Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Impressions: Sony Playstation 4

My brothers got me a PS4 for my birthday, so here are my first impressions. The first thing I did after unboxing the unit was to install an old Momentus XT hybrid SSD in place of the 5400rpm drive. It's not worth installing a brand new SSD onto the PS4 because that would cost as much as the console itself, but since I had a couple of the old drives around before SSDs became reliable enough to use on the laptops/desktops, I repurposed them as drives for the PS3 and PS4. This particular drive has a 7200rpm spinning platter, unlike the newer drives that utilize a 5400rpm platter. The net result is that even if the SSD cache on the drive doesn't get hit that frequently, the increased RPM should grant better performance compared with the OEM drive.

The experience of doing so was a snap. Unlike other vendors, Sony actually designed the system to make replacing drives easy. You slide back the left side of the device, exposing the drive bay, undo one screw, and slide out the caddy holding a 2.5inch drive. The OEM drive is 7.5mm thick, but Sony thoughtfully made the caddy such that it supports a 9mm drive, so the momentus fit with no problems. The OS install was painless and easy, though finding the power on button was surprisingly challenging, since there was no obvious button, just a touch sensitive pad.

Installing the device into my existing entertainment system was straightforward. One potential complication if you have an ancient analog receiver like I do, is that the PS4 doesn't support analog output, only HDMI. I redirected the audio to the analog receiver through the TV, but that adds lag, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Once the system boots up, it's clear that this is a different animal than the PS3. It boots up quickly, and you can quickly download multiple applications and games easily and quickly. Even logging onto Amazon Prime was easy as the controller felt less laggy than the PS3's. What's interesting to me is that the PS4 controller feels much more comfortable than the PS3's, so the ergonomic improvements are definitely very welcome. The controller also uses standard micro USB ports, and thankfully can be charged with any charger, unlike the PS3's which required special chargers. What is much appreciated is the headphone port on the controller: I could mute the TV and then playing using headphones attached to the controller. It'll even support a microphone headset, and the PS4 comes with one so you can chat. I eschewed the crappy PS4 default one for my Koss Portra Pros, and the sound was acceptable, though not as nice as when I plugged it into my Vita.

I stuck the Life of Pi into the PS4 and watched it with my wife. That's a gorgeous movie and the PS4 was more than capable of doing rendering the movie in gorgeous 1080p. I was very pleased, though you wouldn't buy a PS4 just to act as a Blu Ray player, knowing that it can serve the function is the major reason to go with one of the major video game consoles, as opposed to a Nintento Wii or Wii U, which can't serve as a general media player.

Vudu and Amazon Instant Video both installed nicely onto the PS4, as did YouTube (as of the 2.0 update). You're not missing anything over any of the other streaming sticks or streaming video boxes. What's missing from the PS3 is that it won't serve as a DLNA client, or even play music from disk.

I've already completed one game, Resogun on the device, and it's definitely very impressive. One problem with the PS4 right now is that there aren't that many high quality titles out yet. I expect that to change over the next year, and look forward to being able to play console titles that my 5 year old desktop probably won't be able to keep up with. That's an unfair comparison, since the 5 year old desktop is driving a 1440p display, but that's how it goes.

One of the big benefits of having a PS4 and a Vita is that you can use the Vita as a remote play terminal for the PS4. The two sync up very nicely, and you can use the OLED screen to play games on the PS4 via remote play from any room in the house with decent wifi. This runs surprisingly smoothly with next to no lag, and lets you do things like play games while someone else uses the TV to watch streaming video, though you can't do that if your primary input into the TV is the PS4, so you need at least a secondary streaming device like the FireTV stick or Chromecast. Now, the problem with remote play is that in order to take advantage of it, you need to keep your PS4 in standby mode. Standby mode, however, consumes nearly half the power projected to be used by your PS4 over its lifetime, so it's not costless.

