Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Power Tools for Home Use

Once you become a home owner, you end up with lots of little jobs that you have to work on that are too small to call a handyman for, and too big for a manual screw driver. This is especially the case if you have a rental property, since some renters will call you for literally anything from flipping a breaker switch to lubricating a vent with WD-40.

I ended up with 2 fairly decent pieces of kit for work around the house. The first is the Denali 3.6V Cordless Screwdriver kit. It's a fairly small and handy set, and comes with drill bits as well as screw driver bits. It doesn't have a lot of power, but it's also fairly safe to use. It's not meant to drive screws into studs, but it's perfect for say, screwing in a long screw onto an existing pre-drilled slot, installing keypad locks, and other such small jobs. The low power is actually useful for delicate jobs, as you won't risk driving screws that are canted or hammering in things that shouldn't be hammered.

For jobs that require more power, I ended up with the Makita 10.8V Impact Driver and Drill. The set is now obsolete, and has been replaced by the 12V combo. They are quite a bit more powerful, capable of driving screws and drilling holes into studs. The battery life is incredible, and the charging time ridiculously fast, though my usual complaints about people who design chargers that go from red to green to indicate charge status apply.

What's nice is that the set is fairly light, which translate to less fatigue. You might not think this a big deal, but when you're squatted down and bent over trying to get a screw hammered in at a corner this becomes huge. The biggest issue is that there was a lot of confusion for me as to what drill bits/screw-driver heads were compatible with this. The poor reviews on the Markita branded bit set scared me from buying them, but after collecting a few sets that were incompatible from the local hardware store I realized that I should have ignored those lousy reviews and just bought them. For a typical home user, these sets are essentially consumables and you should plan on replacing them every few years anyway, so why sweat the crappy reviews?

In any case, in terms of the number of handyman calls I've avoided as a result of owning this set of tools, I've more than made back triple the cost of the tools, so these come recommended.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Able Brewing Disk for Aeropress

Steve Grimm raved about the Able Brewing Disk for Aeropress, and I liked the idea of  not using disposable paper filters for each cup of coffee, so I ordered it to try.

First of all, the price is $12.50 per disk on Amazon, which means that compared to paper filters, you'd have to brew 1000+ cups of coffee in order to break even. I'm not sure I'm convinced that the disk will withstand that much brewing, but I'm guessing that heavy drinkers will break even in a year. Secondly, while it's true that not using disposable paper filters is a possibility, it depends on you having a nice place to air dry a tiny disk which wouldn't fit on most drying racks and would be super easy to lose otherwise. So I end up having to dry it with paper towels, which defeats the purpose of not using paper.

Finally, there's the taste. I can't tell the difference between paper and stainless steel. So for me, I think I've hit the point of diminishing returns on coffee taste improvements. I'm starting to get skeptical of those who think that grinding your own coffee is awesome for this reason. Anyway, not recommended. Poor ROI.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Video Games

After playing through a series of video games, I'm realizing a few things about video games if you're a time-pressed adult. The first is that the kind of games critics love aren't necessarily the kind of games you have time for. This is true even if you're a kid, since repeated exposures tend to inure  you to what everyone else considers fun.

The reality, however, is that as an adult, you don't have a lot of time to get good at any particular video game, so games with difficulty settings that are accurate work much better than games that make you repeat something endlessly until you succeed. In other words, Dark Souls is probably not for you (or me).

Similarly, RPGs that have a big grind component are also pretty worthless. There's too much repetition, and all that grinding doesn't build to a story. I think the last time I finished an RPG was Baldur's Gate.  Even then, it felt too long.

Similarly, unexplained difficulty spikes in games are also annoying. I've noticed that Ninja Theory is a big culprit for me, with at least 2 of their games (Devil May Cry and Enslaved) causing me to abandon because I couldn't get through a section and there's no way to see why. Another example is Bioshock, which lets you do the game completely wrong to the point where you can't possibly finish the game unless you restart the game from scratch, and no one who values his time is going to do that. Critics love that about games, but as a general consumer, you don't have time to repeat a 10 hour game.

Strangely enough, certain indie games also trigger that reaction for me. Part of it is that if a game relies on me playing for say, 2-3 hours at a go, I rarely get to that point. Which means that if the game expects me to be able to explore and understand the context intuitively, there's no chance that I get sufficient immersion to be able to "get it." Both Fez and Braid are like this for me. In fact, most platformers are. Again, the key to being able to finish platformers is repetition, and if you don't have endless amounts of time, you're just not going to take to them.

Not all indie games are like this. Flower and Journey come to mind as great games that don't require endless amounts of time.

What does that leave you? AAA games. Those have to reach a wide audience, and so have the easier difficulty settings properly play tested. They have high production values, and don't force too much commitment. The Batman Arkham games are a prime example. The same goes for the Uncharted series, or the God of War series, and even Killzone.

Notice something about that list? Yup, it's mostly Sony's development studios that are producing those games. No wonder Microsoft had to tie up the next Tomb Raider as an exclusive: they really don't have anything for busy parents otherwise.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Killzone 3

Since I was so surprisingly engrossed in Killzone Mercenary, I decided to pick up the Killzone Trilogy. If this was a novel series, you'd want to start your consumption from the beginning of the series. But video games, unlike movies, improve dramatically over time, so you want to start in the inverse order with Killzone 3 first.

Basically, the game is setup to have an arena of play, followed by a cut-scene, and followed by another arena. The mode of play most of the time is FPS, but occasionally, you get a rail shooter. To mix things up, on occasion you get to pilot a jetpack (though incompetently), and a mech. These are a lot of fun, albeit they tend to break up the flow since they have completely different mechanics.

The story told in the cut scenes is entertaining enough, though not high art. The ending sucks, but seems in character for what's been going on in the series: the characters continually argue and bicker with each other while the protagonist hothead runs off and does something randomly crazy. It makes for a fun game, but a cliched story.

In any case, the game's got a few things that makes it fun even for a terrible FPS player like me:

  1. Plenty of NPC allies. You're almost never alone, and there's always fire support and if you don't rush off in front of your allies, someone will revive you even if you're killed. This is huge! It cuts down on the frustrations a lot, and you're never stuck for long.
  2. Plenty of variety in game play, and multiple paths to victory. In particular, even the stealth section is forgiving. You don't just die because you didn't stealth right. You get a chance to pick up an enemy's weapon and just blast your way through. Again, not frustrating.
  3. Lots of eye candy. The environments change a lot, and it's very different each time.
  4. Plenty of ammo reload locations. I think I ran out of ammo once. And you can always pick up the enemy's weapons.
In other words, the game's perfect for a beginner, and the game's not so long that you get bored or sick of the game play. I ended the game wanting more, which is always a good sign. The ending was a bit anti-climatic, but maybe it's just an invitation to start over with the Playstation Move controller.

I played the game in 3D for a bit, and it's OK, but didn't add enough to the experience for me to want to put on those 3D glasses in addition to my normal glasses.

All in all, the game's entertaining, and worth a play, even if you suck at FPS. Recommended.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: True Romance

Somehow, I missed True Romance when it first came out in the theaters, and when I saw that Amazon was having a sale on a Quentin Tarantino movie that I'd missed, I jumped on it for $5

The plot of the movie is a lot like No Country For Old Men (another $4.50 blu ray): two innocents find a drug stash in the most unlikely set of events possible, and then try to flee while profiting from the drug stash as quickly as possible.

The movie's a fantasy, of course, but it's classic Tarantino fantasy, with lots of unlikely events, heart-wrenching violence, and somewhat believable characters. What ties it together is that the movie moves fast enough that you're never given time to think it through.

The movie never bogs down, and the ending was interesting enough that I watched the alternate ending just to see what the alternative was, and agreed with Tarantino that the movie deserved the original theater ending.

A fun watch, and worth $5.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: Indie Game The Movie

I will admit that I know Jon Blow, one of the 3 game developers featured on Indie Game, and that was one of the draws of the movie to me. The movie covers 3 indie game developers, using Jon as the "voice of experience", Super Meatboy, and Fez. Super Meatboy's development team (2 people) was clearly the star of the show, since Fez was still under development when the movie was done.

