds like an American who learnt Mandarin incorrectly in college. It's just wrong often enough to be distracting and jarring in an otherwise excellent presentation.

One of the most subtle thing about the humor in the play is that the use of super-titles actually helps the humor even for those of us who know both Mandarin and English. This is because in common use of Mandarin, we try to make sense of the way foreigners pronounce Mandarin, and therefore sometimes miss the funny connotations behind the mistranslations. The only improvement I would want to make would be to add translations to Chinese for the English dialogue, which would mean that I could take my parents to this play and they would enjoy it.

In any case, the play is perfect for those Chinese people with non-Chinese SOs, or anyone who speaks both Mandarin and English. Pure English-speakers would thoroughly enjoy this as well. If you only speak Chinese, well, chances are you're not reading this review.

Highly recommended. Well worth the drive to Berkeley. And while you're there, visit Fentons Creamery

KidCo Peapod - product review and meta-review [guest post]


The Review

When Hannah was little, we spent a little time searching around for some kind of apparatus for her to sleep in while traveling. Very early in her life, she coslept with us, but we ended that after about 3.5 months, well before we started doing any serious traveling with her.

We’d gotten a hand-me-down Pack’n Play sort of thing, but even folded down it was awkwardly long and heavy. We looked at travel cribs, but most of what we saw seemed to be shrunk-down versions of our Pack’n Play. Less heavy and bulky than their bigger brethren, but still a lot of mass to be managing while on a trip.

Then we came across the KidCo Peapod. It’s a folding enclosed tent which is longest and broadest at the base, which is an oval sleeping area. There are mesh panels along most of the sides; one of the main mesh panels along one side zippers open and shut for access to the sleeping area, and other, opaque panels can be zipped or toggle-buttoned down or up as is appropriate for the situation. There’s also a pocket on the underside of the tent -- accessed via a zipper on the outside -- which holds an inflatable sleeping mat, which cushions the sleeping area from underneath.

Though there are few other variations in the product line, the main one is in size -- we got a Peapod Plus, which is a little bigger and heavier, but has more headroom before your child outgrows it.

For travel, the tent collapses down and the tentpole-like material that provides structure to the canopy curls in a tripartite sort of way, making the whole package circular. (The inflatable mat packs down separately.) Folded, the diameter of this disc is about 24 inches with maybe 5-6 inches of thickness.

We used our Peapod traveling with Hannah in 2009 and 2010. It performed very well. It was straightforward to pack or carry separately -- sometimes as a carryon bag on a plane -- and fairly quick to set up on the other end. We also would generally contrive to stay in suites or apartments or other such rooms while traveling. In a setup like this, we found that we could set the tent up in the bedroom at the start of the night, and drag it out to the living room gently when we were ready to go to sleep ourselves without waking Hannah up. This would have been pretty much impossible with a travel crib.

Some other notes: the pump included to inflate the air mattress was acceptable, but a little chintzy. Using a proper bike pump with a ball-nozzle attachment was always a better option if available. We also learned that if packing the bed for a short car trip -- dinner with friends before returning to our sleeping quarters, for example -- it was helpful to deflate the mattress just enough to fold it in half before transporting the bed by car, for ease of setup on the other side.

We never used the sleeping bag included with the package. Also, the design doesn’t admit a fitted sheet or anything, so Hannah was sleeping on bare plastic, and would sometimes wake up with a sweaty head. If she’d ever had a messy issue of some sort in the Peapod -- badly blown diaper, say, or vomit -- it would have been hard to clean up. Nothing like that ever happened, though.

In all, I recommend the product pretty wholeheartedly. Enough so that I recommended it to my brother and sister-in-law, who bought a smaller-sized one for their son, and have inherited ours. (Probably our fault -- we called it Hannah’s “Baby Tent”, and when Hannah clearly no longer thought of herself as a baby, she didn’t want to use it any more. We travel with a kiddie Aerobed instead nowadays.)

You may have a hard time finding a retailer for it. Even, notably, Amazon. Why?

The Incident

If you do searches for peapods nowadays -- “peapod amazon” in a Google search, for example, or “peapod safety”, you’ll likely turn up something like this link. Or perhaps this Amazon discussion. Blockquoting from the former:

URGENT NEWS: 5 Month Old Infant Passes Away in PeaPod Travel Crib

Twiniversity Member Christine Moyers writes:
“On Dec. 23 my son Daniel died of “positional asphyxiation” — he suffocated — while sleeping in his PeaPod Travel Crib. Yesterday I spoke with Dr. Jessica French, the medical examiner who conducted my son Daniel’s autopsy, and while it will take a few more weeks for the results to be finalized, she can say now that Daniel suffocated, and did not die of SIDS.
The PeaPod Travel Crib has non-breathable lower siding.”
Christine goes on to say “I asked Dr. French if Daniel would still be alive if I had not put him in the PeaPod Crib — and she said yes, he would be. He was a healthy, thriving, beautiful baby boy.
This was an accident in an unsafe product. I know that intellectually. But our job as parents is to protect our babies. And for that I feel like a failure.
Please pass this information along to anyone and everyone you know. According to the company, “hundreds of thousands” of these tents have been sold. Given what we now know, NO BABY should sleep in a PeaPod Travel Crib.