I'll maintain that right now is a bad time to buy a PS4, while it's the best time ever to buy a PS3. But if you already have a PS3 and are setting up a second room with a TV, then you might as well get a PS4. It's a sleek device, and does its job for anything faster than the alternatives.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review: Resogun

My brothers gave me a PS4 on my birthday, so the first thing I did was to download and fire up Resogun. I wasn't able to get into Housemarquee's previous big outing on the PS3, Super Stardust HD, because it was simply too hard. The original asteroids game just wasn't this hard.

Resogun's the spiritual successor to Defender, If you grew up in the 80s as a kid, you'll remember that Defender was amazingly, incredibly hard. The arcade box had 5 buttons and one joystick, and being an arcade game, had only one difficulty level: hard. Like Super Stardust HD, I expected to get my ass handed to me for about an hour and then I'd give up in frustration to try more modern games.

To my surprise, Resogun's easy difficulty level with unlimited continues allowed me to not only complete all 5 stages of the game, but also taught me how to get good enough to finish the game without continues a second time with a second ship. That's a first for me as far as an arcade style game is concerned, and that I continued to play despite finish the game once is a testament to how much fun the game is. Defender was never this much fun! I'm even tempted to bump u the difficulty level another time.

Like the original game, Resogun has you piloting a space ship through a horizontally wrapped world. Unlike the original, you can pilot the ship in one direction while firing in the opposite, though you cannot fire in any axis other than the horizontal. Enemies spawn and come at you almost constantly, though you can clear the board and gain a breather. As opposed to the hyperspace button, you have a "boost" button, which lets you zip around the board at speed. There's also an over-drive button, which puts the game into slow motion and turns your weapon into a solid beam that scorches enemies. Both buttons need to be recharged over time.

Finally, of course, there's the smart bomb, which clears the screen of enemies. There are enough differences from the original to knock you for a loop the first time you hit them. For instance, you can only pick up one human at a time, unlike the original. And rather than just picking it up, you can also deliver the human to an exit point to "save the human". Another interesting point of difference is that the humans rather than being free standing at start, begin by being locked into prisons, and when keepers show up, you have to destroy them to free a human for you to save.

The game is a scintillating cluster of colors, pixels, boxes, and moving pieces that are both retro and modern at the same time. The scrolling display is rendered in a 3D cylindrical view, and the music is as kinetic as you would expect. It takes you a split second at each introduction of a new enemy to figure out what it's doing and how best to attack it, and the same applies to the boss fights. After a single play through, certain events finally get a chance to filter into your consciousness and you start paying attention to them. "Keeper Detected", for instance, is an audio cue to let you know that those new enemies that are showing up have to be destroyed for you to free up a human. Once you've destroyed those, a shooting star animation takes place on the far side of the planet and you have to race there to rescue your newly freed charge. Fortunately, Housemarquee chose not to allow you to accidentally shoot your humans.

One of the best things about video games is that the good ones let you feel like a kid again. And Resogun definitely is one of the good ones. While I wouldn't get a PS4 just for Resogun, it's definitely worth picking up once you have one.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Binary Domain

I started playing Binary Domain by accident. I was playing Killzone 2 and getting frustrated at one stage. That's the fault of the first person shooter experience: while you have no problem figuring out where you are, it's sometimes difficult to map where your enemies are relative to you because they're moving while you're moving, and if you're playing hide-and-seek like in that particular stage of Killzone 2, you can end up dying repeatedly because your mental map can't compensate for the AI's movements without a frustrating (to me) amount of repetition.

I ended up finishing Binary Domain first, because the third person shooter perspective is just more intuitive, and to me, more fun. The implementation in Binary Domain is also very well done. One of my favorite things about the Uncharted franchise is that you almost always have a buddy with you to help out during combat. Well, in Binary Domain, you can have up to 4-5 buddies, and sometimes the story divides you up into teams and you get to decide who to have on your team, which lends you the ability to customize your play experience. Your conversations and banter on the team will be very different depending on who you chose to take on any given mission.