The movies explores a number of interesting themes, but strangely enough, didn't talk much about game play. All 3 games are platformers, and when you think about it, that's about the limit of what a small team can manage without outside funding or without spending a ton of the developers' capital.

The development process isn't very well touched on, since a lay audience isn't going to understand much of how a typical developer goes about his day anyway. What's interesting is that with the exception of Jon, who can code and design, both the other titles feature a non-coding designer with a programmer. It's definitely not just one person slogging away. This makes sense, it takes unusual talent and dedication to start something like this without a co-founder.

All in all, the movie was a fun watch, but strangely slow pace and rather shallow. You're forced to read between the lines to extract any value from it. Not recommended.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Vanguard's Unique Corporate Structure

One thing I've come to realize over and over again, is that very few people understand what makes Vanguard such a unique company. Some might even be confused by my referring to both Vanguard and TIAA-CREF as non-profits, which is both strange and unfamiliar given that most people think of non-profits as charitable institutions, while Vanguard is clearly not one.

What makes Vanguard unique is the ownership structure. A traditional financial institution such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab or any of the traditional Wall Street banks and investment banks is a privately owned company that manages mutual funds or other financial services for its customers. This leads to a conflict of interest: the owners of Fidelity, for instance, make more money if it charges its customers more. That means that Fidelity becomes more profitable, the higher the expenses it can charge its customers. As you can imagine, Fidelity's expense ratios (other than a few funds where it competes directly with Vanguard) are quite high as a result.

Vanguard the operating company, however, is owned by the mutual funds it operates. In other words, the mutual funds own and direct the operating company. With this ownership structure, there's no conflict of interest between the customer of a Vanguard fund and Vanguard itself: the lower the expenses Vanguard manage to operate at, the more profitable the mutual funds are, and better off the Vanguard customer is.

Now, this is by no means a panacea. For instance, you can imagine a corrupt situation where Vanguard's operating firm's officers serve as the officers of its mutual funds, and so they vote their own compensation packages sky high while hurting Vanguard's customers. There's no guarantee that this can't happen, but given that large financial institutions with no relationship to Vanguard's officers get to vet and do due diligence of Vanguard's funds before they invest, there's good reason to believe that the market will serve as an adequate watchdog and prevent this from happening.

The result of this ownership structure difference is substantial: Vanguard's dramatically dropped its expenses for the vast majority of its customers over its life, and it continues to do so today. And if you ask me why I'm an unabashed Vanguard fan (over Fidelity, Schwab, or even Wealthfront), I'd point to this structure as being unique and unreplicated in the financial industry.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: Windows 8.1 Pro

A couple of years ago, I upgraded my desktop top Windows 8 Pro. Just a few months later, the machine corrupted its own hard drive, but I was fed up with the start screen, and so reverted back to Windows 7 from and old backup. The desktop is still running Windows 7, and my Windows 8 Pro license went unused. I was feeling a bit cheated by Microsoft, to say the least, despite the $40 I paid.

Recently, I noticed that my wife's Surface Pro with Windows 8.1 felt quite usable, and booted to the desktop while booting very fast (10s). The old X201 was taking minutes to resume from hibernate, and 30s to boot from a cold start, and being a laptop, was doing that frequently, so I thought it would be a good candidate for Windows 8.1 Pro, since my old license would get a free upgrade to it.

The installation process is fairly painless, but did take most of the day (I could use the PC most of the time while the upgrade was happening, so it wasn't too bad). And to my surprise, when I was done, the laptop did boot up in 10s, and resumed in about the same amount of time from hibernate, indicating that the improvements in performance wasn't really dependent on CPU performance.

Performance seems pretty fast most of the time as well, as UI elements pop up, and the device seemed to suck much less memory. The device even seemed to sleep more consistently than before, which I was impressed by. And of course, in the intervening 2 years, I'd gotten used to the start screen (though I do hope Windows 9 brings back the start menu), so it no longer bothered me as much. The charms bar was still annoying at times, but by and large it's been ok.

One of the most annoying things about Windows 8 was that you were forced to login using a Microsoft account, but that didn't correspond to any accounts on my beloved Windows Home Server, so effectively you lost access to it. Fortunately, Windows 8.1 fixed that using the Credentials Manager, so now I can happily use my Windows Home Server, which is still easily the best file server I've used at home.

Needless to say, I won't be going back to Windows 7 on the laptop any time soon, so I'd label this upgrade recommended. I'm impressed that Microsoft has actually fixed issues I care about in this release, though obviously, the start menu is still the much needed improvement that I'm waiting for.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Gobble Dinner Service

In the past, there's  been plenty of food startups, from kitchit to gastronauts. None of them have addressed what I consider the best possible market: busy parents. We ran into Gobble and decided to give them a try, since they were promising fast meals that were done right.

The idea behind Gobble is this: you get pre-packaged, pre-prepared gourmet food delivered to your door in refrigerated packages. Each box comes with 3 meals, and you're in a subscription service, so you can cancel any time. Each meal comes with a preparation card, and it takes about 10 minutes to prepare each meal, and you'll be done. It's a nice concept, though as with all sorts of food, everything depends on the execution.

The central premise behind any kind of delivered food service like this is Sous Vide. Since the food has been already vacuum-packed while cooking, it's an easy step to simply go the next step to freeze it and then deliver it to your door. The biggest problem is that most people don't have a sous vide setup, so I was curious as to how they did the reheating.

It turned out that about only 2 out of 3 meals are done via sous vide. The fish and seafood dishes have ingredients that are so easily cooked that stir fry does it. The other sous vide meals are finished via either stir fry, or a searing step followed by an oven. This last method means that Gobble cheated on their marketing: it takes way longer than 10 minutes to pre-heat the oven and then for you to stir fry and present the meal.

The other problem I had with them was the delivery. The service uses On-Trac, which has a history of extremely late deliveries to my home. Indeed, the first delivery was so late that our Gobble meal turned into Pizza take out by the time the van driver showed up at my home. I called customer service and they apologized and gave me a $10 credit, but if I'd had hungry kids and a hungry wife, $10 wouldn't have come close to making up for it. There's also the problem of picking up the old container. I have no idea when they intend to collect them or if I'm supposed to throw them away.

As for value for money, the cost of the meal is about $12/person. This is approximately about the cost of eating out, except you don't have to tip. The variety of meals are decent, though the portion size ranges from barely adequate to substantial. It's very clear that each meal is sized not by calorie needs but by how much each ingredient costs: the chicken dishes are substantial, the beef dishes are usually supplemented by beans, and the seafood dishes would not keep a teenage boy well-fed.

The meals are decent, though everything is Americanized, so the curry tastes kinda bland and the chili is very mild. But it's all been very good, though not as good as if you went all modernist cuisine on it.

In any case, since we do have a sous vide machine, I'm not sure we'll continue after a month's trial, but I can recommend them to people without sous vide machine. It's also a nice way to get recipe ideas. In any case, if you do want a referral code for a trial e-mail me and I'll arrange for you to get one. Or you can just click through above if you're impatient and do without.

This is one of the few services that I think deserves success, and serves the South Bay quite well. Recommended.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Locked In

Locked In is John Scalzi's latest novel. It's a quick fun read, and not very deep, but a good example of how a good science fiction writer can take a single topic, extrapolate it to the world around him, and then weave a decent story.

The story involves Hadens. Much like a movie, the world that Scalzi wants to move in is so complex that it has to have a prologue. Basically, a virus has left a large population of people locked into their bodies, so they can only interact with the world through remote-drones (called threeps), or an integrator, which is a human who's set up to receive remote control just like a threep would be. The intricacies around the plot revolve around what it's possible or not possible to do with an integrator, so Scalzi ensures that you get all that information up front. That's the science fiction part.

The main character, Chris Shane, is a Haden who's a rookie FBI agent. On his first day of work, he and his partner are assigned to a mysterious murder, and as they unravel the plot, we see that it's not just a simple murder, but also implicates that big changes are coming to the world that Scalzi has set his plot in.

The plot is by far the weakest part of the story. Not only is the villain's intentions rather far fetched and unbelievable, the means by which he aims to achieve his goals seem rather amateurish. Certainly, that a rookie agent seems to have had such an easy time unravel-ling the shenanigans makes everything seem very pat.

