Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: Seagate 4TB Solid State Hybrid Hard Drive

I realize that I'm a member of a dying breed: the desktop user. While the rest of the world is content to shoot crappy videos and photos with smartphones, processing on the same, and then posting onto Facebook and instagram, I'm still shooting with high end cameras, processing 20-25MB images on a powerful desktop on Lightroom, post-processing video on Adobe Premiere Elements. With the additional of a kid in the house, I'm shooting more than ever before, and my 5 year old computer with an upgraded 1.5TB HDD simply ran out of storage. In addition, the desktop is pretty good as a media server for recording video, so adding storage is a good idea.

The result of the recent change in the majority of users means that it's nearly impossible to find a 7200rpm 4TB HDD at a reasonable cost. The majority of high capacity hard drives now run at 5400rpm and are intended for enterprise NAS use, rather than consumer desktop use. Amazon had a sale on the 4TB 3.5" SSHD drive, and at $140 it wasn't more expensive than other slow 4TB drives, so I bought it to try.

The Seagate SSHD has a rotational speed of 5900rpm, which is slower than the 2TB version which run at 7200rpm. If the rotating platter had had a higher density, this wouldn't affect transfer speeds much, but this version of the drive has 4 1TB platters, so it's actually lower density than the 2TB drive. Nevertheless, copying data over to the new drive via eSATA got me peak speeds around 50-60MB/s via robocopy, indicating that for sequential writes, the drive wasn't bottle-necked.

In use, the drive is mostly used for photo and video processing as well as recording shows off the air, so reads and writes large sequential files. The 8GB SSD cache is tiny, but on the other hand, each import into the Lightroom catalog is usually around 1-2GB, and when comparing photos and processing photos, the files get read repeatedly while changes get written to a sidecar XML file, so this is as good a scenario as you can get for a SSHD. I would very occasionally get an initial stutter when reading the files, but once everything was in cache the experience was more than acceptable compared to the prior 1.5TB HDD.

For processing video, the machine's bottle-necked by the (quad core) CPU, which turbos to the maximum frequency and stays pegged at 100% for the entire duration, so it was definitely not limited by the drive write speed. Copying to my NAS got me 32MB/s on a wired connection, which was more than reasonable.

All in all, having an additional 2TB of storage gives me plenty of headroom for at least another few years. When this dekstop dies, I will probably switch to a chassis that lets me add drives rather than having to replace drives wholesale, but in the mean time this is a fairly cost effective upgrade.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Fables #19 and #20

The Fables have long been one of my favorite comic book series, and it's run for hundreds of issues by now. The problem with comic books is that they're very fast reading for me, which means that it's not worth it even to buy every collected book as they come out, but rather, to batch a few of them together and buy and read them all at once. That way, you don't lose too much context between story arcs.

Snow White, volume #19 starts off with a very weak series involving one of the minor characters of the series. It builds, however, to an assault on Snow White and Bigby Wolf, with a seeming end to one of the most beloved characters of the series. (This being fairy tale, we know not to take deaths as being final) What's interesting to me is that Willingham appears to be reviving one of the oldest enemies of the fables as it stands, which I hope he does not do, as it would be a weak retread.

Camelot, volume #20 is about Rose Red, Snow White's sibling and as the title suggests, an attempt to recreate the knights of the round-table. The story goes a bit meta, and doesn't end here, but has some very creative possibilities that leaves me hanging. The series has been through a bit of a slump recently, but with these two volumes the action is picking up and I'll be looking forward to the next few volumes with relish.

Recommended.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Infamous Second Son

Infamous: Second Son was the first true AAA title for the PS4. To be honest, I didn't expect to get as hooked on it as I did. That's because I tried the original Infamous on the PS3, and got only about midway before I gave up on the game as being too long and too repetitive. Furthermore, I also had Shadows of Mordor sitting right in front of me, which was a much better reviewed game.

Well, I think what made the difference is that Second Son is a pretty gorgeous game. Whereas Shadows of Mordor started you in the shadows, Second Son started you at dawn, during the golden hour. The entire game tries hard to put you in gorgeous environments, either during sunrise, sunset, or at night. While I lived in Seattle for almost a year, I'd rarely seen it in good lighting because of the constant clouds and drizzle. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the game was written as an extended advertisement for the Seattle tourism bureau.

The other reason is that Shadows of Mordor is multi-platform, while Second Son is written by one of Sony's in house developers. Without needing to port to other platforms, the team gets to optimize the heck out of the game, and it shows. Other than the startup loading screen, the rest of the game has zero loading time, with no hiccups whatsoever and a very fast frame rate. The game felt very tight. Unfortunately, that's not true of the the Vita remote play experience. I tried that a few times and it just didn't work.