What's more, there's a trust mechanic, where how you perform with each team member (buying them upgrades) as well as combat performance increases trust, and accidentally shooting them in combat lowers trust. This affects the ultimate outcome of the game and ending in various ways, which I think is pretty cool. Furthermore, at easy difficulty, the game is not frustrating, and the fact that you're shooting robots means that this is one of those games that's easy for a parent to let a child play.

What's more, the game's story is very good for a video game. It's set in a science fiction universe with global warming, robots, and even features ethical dilemmas which I thought were appropriate when we start mixing in AI along with advanced robotics. The problem here is that the game is very linear, so you're dragged along by the story and ultimately have no control over the ethics (or even your choice of love interest), but for what it's worth, this is not the usual poor story line game.

The big weakness of the game is the AI companions. They're just not very effective, even on easy mode. Now, part of it is by design: in the big boss fights, it'd be kinda lame for the player protagonist to not make the killing blow. However, it's also kinda silly to have a very long dragged out fight while your companions who seem to be competent the rest of the time suddenly be unable to hit the broad side of a barn. The other problem is that sometimes they blithely walk into your zone of fire, thereby causing you to hit them through no fault of your own. That's frustrating if you're trying to build a high trust level with the rest of the team.

But none of this was enough to keep me from playing the game all the way to the finish. It's a lot of fun, and while it doesn't beat Among Thieves, I think that it's a game that's under-rated by the standard gaming press reviews. Third person shooters are still rare as a genre, and this one is very well done. Recommended.

P.S. There's one final scene after the credits roll, so keep the game running through the end credits.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: The Flash Boys

Books about Wall Street have a way of being incredibly depressing. For instance, Elizabeth Warren's story about fighting Wall Street has a main theme, which is, "Bank meets consumer, Bank screws consumer, ad nauseum." I'm happy to report that The Flash Boys is an exception to this rule.

The book is about high frequency trading: the practice of front-running investor's trades electronically in order to capture the bid-ask spread. It's an obnoxious practice, but generates so much profit that the firms doing so are willing to spend hundreds of millions relocating servers to be closer to the exchanges. Obviously those folks are the villains of the book.

But the book does have a hero, IEX, co-founded by Brad Katsuyama. Lewis follows the discovery (by Katsuyama, amongst others) of the existence of HFT, the desire to build an exchange immune to predation through HFT, and the creation of IEX and its team. The story is told well, as compelling as any thriller you might have read, and I found myself turning its pages furiously. It's also a short read.

I tried to think of ways IEX was built that might make them prone to the kinds of conflicts of interests that have plagued other exchanges, but came up short, so I think Lewis has done the story justice, rather than just acted as PR agent for IEX.


Hat tip to Larry Hosken for pointing me at this book.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: The Inquisitor's Apprentice

I loved Chris Moriarty's Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin, so when I saw that she'd written a series of young adult books starting with The Inquisitor's Apprentice, I didn't hesitate to check them out from the library.

The Inquisitor's Apprentice is set in an alternative history turn of the century New York City. Those were heady times, and historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, and Teddy Roosevelt perform more than just cameo appearances in the novel, lending the novel a lovely "I've been there" feel.

The story's told from the view of Sacha, a 1st generation Jewish immigrant living in the tenements with his parents, who've escaped from Russia and lived through a harrowing past. Sacha discovers that he can see magic performed, and is then conscripted into being an Inquisitor's apprentice.

In this version of New York, magic is real (and everyone knows it), but is illegal, and an Inquisitor is a special department of the police force charged with policing the use of magic and the investigation thereof. Sacha's apprenticed to Inquisitor Wolf, one of the most prominent investigators of the era, and is swept up in a plot apparently intended to end the life of Thomas Edison.

This was an incredibly promising premise to the novel, and had me very excited to read it. The description of turn of century New York is awesome, and Moriarty's description of Jewish culture (especially that of Russian immigrants in New York) is authentic and feels real. The introduction of Jewish mythic elements in the form of the dybbuk, and integration into various pieces of city paraphernalia such as the rag and bone man and china town is well done and taps into your imagination.