Nevertheless, it's a fun read and quite compelling. A worthy airplane novel. Mildly recommended.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Siren Song of Real Estate

I'm constantly astounded by how frequently people tout real estate as a great investment. Take a look at this example from Quora, for instance:
Buy a single-family, 3 bedroom rental for $180,000. Rent = $1,200/month. That's about 7% rate of return on your investment. Here's the good news: after depreciation, you net income is practically zero (on paper).
Where do I begin? First of all, don't forget maintenance, insurance, and taxes on the home!  If there's a HOA, add that monthly fee in there as well. On average maintenance costs about 1% a year, and property taxes eat another 1%. Add to that insurance, which is another 2.5%. Now that's $4,500 / year.

There's also costs of acquiring a renter, as well as the possibility of not being able to rent out a house for a while. (If your 3 bedroom house rents for $1200/month, it's not in a strong market like the Bay Area) John T Reed uses a 95% vacancy rate as standard, which means that you lose about 2 weeks of rental income a year due to moving people in and out.

So now your numbers look like this: $13,846 in revenue, $4500 in costs, which is $9346, or a 5% return, give or take a bit. But you also paid a real estate agent about $5400 to buy the home, and you'd have to pay the same to sell it, assuming no appreciation. (Typically real estate appreciates 0.4% a year after inflation, and if you're getting a house for $180,000, it's not in a high growth area like the San Francisco Area)

Note that the above numbers from Quora are doctor'd! In other words, good luck buying a house for $180,000 that can rent for $1,200/month, which would imply a price to rent ratio of 12.5. In most parts of the country, price to rent ratio is 15, which means that you'd have to pay $216,000 for that same house. Your property taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs go up proportionately, and you're down to less than 4% return, even assuming you didn't pay brokerage fees for buying the house.

What about depreciation? Well, if you depreciate the property, you have to back that out when you sell, so your capital gains would register that much higher.

(Just in case you were wondering, the price to rent ratio in the Bay Area is currently at least 20, probably approaching 25: it really isn't a good place to buy a property to rent)

Are there any mitigating factors? Yes. If you live in the house for 3 out of the past 5 years, capital gains are exempt from taxes. So if you moved every 4 years and bought a new house each time, and real estate kept going up, you could come out ahead with respect to housing versus saying, buying an indexed fund. But you hardly see any one except John T Reed telling you to do that. Most people, especially families, don't like moving that often.

If you can do exchanges, then trading up is essentially tax free, enabling you to defer paying taxes. That's also nice. But you'd be tying up your wealth in increasingly large amounts of real estate as you do so.

The big reason why most people think real estate makes a huge amount of money is because of personal experience. They put 20% down on a house, watch the house go up in value, and walk out with a ton of money due to the use of leverage. As folks found out when the housing bubble crashes, leverage hurts you a lot as well when the market goes down.

There's no free lunch in investing. Unfortunately, there are lots of people who like to tell you that there is, and they'll make money selling you books, seminars, and other content doing so. Real estate investing has just as many people like that as the financial services industry, so if something you hear (or read) sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Friday, September 19, 2014

School vaccination rates

When I was touring pre-schools, I was concerned about the levels of immunization in California. Every time I asked a school principal about it, however, I got the brush-off. What I didn't know until Arturo pointed it out was that I didn't have to ask the school, I could get the data directly from the California government web-site.

The data is extremely comprehensive, covering every licensed child-care facility in California as well as public and private schools K-12. Note that while it doesn't tell you what percentage of parents opt out of immunizing their kids, it lists what percentage of parents submit PBEs (Personal Belief Exemptions) in lieu of immunization records, which you can use as a proxy for people who don't vaccinate.

You need a vaccination of 95% to achieve herd immunity, so PBE levels above 5% should be considered dangerous. You might think that only poor schools with uneducated parents would get to that level, but several expensive and exclusive private schools including Waldorf in Los Altos have very high PBEs. (Waldorf is at 44%!)

This lets you screen schools easily and quickly, and eliminate schools without even a visit.

(And yes, Bowen attends Villa Montessori in Cupertino, which has 0% PBEs)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exploitation

Google, Intel and Apple are appealing Lucy Koh's rejection of their settlement about the anti-poaching case. It's very hard to get sides that don't want to sue each other to sue each other, so my expectations are that the court of appeals will reject Koh's decision.

Many of my former colleagues have said something like "I wasn't really exploited. I'm going to donate my money from the settlement anyway, so it doesn't matter how much it is." This tears me up.  It tears me up especially since the kind of people who say that tend to be white, privileged, and have never really had to struggle to make a living.

When I was 20 and a struggling student (yes, I actually did receive Pell grants), I had to work 2 jobs simultaneously while carrying a full time load to avoid having to take out crushing amounts of student loans. I had a deep aversion to carrying debt at that time and I still do now. I worked for a tiny company in Berkeley called Geoworks over the summer full time as an intern. Geoworks was your prototypical technology startup, and had lots of cool projects, including the idea that you could work on whatever you want and no manager would stop you provided you got your main job time. Of course, that meant that many of us worked 80-100 hour weeks for fun. (Google called this 20% time, Geoworks called it "anarchy time") In fact, the predecessor for gtags was a tool I wrote during anarchy time for Geoworks to browse and navigate the multi-million lines of assembly that encompassed GEOS. For all that, I was getting paid a nominal $15 an hour, but working way more than the 40 hours a week. I think I might have clocked 80 hours a week normally.

At the end of the summer, I was due to go back to school. The management team at Geoworks took me aside and said, "You'll be working fewer hours, and so as a result, we're going to cut your hourly rate because you will not be as focused on your work as you were when you were full time." They proposed to cut my pay to $12 an hour, in addition to giving me only 20 hours a week. I was by no means someone they were trying to get rid of, since they would try to hire me again next year as a full time engineer after I graduated. I was hopping mad. I quit and worked as an undergraduate TA at school instead, reasoning that if I was going to be exploited (Berkeley only paid $10/hour), I'd rather be exploited by a non-profit and help my fellow students and avoid the walk to downtown Berkeley and stay on campus instead.

Years later, other former interns from Geoworks would thank me for my actions, because after seeing someone they thought was loyal walk out over that 20% hourly rate cut, management at Geoworks backed off on that policy.

What relevance does this have today? Back then, tech workers were plentiful and companies didn't need as many. There wasn't as much competition back then as there are now for workers. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. Just a few years back, one of Google's early SREs left Google and joined Facebook, based on something very similar to my story above. After that event, Google gave everyone on his team a raise. Was that competition helping out? Or was it simply because Facebook refused to join the cartel that Google, Intel, Apple, Adobe, and several others put together? Regardless of how you feel about Facebook as an employer or product, engineers in the valley owe a huge favor to Facebook walking in and breaking the cartel and raising wages as a result.

Here's the thing: Google and Apple have engineers that are the strongest in the industry. You would think that it would be impossible to exploit such an incredibly valued bunch of folks, yet these large corporations got together and did it, and successfully got away with it, getting a slap-on-the-wrist settlement from the government. If these companies get away with murder when it comes to Google-class engineers, what do you think happens to the women and minority in the profession who aren't in the top tier? That marginal worker on average discovers that the low pay and long hours common in the profession does not pay enough to keep him or her working in software development. As a result, the average software career is much shorter than careers in other engineering professions, allowing the industry to claim a shortage.

I don't care if you personally don't need the money from the settlement (I don't, either). But when exploitation of workers happen, call it out. Don't sit back and behave like a spectator: let everyone knows how unfair it is, and how it shouldn't be allowed to happen. By doing so you're not just helping yourself, you're also helping engineers that aren't working at your tier. Otherwise, all the noise about trying to get more women and minorities into the profession is just noise; until you can get fairness in the workplace for the top tier workers, you don't have a prayer of making it attractive for the marginal tech worker or helping those who aren't in the 1%.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Airscape Coffee container

I'm too lazy to grind coffee, so tend to buy Costco's Peet's pre-ground coffee at 36 ounces for $13. But I don't drink more than one cup a day, so I need a way to keep it fresh. I bought an Airscape 64oz container hoping to be able to just drop the entire bag in there and keep it fresh.

