Thursday, November 29, 2012

2013 Book Reviews

Books of the year have been selected!

Non-Fiction
Fiction

Review: No Easy Day

No Easy Day is Mark Owen's account of the mission that killed Osama bin ladin, and an autobiographical account of how he came to be on that mission.

What's most impressive about the book is the picture of the American military. They were under incredible constrains: for instance they had to take photos and provide documentary evidence of the combat site after the combat in order to satisfy lawyers and provide the government evidence that they did engage combatants rather than civilians. I know the Israeli army is under similar constraints, but I didn't expect the commando types to not only have to take out a target, but also document all the circumstances they did. In the book, Owen describes a colleague who quit when the documentary requirements for doing the job became too much as the locals learned the rules the US military operated under. For instance, insurgents would make sure that their weapons were stowed in a different place from where they slept, assured that if the Seals came to make an assault they would be considered non combatants and therefore spared to fight another day.

The amount of weight in body armor and gear is also incredible. Jumping out of a helicopter with 60 pounds of gear does sound really extreme. The constant training and fitness preparation does sound really daunting. Another thing that comes through is how much Owen (a pseudonym) loves his job. For instance, he could have joined the Navy as an officer, given that he had a college degree, but chose to enlist because it would provide him with more combat. He proudly boasts that he'd never had a desk job or been away from the front-lines: he was either training or deployed.

That's cool information about Seal Team 6, the amount of work that goes into preparing for the Neptune Spear mission, and the Obama-ordered mission itself, including maps of the compound they assaulted, and a detailed description of what happened. If you are a gun nut you will love the description of all the custom weaponry available to Seals and what the load out was.

The account of the assault was exciting, and it's interesting to read the Osama did not himself take up arms but was shot in action.

There's some politics in the book. The author was clearly not an Obama fan, and bragged that he probably secured Obama an election victory. In reality, the killing of Bin Laden was not a factor in the 2012 elections, having occurred too early in the campaign. On the other hand, the account was exciting and fun to read. The book's short --- I finished it in about 4 hours, so it's a suitable airplane book. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Favorite 8 Trips

I've traveled enough to have opinions on what trips are great. My criteria for the following list is simply this: Am I willing to repeat the trip? If it doesn't make that criteria, it doesn't make this list. I'll start from the best trips. Note that anything I've already done more than once automatically comes ahead of the ones that I've done only once.
  1. Cycling The Alps. Well, this isn't theoretical. I've repeated this trip no less than 4 times, and each time, I come back wondering why I do anything else on vacation. On my recent trip to Hawaii, I found myself dreaming about touring the Alps. Nothing beats this.
  2. Hiking the Bernese Oberland. I've done this three times. Each time it's been magical, and I find something new. If you enjoy hiking even a little bit, do this trip.
  3. The Canadian Rockies. This includes Glacier National Park. I've also done this trip 3 times. It's not Switzerland, but it's the closest you can get in North America. And it offers great camping. For hot springs though, visit Yellowstone National Park instead.
  4. Sailing, Snorkeling, and Diving the Caribbean. I've done this 3 times, once with a skipper who was a total ass. I like it so much I want to do it again. I could do this every year, and not get tired of it.
  5. Cycling the Pacific Coast. I've done the entire coast on my bike. The parts I've repeated are the California coast. Not to say that Washington and Oregon aren't pretty, but California has the best weather, the highest roads, and the best scenery. I'd ride it again.
  6. Coast to Coast in England. I've only done this once. But it's easily the best long hike I've ever done. I could be easily persuaded to do this hike again. Or visit any of the famous long walks in England. It's a pity that England is so expensive, but I'll be taking Bowen on at least one of these classic walks once he's old enough.
  7. Japan. I've only been in Japan once during the 2009 Tour of Hokkaido. The cycling is pretty crappy compared to Bay Area riding, so I wouldn't go there for cycling again. But I would happily go back to Japan again for the hot springs, the food, and the people and adventures. The hiking is pretty solid, but you have to be into volcano hiking. I've had enough of volcanoes for a while.
  8. New Zealand. It's pretty, it's infuriatingly tough to get to, and the cycling sucks. But the mountain biking and hiking is great, and I'd be happy to go back.
I'm not the kind of person who can repeat a trip endlessly and not want to try new things. However, in my lifetime I've discovered that there are certain places so magical that it's worth returning to do discover new things. These places are so rewarding that I find myself dreaming of doing so. If you've not visited these places I strongly recommend that you put them on your list.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Product Review: Garmin GLO bluetooth GPS unit [guest post]

For 2 years or so, I’ve been using a track-recording app on my Android phone to plot my courses on cycling and running excursions. I’m a cyclist, but in the past 3 years I’ve added running to the mix of things I do. On cycling trips, a cyclecomputer will tell me things like ride distance, average speed in motion, etc., but there’s nothing easy to wire into my running shorts to get the same effect on a run. I got interested in tracking runs with GPS, and it snowballed to tracking rides that way as well pretty directly. I was already carrying my phone with me in case of emergency or mechanical failure anyway.