Yet the novel falls flat. The protagonist, Sacha, is weak-willed and lily-livered. Rather than taking action, he's dragged into one event after another by his mentor, his friends, and his colleagues. He lacks common-sense, and has no self-control over his emotions. He's a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, and unfortunately, I don't think it was intentional on Moriarty's part. I think she bent over backwards to make a heroine out of Sacha's cohort intern, Lily Astral, not realizing that she'd weakened her protagonist to the point of unlikeability.

The resolution of the novel is also incomplete, obviously setting up for the next novel in the series. I cannot recommend this novel over any of Moriarty's other novels, so I'm not sure I'd get around to reading The Watcher in The Shadows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Powerstation PSX-3 Jumpstarter/Air Compressor

My old cheapo tire inflator bit the dust, and I wanted a better unit. I figured that I might as well get one that could jump start a car as well, since that would eliminate the need for a power cable to the unit.

My preference is to buy on Amazon, but the PSX-3 is one of those items that's much cheaper at Costco, where it retails for $75 instead of the $120. My guess is that the heavy weight of the unit ensures that Amazon will never be price-competitive with Costco.

The unit charges fast and comes pretty much pre-charged. If you follow the instructions and top off the charge every month or so, it'll never take more than an hour to fully charge, even after using it to jump start a car, which I've done a few times.

The inflator has a gauge that's inaccurate (i.e., it under-reads by about 5psi), but if you're using it to top off your tires you should have an accurate gauge anyway.

The jump start is very easy to use, far easier than jump starter cables. You plug in both ends to a car battery, flip the switch on, and then start the car. No worries about sparks jumping, because you only flip the switch after using the alligator clips. It also comes with a flash light.

The unit's a little heavy, and I'm not sure you'd keep one in the car at all times (though it'd definitely be a must-have for car camping), since you'd have to charge it every month, but for what the unit does and the fact that I use it every month to top off the tires (and the occasional jump start), it's the cheapest unit I've found that does the job, and it's far more robust than the cheaper inflators I've seen.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Hario Mini Mill

Lots of people raved to me about the benefits of grinding your own coffee from coffee beans rather than buying pre-ground coffee. It sounded like a good thing, but I wasn't willing to spend the big bucks that the electric burr grinders cost, nor did I really want to devote counter space to something that wouldn't necessarily get daily use, given that my experience with coffee enthusiasts seems to be that they'll rave about any minute changes in coffee, while I'm simply not that sensitive.

The Hario Mini Mill, at $25, seems worth a try. Sure, it's a hand grinder, so it'd take longer to grind, but on the other hand, the extra couple of minutes is just not a big deal, and if it doesn't work out I'm not out too much money. I bought the Major Dickason's blend, a highly rated coffee now on sale at Costco's for about $13 for a 2 pound bag. The net result is that this isn't quite an apples to apples comparison, since I was using Gaia's Organic pre-ground before.

The first thing I noticed was the aroma. The coffee beans definitely smell quite a bit more than the pre-ground. If you're into smells, this is probably the biggest difference between pre-ground and grinding your own. I'm not into smells.

The grinder's fairly easy to use. Set the grind, then pour coffee beans into it, and then grind. The grinding is very fast about a minute or so, so it's really not a big deal as far as your daily routine is. The big difference here is that grinding your coffee sets the coffee grounds much looser than using pre-ground coffee and scooping it using the Aeropress scoop. The result is you get much less coffee grounds out of 2 scoops of beans than 2 scoops of pre-ground. This makes a big difference, so while I was filling up the Aeropress to level 3 with 2 scoops of pre-ground, for a similar strength of coffee I'd only fill it up to 2 with my own grind.

The resultant coffee smells much stronger than the pre-ground stuff, and the coffee is very smooth. But the taste? I'm sorry, I just cannot tell the difference. If anything, I think the Major Dickason's doesn't taste as sweet as the Gaia pre-ground, but I cannot tell whether it's because of the difference between the coffees, or because the grinding makes the coffee worse.

