Friday, May 30, 2014

Introducing Jemstep

After I met with the founder of Jemstep, I realized that his product was not for me, but a large group (probably even the majority) of Americans would find it to be a great product fit. When William Bernstein visited Google, he asked for a show of hands as to how many people in the room had sizable 401(k)s or IRAs as a percentage of their total portfolio. Nobody raised their hands. He said, "This is completely atypical of American society, where most people's financial assets are largely tied up in their 401(k) or IRA."

The net result is that my approach, and the approach of many of the products I introduce such as Wealthfront, are completely targeted towards people like me. When most of your financial assets are in after-tax portfolio, tax-loss harvesting becomes important, as does qualifying for long term capital gains taxes. When much of your assets are in IRAs or 401(k)s, however, then asset location becomes important.

Jemstep does the hard work of figuring out what the correct asset location for every asset is, and managing multiple assets across all counts. Unfortunately, because everything is done through TrustE, Jemstep cannot place trades for you, or actually manage your disparate accounts. What this means is that you have to manually enter the trades, and deal with the tax consequences thereof. This is in contrast to Wealthfront, which does place trades for you, etc.

Jemstep is fairly cheap. It charges about $70 for an unlimited sized portfolio, and correspondingly less if you have less than $500,000 in assets. But it does a lot less for you than Wealthfront, and you're still stuck with whatever transaction costs are involved. It also doesn't do any of the sophisticated tax-loss harvesting that Wealthfront does. For folks with large taxable portfolios, Wealthfront's fees more than pay for themselves when you take into account tax loss harvesting.

This all sounds really negative, but it isn't. If you're the beneficiary of a tech IPO, or just won the lottery or sold your business, this service is not for you. If you have a huge legacy portfolio in taxable accounts that are unconsolidated, you might want to try Jemstep, but my suspicion is that you're best off slowly migrating your account to Wealthfront, and Jemstep is at best a stop-gap. However, if you're middle-aged, and have a large tax-sheltered portfolio, then asset location matters a lot to you and you're better off with Jemstep than with Wealthfront, especially since it's unlikely that you're able to move your 401(k) to Wealthfront while you're working at the same employer for the next few decades.

In short, I'd suggest checking out Jemstep, but only if your tax-sheltered portfolio is a significant percentage of your net-worth (more than about 20%).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City

On my Facebook comment thread about the new rent vs buy equation, folks mentioned The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City as a good book about the new urbanism and the desire of young white people to live in cities. The Sunnyvale Library had it available for a Kindle checkout, so I got instant gratification.

The book's thesis is that wealthy, affluent white people are going to move into the big cities, while poor black people, Hispanics, and Asians are going to be stuck out in the suburbs. In one section of the book, he claims that Chicago in the 2020s is going to much more like Paris than it would be like Chicago in the 1970s. Hence, the term "Great Inversion".

The crux of the argument lies amongst several factors:
  1. Suburbs are designed for cars and do not have a bustling enough street life.
  2. The children who grew up in the suburbs and cul de sacs have all grown up and moved to big cities in order to go to school, and now would rather stay in the big cities.
  3. People are getting married later, and having children later.
  4. Only 25% of households by 2030 will even have children, which is way down from previous decades.
The net result is a ton of single people who would find city living attractive, despite the relatively high crime (which is declining, but nowhere near as safe as major European or Asian cities) , expensive property prices, and noise. Pollution near cities has become a thing of the past due to the loss of America actually manufacturing anything.

The book then visits several cities or cities in the making, and we a grand tour of Wall Street's recent change into a residential neighborhood, Houston's increasing density, Phoenix's repeated failures to get a genuine downtown area, despite wishing fervently for one, and Denver's experiments with urban areas. Nowhere is the Bay Area explored, which I found disappointing since the gentrification in San Francisco is currently a hot button issue here, and I'd love to find out what Ehrenhalt thinks would happen there.

One thing in  common, however, is that none of the suburban "in-fill" attempts to create a city-like area out of a suburban area have worked, or achieved what's considered a traditional cityscape with residential, retail, and offices all intermingled with mixed use and high pedestrian traffic being the norm. This is not surprising: the car is all important in the suburbs, and it would take a brave developer to risk alienating Americans' love affair with the car.