Also, in about the same time frame, I got more active in a social media scene, after Google+ launched publicly. Posting about a completed run or ride, including the exact track, has been a reasonably nice use of the platform. And for the morbidly curious, here’s my Strava profile. I typically log all runs there -- I can’t get good metrics on them otherwise -- but I only log notable or unusual bike rides.

Over time, though, I noticed a couple of problems with using my phone to lay down a GPS track:

  1. Recording adversely affects battery life. I’d get maybe 8-9 hours tops before the phone was nearly out of juice.
  2. On the phones I’ve recently owned [1], GPS accuracy is fairly poor. In fact, even staying stationary in the open, the GPS position will jitter.

Both of these factors conspire towards making one adopt a behavioral tic: when stopped for a considerable length of time, hit the “Pause” button on the GPS-track recording app [2]. When the ride or run resumes, unpause and resuming recording. Which brings us to another pair of problems:

  • Pausing the phone for every traffic light, 2-minute drinking break at a water fountain, etc., is a prohibitive pain-in-the-butt, so you’ll just have to accept the jitter sometimes.

  • At the long stops, where you do take the trouble to pause: will you remember to unpause the GPS app when underway again? It’s easy to forget!

It seems most people deal with these problem by buying a Garmin GPS-enabled cyclecomputer or GPS training watch. The latter would be a better choice if running is in the mix. I didn’t give this option too much consideration, though. I like the idea of having a smartphone with a reasonable amount of computing and interactive power recording my ride. I also like uploading activities to the web directly from the device. Tethering [3] my recording device to a full-sized computer at the end of my rides to do anything at all interesting with the data appears to be the usual option with Garmin, and it seems... less appealing. Maybe I’m just impatient, but I like to have the basic thing that I do with a ride taken care of on its completion, not as part of some post-completion task. Sometimes a post-completion task that I’d be hours away from being able to complete -- many of my runs and rides do not end at home.

Then I heard (from an office e-mail list) some prerelease buzz about the Garmin GLO. Part of the context of this discussion was “hey, the Garmin Connect software ecosystem is kinda poor; this would be a way to get good Garmin data without having to butt heads with the software.”  This is perhaps hearsay, though; I’d love to hear some more definitive opinions on that in the comments.

The GLO is a small external GPS receiver which connects to a client device via bluetooth. Speaking more accurately, the device locates and tracks GPS and GLONASS satellites; the latter is a parallel system to GPS, largely workalike, with roots in the old USSR aerospace sector. It is also the namesake acronym for the device. An Android or iOS device can be configured to use the GLO as its GPS data source rather than the built-in GPS hardware [4]. The GLO gets its initial GPS fix relatively quickly -- though more on this later -- and once fixed, updates its position at 10 Hz. (With a phone, you’d probably be lucky to get a 1-Hz refresh.) Advertised battery life is 12 hours between charges.

What does it look like? Here: next to a deck of cards, for scale. The GLO is slightly slimmer than the deck.

The middle LED monitors the Bluetooth connection between the device and its counterparty. The lower LED is a GPS signal and battery status indicator. It is mounted on a push button that turns the device on and off.

GPS accuracy with this device was hyped as being quite good. Great! The promise of that was enough to justify the $99 asking price alone. The next potential benefit: a bluetooth GPS unit could be good for phone battery life by offloading power-hungry GPS calls to an external unit (and battery) and substituting lightweight bluetooth calls in their stead.

I hoped that if the battery-life improvements were good enough, maybe I could generally keep the unit recording continuously rather than worrying about pausing at long stops and forgetting to unpause later on.