I bought a can of the Kirkland Decaf (48ozs at $13), and the big difference seems to be that the pre-ground stuff is much harder to push through the Aeropress than the self-grounded coffee. And honestly, if you took away the grinder and made me drink the kirkland decaf, except for the missing caffeine, I'm not sure I'd prefer the self-ground coffee.

I'll keep the grinder, if only because a lot of variety of coffee beans don't come pre-ground, and I really don't feel like grinding it at the Costco grinders which don't ever seem to get cleaned. At $25, it doesn't seem unreasonable. But if you're a casual coffee drinker like me and aromas don't do much for you, I don't think I'd believe any of the coffee enthusiast's enthusiasm about self-grinded coffee. The smell thing is all the self-grinded coffee has going for it. It makes zero different to the taste as far as I'm concerned.

The biggest difference, I think is that the bother of grinding might make me drink less coffee, which isn't a completely bad thing (I'm at one cup a day).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles is the final book of Richard Morgan's fantasy trilogy that started with The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands.

I'm a huge fan of Richard Morgan, but the problem with his approach to fantasy is to take all the complexity of modern fantasy and dial it up to 10. The result is a mix of races (dwenda, aldrain, kilrathi), fantasy (magic, dark magic, and super science) and situations that would take a very long novel to explicate.

Well, The Dark Defiles is a very long novel, but I'm not sure it fully succeeds in the explication. It's also only somewhat satisfying. The three main characters, Ringil Eskiath (the gay Barbarian swordsman), Egar Dragonbane, and Archeth (the last half-breed Kilrathi left on the planet) are split right at the start of the novel, and become only two by the end of the story.

As the story proceeds, it becomes more and more clear that the story is a far future science fiction novel, rather than a standard fantasy. This is all very nice, though it's been done before, it's usually done in some long drawn out series because most such authors seem to think it's a cool trick that should be drawn out. Morgan has no such compunctions and has no issues doing one big reveal after another.

Nevertheless, the book is deeply flawed. While the previous novels in the series do a good job of upending standard fantasy tropes, The Dark Defiles spends a bit too much time wallowing in its own meta-fiction, therefore eliminating any chance that you care about the characters. In particular, Archeth seems particularly dense for being an immortal being whose the last daughter of a race of super-engineers.

Furthermore, even the meta-fiction leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, if the world was so broken when the Kilrathi arrived, why did they bother fighting for it? And the questions of where the random other deities that popped out remains unanswered. Even the fates of our protagonists is annoyingly left untied.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that the book isn't worth reading. The action sequences are done in ways that only Richard Morgan can. You'd be hard put to come up with a better effects budget than what occurs in the mind's eye, and Morgan shows how to do it. Each individual section of the book is comparatively well written, it's just that the whole doesn't quite come together properly and the result is unsatisfying.

Ultimately, the mystery of why this book took so long to come out, and why it was comparatively disappointing is solved when you read the afterword: the author had a son during the writing. That explains everything. Nobody can be coherent after one of those events, and it explains why the novel is so chaotic and unpolished.

If you're a fan of the fantasy genre, this book's definitely worth reading because it does a good job of being very different from what anyone else has done in the genre. If you're a fan of Richard Morgan, however, be prepared to be very disappointed. It's more ambitious than Altered Carbon, but fails far short of those ambitions and hence is probably the second weakest book in his portfolio.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review: Africa

It is no secret that if you want to use your HDTV to the max, you attach a blu-ray player to it and then play one of BBC's nature documentaries. When I first upgraded to a HDTV in 2009, I watched Planet Earth, and it was an experience to behold and enjoy. When I upgraded to my new LG Plasma Display, I picked up Africa just to see.