Undermining Ehrenhalt's predictions are the polls that he quotes. For instance, early in the book he says as much as 41% of young people want to live in a city, but they still expect full use of a car. Fundamentally, cities like San Francisco have such poor public transportation systems that you'd still need a car to go anywhere interesting. Either that, or you'll need to have an employer sponsored bus. This says to me that American cities just aren't there yet, and getting there would take enormous political will that I just don't see happening in the near future.

Ehrenhalt acknowledges that significance of public transit and transportation in all the success stories. Chicago in particular had several neighborhoods exploded in popularity mostly because of the presence of good transit.

What about schools? Urban city schools have particularly poor reputations in California. Ehrenhalt takes a 2 prong approach to this. First, he claims that city dwellers mostly aren't the type to have children anyway. Secondly, he suggests that schools becoming good are the last step in the inversion process. In other words, the demographics of wealthy, white people gentrifying the inner city will drive school scores up as the last step of the process. I'm particularly skeptical of the latter argument, since my experience with wealthy white people in San Francisco is that they just send their kids to private school. Heck, even in Palo Alto where the public schools have a great reputation, wealthy white people seem to do that anyway.

Ultimately though, Ehrenhalt's biggest weakness is that he's extrapolating the recent past into the future. It's quite conceivable, for instance, that the introduction of the self-driving car and electronically controlled traffic could essentially turn public streets and highways into the ultimate public transit system. If those become mainstream, it could very well be that suburbs once again become desirable, since you now have easy access to all the amenities of a city, while still having a bigger home with access to open spaces for kids to play with, or for cycling, hiking, etc.

In any case, Ehrenhalt's right, then the anti-gentrification San Francisco activists definitely have a lot to be worried about. As for myself, I look forward to the day when it would be possible to ride a bike in San Francisco and park a bike outside a restaurant for a meal (or watch a movie or play) without it getting stolen. Without that condition, city life has no appeal whatsoever to me, and American cities are nowhere close to that.

The book comes recommended as interesting reading that's thought provoking. For me, the biggest weakness is that it gets very dreary after a while if you're not a city lover --- after a while, all the big cities just blur together. And seriously, I still have a hard time wondering how anybody can like Paris. It's a boring city that no longer has very good food, and has lousy cycling (though the motorists aren't nearly as hostile as those in San Francisco).

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Michael Jackson: The Experience (PS Vita)

Michael Jackson: The Experience is a touch screen game for the PS Vita and the evil empire's Apple's mobile products. The pricing on the game reflects the wildly differing nature of the console vs. app store experience. On Amazon, the Vita game is $13.95, but since there's nothing stopping anyone from selling used Vita games, I picked one up for $8 when there was a sale. The app store version is ostensibly $0.99, but comes with only 4 songs and charges you $1 for each additional song. Given that there are 15 games on the PS Vita, picking it up for $8 used was a much better deal.

The nice thing about the game is that the songs are not locked. What this means is that you can play any of the songs at once, without having to "unlock" them by performing to a certain standard. The game basically has you swiping, tapping, or drawing patterns on the screen in order to make the Michael Jackson avatar move to the beat, so you essentially need to be able to hear the song in order to play. That means headphones are a must, since the Vita's tiny speakers aren't going to give you high videlity.

The songs are great. This is Michael Jackson, so you'd expect it. I'd not heard a lot of the songs before, so this was my introduction to some of the other songs in his opus. I did not expect to enjoy songs like Smooth Criminal or Billie Jean, but I did. The game comes with 3 difficulty settings, but alas, I'm not so good a gamer that I can make it through the hardest difficulty setting. Along the way you get to win trophies, medals or other in-game awards to keep you coming back for more, but the songs are the main thing in a music/rhythm game and this game delivers.

As a handheld experience, this game's ideal, since each play lasts only as long as the song. The boot up experience takes quite a while though, and as some have mentioned, the game's scenes are rendered rather than using the original Jackson videos as backdrop, so you do lose a little bit. (The rendering is essential so the on-screen avatar matches your taps and swipes)

But heck for $8? Just buy the game. It's fun.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review: Killzone Mercenary

I was once dispatched by Jeff Rothschild to help out Id Software on Quake's networking code on DOS. After I was done with the work, I was invited by Carmack, Romero, and Cash to a friendly LAN game of Quake. "We'll give you all the weapons and come after you with axes." That match barely lasted 15s, with me dead and all I was carrying gone. As you can imagine, I'm not a great first person shooter (FPS) gamer, nor is the FPS my favorite choice of genre.