Setup Guide

Given that there’s no good guide for setting up this device with Android elsewhere on the web, and it wasn’t entirely trivial to figure out, here’s a quick how-to:

  • Turn both devices on.
  • Pair your phone and the GLO via the standard approach for bluetooth devices.
  • Install the Bluetooth GPS app onto the android device.
  • Launch the app
    • Go into the settings, and allow the phone to “Use Insecure Connection” (which isn’t checked-off/allowed by default).
    • Back in the Main App screen, check the box to “Enable Mock GPS Provider”. This will take you to a developer option in the phone settings.
    • Back in the Main App screen, touch the dropdown to select the source GPS device. It’ll be “Garmin GLO #6eadb” or something similar.

All of this is one-time setup. That done, connecting to the GLO is then just a question of launching the app and pressing the big “Connect” button.


I can’t directly comment on the setup process on iOS, though copy associated with the product makes me suspect it is less involved, as the device is specifically certified as compatible with Apple devices.

Initial Results


GLO accuracy is much better than base phone GPS accuracy. Here’s how a segment of my typical run to work looks if recorded with the base phone GPS (image taken from http://app.strava.com/runs/18462316):



and here’s how it looks with the GLO (http://app.strava.com/runs/19567252):

Much smoother, even scaled down a bit so as not to be unwieldy on this page, and generally much truer to my actual path. The GLO will still be off by a bit sometimes -- there are still lots of tall buildings in Manhattan, certainly -- but typically the egregiousness of this error is much reduced.

In fact, the built-in phone hardware was typically overstating the length of my runs by about 10%.

I haven’t yet completely run down the GLO battery in a single go, but the advertised life of 12 hours seems to be about right.

On the phone side of things, though, I wasn’t realizing the gains in battery life I was hoping for. Using the GLO was draining my battery more rapidly! Seemingly relatedly, my phone was warm to the touch after prolonged GLO-linked use.

Debugging battery life issues, and the solution


The first thing I checked was whether explicitly disabling the onboard GPS hardware made a difference when using the “Mock” source instead. This didn’t matter, though.

“Google Maps” was listed as the culprit application or process in the battery usage log, with the Strava App coming in distant second. Hmmm.

Then I noticed that for trips of 3+ hours, the Strava app would have trouble successfully uploading to Strava’s cloud servers at all. Digging into the underlying storage on the phone, I realized that the underlying .gpx files the app was creating were unusually large when using the GLO compared to without.

A-ha! The refresh rate on the GLO is 10 Hz, compared with maybe one update per second with the built-in hardware. How frequently does the Strava App poll for updates? Best as I can tell, it does so continuously, as fast as the device will allow for it. My conclusion is that the app was not engineered for the GLO’s speedy turnaround time, and was running itself (and my phone) ragged trying to keep up with all the updates.

Alas, the Strava app does not allow manually tuning the GPS refresh rate; it only offers ASAP behavior. MyTracks allows for tuning, though. I was able to reproduce the same battery drain & warmth effects with MyTracks at its default settings, but dropping the refresh rate down takes care of it immediately. Battery life was obviously improved with a 1-second polling interval, marginally improved further from there with a 2-second polling interval, and debatably improved again with a 5-second interval. Lately I’ve been using a 5-second interval.

With this tweak in place, battery performance seems to improve slightly over the non-GLO alternative, but not remarkably so. It’s still advisable to pause recording at a long stop [5].

Also, MyTracks’ introduction means that my workflow on the phone does not include automatic upload to Strava when the ride is done. Instead, I save the file to the device in GPX format, and then “share” the track file by email, To: upload@strava.com . It’s unfortunate. If I know a workout will be short, especially if I have means to charge my phone on the other end, I’ll often opt for the Strava app instead, heedless of the battery implications.

I’d also note that even if battery life weren’t at issue, pausing at long stops would still be good idea, if the stop involves a trip indoors. Movement indoors can cause apparent jitter in position even if there is none in actuality, as the GLO gets partial or reflected readings even inside the building.

Not just for run- and ride-tracking


I’ve also paired my phone with the GLO when getting ordinary turn-by-turn directions from the navigation feature of the Maps app. This has been helpful in gauging my position and upcoming turns more accurately. (With built-in GPS, sometimes my phone would lose track of me when driving, e.g., on the elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and decide that I was on one of the parallel frontage roads or on an underlying avenue instead. Eep.)