To my horror, Costco's coffee is sold by weight, while Airscape's containers are measured by volume. So I actually needed more than 2 Airscape containers if I wanted to store that much, though if I opened the bag and made a few cups of coffee I could get away with just 2.

The coffee container comes in various different colors, and 2 lids. An inner lid pushes down and has a one-way valve eliminating all the air from inside the container, and the outer lid keeps everything inside while still letting you see how much coffee you have left. As a design it looks great. In practice, when you push down on the inner lid, the valve let's some of the coffee grind out along with the air, so if you push down too quickly you can get a fine mist of coffee around the can.

As far as freshness goes, it's great. I'd keep looking for a better solution, however, since I think the inability to let air out without also letting coffee out is a problem. In practice, I think people actually just use these to store beans, which would have that problem. But I'm still too lazy to grind my own coffee. Do people actually think it's worth it to do so?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Health Scare

In late May, on my regular physical, my doctor looked at my family history and decided to do an a1c check.  To my dismay, it came in at 6.1, which meets the clinical definition of pre-diabetes, though just barely. My doctor looked at me and said, "Don't panic. I know I can't tell you to exercise more, but I'm going to have you talk to a nutritionist and we're going to kick this in the butt."

My meeting with the nutritionist needed preparation before hand. For a week or so, I weighed everything I ate and took it down on a spreadsheet. When I met with the nutritionist, she asked for my weight history, and then said that all I really needed to do was to lose about 7 pounds to have a significant effect. (I was 152 pounds) She then gave me a food exchange list and a plan to get my weight down. She also advised what I'd known for years, which was to double up on vegetables and reduce intake of other foods.

I weighed everything I ate for another week to get a feel for what it felt like to get myself at the desired calorie intake level. Once I realized that I should eat until I wasn't feeling hungry any more (as opposed to eating until I was stuffed), ditching the weighing machine was fine. The results were almost immediate, with me losing 2 pounds a week until I started the tour of the alps this year at 145 pounds.

During my tour, my habit of eating less bit me. I didn't realize I wasn't eating enough until the day I rode over the Gavia, when a particularly hearty meal the night before made me climb faster and ride harder and better than I expected, while still feeling hungry by the middle of the day. So I gave up the diet and at everything I saw for the rest of the tour until I reached Zurich at 140 pounds despite all that eating. For the first time, however, I'd lost 5 pounds during a tour and not become weak. I was riding as strong as ever, and my metabolism had sped up.

I expected that I might have trouble coming back into my diet, but it turned out not to be a problem. I kept losing weight until today, when I'm at 135 pounds, which is still 5 pounds more than when I first joined Google way back in 2003. But at 130 pounds back then, I had bone density problems, so I'm not in a hurry to get back to 130 pounds.  Interestingly enough, having lost about 17 pounds has been great for my cycling: I'm climbing faster now than I was in April.

Recently, I did another a1c test and it came back at 5.9, which was low enough that my doctor's office called me and said it was normal. I do intend to keep testing every 3 months to check, but the health scare is in retreat. I'm now optimistic that I can pretty much stay at whatever weight I want, given what I know about nutrition.

You may or may not know this, but Asians get diabetes at much lower weights than Caucasians. As an Asian person, I have to watch my weight far more carefully, and clearly while the average American of my height at 160 pounds is considered "normal", I cannot even approach that weight without health risks. But at least I caught my problem early and know how I can deal with it. For someone with my genetics, forewarned is definitely forearmed.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision is Aric Davis' follow up to his novel, Nickel Plated. The character of Nickel was so compelling that when I saw it on the Amazon First program, I had to pick it up.

Unlike Nickel Plated, which was told almost entirely from Nickel's point of view, this novel shifts in perspective between Nickel, and the 3rd person perspective of June and Betty, two high school seniors who stumble upon a 15 year old murder of June's aunt Mandy. Mandy was a look-alike for June, and when a group of do-gooders start lobbying for Mandy's self-confessed murderer, June and Betty decide to team up and see if they can dig through to the truth after a case had been closed for 15 years.

The character of Nickel is great, and easily carries the story, and at the start of the novel he comes from a very dark place, having been betrayed by a former business partner and out for revenge. The vicious way he carries out the revenge is very dark for a YA novel, but it was in character. It's the rest of the novel where the transition from an out-for-revenge Nickel to a less extreme personality doesn't make a lot of sense. Sure, there's a budding romance between Nickel and one of the girls, but it happens too quickly and doesn't feel real as a result. In particular, the character of Betty isn't very likeable, and it's hard to believe that Nickel would let her into his life in such a dramatic fashion in the last chapter of the novel.

Nevertheless, this was a quick fun read, and very compelling. I'd pick up the next novel in this series.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Logitech M570 Trackball

After my Google ergonomic review, I switched to the Logitech Trackman wired trackball for my mousing needs. I switched to it everywhere. All the ergonomic studies tell you that this is the best trackball for long-term use. You use the tip of your fingers to maneuver the ball, and your thumb and other fingers to manipulate the buttons. There were several problems with it, however:

  1. No scroll wheel. It's a major pain with modern websites.
  2. Wired. In particular, ever since I switched to having 2 PCs, the main laptop for most writing work, and the desktop for photo editing and video editing, what I've wanted was a single unifying controller that will let me use the same wired keyboard and mouse simply by moving the unifying controller from one machine to the other.
The obvious solution would be to go for the wireless version of the Trackman. Unfortunately, Logitech in its infinite wisdom and understanding of ergonomics stopped producing it and hence it now costs $300 or more on Amazon.

The Logitech M570, however, still costs a reasonable $30, so I picked one up earlier in the year, intending to return it. Well, 6 months later, and I still haven't returned it, mostly because of the nice scroll wheel. I haven't had any ergonomic problems, but that's probably because my Diablo days are over and my days of intensely mousing on the machine are gone now that I'm mostly using keyboard shortcuts.

I don't know what ergonomics specialists would say, but for my current use, this is perfect. Trackball folks have very limited support, so I'm guessing that if you like a product, you should stock up on it so you have a lifetime supply. But I have a couple of wired Trackmans sitting around just in case this one gives up the ghost, so I'm set for now.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: Aeropress

I've been making coffee by using a #4 cone filter inside a stainless steel funnel. But everyone kept talking about how much better coffee could be, and the Aeropress was one of the most mentioned and reviewed tools. At $25 on Amazon, requiring no power and coming with a set of 350 filters (almost enough for a year), I bought one.

The instructions seemed easy enough. Put a filter in, put what seems like an incredible amount of coffee in, pour some luke warm water into the coffee, stir, and then press it out. I tried it, and the first cup of coffee came out strong, but oh wow, also incredibly bitter. So did the second cup. I looked online, since one of the reviews said that the whole point of using something like this was to extract flavor without bitterness, but I wasn't getting the expected results. It turns out that you're supposed to stop before the last foamy bit of coffee gets pressed out of the filter. That's the bitter part. This wasn't part of the printed instructions, or any of the videos I saw on the internet, so I'm glad I searched rather than just sending the Aeropress back.

I tried making a few cups this way, and indeed, the coffee tastes good. It's still stronger, but the bitterness was gone and it tasted very smooth. I was impressed. I didn't think that it was that much of an improvement over the cone filter inside a stainless steel funnel, however, so this morning I gave the Aeropress a pass and went back to that instead, intending to send back the Aeropress if I couldn't tell any difference with the result.

Instead, I got, "Yuck. What's this? Water with coffee flavor?" It does seem like the press did make a huge improvement, and I could no longer go back to the old way of doing things. Hence, I give the Aeropress a recommended rating. Just don't let any of the foam out of the inner tube, or you'll get a very bitter cup.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Magnector X vs E-Prance

The Xperia phones look nice and work as well as I expected, but nightly charging required that you pry off the micro-USB flap and then snap it back on. I was worried about doing that too often causing the loss of water-proofing, so I went looking for a magnetic charging cable that would allow us to let that port stay unmolested most of the time. Since we were using cases, we didn't consider a dock: most of the docks looked like they wouldn't work with the case. This was clearly a missed opportunity for Sony, since an integrated system of case and charging dock would have been preferred.