However, I'm cheap and love a good deal, so when PSN had a sale on Killzone Mercenary and I saw the rave reviews online, I picked it up. I tried the first mission and died very quickly, and so dismissed it as being too hard for a noob like me until I bought my brother a PS Vita Slim for his birthday. Unlike me, he's a FPS aficionado, and so I started playing the game again in the hopes that we could do a multiplayer game one of these days. Surprisingly, the PS Vita Slim has been sold out on all on-line stores, so if you want one my advice is to place an order with Amazon and then be patient while it ships. This is surprising news because up until now the PS Vita simply has not sold well at all.

First of all, the graphics on Killzone is gorgeous. The lighting is superb, the textures brilliant. The sunrise or sunset scenes are beautiful, and the game play graphics is so true to form that the first few times I hit a cut-scene I kept on fiddling with the joystick and buttons expecting to have control over the character!

The storyline is even interesting for a FPS. The conceit is that you're a mercenary working for pay, hired (initially) by one side to help out in a war. This is supported by the game: everything you do from shooting an enemy, interrogation, or hacking into a system has financial implications. You can then spend your booty on weapons, ammunition, and armor upgrades at the frequently found vending machines in the game that also double as checkpoint save locations. The storyline has several twist and turns, and soon you end up working for both sides and discovering how untrustworthy your initial impressions were.

In addition to the primary, secondary, tertiary weapons (grenades),  and armor, there's also a special type of weapon system called a Vanguard. This is additional gadgetry that you might see in a modern battlefield today, giving you the ability to pilot a killer drone, cloak you, or call down artillery strikes. These are very expensive, so don't expect to buy more than a couple on your first play-through. They add to the game somewhat but maybe if you have all of them you might not find the game challenging.

Once I got through the first mission, the rest of the game was fairly addictive. In fact, at one point I zipped through several missions without even realizing it, and found myself at the last mission under-equipped to face my enemies. At that point I had to quit out, go back to some earlier missions, and replay them with an eye on making extra money so I could buy the appropriate weapons to finish the game. With Bioshock, I complained that this was too much of a chore, and gave up on the game entirely. Killzone, however, is fun to play and the gameplay is designed to let you flip back to previous missions and play them again without having to go through the campaign again linearly, so this was a minor annoyance at worse.

There's a multiplayer mode, which I tried. But as mentioned previously, I suck at FPS games. I think my contribution to the multiplayer game is to be a target to be shot at and a source of loot. It's definitely not something I'd try for fun. The flaw here is that because I'd nearly played through the single player game before trying multi-player, my in-game rank was pretty high, and so instead of getting put in with other newbies, I was placed with experienced players and pretty much got wiped out every time.

Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun and could see myself going back and playing the single player game again at a higher difficulty level or to try out the special missions. I'm also interested in getting some of the stronger weapons to see how it impacts the game. I'm also now interested in going back to try out other Killzone games on my PS 3.

Coming from a non-FPS fan, this is high praise indeed. If you own a PS Vita, buy this game even if you normally wouldn't play an FPS. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: RAVPower 10400mAh Power Bank

It is one of my biggest complaints that Apple-Envy in the gadget world has made products with replaceable batteries almost a thing of the past. For phones, I've managed to only buy phones that let you replace the battery, but for tablets, the PS Vita and even the Microsoft Surface, that's simply not been possible.

Our Nexus 10 and Nexus 7 tablets have been in use for over a year now, and the battery life is definitely not what they were when they were new. As a result, when there was a sale on the RAVPower 10400mAh external battery, I bought one at $25.50. You have to be realistic about external batteries. There's power conversion inefficiency between the battery's internal voltage to supply the external 5V available to the USB slot. Most chargers are not better than about 80% efficiency, and this is not the fault of the battery manufacturer. Similarly, you also can't expect to squeeze all the power out of an external battery since once the voltage at the output drops below the voltage of the battery of the target device, no charging can happen. So if your device says it's at 10400mAh, realistically you're not going to get more than 7-8000mAh out of it.