Other quirks


The first time the device is turned on in a rampantly new geography -- out of doors, with a good view of much of the sky -- it takes maybe 20-30 seconds to get an initial fix on its position. I noticed this when the device was new, and again immediately after air travel. There have been a few instances of the latter. Shorter positional gaps during which the device was off -- between work and home, say, or the 35 miles between my own apartment and my parents’ house -- have delayed initial fix slightly, but less dramatically.

If I start to record an activity before I get initial GPS fix -- something I’d really like to be able to do freely, since I live in an apartment building -- the recording app seems to receive a few stray points from the last place the GLO had a fix on its position, which get inserted as junk data at the beginning of my overall track. If I don’t want to wait before getting underway, I can repair this after the fact by manually editing the .gpx file before loading it. It’s human-readable XML, so this is fairly trivial. Alternately, I may use the “Crop Ride” feature in Strava after upload, though this seems to be slightly too blunt an instrument.

The unit will flash a different pattern on the charging/fix LED if it is running low on power. IME, it will shut itself off soon after that. There’s no way to otherwise gauge the runtime remaining, except to charge it fully. I tend to do this even if I don’t think I need the full runtime, just to make sure the device is in a known state.

If the connection between the GLO and my phone goes sour mid-activity, I’ve found that I have to power-cycle the GLO before it starts serving data properly again. I’ve only seen this happen if I physically separate the GLO and the phone, though. For example, let’s say I lock up my bike and take my pannier, with GLO inside, into a cafe. I put the phone in my pocket. Then I leave the pannier with my family while going to the bathroom 20 yards & a door distant. Oops.

The power button requires a press (for a short count) to turn on, or a press and hold (for a long count) to turn off.  This makes it too easy for the GLO to “turn itself on” if put in a pouch or a pocket, and silently drain away its battery out-of-sight. I’ve taken to wedging a small piece of paper between the battery’s contacts and the pickups in the battery slot to keep the GLO off when I really want it off. At other times, I stow the paper harmlessly under the battery cover.

I also worry about the converse problem -- the device “turning itself off” -- but this hasn’t happened yet. In any case, a sliding on-off switch may have been a better design choice.

Conclusions


Despite the quirks, the drawbacks of the polling-frequency workaround, and the fact that phone battery-life improvements are marginal, I do like this device. Seeing smoothly-drawn track lines at the end of a ride or run is much more satisfying than seeing squigglies, and the improved distance accuracy for running trips is very valuable in its own right. It’s enough trouble that I don’t bother with it for ordinary rides to work, but I never bothered with tracking these rides before anyway.

I would probably enjoy using a GPS watch as well, if I had one. Prices are slightly less gentle than the $100 GLO -- figure $170 MSRP for a decent wired-data-transfer GPS watch, or $250 MSRP for one that syncs wirelessly, via ANT+ -- but that wasn’t really the blocking consideration. Mainly, I consider the necessary intervention of a computer to get the data off such a device to be a serious drawback, and I can usually get away without doing this with the GLO. I’d like the GLO even more if I didn’t have to be so careful not to trip over its many quirks, alas. And if these quirks weren’t sometimes easiest to remedy with, in fact, computer intervention.

If you think you might be of a similar mindset, give the Garmin GLO some consideration.


---

[1] GPS accuracy on my current phone, a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, is poor. My previous phone/current backup phone, a Samsung Nexus S, is even worse.
[2] The Strava app has had a “Pause” button as long as I’ve used Strava. MyTracks finally added one a few months ago.
[3] Yes, I realize many devices can communicate wirelessly via ANT+ and don’t require a literal tethered USB cord to transfer data.
[4] Some Android and iOS devices even lack built-in GPS entirely. The most notable examples are wifi-only Apple devices, such as the iPod Touch and the wifi-only iPad.
[5] Lately I’ve been playing games to remind myself to unpause recording before I proceed. The latest: I’ll stash my phone somewhere on my person that I usually don’t -- in a jersey pocket instead of its usual spot in my pannier, for example. When I ask myself later “Hey, why did I take this out of the pannier?”, it jogs my memory. "Oh, right, I need to hit unpause before I put it away."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