What makes the BBC blu-rays so great is that they're made and formatted for the standard HDTV screen. Movies are formatted for the 1:37:1 aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio, and as a result when you watch a movie, you get black bars at the top and bottom of your image, which means that Baraka, for instance, while being mastered in 8K before being down-sampled to 2K, looks gorgeous, you don't quite get to make full use of your 1080p display compared to what Africa or Planet Earth provides.

Africa comes in 6 episodes, with 3 episodes per disk. Each episodes spans an hour, and covers the Kalahari, the Svannah, Congo, Cape, Sahara, and a wrap up episode that covers the bigger picture. Each episode comes with a behind the scenes section that's about 10 minutes long. The footage is nothing short of amazing, including Starlight cameras that reveal the nocturnal behavior of black rhinos, and a slow motion capture of a battle between 2 giraffes in a desert.

I'm normally very impatient with every "behind the scenes" documentary, because most of the time I'd watch them and say, yeah, you had a multi-million dollar budget, good for you. But some of the footage that the series provided were so jaw-dropping that I actually looked forward to the "behind the scenes" documentary. In one of the episodes, the crew shot silver ants in 50C heat in the Sahara desert, which looked brutal as heck.

I wasn't looking forward to he last episode, because normally these documentaries tend to be a huge downer. After all, nearly every non-insect species featured in the TV series is nearly about to go extinct (one good reason to own this Blu Ray). But the last episode was actually surprisingly optimistic, including detailing a huge multi-country plan to surround the Sahara with trees to prevent further desert incursions.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the series. Since you can't easily stream the series without losing video quality, the best way to enjoy it is to borrow it from a friend, rent it, or watch it over the air (though I'd be surprised if the presentation is better over the air than from a blu ray).

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Trains for Toddlers

Bowen is a train fanatic. He says so himself, and I'm not sure I can disagree. The big problem with train sets is that there's an annoying number of standard, and some of them (but not all), are cross compatible. We ended up with two different non-compatible sets.

The wooden sets are mostly cross-compatible. The best way to get started is to buy the track pieces separately from the trains and the special pieces. That's because if you buy them together, you end up with an extremely expensive set. The best deal on the tracks can be found on Amazon where you get 56 pieces of the track pieces in various configurations for $29. This is much cheaper than the big brands, and more importantly, comes with the male/male and female/female connecting pieces. You cannot beat the price and the quality in my experience has been great. What you want to do is to avoid the kits that come with fragile pieces like railroad crossings. Those will get broken due to the poor packaging that inevitably come with the cut-rate prices.

For the special pieces, you can buy the name brand ones. Even though those are more expensive, they won't be broken easily (either by the child or by shipping). We bought the Brio railroad crossing and he loved it so much that he took it with him to the train station and used it to imitate the real crossings. It was hilarious at first but he never gets tired of doing this so now I'm annoyed.
For the turntable we could get away with the cheap ones because those aren't fragile.

Trains from brand name manufacturers are always expensive. The best thing to do there is to wait for a sale and then pick them up. I first bought a battery powered Salty, but it turned out that he prefers to push the trains around the track himself (or better yet, get daddy or mommy to do it for him), so now I buy the cheaper non powered wooden trains. We haven't gotten around to any of the special overpasses and things like that, but I'm sure the time will come when he's ready for it.

The other non compatible set  we started with were the Take-n-play series. These are quite a bit fancier, but turned out to be far more expensive. We started with the Great Quarry Climb, which has a fun mechanical climbing bit, and great rolldowns as well as a turntable, and then followed up with the Misty Island package. To my surprise, the packages do actually fold up and put away nicely when you're done, and the constrained design means a younger toddler can play with them fairly easily. The little play pieces are also fun. However, you can't buy cheap knock-offs, so you end up with expensive connector sets that aren't comprehensive or satisfying. And forget about railroad crossings and other such fun things. Those don't exist in the Take n play world.

The net result has been that we're likely to expand the wooden sets but unlikely to add to the plastic sets. Or maybe he'll just outgrow playing with trains eventually.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

S24O With a Toddler

I've never participated in a S24O, mostly because back when I didn't have kids, I'd always have time and would use as much of a weekend as possible. This October, however, with temperatures into the mid 90s and our home AC out of commission because of construction, I decided would be appropriate to take Bowen out on his first camping trip, which would turn out to be an S24O, and involved more cheating than the Tour De France.