The device is about the size of a pack of cards. It's much smaller than a Nexus 7 or Nexus 10, but is much thicker than my Nokia 521 or Galaxy Nexus. I wouldn't call this a pocketable device, but it's definitely not a hassle to bring it on a long plane flight, for instance. It has 2 USB A slots and a micro USB b slot for charging. It comes with a carrying pouch with 2 micro USB to USB A cables. These cables are coiled, so you can't confuse them with data-capable cables (they are power only), and they're useful because you can stretch them without breaking them. Their inclusion is a nice touch on a budget device.

The Nexus 10 has a 9000mAh battery. Sure enough, from a fully drained device, I drained the RAVPower and only got the Nexus 10 to about 75% charged. The Nexus 10 stayed in use during part of the charging period, so this is about what I would expect. What is impressive about the RAVPower is that I tested it with the PS Vita and the charger worked. This was a surprise because the Vita requires a high charging current as well as specific pins shorted out on the charger and as a result does not work with all external batteries.

The USB slots on my sample were mislabeled. The 1A slot was labeled as 2A, and vice-versa. If you do get one you should check both slots to see if that's what happened with your sample. This is no big deal since once you learn that, you learn which device to plug into which slot.

The battery takes a long time to charge (via a micro-USB input) if you've drained it completely. I estimate the charge time at 12 hours, though my experience with these types of battery is that it charges rapidly to about 80% and then trickle charges to get the last 20%. While charging, the battery does not serve power to the USB slots, which is a pity, since I can see scenarios under which it would be useful to charge this device and 2 others at the same time from one USB slot. Adding that feature would have both increased the price as well as make the battery take even longer to charge, so I can understand leaving it out.

Batteries are essentially consumable devices, with most batteries lasting no more than 300 charge cycles or so (less if they're frequently fully discharged and recharged, or stored some place warm). As a result, you should delay buying one for as long as you can. However, if you have an old tablet, buying one of these battery packs is much cheaper than buying a new tablet or the time cost of replacing the (difficult to extract) battery yourself. If that's your scenario, then I can recommend the RAVPower external battery pack. They come on sale rather frequently, so I'd advise setting an alert on camelcamelcamel or Slickdeals.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: New York Times Web + Tablet Subscription

After not having a great time on the Kindle subscription to the New York Times, I tried the web + tablet subscription on the $1 trial plan. I tried using the subscription on both Windows and Android tablets.

The Android app was frustrating. For instance, occasionally while reading an article the app would refresh. That's OK. But it would refresh back to "Top Stories", losing your place in the article and your entire context. Navigation was slow, and the app was slow to load data. Using the web browser on my Nexus 7 to visit was also slow, and the website continuously forgot my login, forcing me to login multiple times. The plus was the the android app made it extremely easy to share to Google+, Facebook, etc. The minus was that the android app made it impossible to copy and paste quotes from the article I was reading, which was also frustrating.

The Windows metro app was much less frustrating as a reading experience. It never refreshed randomly, always loaded quickly. Navigation was a bit unintuitive as you had to swiped down from the bottom or top to switch sections, but that's apparently a new UI gesture unique to Windows tablets, so I just had to get used to it. The minus, however, was severe. You absolutely couldn't share articles from the Windows app to Google+ or Facebook. What a crock.

Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with the New York Times is that you always feel like you're paying for yesterday's news. I almost always got better news faster from other sources (usually blogs or topic-specific websites), and for analysis, blogs seem to provide more intelligent and cogent analysis written by people smarter than English majors.

As a result, I've canceled my subscription and switch to getting news on the internet.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: NOS4A2

NOS4A2 is Joe Hill's Stephen King pastiche novel. That's not how it's sold as, but that's how it struck me. It could be because I haven't read Joe Hill before, or it could be that I've always associated this style of supernatural horror with Stephen King.

The story revolves around Vic "The Brat" McQueen. As a child, she discovers that her bicycle is no mere symbol of freedom, but can also carry her places. By focusing her mind on what she wants to find, she can call up "The Shorter Way Bridge", which connects her to other places near and far, which invariably lets her locate things previously lost. Early on in the novel, she meets up with Maggie Leigh, a librarian in Iowa, who teaches her the rules of supernatural magic as applies to Joe Hill's world.

In the mean time, supernatural serial killer Charles Talent Manx has been collecting children and their mothers for nefarious purposes. It is inevitable that the two characters will collide, and of course they do.