9 Dives that I recommend

My recent trip reminded me that I should list the best dives I've done. I'm not an avid diver, but I've been blessed with having done a bunch of great dives, to the extent that "normal" dives don't feel worth it any more. In order of appearance in my log book:
  1. Fredriksted Pier Dive. A fun, easy dive, that's got lots to see, despite being a pier dive. A great "post-certification" dive.
  2. The Wreck Of the Rhone. A classic, gorgeous wreck, which is so old it's basically an artificial reef. Enjoyable with clear water and lots of history and things to do. Recommend that you do this the first time as a guided dive.
  3. Steve's Bommie. Easily my favorite dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Schools and schools of fish. Just unbeatable.
  4. Exmouth Navy Pier. Like diving in an aquarium. I never saw so many sharks in such a small place.
  5. Cathedral in Bequia. Easily the best drift dive I've ever done. Stunning wildlife.
  6. Felipe Xiotencatl. A still largely intact ship with lots of swim throughs. You get to even sit on a still working commode.
  7. Chac Mool Scuba diving in a cavern. Stalactites, stalagmites. Floating through thermoclines. Spelunking without getting dirty. A heck of a lot of fun. People die doing these things, so go with a guide who knows what they're doing.
  8. The Indians. A beautiful shallow dive that's gorgeous in the morning. Swim throughs and all sorts of delights. Worth repeating.
  9. Manta Ray Night Dive. Worth a trip to Kona for. Enough said.

Of the lot, I'd say that Ningaloo Reef is easily the most over-looked dive area. The snorkeling there is also fantastic, with drift snorkeling being one possibility. Watch out for sun burn though!

Having said all this, if I never dove again I wouldn't mind that much. For me, it's mostly something I do opportunistically (i.e., if I happen to be in the tropics with good diving). I wouldn't go out of my way to plan another dive-oriented trip again.

Hawaii Big Island

Hawaii Big Island
XiaoQin, her parents, Bowen and I went to Hawaii from Halloween to Thanksgiving day this year. We'd arranged this through Home Exchange. We had already done a home exchange over the summer, so were familiar with the process and how things worked.

Flying into Kona airport, we picked up a rental Altima and drove it over to Hilo, unfortunately acquiring a speeding ticket on saddle road. The roads in Hawaii are designated with deliberately low speed limits in order to attract more tourist revenue. I drove like a local (very slowly) for the rest of the trip.

We spent a couple of days snorkeling and diving. I went with Nautilus Dive Center because it was the only dive shop near Hilo which was the only dive shop around. I was determined to get an advanced dive certification on this trip, so signed up for it. Unfortunately, I was to learn that the Hilo area is possibly the least satisfying diving you can find in the tropics. The highest visibility I ever got was 30 feet, and while the area had great amounts and variety of wildlife, the entry and exits were always in cold water --- the entry points usually had a freshwater well which gave you fresh water from Mauna Kea, so after just one dive I was cold and on the second dive I was freezing.

From Hawaii Big Island

Arturo and his sister was visiting Hawaii as well, so we took a day and joined them to explore the Volcano National Park. There, we got to see the crater rim, hike inside the rim itself, and go look at the old lava flows. I was sad about not bringing Bowen along until I read at the visitor center that the air was full of poisonous sulfur-derived gasses. Don't bring your baby on this trip!

From Hawaii Big Island

Unfortunately, I caught a cold right after the second set of dives. So we spent the next few days just swimming, and me watching people swim from the shore. We did take day trips to see the Lava State Park (which was all of half an hour), and Kaimu Beach Park, which was a black sand beach with a lot of views of the Lava. XiaoQin took a great photo of Bowen and I on that beach, which I love.

From Hawaii Big Island
When my cold got better, we took a trip up to the top of Mauna Kea. At 14000+ feet, this is well above the clouds, so no matter what it's doing in Hilo (usually torrential rain), the top is always clear, if cold. XiaoQin and I picked up a couple of hitch-hikers and we drove to the top just in time to see the sunset. Because it's so high, the guidebooks tell you not to bring your baby (or anyone under 16!).
From Hawaii Big Island
From Hawaii Big Island

I finished up my advanced certificate in Hilo and swore never to dive there again. I would classify the diving as "not insanely bad", but I don't consider it worth anybody's time. At least, not anyone who's done any amount of decent diving.

From Hawaii Big Island
Unfortunately, XiaoQin caught a ear infection while swimming. It was very painful, resulting in visiting a clinic once and a hospital once and having to get drugs. I bought some Ear Plugs for her to use if she ever chose to go swimming again.

We drove over to Kona where we stayed at the Wyndham Kona Hawaiian Resort. The resort was an incredible deal on Expedia, and we realized why when we arrived. It turned out that the same parent company owned Expedia and the Time Share resort. Time shares are such incredibly bad deals that they are frequently resold on eBay for $1, because the maintenance fees are so exorbitant that you couldn't possibly re-coop it unless you really only ever went to one place on vacation every year.