The #1 search result for magnetic charger on Amazon is the Magnector X. Hailing from Korea, the marketing copy looks great though the price seems high. It comes in a little case with a carrying pouch, and a little nub that connects to a usb cable and then attaches to your phone. The problem? The nub is wide, so the charging pins never makes contact with your phone if your phone is in a case. So we returned it.

The E-PRANCE cable hails from China, has 7 reviews, and doesn't qualify for Amazon prime. It ships direct from Shenzhen, comes through the postal service and takes weeks to deliver. It doesn't appear to have strain relievers on the cable, which means that if you jerk it too hard, it will break. Fortunately, it's a magnetic charging cable, so pulling on the phone means that the charger will just fall off the phone, so the cable shouldn't ever be subject to huge stress. In any case, it's cheaper than the Magnector X. To my relief, the charging end is thin, and easily charges both our phones while they're in their cases. We went ahead and ordered 4 (2 at home, 1 in each car). Recommended.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: Geigerrig 1210 Hyrdration Pack

I actually prefer water bottles to hydration packs most of the time. In particular, when cycling, carrying anything on your back is just asking for trouble, and it's makes my back hot and uncomfortable. Hiking is another story. Here, you need a backpack to carry ancillaries anyway, you're upright so the back doesn't get uncomfortable, but it's still hot. Furthermore, hydration packs are hard to clean, difficult to share between people, and end up gunky. I usually end up buying new hydration packs every so often because of this, or just buying hydration pack compatible backpacks and then buying new bladders every so often, which is cheaper but still not ideal. Bottles last me almost a decade, by comparison.

Well, there was a Geigerrig Blowout on Amazon.com, so I snagged a Geigerrig 1200 for $50, about $80 off the usual Amazon price. The reviews were nice, and I was intrigued by the idea that there's a squeeze bulb that could pressurize the bladder, letting me eject a stream of water rather than having to suck on a bite valve. In fact, the motto for Geigerrig was "never suck again."

My first use of the pack was disappointing. It was hard to fill, and I still had to suck on the bite valve, despite pressuring the bladder. On subsequent use, I realized a few things. First, there were quick release buckles on the bladder's pressurization port as well as output ports. That means you could quickly detach the bladder and fill it up from the tap. Not only that, the bladder opens up completely so you could dump ice into it, for instance.

Next, the hydration bladder's pressurization bulb can come off the pressurization port. What this means is that before you pressurize, you must check the bulb's output valved. Otherwise, you risk pumping air from the bulb back into the atmosphere instead of pressuring the bladder. In addition, you have to ensure the valve screw is fully engaged. After doing all this, as promised, a push on the bite valve and you can get a nice stream of water, provided you keep pumping the bulb. Fail to do that, and you're back down to a trickle again, and you might as well just bite down and suck. In fact, biting down and sucking takes a lot less effort than pumping the bladder, so I'm not sure I'd use this feature much. In addition, pressurizing the bladder bloats the backpack a bit, which I feel, and is mildly uncomfortable. This is especially a problem when you've used half the water in the pack, for instance. In a word, this is more marketing than practical, so I suppose if you get into a water pistol fight while hiking, this would be just the bees knees for high capacity.

The rest of the pack is well designed, with lots of pockets, etc. And for the price, it's a nice big pack that can carry a lot of stuff. The bladder is also huge at 100oz of water, well over what I can get away for nowadays.

Do I recommend this pack? For the price I paid, yes. For full price? No way. And discount the value of pressurization. In practice, it's a pain to use. The ability to quickly detach and fill the bladder, however, is quite high, so that's worth paying a slight premium for, as is the ability ot use a dishwasher on the bladder.

Very conditionally recommended.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fitness Tracking

I'm not a fitness tracking person, nor am I ever willing to spend the kind of money fitness trackers ask for. However, my father had a stroke last year, and one of the therapies involved was simply trying to walk 10,000 steps a day. There was no chance he could use a fitness band, either, but I bought him a pedometer. It was the Ozeri tri-axis pedometer, so that he could wear it around his neck. It's a simple setup: you set the clock on the pedometer, and it resets to zero every morning. If you stop and look at the device, it tells you how many steps it's taken. There are a few other buttons for paging through the last few days of data, but that's it. Simple, easy, and effective. So much so that I bought another for my mom (they come in 2 colors), and then was inspired to try out an ancient pedometer I had sitting in a drawer somewhere by replacing the batteries.

Believe it or not, I bought that in the pre-GPS days to help determine hiking distance. It worked but I never calibrated it enough to be useful in that fashion and abandoned it when GPS units became reasonably priced. It clips to your belt, and counts steps.

One thing that it doesn't work for is cycling. Cycling makes it go crazy with step counts. Another thing that makes it go crazy is Bowen. He saw it and wore it for an hour and the step counts also jumped. In this case, however, I think he actually was taking that many steps! This is one situation where the smartphone app Moves is significantly better, since it knows when you're cycling, driving, running, or walking. But for obvious reasons, I don't always walk around the house with my phone in my pocket, so Moves doesn't capture all the data a pedometer does.

In any case, I didn't bother with any goals for step counts. I just wanted to see how much I was moving each day. In practice, however, wearing a pedometer makes you more willing to run errands like taking the trash out. You're also more likely to deliberately park further if you're driving so you can walk a bit more. That has a significant impact, so I'm less likely to dismiss the fitness tracking craze (though I still wouldn't pay $100+ for one).

In any case, it's fun but I suspect it's also a matter of time before I lose my device or just get tired of wearing it. When that happens I probably won't replace it: I was happy to give up a watch after starting to carry a cell phone, and see no reason to go back.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Windows Phone vs Android: An Ecosystem Comparison

Over the last few months, I've switched from Android to Windows Phone and back again, so while the memory is fresh, let me write down what the differences are.

Both systems work well for the basics: e-mail, web-browsing, texting, and phone calls. What's fascinating to me is how much faster Windows phone is as far as the UI is concerned. Google made a big deal out of Project Butter a while back, but it looks like even the lowest end Windows phone has project butter beat.

What features did I miss most from Android when I was using the Windows phone?

  1. Swipe keyboard. It annoyed me to no end to not have a swiping keyboard.
  2. Google Voice. It sucked to call out to people and not have my Google voice # show up. Not only did I get people asking me if I'd changed my phone # (no I hadn't please don't call this number), I also had people ignore my phone calls because they thought I was a telemarketer as I was not on their white list due to the new phone #. If there's a single reason to ignore the possibility of using a Windows phone, Google voice is it. (Of course, that means that Google voice is #1 on the chopping block when Google decides to kill another round of projects) I had Google voice's mobile website as a short cut on the Windows phone home page, but somehow whenever I wanted to call anyone, I never got around to using it.
  3. Digg Reader. Just like the predecessor, Google Reader, Digg Reader was my #1 use of the Android phone. Unfortunately, there's no Digg Reader that's compatible with the Windows phone, and Digg Reader refuses to accept that Internet Explorer on Windows phone is a real web-browser and insists on denying me access. Disappointing.
  4. Moves. Moves got bought by Facebook, so there's a good chance that Moves will eventually show up either as part of a Facebook integration, or Moves would get a Windows phone port. That's a seriously great app, and I'm surprised that Google didn't buy them. Now Facebook not only knows where I am, it knows how I got there, and I'm happy to give it to them because I don't want to buy or charge or wear a real "fitness tracker" device. My phone's good enough.
That's it. Those are the 3 must-have apps for me. Sure, I enjoyed Clash of Clans, and I liked having Google calendar, contacts, etc. But the reality was, the Microsoft equivalents were more than good enough to keep me from missing them. And in all seriousness, I didn't have mind missing out on Moves that much.

By far the biggest problem with the Nokia 521 was that Facebook would fail to post photos from it. I have no idea whether that's because I had too low end a phone, or whether the Facebook app on Windows phone is a second class citizen and is hence buggy as heck. Whatever it is, that was a problem causing me to have to wait for WiFi access to post from my Windows tablet. Did I miss Google+? Not really. Even Arturo noted that his Facebook friends demonstrated much more engagement on the same content than Google+.