Preparing Bowen was a multi-month affair. Earlier in the year, I'd set up a tent in the front yard and let him play in it. Then last week, I took out sleeping bags and he immediately took a liking to them, even demanding to sleep in the sleeping bag when we were in the house.

California's State Beach campgrounds book up months in advance, especially on weekends, but there's a little known loophole that only cyclists know about, which is that if you show up on a bike, you get access to a hiker-biker site in many state parks. Not only are those sites unreservable, they effectively never fill up. It used to be that California's State Park policy was that no matter how full they were, they would never turn away a cyclist or hiker. I don't know if that policy had changed, but at New Brighton State Beach on October 4th, there were way more than 5 cyclists that the state park brochure said they had room for. The hiker biker sites used to charged $1 per person, but with California's budget situation, they've since raised the price to $5 per person.

I took the bike I used to take Bowen to and from school, and attached the Yakima trailer to it. This gave us room for the tent, sleeping bags, stove, extra clothing, food, and even his beach kit. With all this and Bowen, the bike weighed in excess of 80 pounds (the Yakima trailer by itself was more than 20 pounds), which meant that riding over the mountain would have been scary, and the bike wasn't quite set up to do that kind of riding anyway. But I said I was going to cheat, so I thought nothing of piling all this into a car, driving over the mountain, and then parking outside the park around the corner where I found some free street parking.

Riding on a bike with that much weight in strange places was quite different, but fortunately I'm a decent bike handler. I wouldn't recommend that anyone with less than competent bike handling skill and a lot of touring experience try the setup I did. Even for me, the descents felt scarily fast, and the climbs, such as they were, were quite painful. Add in a live toddler occasionally fighting you for the controls or wriggling, and most cyclists probably just aren't going to be up for it.

On arrival at the park entrance, we were told that the hiker biker site wasn't going to open until 4pm, but we were welcome to hangout at the beach in the mean time. We took them up on it, and arrived just as a wedding party was breaking up. They thought Bowen was cute, however, and handed him one of the party favor: a paint brush meant for brushing sand off your feet. That meant Bowen played with it for a while, though he also played in the sand and even splashed about in the ocean for a bit, though he discovered quickly that he did not like the cold water.

Back at the park entrance to checkin, we had 2 cyclists ahead of us but rather than charging us $5 a person, the park ranger decided that the park policy was $5 per bike. I was quite pleased with that. I was quite sure, however, if I'd showed up on a tandem the policy would suddenly have been $5 per person once again.

Pitching the tent was easy, and cooking and making dinner went surprisingly well. The funny thing is that toddlers behave better when there's only one parent around, so I could boil water, cook noodles, and even run off and borrow a can opener for the pork and beans without incident. At home, Bowen would have to be almost force-fed his dinner, but here at the campground, he actively fed himself dinner, then helped himself to a banana and apple.

After dinner, we used the coin-operated showers. Kids don't appreciate scenery, so I had to persuade and cajole Bowen into going for a walk to see the sunset, but it was worth the effort.

A near full moon rose in the late afternoon, and lit up the night like a spotlight, but when it came time for milk, Bowen started demanding to go home, refusing to consider getting fed by daddy. Fortunately, by this time there were many families in the campground with lit up campfires, so I visited one of our neighbors with campfires, distracting the little guy from his milk routine. Cyclists tend not to light fires, since it's a chore to get firewood and the equipment required to light it, but car campers and folks in camping trailers usually have them.