Arturo had highly recommended Jack Diving Locker's Manta Ray Night Dive, so I went for it.

I can say without a doubt that this is the best night dive I've ever done. You do it in 2 dives. Once in the evening as a late afternoon dive to get to know the site. We saw a Manta right away, as well as a Tiger Shark! Then you get everything lit up and sit at the bottom of a 40' well and see the rays move serenely through it all. Looking a lot like space ships from Star Trek. They come so close that you're not even a foot away. I'd be very disillusioned about diving lately given how bad the dives were in Hilo, but this dive made me remember why I went diving: to see places and things I would normally see. This dive has it in spades. It's expensive and worth every penny.

The next dive I did was with Jack's as well, their Pelagic Magic dive. You drive out in the middle of the ocean, are tethered to the dive boat, and then spend the dive staring at your flashlight's beam lighting up all sorts of little critters. It's fun, but it's not that interesting in that you're in some sense sitting in a closet looking at the dust particles your flashlight is shining at. Of course, those particles are a live, and move, but you're also slowly getting dis-oriented. It's definitely a dive worth doing, but if you do do it, just go down tot he bottom of the tether and stay there for the entire dive. The reason is if you try to move up even 20', what happens is that the bouncing waves bounce you right to the surface, and then going down again is risky.

For our last day, we snorkeled and kayaked the Cook monument. You're supposed to have a permit to do so, but apparently that's unenforced, so you could cheap out and just hire Kayaks. It wasn't that expensive to hire a guide with a permit, so we did it just to be safe. This was a great and exciting snorkel site, quite possibly the best snorkeling I'd ever done. We stayed for well over 2 hours in the water until XiaoQin got cold despite her wet-suit.
From Hawaii Big Island
My last Hawaii trip was a disappointment. This one was marginally better. My tips would be:
  1. Spend all your time in Kona. Don't waste your time on the East side of the island.
  2. Volcano National Park and Mauna Kea are each worth a day
  3. Cook monument snorkeling is great. Do it.
  4. Manta Ray Night Dive is a must do. It's worth getting certified to do this.
This is enough for a 5-7 day visit. For more than that, Hawaii's pretty much not worth it. My joke since 2005 has been to answer any question about any trip to the temperate zones with: "Yeah, it's pretty... if you haven't visited the Swiss/Austrian/Italian Alps in the summer." I think my standard response to a tropical vacation would be, "Yeah, it's decent. If you haven't sailed/dived/snorkeled in the Caribbean." To my mind any time in the Caribbean trumps an equivalent amount of time in Hawaii. The water's warmer, the water clarity's better (though Kona's not bad --- it's almost comparable to the Caribbean), and obviously, there's no sailing in Hawaii. The surfing's better in Hawaii, but overall, Hawaii's also more expensive.

I once worked for a company that tried to reward employees who did something special with trips to Las Vegas. My response was that I'd pay not to have to go to Las Vegas (which I've had to do on business too many times). While I wouldn't consider a trip to Hawaii a punishment the way a trip to Las Vegas would be, I can think of far better things to do with my limited time and money. I came back from my last trip to Hawaii needing to plan a BVI trip. I'm feeling the same way right now.

Long Term Review: Keen Newport Sandals

After the Great Sandal Hunt of 2012, I did something very brave. I took my Keen Newport H2 to a 3 week trip in Hawaii as my only pair of shoes. No running shoes, no sandals, just these.

They performed admirably. On Volcano National Park, they handled a 6 mile hike over volcanic rocks and other terrain with no problems. Whether on the beach, in the rain forest, driving a car, or hiking tough terrain, these sandals did anything that I could throw at them, and kept going. They got wet, they dried quickly, and they gripped well on any surface, wet or dry. I've worn them to the point that the imprints on the sole are already partially worn away, so I feel qualified to give these a double thumbs up.

In fact, I'm going to consider buy another pair sized a bit larger to wear with thicker socks for winter use. Needless to say these are highly recommended!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nexus 7 App Recommendations

Now that I've had the Nexus 7 for a while, I can provide some recommendations for applications that are suitable for daily use on the tablet.