OK, what about going from Windows phone to Android? The biggest thing I miss is the longevity of the battery on the Windows phone. I could easily go through a day without worrying much about the battery on my Nokia 521. The Sony Xperia Z1 has a much bigger battery (and better screen), but  the battery life is quite a bit worse. It's quite clear to me that Android has a lot of bloat that simply doesn't exist on the Windows phone. Now to be fair, I run a lot more apps on Android than I do on Windows phone 8, but even when just sitting in my pocket not doing anything the Android phone sucks battery faster. One way to measure the OS overhead as far as battery life is concerned is to compare say, the HTC M8 Windows with the original HTC M8 Android. The M8 Windows beats the Android counterpart in battery life by nearly 7 hours in battery tests (21 hours vs 14 hours), a 50% improvement. This shows that the Android implementation of core system functionality is quite a bit lacking compare with Windows. (It also shows that Microsoft's capable of producing lean fast software if it wants to)

The next feature that I miss most is copy and paste. Android has it, but it's a lousy implementation of long press and tweaking that I can't stand. Windows Phone 8, by comparison, is pure delight. You select the text, then bring up the keyboard and type Control-C, just like at a real computer. It never fails, you can't ever fail to bring up the copy/paste icons (unlike on Android, where sometimes no matter how hard you push, or how long you press, you can't ever bring up the copy/paste icon), and it's consistent from app to app.

The next big thing is offline maps. The Nokia's HERE map and HERE drive implementations are nothing short of amazing. You can search not just for addresses even offline, but point of interests like gas stations and hotels mostly show up as well. This is huge for traveling if you might not have data (which describes all of US national parks). Basically, a Windows phone with the Nokia navigation apps replaces the GPS very nicely. This is such a big deal that I would happily give up everything except Google voice if I could have it on Android as well.

I also miss Microsoft Office, which has an implementation on Windows while missing entirely on Android. The implementation is quite good and more than sufficient for mobile use. While Google Docs is also usable, there's nothing like Microsoft Word for displaying documents written in Word.  Furthermore the default implementation of PDF reader is also much better on Windows phone than Android.

For what it's worth, despite all these advantages, it's clear that Android is the current winner. I am concerned that the pace of improvements on Android seems to be slowing, but hopefully with the new emphasis on low end phones we'll see Android improve dramatically there as well. Competition is good, and while I'm currently an Android user, I certainly wouldn't hesitate to jump ships if a Windows phone fits my needs better.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Review: Far End Gear Short Cord Stereo to Mono earbuds

I try to ride my bike as much as possible for transportation. What that means is that sometimes someone tries to call me during the ride. While I could ignore all calls, sometimes I'm expecting a call or I need to make arrangements in flight. That's what having a bluetooth headset is supposed to be for, in particular, my MW600.

There's only one problem. The headphone wires are long and can easily get tangled with bike parts and are an invitation for my son to play with them while riding. I searched and searched but could not find cheaper short cord headphones than the Far End Gear Short Cord earbuds. These are extremely expensive at $16.95, and you can also buy the stereo version for the same price.

Out of the box, they're fabric-wrapped and look strong. The sound quality isn't the best, but you're not expecting Sennheiser quality for this price. Despite being so short, they do function as antennas for the MW600's radio, albeit with poor indoor reception. They're short enough that I can clip the MW600 to my collar and have just enough cord to reach either of my ears. They can also be looped around my neck and kept handy in case a call comes in (my phone rings) but not block my ears so I can have normal hearing.

You wouldn't want these if you want to listen to music in the gym, for instance, but having short cord headphones is so nice that I'd consider buying the stereo version just for gym use, where the long cords do occasionally tangle and get mixed up with machinery.

I was hesitant to pay the $16.95 price for these, but really shouldn't have. These are more than good enough and a huge improvement over any long cord earbuds. If someone made short cord headphones with great sound quality, I'd be all over them. As it is, for the specific application I have, they're recommended.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Xperia Phone Protection Solutions

If there's one thing I learned after buying the Dell Venue 8 Pro, is that you can't buy portable electronics with screens on them without also buying protection. In the 24 hours between that tablet arriving and the case arriving, the screen got scratched. One of the features of the Xperia Ultra Z is that you can write on it with a ballpoint pen or pencil, but color me chicken, I wouldn't do that without adequate screen protection.

The protection we chose this time around are the Illumishield Z1 and Z Ultra protectors. Each package comes in a set of 3, which is good value in case you screw up one or the shields actually wear off. In my experience, by the time the shield wears off you're likely to buy a new phone anyway, but it might help the resell value to install a fresh screen protector. The Z Ultra protector installed easily and ended up with zero bubbles, a first for any of this type that I've used. The Z1 didn't install as well, and had some extra bubbles even after a few days of use. I'm not sure what the difference is, and it could easily be attributed to me screwing it up rather than any fault of the protector. The Z Ultra protector, in particular, installed so well that I cannot tell that the screen has any form of protection on it whatsoever, which is impressive. Highly recommended.

I bought the case for my wife without consulting her, which made me very nervous. Cases for phones are like handbag: the difference between one case or another could make it either a fashion accessory or make you look like a dork. To my relief, the convert thin case looks very nice. Closed, it looks just like a purse or other woman's accessory, rather than a case for what most would consider an extremely geeky product: a high end phablet. One caveat is that the case cuts off access to the SIM card slot (a reasonable decision, since you're unlikely to touch the SIM card once installed), and it's tough to remove the phone from the case, so install the SIM card before installing the phone into the case. The case does allow access to the microSD card, the charging port, and the headphone jack. It even tilts up so you can use the phone in landscape mode while sitting on a desk to watch a movie. Just like a wallet, it also has a few slots for credit cards, though the case is so thin that if you do so you might bulk it up a bit. One disadvantage of the case being tough to remove the phone from is that you're unlikely to want to submerge the case, so you'd avoid swimming with it. But nobody's going to take a case like this inside a swimming pool anyway. In any case,  Xiaoqin liked it. Recommended.

For the Z1, I had a different set of requirements, which included being able to remove the phone from a jersey pocket while cycling and use the camera. That meant that the wallet style case was unacceptable, so I went with the VSTN case instead, which provides some protection if the phone were to fall, while leaving all the ports and the camera shutter button handy. The case never obscures the screen, and also makes the phone easier to grip, but it does make the screen protector essential.

All in all, I'm pleased with this set of accessories.

Review: Sony SBH52

I've had several bluetooth headsets, including the MW600 and the Knivio over the years, but my wife has never showed interest in any of them. They're dorky, hard to pair, and most of the time simply mean one more item to charge instead of saving you any hassle. My wife also dislikes wearing headphones.

The Xperia Z1 Ultra, however, is so big that it's awkward to hold to your head in order to make a phone call, though my wife claims she'll get used to it in time as well. The SBH52, however, looked promising, so I ordered it thinking that I'll send it back if she ends up not using it.

On the website and promotional photos, the SBH52 looks like an unusually big headset, but in reality it's not much bigger than my MW600. What's nice about it is NFC pairing. Until we saw this feature, my wife had never seen NFC as being something useful other than a novelty item for me to play with by using my phone to pay at Whole Foods. You touch the back of the phone to the clip on the SBH52, and pairing and connecting happens automatically, though sometimes (not all the time) the phone pops up an annoying dialog asking you to approve the pairing. (I have no idea why that happens: touching the two items isn't something that would happen by accident, so the engineer/product manager who thought that dialog box was a good idea should be shot!)

The speaker on the SBH52 is loud enough to use as a speaker phone, and my wife seems to prefer using it that way rather than as a handset. The UI to switch between handset and speakerphone is unintuitive, forcing you to actually read the manual, but all in all isn't too bad. You can pair up to two phones with the device. In reality, this feature is less useful than it appears, since you end up being confused about which phone/headset is triggering the phone to ring, and the handset is small enough that it's really a personal device, but if you're the kind of person to carry two phones or a phone and a tablet at the same time I can see how this might be useful.

Standby/Talk time seems about normal for a device of this type. What's interesting is that the phone is water-resistant, though not completely waterproof. That does eliminate the fear of water on the phone, but it also means the charging port is behind a rubber grommet. No big deal, but I wonder when that's going to break off.