The nature of the collision surprised me, though it shouldn't have, given the amount of foreshadowing provided at the start of the novel. McQueen loses her bike, and then rediscovers it as senior in high school, looking for trouble. Her first encounter with Manx leaves her emotionally scarred and Manx in prison.

Over the next few years, McQueen's life falls apart as she makes one bad decision after another. Then Manx returns and goes after McQueen and her son. The rest of the novel feels familiar, if not quite 100% predictable.

There are a few great ideas in this book. One of them is McQueen's "Search Engine" series of puzzle books for children. It's such a compelling idea that I'm surprised no one has executed it in real life. Another is McQueen's husband. In fantasy literature, we usually get spouses who don't understand or don't believe in the supernatural, deepening the protagonist's sense of isolation and desperation. Instead, McQueen's husband is a comic book geek and motorcycle mechanic who is the first person to believe her story and not declare her insane. It's a refreshing change from the usual stereotype and I thoroughly enjoyed that.

The climatic scenes of the book are compelling reading, if mostly unbelievable. I do understand Hill's desire to put McQueen through hell so we can sympathize with her, but unfortunately, the amount of physical damage McQueen sustains, given her past characterization, leads the reader to think that there's no way she could have gone on. It sounds like a minor nit, but at that point it felt as though McQueen was no longer a character but a puppet being directed by the author.

In any case, I'm not sure I can recommend this book. I picked it up for $2.00 at the Kindle store, and at that price I got my money's worth as far as summer reading is concerned. It's not worth it at $9.99. On the other hand, if you've never been exposed to this style of supernatural thriller, this is a perfectly fine and competent introduction to the genre, though perhaps Christine or Duma Key would be better.

I'll leave you with a quote from the novel to help you decide:
“Chris and me never exactly killed ourselves spoiling you, Vicki. I was afraid to. Now I don’t even think a parent can. Spoil a child, I mean. I didn’t figure nothing out until it was too late to do me any good. I never seemed to have much of a feel for parenting. I was so scared of doing the wrong thing I hardly ever did the right thing.” (Kindle Loc 3460)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: A Troublesome Inheritance

A Troublesome Inheritance is a book about evolution and race. It's a thought provoking book and well-worth reading, though I found it disturbingly plays into stereotypes about races and individuality.

To begin with, the author makes what I consider are uncontroversial claims:

  1. Human evolution has not stopped, and evolution can work rapidly over as few as 20-30 generations.
  2. Human evolution and civilization goes hand in hand. For instance, in a large scale urbanized civilization, violent criminals are heavily punished, leading to aggression being bred out of the gene pool in relatively short order. In other words, humans have domesticated themselves over time.
  3. There's a strong relationship between geography and the type of civilization that evolves.
Unfortunately, he also makes several claims that I find difficult to believe, though he asserts that his notes at the end of the book provide research results that are strong.
For instance, he claims that the rise of the propensity for hard work, discipline and savings is due to wealth. Wealthy people during medieval times produced more surviving children. Since not all children can stay in the wealthy tier, some must therefore descend into the lower tiers, thereby introducing their genetic propensity for hard work, thrift, non-violence, and literacy into the rest of the gene pool, where they would later dominate. The evidence for this would have to be very strong before I can believe that it's a significant part of evolution during modern times. For instance, a lot of wealth isn't due to hard work, but being at the right place at the right time. This connection between wealth and all those factors might not be as strong as the connection between wealth and political/inter-personal savviness.

The big stretch in this book is when he claims that as a result of the cultural forces at play, the Western nations therefore evolved stronger tendencies towards novelty seeking, while the Asians evolved stronger tendencies towards conformity. This sneakily promotes some fairly obvious stereotypes again, with very little evidence. We simply don't know enough about genetics at this point to understand how personality is molded, and which parts of personality is determined by the environment, and which parts are what you are born with.

Now, there are some other claims that I think are quite believable. For instance, why have there been a preponderance of Jews in the sciences and other intellectual fields? Why are so many major award winners (Nobel prizes, etch) Jewish? There's quite a bit of evidence that there's been quite severe selection in the Jewish gene pool for IQ, which has also come along with a number of disadvantages such as genetic diseases unique to that race. This is entirely believable, especially since some of the genes creating those genetic diseases have also been linked to higher IQ.