The folks were very welcoming, and gave Bowen first a marshmallow, and then let him make himself a smore.  I asked them how far ahead they'd reserved their campsite, and they said 7 months ago. They had 3 kids, at ages 3, 6, and 9. I told them this was Bowen's first time camping, and mommy asked the little one (Piper) how old she was when she was first camping. Piper replied, "3". Mommy then said, "No. You were 2 weeks old when you first started camping." The sugar load made Bowen very happy, at which point he was willing to go back to the tent where he let me brush his teeth a second time and go to bed. He complained of itchiness and demanded Benadryl, after which sleep came easily.
He slept well all night, despite the fireworks from the nearby boardwalk and the noisy freeway, but woke up in the morning while I was away from the tent on the toilet. I came back to find him unzipping the tent trying to get out. I persuaded him to get back into the tent, but he was once again whining to go home. So I packed everything up while he helped himself to half a banana. It was beautiful out and the other camping cyclists told me that they didn't expect him to stay quiet all night, and were pleasantly surprised.

After we loaded everything up, we rode back to the car where he sat patiently in his car seat while I uncoupled the trailer, loaded up all the baggage, the bike and everything into the car. He ate half a bag of chips on the way home, and happily demanded his milk from mommy when we got there.

All in all, a good trip but I'd pick a quieter campground next time, and bring marshmallows and maybe a smore making kit.

Lessons for next time:
  • Bring more clothing. Not just because it might get cold (it never really got very cold), but because you cannot under-estimate the number of times he's going to get dirty. He got very very messy.
  • Bring more quarters. Showers are quarter operated. Good thing the ranger station  had change to give me, but I wiped out all their quarters, so the next poor dad who showed up on a bike would have been SOL.
  • Bring marshmallows, smore making kit, and campfire kit. Need to distract the little guy from "mommy milk time."
  • Brush his teeth just before bedtime so I don't have to brush it twice.
  • Buy a battery for my lightweight CPAP machine so I don't have to lug the 5 pound battery in addition to the expensive heavy weight CPAP kit. The short cord hose would come in handy as well.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Gaming the Coding Interview

Paul Graham's essay on how you can't really game startups had me thinking about the coding interview. Google had a lot of studies showing that the interview as practiced by Google wasn't very effective: in other words, interview scores don't really correlate with actual job performance. In part, this is because Google's not a startup any more --- political ability probably determines your promotions and effectiveness within Google than simply being good at engineering. But a major part is also that the coding interview is very susceptible to being gamed.

For instance, if you read Cracking the Coding Interview and were diligent about it (i.e., actually worked through the problems and practiced at them), you'd stand a good chance of doing really well during Google's interview process. Lest you think that this is a recent phenomena, even in 2003, Google's interview process was very similar. I remember being asked to reverse all the words in a sentence, and a few other puzzler type questions, and even during my interview, I remembered one interviewer telling the next one as the hand-off was happening, "this guy knows all the standard interview questions." Back then, Gayle's book didn't exist, but 10 years of interviewing for startups and interviewing at startups had hit me with every interview question that could be easily covered in a 45 minute session.

I will note that Facebook does have tougher interviews today than Google (they're hiring slower and therefore can be more picky), but from what I've seen their interviews are no less subject to being gamed.

When I look back at the interviewing process, there's really only one company that's stood out for having an interview process that couldn't be easily gamed, and that's Wealthfront in late 2012. I only include the date because in between, startups can change a lot and for all I know they could be interviewing like Google today.

The way Wealthfront conducted their interview was by pair programming. The candidate would come in, and pair program real problems with their "interviewer". The experience is intense, and in many ways eliminates the possibility of hiring someone who couldn't even write correct java syntax, or construct unit tests for code he'd just written. It's a good way to go and difficult to game, since you have to actually be able to design, structure, and turn ideas into code all the way to the testing and debugging steps.

Another good idea I've seen at certain startups is to put the culture fit interview first, before any technical interviews get done. The reason for this is if you get a candidate who's stellar on the technical side, it's actually very difficult to reject him for cultural reasons. I can attest to this, as one of my early hires at Google bombed out precisely for that reason, though without doing much damage. By putting the cultural fit interview first, you eliminate the bias to hire, even though you might waste a bit of time.