The game revolves around Delsin Rowe, who discovers that he has powers. A government agency tries to capture him but members of his tribe try to protect him and fall prey to Augstine, the leader of the agency, who also has powers. Delsin, with his brother, heads of to Seattle to try to capture her powers so as to relieve the members of his tribe who helped him.

The least likable part of the story is Delsin Rowe, who's quite a punk. Even when playing him as a good guy, he never seems to want to live up to the hero he would be, with his brother frequently trying to restrain him. Nevertheless, the powers he gains are a lot of fun: smoke, neon, video, and finally concrete. Sucker Punch (the developer) did a good job giving each set of powers distinctive feel in play while sharing similar controls so that you don't get too overwhelmed each time. Each set of powers has a distinct skill tree, so you can upgrade and customize Delsin.

The game doesn't completely balance all powers: neon is the most fun to play, so the game forces you to upgrade video and smoke by making them required as the only skills necessary for certain critical missions. Fortunately, Sucker Punch also made upgrading Delsin by collecting power-shards fairly enjoyable, so I didn't even notice I was grinding the game until near the end, when I was collecting shards so I could upgrade the last power, concrete the minute I picked it up.

Collectibles are usually a pain in game, but this is one of the rare cases where the game's made them not objectionable. There's relatively little variance in the side missions, but there's enough different types that I didn't feel like it was very monotonous. I didn't like the secret agent missions, so I just didn't bother doing them, while some of the other missions were locked out because I decided to play as a good character instead of an evil one.

As a near-launch title, Second Son made full use of the new controller. You use every button, and the touch pad as well. The touch pad felt somewhat gimmicky, but I got used to it.

In any case, I had a lot of fun playing the game, and it definitely looks and feels miles beyond the original Infamous game. If you have a PS4, I'd recommend picking it up.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Lumia 635 Smartphone

Sadly, I broke my Xperia Z1, and it's broken in such a way that I'm not 100% sure that Sony will fix under warranty. So this time, I'm determined not to buy an expensive smartphone (and that way, if Sony betrays my expectations and actually fixes my Z1, I wouldn't be out a ton of money). I was going to buy another Lumia 521, but it was sold out everywhere I looked. I settled on a Lumia 635 which was on sale for about $65.

This turned out to be a more than reasonable choice. The 635, unlike the 521, has LTE coverage. T-mobile's been rolling out LTE, so this actually matters now. Furthermore, in the half year since I used the 521, Microsoft has addressed 3 out of the 4 issues I described in the ecosystem comparison! Lumia phones now have a swipe keyboard. The latest Windows phone OS's browser now supports the Digg Reader in landscape mode, and uniquely (and surprisingly to me), the 635 supports the SensorCore SDK, which means that functionality that I missed in the Moves app is now available in the Microsoft Health and Fitness app. This last bit surprised the heck out of me --- basically, this now obviates the $70 Vivofit. The only issue left un-addressed is Google voice support. To be honest, however, Google Voice's been becoming increasingly flakey and unreliable, and most of my friends (even Google employees!) have been slowly abandoning it due to Google's lack of attention in this area, so I'm not sure that Google Voice is a reason to stay on an Android platform for much longer.

There are two versions of the 635: the T-mobile version and the AT&T version, with T-mobile version being more expensive. The reason the T-mobile version's better if you're a T-mobile user is that it comes with WiFi calling, which is a nice feature especially if you travel overseas and frequently have WiFi but not phone signal. The different versions of the 635 are carrier locked, so you cannot use a T-mobile SIM in an AT&T phone and vice versa.

The big downgrade from the 521 is that the 635 does not have a camera shutter button. This would be a big deal  breaker except that the camera on either phone is worth jack, and I'd only use them under duress.

Compared with the Xperia Z1, the 635 has a few surprising strengths. The first is battery life. I'm willing to bet that any Windows phone outperforms any Android phone in this regard. On the Virgin Islands trip, my moms' 521 hardly ever needed to be charged, while the Android phones (and even the lone iPhone) were frequently on the charging table. I'm confident that the 635 will go all day without charging and then some.

The second is the bluetooth implementation. For whatever reason, the Z1 would frequently stop responding to next-track and previous-track requests from the Scion's steering wheel controls, and despite being told repeatedly to play music whenever it was connected to the car's audio system, the Z1 would refuse to do so without manual intervention. By contrast, the 635 reliably talks to the car's audio system, even going into driving mode and ignoring text messages and other random notifications, by contrast.

The third interesting thing is that Windows Phone OS is far snappier than Android! The 521 occasionally would lag a bit while resuming an app, but the 635 with a quad core CPU and a 20% MHz bump hardly ever shows me the app resumption screen, and even when it does it's only for a second or less. The Windows phone OS team has done a far better job than the Android OS team on UI optimization and such.