The net result is that while I think this book is worth reading, especially in his debunking of say, Guns Gems and Steel, some of its wilder claims are a bit hard to believe. I can certainly see some politically minded folks seizing on this book as an opportunity to advance their causes. I fully expect certain sections of this book to be debunked in later research. But I'd recommend this book for everyone to read, bearing all these caveats in mind.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Notes for New Cyclists

Arturo will be joining me this year on the Tour of the Alps. Since he wasn't a serious cyclist prior to this Saturday, I had an opportunity to see first hand what techniques that experienced cyclists know that new cyclists don't necessarily find intuitive.
  1. Easing up on a shift is something that most experienced cyclists do. It's hard to explain, but I found that "go slightly faster than usual and then ease up as you shift" came across much better than "ease up as you shift." Speeding up a bit is useful because on a climb, you don't want to lose so much momentum that you have to put a foot down, and you tend to need to shift just as you hit a grade change.
  2. Quick releases on brake levers are not obvious.
  3. When the chain drops, the best way to put the chain back is not with the finger, but with a stick. If a stick is not around, use leaves or grass so your fingers don't get dirty.
  4. Don't have a death grip on the handlebars. Lean on the bars when you climb, don't necessarily grip them.
  5. It's possible to shoot photos on the bike while moving. But don't do it until you're very comfortable with riding and with the bike. And don't try it with a phone that relies on a touch screen!
  6. Kool-Stop Salmon brake pads. Enough said.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Field Test: Dell Venue 8 Pro 32GB

On my recent Pigeon Point qualifier, I got a chance to field test the Venue 8 Pro in an environment where I had no other choice of computing device. It was a cycling trip, so weight and space were both at a premium, eliminating the Surface Pro as a choice even if it had been an option. I could have brought the basic Kindle or the Venue 8 Pro, but the prospect of being able to upload rides and run Lightroom while at Pigeon Point won out. especially since we knew that Pigeon Point had wifi internet and the Venue 8 Pro had a Kindle app.

The device was certainly light enough and compact enough that it fit in my saddlebag with no problems. The battery life on the Venue 8 Pro is so good that I don't even bother turning it off for the 6 hour ride to the lighthouse. It showed up at the other end with still a 99% battery life. The first test was uploading tracks to Strava. I used an OTG cable and a mini-USB cable to connect the Venue 8 Pro to the Garmin Edge 800. The interesting thing about this tablet is that it comes with 2 web browsers: the "Modern" IE, and the Desktop IE. The two are different beasts, despite having the same name! The "Modern" IE, for instance, doesn't support plugins such as the Garmin communicator, so you must use the desktop IE, which is a real web-browser, for all intents and purposes. With that in place, the upload went without a hitch. The only complaint I have for this process was that the Venue 8 Pro, like any real PC, charged the Garmin while it was uploading data. This drained the Venue 8 Pro's battery sufficiently in such a fashion that I had no idea whether the battery life at the end of the evening at 49% was due to excessive charging of the Garmin Edge or because of my use of Lightroom.

Lightroom demands lots of storage, especially if you're going to be uploading 20MB pictures from the Sony RX100 during a long tour. As a result, I opted for a 64GB micro-SD card on the Venue 8 Pro for storage. At $39 for a UHS-1 on Amazon, this won't break the bank is would provide a reasonable backup for all your photos while you're touring. However, what I didn't account for was that the write speed to micro-SD storage on the Dell Venue 8 Pro was slow. Basically, you cannot expect better than 8MB/s write and 23MB/s read from even a UHS10 card. For me, that meant that on top of the Lightroom and OS overhead, it was taking about 30s per photo to upload from the camera to the tablet. And yes, you need the above mentioned OTG cable as well as a memory card reader. Once on the tablet, due to the write speeds to storage mentioned, do not expect snappy performance out of lightroom. In particular, trying to do photo editing while importing can be quite frustrating, as is manipulating lightroom with a finger. With a stylus, you can at least get some precision without toting a mouse along. Being able to run an ND grad filter on photos output by the RX100 is unique to the full Windows 8 tablets, and since your best photos take place at sunrise or sunset, I expect this distinguishing feature to be something that most serious photographers would consider essential.