Following on some other links (amazon review permalink, for example), you’ll find that the incident happened when visiting grandparents, and is the first time either child had been in the product. (Twins; the other child was unharmed.) By the way, when this story started pinging around last March, when Amazon received the review describing the death, etc., they pulled the product from their virtual shelves. It is not back as of this writing.

Anyway, this all sounds pretty serious. I am very sorry for Christine’s and her husband’s (and her whole family’s) loss. “Yikes,” I thought, “was I exposing Hannah to undue risk by using this product?” But another part of me was wondering “well, there was a certification process for this product. I don’t have the domain-specific knowledge to understand whether that process missed something. Or perhaps this incident was just a fluke?” I try not to expose our children (or ourselves) to easily avoidable risk -- I load my dishwasher silverware-pointed-down because kids have been hurt falling into open dishwashers, to provide some perspective -- but it’s impossible to legislate and design all the risk out of a product, an activity, or any other real-world interest.

So I went digging for more details on what actually happened in this case.  It took a little bit of digging, but here’s the CPSC incident report:

On Dec. 23, 2011 we found our five-month-old son dead in his PeaPod Plus Portable Children's Travel Bed (Model P201). He was rolled three-quarters of the way onto his belly, face down and with his weight pressing him into in the non-breathable plastic sidingof the travel crib. As per manufacturer's instructions, we had not zippered the travel bed shut, so his legs were hanging out of the "door" of the travel bed.

It continues from there, but hey. Wait a second. That’s not what the manufacturer’s instructions actually say to do! Leaving aside the issue that you’re giving your child access to the whole room they’re in should they wriggle out of the bed -- instead of access to just a small, enclosed, flat space -- the unzippered edge of the compartment is now a lip elevated 4-7 inches off the ground to get hung up on. Bad things could clearly happen if you step back and think it through. A kid could end up lying face-down on a plastic surface, needing to change positions, but with nothing to kick at or push off of but air. You could imagine the same thing happening with, say, an ordinary crib with some missing slats. (The breathability of the top of a mattress -- fitted sheet notwithstanding -- is hardly high.)

So here’s what the manufacturer’s instructions actually say (for this model; also the one that we owned):

Some PeaPod models have side zipper panels that can be rolled and  
secured in an open position using the hook and eye clasps provided.
To leave main zipper panel open, simply flip unzipped panel up and
over top of PeaPod Plus.

My emphasis. The instructions don’t tell you that you should keep the zippered panels open. Merely that it’s a possibility. In the context of a preceding sentence about possibilities, not something you must do. These are situational instructions, one would think; if the peapod is being used for supervised play, or for older children who can unzip the thing themselves anyway.

So really, this seems like a really sad and tragic user error. I don’t say this to pin some kind of badge of bad parenting on Christine and her husband -- I’m incredibly sympathetic and sorry for their loss -- just that in this one case, they made a mistake that had a risk of a bad outcome, and they got unlucky. There but for the grace of God and all that. The stresses and strains of caring for two newborns -- Hannah’s a single, I can scarcely imagine caring for twins -- can’t have helped either.

Could the product instruction sheet have been clearer? Yes, but the way in which the instructions were misread was very fluky. For the sake of obviousness, I’ll predict that future versions of the instructions will disclaim: “IF USING THIS PRODUCT FOR SLEEP WITH A CHILD OF LIMITED STRENGTH AND MOBILITY, OR IN ANY CASE ONE BELOW 18 MONTHS OF AGE, BE SURE TO SECURE THE SLEEPING AREA BY ZIPPERING THE MESH SHUT.”

Which is to say, I don’t think the Peapod’s danger as a product is at all commensurate with its web infamy. Again, keep in mind that no thing or activity is wholly risk-free, but there’s no evidence that this product has been injurious when used appropriately. Reading the first few links I’d found casually, you’d think that no sane, informed parent would go near the Peapod, and it took some digging to figure out what really happened. I hope this balances out the picture for you. Pay attention when you use it -- that really goes for just about everything -- but I recommend it.

Disclaimer

I’m not an insider to this story at all, nor a domain expert. I’m just piecing stuff together that I’ve seen in internet posts, product reviews, product manuals, etc. I don’t have any financial interest in in KidCo, its parent company, or its success. Similarly for Amazon. I suppose Amazon is a major client of Google advertising products, so if controversy over the safety of the KidCo Peapod might affect Amazon’s advertising strategy around that particular product, this could affect my employer financially. But this all seems extremely attenuated.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Review: Clif Crunch Bar

For many years, I've relied on the Clif bar as my standard bar for on the bike or hiking nutrition. It's a moist tasty bar that fits in the jersey pocket, doesn't go bad too quickly, and tastes better than many of the alternatives I've tried. The bad thing about them: cost. You can occasionally find them for $1/bar at the supermarket when there's a sale, but they frequently cost as much as $1.50 per bar. Given that a decent length bike ride can use up 2-4 bars, it's really expensive. And your usual suspect for low prices, Costco, doesn't let you choose flavors, but instead gives you a variety pack.