  1. Skype. This is by far the best use of a tablet. Skype on the tablet is far more useful than on a laptop or desktop. The tablet is far more portable, and has more processing power than a phone so the video quality is acceptable. It has seen nearly daily use while we were on vacation. In places where we had no cell coverage but had wifi (yes, it happens), Skype has turned the tablet into a very useful phone. In fact, I'm tempted to get the mobile data version of the N7 for general use.
  2. Meridian Player. If you side-load videos to your tablet, you need a video player as the default one won't accept sideloaded videos. Of the lot, Meridian Player is the best. The gestures for fast-forwarding, etc., are very well done. The processing of formats are great, and I like the UI.
  3. Sudoku. This is my go-to game for passing the time when I have just a few minutes. The auto-save feature works well, and it's easy to play for just a minute or two.
  4. Google Reader The big negative about reading on the tablet is that the sharing is quite a disaster. Sharing to Google+ works well, as you might expect, but sharing to delicious depends on a third party app such as Andricious. Andricious is flakey, frequently resulting in "Loading Page Title" as the the anchor text when shared rather than the actual anchor text. Unfortunately, Delicious has chosen to focus on the iOS app instead of Android apps. What this says to me is that I need to curtail reading on the tablet and keep reading on the Windows PCs as much as possible.
  5. New York Times is the best of the news reading apps. What makes it great is something really simple: it works even when disconnected from the internet! None of the other news reading apps work when disconnected from the internet, which defeats the purpose of having an app on the tablet which reads the news since the web browser is just as good. The New York Times app is so good that I'd be tempted to pay for a subscription to the New York Times so I can keep using it when my trial is over. The New York Times app is what Google Reader wants to be when it grows up.
  6. Amazon App Store The free app of the day has typically turned out to be excellent, and sometimes, the price is lower on the Amazon store than on the Google store. Some Googlers I know hate the fact that the store's been fragmented, but if you're a consumer, competition is good!
Other Apps I've got loaded turned out not to be as frequently useful or have some annoying features. In general though, the default set up on the Nexus 7 tablet has proven to be quite good, and certainly the gmail/calendar application is the main reason to buy a Nexus tablet instead of a Kindle tablet.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Books of the Year 2012

This year, I read 66 books, on average more than a book a week, including several graphic novels, including 25 novels most of which were actually quite good. As usual, I leave out magazine subscriptions, but I would be remiss if I didn't keep plugging The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which at $0.99/month for the Kindle edition is quite the bargain. If only its competitors like Asimov's or Analog's would follow suit.

There were quite a number of re-reads this year, and I think I'd have to separate them out from the rest of the new books. Otherwise, nobody would be able to stand up against Dune, for instance.

The best new novel I read this year is Jo Walton's Among Others. At once autobiographical, allegorical, and fantastical, it is written well and should make every science fiction and fantasy reader quiver with delight. It very much deserves the sweep it's made of this year's Hugo and Nebula awards.

Close runner ups include The Magician King and The Kingdom of Gods. It does seem like a great year for fantasy novels. Also close and dear to me are Ready Player One and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

On the non-fiction side, what a great selection of choices. The one that comes to the forefront, however, is Thinking Fast and Slow. It's a great book, and you get to skip all the Dan Ariely books if you read this one. Another surprisingly useful book is Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?. I find myself coming back to this book (and am currently re-reading it again) over and over again. For instance, one of the points made in this book is that exercise actually keeps the telomeres in your DNA from shortening. This literally means reducing your physical age and extending your life. I think about how often I run into people (frequently women) who obsess about wrinkles and white hair but wouldn't even consider an hour a week in the gym. This book is for them (and unfortunately, most of them will never read it).

The reader's choice this year, judging from the number of books sold on Amazon.com from this blog, is The Last Lecture. The price of that book was artificially low though, so I would call Career Warfare the winner based on books sold at full price. Given the shortage of good books on politics in the office, I think there's a market out there for a software engineer-specific political guide. Unfortunately, being an incompetent office politician, I'm the last person who should write that book. If you're a good software engineer office politician and need a ghost writer, however, send me e-mail and let's talk. I guarantee that this is one book that will sell. And sell.

Unfortunately, none of the graphic novels I read this year blew me away, so I'm offering no recommendation in that category. If you can name a really good graphic novel, please let me know. I'll read it and review it for next year.

And yes, the book of the year? Among Others. It's unusual for a fiction piece to beat all the non-fiction pieces, so pick it up if you haven't already!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: A Game of Thrones Season One

I've made no bones about my contention that a Game of Thrones jumped the shark with book four, A Feast for Crows. However, the first three books were still very good, and so I was intrigued when HBO decided to pull out all stops and make a TV series out of it.