One unexpected hitch came with exporting the photos. There's no easy way to select multiple photos with the finger and then export, so what I did was to export one photo at a time. Since Lightroom was happy to queue up my exports, this was surprisingly fast and easy once I had the photos filtered in library view. Again, writing the exports took time, but it was easily done in batch mode and once it was done I could upload to Facebook in a batch.

Skype also has both a "Modern" UI and a desktop version. The "Modern" version here worked fine, so I didn't bother with the desktop. However, the bandwidth at the hostel was so low that I couldn't tell whether the video was pixelated because of the bandwidth or whether I ran into a limitation of the tablet. Given that the machine was hardly CPU bound, I'd be inclined to blame the bandwidth.

My friend the Google employee was concerned that I'd turned to the dark side (though I'd always been a Windows user, even back when I was working for Google), but then I showed him the "Modern" IE and asked him to try out web browsing on the device. 3 web pages later, he was impressed. The tablet definitely runs circles around existing Android tablets for web-browsing.

I didn't get a chance to use the Kindle app, but I doubt if I'd have any problems with it, either reading, downloading, or purchasing.

All in all, if I was going on a self-contained cycle tour in Europe and had to carry everything in my saddlebag, there are only 4 pieces of electronics that are worth carrying (my CPAP machine doesn't count, since you mostly aren't a CPAP user). The Garmin Edge 800, a phone, a camera, and this tablet. Obviously, the tablet is the most optional of the devices, but it substitutes well enough for a laptop and any other tablet doesn't come close to the functionality of this tablet while maintaining a relatively low weight. I do wish that the device had better write speeds to the microSD card, but on tour, I'd simply just run the import overnight and deal with the editing the next day.

All in all, I'd recommend this tablet to a cycle tourist, and if Dell or Microsoft came up with a tablet with better write performance to secondary storage (or a reasonable price on more primary storage), I'd advice a cycle tourist to check those out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Brother ADS-2000

I decided to try for a paperless office a couple of years back. The idea is to scan everything that comes in the mail, OCR it making it searchable, and then shredding or discarding the mail. You can do this with a flat-bed scanner, but you'd die of boredom feeding the thing one sheet at a time. The correct solution is a high speed sheet-fed scanner. We chose the Brother ADS2000.

The device is compact, about the size of a fax machine. It comes with a few accessories but we almost never used them. I've successfully dumped about 100 pages at a time into the ADS2000, and the scanner can do them at very high speed. The machine came with a ton of software, but I lost the disk pretty early on, so I pretty much only scan using my copy of Adobe Acrobat, which does the OCR after scanning, albeit at a slow, single-threaded pace.

The machine does jam, especially if the documents you feed it are old or pressed together hard because they got stuck together for one reason or another. But by and large, the machine works, and my son has abused it a lot but it still keeps on ticking. If you're dedicated to going paperless, I'd definitely recommend the Brother ADS2000.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Review: Nokia Lumia 521

As previously mentioned, I've settled on the Nokia 521 as my European phone for the year. I ended up using it earlier than expected, however, as I noted that our Ting phone bill rising due to unexpectedly high data charges from my Galaxy Nexus. Since I had a prepaid T-mobile SIM lying around, I deactivated my Galaxy Nexus, went to the T-mobile store, and moved the SIM account into a micro-SIM to install it onto my Nokia.

The move came at the right time, as we ended up going to Yosemite for a few days. Unlike Google Maps, Nokia's HERE mapping and navigation applications work even without a data plan. If you've ever used Google Maps' offline feature, you know what a crippled application it is when bereft of a data plan. You can't search, you can't re-route when you go off course, and god help you if the phone ever rebooted in the middle of the drive. Well, Nokia's HERE Maps and navigation applications are a breath of fresh air compared to that. Even in the middle of a National Park (where no data availability is to be had for any carrier), navigation is a cinch and works. To my surprise, search, and POI (point of interest) locations like gas stations, etc are also available. I'm impressed and very pleasantly surprised. On top of that, you can even download map prior to leaving the country for foreign destinations.

There are a few glitches, but no more than my Galaxy Nexus had. The one big flaw is bluetooth pairing. For whatever reason, audio pairing (as opposed to phone call pairing) is spotty and requires an explicit connection very time. I have no idea why that is, but there's no way to fix it. Fortunately, the speakers of the Nokia 521 are more than loud enough for navigation purposes.