Well, I recently saw the Clif crunch bar at Costco. These are much cheaper, around $0.40/bar from Amazon, with a subscribe and save option that's even cheaper. You might think that they're less calorie dense, but at 200 calories per package, they're just as calorie dense as the regular clif bar. They even taste better (I sampled both peanut butter and the chocolate macadamia nut versions)

I've been using them for the last 4 months and they're really pretty good. You might think that they'd fall apart during a ride, but in practice, that's rarely happened, and when they did fall apart, it wasn't an issue: I wanted them in smaller bite size pieces anyway! They're no good if you have to eat while riding, because if they fall apart on a bite you'll lose bits of the bar. But I'm a bike tourist, not a racer. And at the price difference, you could lose half a package per use and still come out ahead.

Highly recommended. I'll be switching to them permanently for my long distance rides and hikes.

Review: The Apocalypse Codex

After The Fuller Memorandum, Stross lost a lot of credit with me. He's simply not capable of producing a spy thriller the way John Le Carre or Tim Powers does. So when The Apocalypse Codex came out, I just put a hold on it in the library expecting to not get past a couple of chapters.

Fortunately, Stross returns to form in this novel. Bob Howard, the protagonist, has been promoted into management and is now assigned to take care of two contractors. The plot revolves around an evil TV evangelist (are there any other kind?) and of course, Lovecraftian horrors.

The setting has lost all of its freshness at this point, but Stross manages to keep it lively and of course, his usual sneer on American culture and religious fanaticism is fun for those of us who are religious cynics. The book is short and easily finished on a moderate length plane ride.

Recommended as an airplane novel. But read The Atrocity Archives or The Jennifer Morgue first if you haven't already done so.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen

I checked out Alif the Unseen from the library after Scarlet praised it to the heavens on her blog.

It's a fusion of Arabian fantasy and hacker culture. Maybe if you liked one thousand and one nights and perhaps enjoyed Snow Crash but wished it had a little less virtual reality you would enjoy it.

Set in an unknown country in the middle east in an un-named city, Alif the unseen is a proxy operator getting paid to shield his clients from the ever prying eye of a typical oppressive middle-eastern state. He has a girlfriend, an annoying neighbor, and few other friends, most of whom he's met on the internet. When his girlfriend suddenly breaks off their engagement, his life starts falling apart as the oppressive government suddenly takes an interest in him.

From then on, it's a boisterous romp through the hidden side of the fantastic Arabia: the parts when Djinns live. Our protagonist moves between the world (though not without unease), dragging his annoying neighbor along and getting into one scrape after another as he tries to avoid the authorities and win back his love. He discovers a magic book which allows him to tap into the quantum mysteries of the world, and that sets off a chain of events which leads to an Arab spring.

I wanted to like this book, but the protagonist, unfortunately, is a whiner. Not only is he a whiner, he spends a lot of time being in denial, either about the world he finds himself in, his ex-girlfriend, his annoying neighbor, or even his current state of affairs. In fact, his role in the plot feels like he's just being swept away by one event or another (or by one person or another) without any control whatsoever. As a result, his character doesn't change, and when he does finally grow up, I found the result unbelievable.

Having said that, the world that Wilson creates is enjoyable, and her use of technical details fairly accurate (not withstanding her non-understanding of what quantum computing could actually do), something unusual in a fantasy writer. The motif of a book-within-a-book was fun, but in the end I didn't feel like the author managed to make me think that it was anything other than a MacGuffin.

Would I recommend this book? Mildly. It was worth checking it out at the library, but I certainly wouldn't recommend paying full price for it. If the protagonist annoys you put it down because he's not going to get any less annoying. If you're into the the recent events in the middle east, perhaps it would resonate more for you. As it is, I think I would recommend The Magician King or The Kingdom of Gods over this book.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Among Others has won the Hugo!

Last year's Hugos were no good for me, but this year's Best Hugo Novel was won by Among Others, which is a highly recommended book for me.

I've read all but one of the runner ups, and I agree, none of them deserve to win compared to what Jo Walton has done. Highly recommended, and if my earlier review didn't cause you to run out and buy and read the book, maybe this award will.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Review: Skizz

Skizz is a standalone graphic novel by Alan Moore. It was first serialized in 2000 A.D> at the start of his career, and the plot sounds very much like E.T.: an extra terrestrial is stuck on Earth, and some high schoolers end up having to rescue him from the government.

Despite what feels like a derivative plot, the book works in typical Alan Moore fashion: the high schooler who finds Skizz is a self-confident, actively involved girl, Roxy. There are many funny moments as she tries to figure out on her own what to do with "her" Alien. Skizz does learn to talk, and he does not seem as pathetic as the E.T. from the movie.

Finally, the end of the story is a bit too similar to E.T., but again, Roxy had a plan that did not depend on the Deus Ex Machina. I liked that.

Was this a waste of time? No. Is this a don't miss like Swamp Thing or even The Ballad of Halo Jones? No. Mildly recommended, but read the others first if you haven't already read them.