If you grew up in Asia, you're very familiar with full-length books turned into tv series. You end up with 72-episode TV with every detail in the books depicted, though sometimes with quite poor special effects. (This was in the 1980s) Well, the HBO series A Game of Thrones Season One is high budget and extremely high quality. I can't say that every detail in the books are in there, but definitely every important detail in the book is there. I was very impressed that the entire first book was covered in effectively 10 hours of video, with all of the blood, gore, sex, and violence from the novels carried over. It's quite clear that at no point did the producers/writers say to themselves: "This is too bloody/sexy for TV."

I look forward to future installments of the series. Though I'm not moved enough to sign up for a cable subscription and/or Tivo, I'm more than happy to keep checking out the DVDs from the library in order to watch the series. I'm also curious to see if the writers for the TV show manage to work themselves out of the inanity that the books have degenerated into. I fantasize that by the fourth of fifth season, they would manage to wrap up the story lines into a neat package and not have any seasons where nothing happens, unlike the books.

Recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Space Station Frontier

I'm a sucker for tower defense games, and when Space Station Frontier was offered on the Amazon Appstore for free I picked it up. I played it on occasion but it seemed too hard, so I abandoned it until recently when a cold forced me to not do anything outside for a while.

It's been a while since I finished any game on any platform, but this game got me to finish it, which speaks very highly of it. The game's premise is that you're a space station commander that's supposed to mine asteroids. You built platforms and power connectors and miners, and of course, laser turrets, missile turrets, rail guns, and other support units. The structure is extremely free form --- you link the objects however you like constrained by the distance between structures and available connections.

Of course, while you're doing this, the enemy is sending you various ships to attack you, starting from light fighters easily dispatched by laser guns, and ending up with dreadnaughts, fighter-carriers, and other vessels which require heavier weaponry. The game seemed really tough at the beginning but after a while I realized that I had to visit the shop in order to upgrade my station's capabilities, buy additional weapons, and other upgrades. You get these credits by playing in the "open" modes (non-scenario modes), and by finishing scenarios in the main campaign. Or you could spend real money and skip the tedium. To the game's credit, it wasn't very much tedium and the open modes are good for exploring tactical or strategic changes to your approach. The reason the game has a comparatively low score on Amazon is that many reviewers seem to think the "tedium" of playing the open mode is excessive. I didn't think it was. In particular, it took several battles before I realized that one of the major constraints was power --- several laser turrets going at once can severely deplete the power on the station, which meant it didn't matter how many resources you were mining as you could not have all your guns operating at once. I thought this was a very clever constrained and the game had many ways for you to manage those constraints. It's a smart combination of a resource-gathering RTS with the tower defense genre.

In any case, as the campaign progresses, your missions get harder and also more interesting. For instance, the last 5 scenarios has you defending a crippled ship in addition to the space station. Many scenarios are "survival" scenarios, where you basically have to last a certain amount of time --- defeat is almost certain, so surviving that time was all that mattered.

What's interesting is that the Amazon Appstore sells this game for $1.25, while the Google Play store charges $1.98. I have no idea why there's this gap. In any case, I consider the price at either store to be a bargain. This game was lots of fun and great on a 7" tablet (either the Kindle Fire, which I was using, or the Nexus 7). I would definitely look forward to a sequel, if any was forthcoming.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Endorsement I'm Proudest Of

I wasn't allowed to blog about this or write about this until today for the obvious reasons. But the best endorsement I'd ever heard from was from the CTO of the Obama for America campaign, Harper Reed. Reed bought a copy of Startup Engineering Management, and wrote back to me after reading it:
I have suggested to all of the tech leadership on the Obama campaign (and the DNC too) to read your book. I hope they take the advice and check it out. It was very good and worthwhile to read. We are not failing.
Needless to say, neither I nor the book can take any credit for the success of the Obama campaign. They did an amazing job and would have done so with or without the book. I can say that from outside the campaign, there were many days when I had my doubt about whether Obama would win, but like any good startup, the campaign labored on regardless of what everyone else said or thought. It is nice to hear that they thought highly of the book, and I'm glad to have done even a tiny bit for the campaign. For an indepth-look at what the Obama campaign built and how it built it, please see this Ars Technica article. I'm obviously very pleased with the results of yesterday's election, and hope to see the promise of Obamacare fulfilled.