Speaking of phone calls, Nokia here demonstrates that they really understand how to put together phones that work for voice calling. After years of having gotten used to crappy Samsung calls, phone calls through the Nokia 521 are crystal clear, and the 521 receives far better signals than any other T-mobile phone I'd ever had. I had previously assumed that my home was  a T-mobile dead zone, but the Nokia 521 happily receives and makes phone calls in my home. Either T-mobile's network has improved (unlikely) or Nokia really knows how to make a phone that can make and receive calls.

The battery life is also nothing short of amazing. I'd gotten used to never going out the door with the Galaxy Nexus without also carrying along 2 spare batteries in addition to the extended battery that's already in my phone. I broke that habit with the Nokia 521. Not once did I run out of battery during the course of a normal day, and even when cycling out of cell coverage for a day, the Nokia's battery never dropped past 80%. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I checked the battery life after a day of riding in the Santa Cruz mountains.

All in all, I'm very happy with this phone as a primary use phone, and when my prepaid minutes run out and I come scrambling back to Ting and the Galaxy Nexus, I'm going to miss the Nokia 521 badly. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Review: If You Can: How Millenials Can Get Rich Slowly

If You Can is William Bernstein's financial planning booklet for people starting out in their careers. It is normally $0.99 at the Kindle Store (free today), but you can download it for free from Bernstein's website. At 27 pages long, it is short and can be read in a couple of hours. However, if you actually do do the homework in the book (which only of reading other financial books), the claim is that you will know more than most financial professionals about investing.

The prescriptions in the book are fairly straightforward: save money (at least 15% of your income), pay off all debt, invest in a diversified portfolio (the suggested 33% even splits between domestic stocks, international stocks, and bonds is a fairly good one), learn a bit about finance and financial history, rebalance your portfolio about once a year, steer away from financial professionals who will try to steal your money and only buy indexed funds (preferably Vanguard ones).

Of course, straightforward doesn't mean easy.  Being able to do all of these would qualify you to manage money not just for yourself, but for any one and any institution. Similarly, doing all of the homework assignments isn't easy, since it's actually substantial reading. Here's the reading list:
Bernstein carefully steers away from promoting his own books (which are very good), and leaves out several classics such as A Random Walk Down Wall Street , which are useful but also not as much fun reading as the above list.

In any case, the irony of all teaching is that the people who need it the most won't show up in class, hence the people who need this booklet the most probably won't read this book. But if you're the kind of person who gets asked for financial advice, in the interest of saving your time and your breath (since sadly, this type of advice is more frequently ignored than followed), this is a great little free booklet to point people at so you can talk about more interesting things.


Thursday, May 01, 2014

Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

How to Win Friends and Influence People is currently $2.99 on the Kindle store. I'd gotten this far in life without reading the book, but a friend of mine told me she used a technique from the book and it worked, though she felt slimy about it afterwards. That's intriguing enough to get me to buy and read the book.

This is a great book, as far as being an effective politician and getting what you want from people goes. Fundamentally, the book is all about helping you tell people what they want to hear, as opposed to what reality is. For example, in one anecdote, the manager of a singer who refused to get on stage simply lied to him over and over again until he did so. In another example, Dale encourages you not to tell people that they are wrong, but to pretend that you could be wrong and asking to check the facts. In certain circumstances, that could easily win you favors, sales, and deals. In other circumstances, it could make you look like an easy pushover and mark, and you will get out-maneuvered by more politically savvy folks, especially if you're an engineer. Dale Carnegie, however, doesn't tell you how to distinguish between those circumstances. For instance, if Galileo had read this book, he might easily have avoided the Roman inquisition. It would have done immense harm to the scientific enterprise, however, so I'm glad the world is not full of people who've read Dale Carnegie's book.

People occasionally ask me for advice on their careers. Given that I'm completely oblivious to office politics, I'm a bad person to ask. But I do refer them to books such as Career Warfare. It's quite clear to me that How to Win Friends and Influence People is also a great book to read if you want to succeed at a large company, where perception is much more important than reality. Keep in mind, however, that if you're an engineer, you're a much worse liar than anyone who's not an engineer, so some of these techniques absolutely will not work for you.

Highly Recommended.