There are still minor bugs with the software. At one point NFC pairing got the devices confused and I had to reboot both the phone and the device. That problem went away relatively quickly, but I was still annoyed that such expensive equipment could fail on such a common task.

My wife doesn't like to use headphones, so I have no way to gauge headphone effectiveness. It does sport an FM radio using headphone wires as antenna, which I thought was pretty clever until I discovered that both the Xperia and Xperia Z1 do it as well, so it must be a fairly well-known trick.

In any case, so far my wife has been willing to carry around the headset in addition to her phone, which means that it passes the wife test. Translated into man-speak: "Recommended."

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Review: Belkin Conserve Socket

It's rare that personal electronics pay for themselves, but the Belkin Conserve Socket is one of the rare ones. Basically, it's a timer attached to a power socket. You set it for 1/2 hour, 3 hours, or 6 hours, and when you push the button, it activates the power for that amount of time, and drops to 0 current after the time's up. There's also a power strip set up similarly.

The socket's spec'd for 15 amps, but in practice, you can't really max it out or it will burn out and fail. I had one attached to my desktop and the accessory monitors, and after running it for several months it failed (Belkin replaced it under warranty). Conversely, the one attached to the entertainment system's still going strong after several years.

If you do the math and monitor energy with a Kill-A-Watt, what you'll discover is that in typical usage, one of these will pay for themselves in a year at $9.99. That's pretty good, both for the environment and for your wallet.

Recommended.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Review: LG 60PB6900 60" 1080p 3D Plasma TV

I don't watch TV much, but I do play video games, and my son streams videos from Amazon Instant Video. My wife and I would watch more movies together if there was an easy way to watch movies without potentially disturbing our son after bedtime. It might be optimistic to think so, but I thought that if we had a separate TV in our bedroom after some remodeling work, we might be able to fulfill that last desire.

With Plasma TVs on the way out, I jumped on a recent Fry's deal to get the LG 60PB6900 3D Plasma TV for $699 and free shipping. While I didn't think that I would use the SmartTV features, one of the long standing complaints my wife had about the current setup was that the Playstation doesn't listen to IR commands, so you'd have to use the Playstation controller in order to turn the Playstation off, even if you could program the universal remote to talk to the playstation through the Nyko PS3 remote.

Plasma TVs have a reputation for having the highest picture quality. In reality, I'm red-green color blind, so it'd be tough for me to tell the difference. Nevertheless, apparently consumer reports rated the LG 60PB6900 the highest of any TV, tied with the Samsung PN60F8500. Since the latter costs over $2300 on Amazon, you can safely say that the LG represents good value. The comparable-in-price Samsung PN60F5300 comes without 3D or Smart TV features, and also has a reputation for buzzing as well as occasional "pink tint" panel issues.

Unboxing the TV and setting it up, it's hard to avoid going "Oh Wow, this is huge". The funny thing is that once the TV is on the wall, you get used to it pretty fast. The same thing happened with my wife and her Xperia Ultra Z. Her first impression was, "This is too big." By her second day, all the other phones just looked small. I'm pretty sure there's no real limit to how big screens can get: until they fill the size of your wall, you'd probably get used to however big they become.

One of the interesting things over the last 5 years is that digital audio outputs have really become the standard after being around for 20 years. That means that my RCA-driven  DRA-295 now needs a D to A converter before getting fed sound from the TV. Fortunately, you can get those fairly cheaply (like the basic one for $12.49, and you'll also need an optical cable), but they do add to the cable clutter in the entertainment system, and another source of power draw.

In any case, I won't review the picture quality, etc. You can geek out over that at AVSForum.com. I'll talk mostly about features that you're likely to try and use but those guys won't. For instance, the Smart TV apps. The interface is a mess. It took me a while to figure out that to get over to YouTube/Amazon Instant video, I should just push the blue button in the middle of the remote labeled "SMART". Once there, it was fairly straightforward to run the apps, enter your user name/password, and get things moving. Coming from the PS3, however, it amazes me how slow the Smart TV app is. I'm guessing the CPU/memory on these TV sets is rather lackluster, since they're not competing based on those specs. Worse, they're subject to occasional stutters and pauses. On occasion, Amazon Instant video will give up and return you to the main menu so you can redo your selection. Fortunately, Amazon Instant Video remembers where you were last, so this was not enough for me to give up on them, since it's nice not to have the PS3 running in addition to the TV, but also so I can program the universal remote so my wife has a prayer of using this thing.

YouTube pairs nicely with our tablets (both the Dell Venue 8 Pro and the Nexus 10 worked just fine), but behaves funny. One video started out looking like a SD video, and then the TV gradually buffered enough content that it suddenly looked like a HD video. Pretty weird. And god help you if you run two tablets at once throwing videos over to the TV. The poor TV gets pretty confused, and so do the tablets. Don't do that.

How about normal TV reception? It's pretty awful. I tried a bunch of local over-the-air channels on my crappy indoor antenna, and none of the channels look good. I have no idea whether this is because of my crappy indoor antenna, or because over-the-air just doesn't have enough bandwidth to put the HD into the HDTV.

Watching Blu-Rays? Amazing. It looks gorgeous. Basically, the PS3 is still the best media player you can find out there, and anything it does to your picture is just perfect. Even with the bigger screen I couldn't find any pixelation artifacts except by standing 2 feet from the TV with my glasses on trying to pixel-peep. Good stuff.

How about 3D. The set doesn't come with 3D glasses, but you can buy the cheap $16 Samsung 3D glasses and they will work with this set. I don't have any 3D movies (yet!) but fortunately, the PS3 had a few games that worked in 3D. I tried Super Stardust HD, Arkham City, and Killzone 3. The 3D looks good, but keep in mind that if you didn't like the game in 2D, you're not going to like it any better in 3D. I'm guessing that would apply to any 3D movies as well. If there are any 3D movies that you like feel free to tell me, since 3D-streaming is effectively still non-existent, and you pretty much have to buy 3D Blu Rays if you want to experience it.

Speaking of games, there's significant input lag with this TV (the display lag database shows it at around 71ms). This is not a great TV to play FPS on, though I'm such a poor FPS player that I might never notice. God of War, however, was fine with this TV as long as I turned on Game Mode.

All in all, for the price I paid (which $125 more than what I paid for the 42" LG 5 years ago), this is a pretty nice set. Recommended.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Review: Cheetah Mounts APTMM2B TV Wall Mount

Bowen had gotten big enough that he could now stand up and push the TV on it's stand. That by itself isn't dangerous, but if he pushed it hard enough and the TV tipped over and fell on him, that's pretty dangerous. The obvious solution, then, is to mount the TV on the wall.

The Cheetah APTMM2B is the #1 best seller in that category on Amazon.com. At $28.69, it's cheap, and comes with a magnetic level, though I ended up having to buy a magnetic stud finder. Furthermore, what the reviews don't tell you is that to complete the mounting of the TV, you'll need a long screw driver, which is $4.99 at Harbor Freight tools or $12.50 at Amazon.

The mount is surprisingly light for having to hold up to 165 pounds of weight and a 65" TV. What it does is to mount directly onto the studs in the wall (hence the stud finder), which bears most of the weight of the TV through the mount. The mount comes in 4 pieces, and you assemble it yourself and then mount onto the studs through the drywall with the provided large screws. When you're ready to mount the TV, you mount the provided brackets onto the back of the TV, attach all the cables and wires you'll need to connect to the TV, and then lift the TV and put it onto the mount. This is a two person job, and it's best that both of you are pretty strong. I tried to do it myself and it exacerbated my back problem last year.  If there's a problem with the angle, you have to take the TV down again, adjust the angle of the brackets, and then put it back on.

When all that is done, you reach back with that long screw driver, and drive the screws back past the lower retaining lip to retain the TV. This last bit isn't important if you don't live in earthquake country, though it does help make the TV darn near impossible to steal. In fact, I don't know if I could remove the TV now that I've gotten on, since it took a good 20 minutes to screw in those screws with that unwieldy long screw driver.

Am I happy with the mount? It works, it flushes nicely with the wall, and it does the job of keeping Bowen from drawing on the TV or knocking it back down. It seems pretty sturdy, and the 42" TV stayed on the wall during the recent earthquake. However, when I wanted to replace the 42" TV with a 60" TV, taking down the TV and putting up the new one was a major pain in the neck, and screwing in the retaining screws at the end was an arduous and frustrating experience, and I'm not going to install any more wires at the back of the TV any more. I'm not sure I would buy this mount again, given these problems. It's more expensive to buy an articulating wall mount even if you don't need the articulating features just for the ease of use when it comes to installing new wires and HDMI thingies, but that might be a better choice.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

First Impressions: Xperia Z1, Z Ultra Phones

I impressed by the T-mobile international roaming plan. Coupled that with the fact that if you put a lot of people on a family plan, the costs are as low as what we were getting with Ting, without Ting's minute or data caps, so we made the determination to switch to T-mobile.

In any European country, the switch would be easily done by swapping out SIM cards. In the US, we're stuck buying new phones since the Ting phones are not GSM compliant. I wasn't going to do a lot of shopping, expecting to end up with either Moto G or the Nexus 5, but my wife had gotten used to a large screen Galaxy Note 2, and wasn't going back to a small screen. I thought about getting a Galaxy Note 3, but in the 2 years we'd had the Note 2, we'd had to replace it once for water damage, and I thought we could do better.

I noticed that Sony kept advertising its flagship phones as being waterproof, so a quick check on Amazon brought surprising results. The Xperia Z Ultra sells for $367 on Amazon (and much less if you're willing to buy the international version with no US warranty). In exchange for that (compared to the $349 Nexus 5), you get:

  • Much bigger screen (6.4" vs 5")
  • Waterproof (IP 58: submersion to 1.5m or 5')
  • Bigger battery (3050mAh)
  • Writeable with any ballpoint pen or pencil
  • No barometer (does anyone use the barometer on the Nexus 5?)
  • No flash for the camera
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Slower updates to the OS
There's a Google Play Edition of the Ultra Z for those who must have OS updates faster, but all the reviews say that stock android is no good for huge screen phones compared to Sony's skinned version, so we didn't consider it. The bigger screen cuts both ways, but if you ever read Chinese, you know how much difference a big screen makes.

That took care of Xiaoqin, but I didn't want the Z Ultra because it wouldn't fit in a cycling jersey pocket. I initially thought about using the travel Nokia 521 I used in Europe, but my mom was going on a trip so took off with it. I thought about buying another 521, but for long term daily use Android is still where the apps are.

The Xperia Z1 sells on Amazon for about $392. Compared with the Nexus 5, you get:
  • Waterproof (IP58)
  • Bigger battery (3000mAh)
  • Better camera (21mp, bigger sensor)
  • Slower update for the OS
  • No warranty (international version)
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Dedicated camera shutter button
You can solve the warranty issue by buying the product with a credit card that extends the warranty, though apparently some internet forums claim that Sony would warranty the product anyway.

For me, waterproofing trumps nearly everything else, and the dedicated camera shutter button means I'll be able to shoot from the bike, just like when I'm touring. That's handy. Against that is the possibility of screen cracks, which are apparently as common amongst Xperia users as they are on iPhone users. (For a while I never saw an iPhone without a cracked screen)

In any case, as you can see, the design of the Xperia phones are such that they easily justify their premium over the Nexus 5. The sealed battery is a pain, and I've ranted about it before, but on the other hand, I'd happily take the sealed battery in favor of a waterproof phone. Note that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is also waterproof (IP67) and does have a replaceable battery, indicating that it is possible to engineer a replaceable battery in a waterproof phone. However, the unlocked Galaxy S5 sells for $577.74 on Amazon, making it a non-contender.

First the hardware. The Xperia Z1 is a relatively thick phone, but otherwise looks good to me. People talk about phone design, but it's hard for me to ever get excited about rectangles. The Z Ultra, however, looks great. It's thin, and doesn't feel too heavy even though it's quite a bit heavier than the Z1. Both have great screens. I was worried about the screen because all the reviews claim that if you look at the phone at an off angle it doesn't look as good. In practice, you only use the phone that way if you lay it down on a table while having breakfast, and that's not a situation where you care much about visual fidelity.

The physical buttons on the phone work, but are the weakest part of the package. The power button, for instance, needs to be pressed pretty hard to respond, and the volume rocker and shutter button feels squishy. This seems to be par for the course for phones.

Uncropped, unprocessed, JPG shot by the Xperia Z1
I didn't use cameras much on smart phones prior to the Xperia Z1. They've never been very impressive, and to be honest, the UI on those phones suck. On-screen buttons are worthless when you need to shoot from a bike. The Z1, however, has a decent camera and a dedicated shutter button, so I gave it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised. The shutter button is laggy in that it takes a second or two before the phone wakes up and goes into photo mode, but that's comparable to the shutter lag on even a high end point and shoot such as the Sony RX100.  When you push the shutter, it shoots the picture, which is very nice, and the photos are very acceptable. I would still carry a RX100 on major trips, but for day to day use, it's more than good enough. Shooting from a bike with a phone with any other camera (the Nokia 521's buttons were even worse than the Xperia's) is pretty much impossible but easily executed on this phone after you get used to the form factor. Even 1080p videos look great. The only thing lacking is a RAW mode, but then again, I have no intention of upgrading Lightroom just to process photos taken with a phone camera anyway, so maybe it's just as well.


Note the lack of image stabilization does hurt the video

The flaps covering the USB port, microSD port, and SIM card trays are surprisingly well designed. You can pry them off with your fingers even without nails, and they snap back in place. The micro USB port of course is subject to wear, but Sony has provided a pogo pin slot which I look forward to trying.

Voice calls are a snap and I didn't notice any degradation of quality compared to the Nokia 521 I used prior to this phone. A nice side effect of going back to an Android phone is that Google Voice now works and folks will no longer try to call me back on a non-Google voice #. I'm definitely dreading the day Google kills this service, just like it has killed all the other services that I like and depended on in the past. The Z Ultra, of course, is a huge phone, and you may feel silly holding one to your ear. It certainly does look silly. So much so that Sony made the SBH52 to accompany the Z Ultra so you wouldn't look silly taking calls. On the one hand, it's funny to see a phone come with a mini-handset, on the other hand, the SBH52 is really well designed.

The software is Android 4.4.4. Strangely enough, the Z1 updated over the air, but the Z Ultra asked to be connected to a computer for the update to work. There's a surprisingly little amount of bloatware, though the default Walkman music player is a lot more annoying than Google Play Music. What did surprise me is the usefulness of the Sony SmartConnect app. For instance, my wife's Galaxy Note 2 used to just throw off all sorts of notifications all night, leading us to charge the phone outside the bedroom. With SmartConnect, you can tell the phone to disable notifications while charging between 10pm and 7am, say, and you'll have a blissfully silent phone without the need to re-enable notifications manually when you unplug the phone the next morning. You can also set the phone to automatically play music when you hook it up to headphones, a bluetooth headset (or even a specific bluetooth connection), etc.

The phone does run exceedingly fast, tackling task switching, movie playing, etc, with barely a hiccup. But coming from a Windows phone, I no longer see having a smoothly operating phone as something special. I just expect it from phones. The irony is that Android is now as much a bloated piece of software as Windows was back in the late 1990s, and it is indeed the must-have applications such as Google voice and Digg Reader that have me using it instead of much cheaper and faster alternatives. Microsoft was smart enough not to kill off apps that had its user base hooked, but Google doesn't have such a history.

Here's the interesting thing about screen size. When I tried the phones in the store, it was clear to me that the Ultra Z was too big for cycling jersey pockets, but I thought the Z1 would be big enough for casual use. But when going to a doctor's appointment, for instance, the Z1 just isn't big enough, and I found myself bringing a laptop or Windows tablet in order to compose content, while my wife was happy with her Ultra Z.

So far, my first impressions of the phones are positive. Hopefully, the phone will last long enough for me to take an international trip on in the future, now that I no longer have to buy a separate phone just for an international trip. If Sony keeps this up, its turnaround really might be working.