The weaknesses of the phone can easily be seen from the specifications. A 4.5 inch screen with 800x400 resolution just cannot compete with the Sony's beautiful screen. It's also not waterproof (though reports are that you'd better not rely on Sony's waterproofing claims), and doesn't have the magnetic charging dock capability or Qi wireless charging. For $65, I wouldn't be screaming for that. The 512MB RAM also prevents me from posting large Facebook photos, for instance. Given the poor camera on the phone, this is probably a good thing for my readers and followers on Facebook, but it also means that I wouldn't be processing RAW photos on the Windows phone and posting them while on trips. The phone camera also doesn't have a flash nor does it have a front-facing camera. Given the poor quality of the rear camera, I would have preferred to just have a front camera for Skype video chats and such.

One thing that the Sony had that I missed is the nice NFC-backed tap to pair with my SBH-52. No big deal, since surprisingly, the SBH-52 picked up my Windows phone quickly and eagerly pairs with it even without prompting, something that my Z1 didn't always do! So much for vendor-driven integration.

All in all, the 635 is a surprisingly good package at a low low price. If I had to live with this as my only phone for the next 2 years I'd miss the Z1's excellent camera and flash, but wouldn't necessarily feel deprived. At this price range, there's no competition that even comes close. The Moto G LTE phone, for instance is $190, which is more than twice the price I paid! You'd have to go with the Moto E GSM ($115) to come close, and that phone only gives you 2G on T-mobile in the US! And both phones running Android would be far more sluggish than the 635.

Needless to say, this phone therefore comes recommended.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review: HP Stream 7 Tablet

A fall from the couch destroyed the screen of our 2 year old Nexus 10. You can't easily repair tablets, so we needed a replacement. Our household's been moving away from Android tablets in recent years: compared to Windows tablets, they offer poor value, and more saliently, you simply can't use Amazon Instant Video on them, which is where most of our video consumption comes from, since we are Amazon Prime customers and are not about  to pay for video from any other source any time soon. Amazon's Fire tablets are similarly non-contenders because they offer a poor experience for YouTube.

If you were to tell me 4 years ago that the tablet-specific OSes such as Android would perform less well than a version of Windows on low-memory machines, I'd have laughed at you. Microsoft has a well-deserved reputation for writing bloatware that expands to eat all available CPU, memory, and storage resources. The funny thing is that on small memory machines now, Windows 8.1 rules! The OS is tight, the OS is optimized for tablets use, and having a real web-browser (Internet Explorer) that's been improved by years of competition with Chrome means that you don't need dedicated apps to visit YouTube, use Amazon Instant Video, or even use Google Play services.

The HP Stream 7 tablet comes with 1GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Windows chews up 16GB of the storage, so you're left with about 10-15GB of storage. I was skeptical about the 1GB of RAM, but in reality, the only difference between this and the Dell Venue 8 Pro for web-browsing is that the Dell can support 2 logins at once while the HP Stream 7 will log you out one user before logging in another. The kicker is the price: while the Dell Venue 8 Pro costs around $200, we picked up the HP Stream 7 for $75. If you're familiar at all with the tablet market place, $75 on Android gets you a badly designed product: no-name Chinese tablets with 8GB of storage, dual core CPUs, and 800x400 screens. And of course, over at the Apple side, $75 won't even buy you upgraded storage on any of their products!

The Stream 7, by contrast, comes with a 1280x800 screen, a quad core Atom Bay Trail CPU, and bluetooth.  It even has a microSD card slot for additional storage! This is an amazing value by any measure. What's more, the tablet lives up to the specs. It's fast, snappy, and could run Office. The signature edition we bought comes with an Office 365 Personal subscription for 1 year, which is a $70 value. What's more, if you talked to Microsoft support, for $99, you can turn it into a 2 year Office 365 Home subscription, which gives you 5 users, and 1TB of cloud storage  Contrast this with Google's $120/year for 1 user, and you can see that Microsoft is really working hard for your business.

The tablet does have nits: the headphone jack is reportedly unusable for most relegating you to using Bluetooth for sound (not the worst thing in the world). There's screen bleed (but no big deal), there battery's small so it'll only last for 8 hours, and the tablet's heavy for it's size. The cameras built into the device are crappy (no surprise: 2MP isn't going to get you decent results even if you're a heavy instagram user). But none of that detracts from the amazing value that this tablet represents.

With Google seemingly exiting the low cost Android tablet market (no new Nexus 7 this year, and the Nexus 9 is priced like an Apple product), it's very clear that Microsoft is going to dominate the low-end tablet market. My biggest wish is for them to succeed so wildly that Google and other vendors take note and start paying attention to this market again.

In any case, this tablet is highly recommended.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review: Garmin Vivofit Fitness Tracker

Fitness trackers are strange devices for me. On the one hand, the intended audience is meant for the people who aren't very fit trying to get fit. On the other hand, the casual folks aren't likely to pay the premium those devices charge over simpler pedometers such as the Ozeri Tri-axis. For instance, I can't imagine getting my parents to sync one of those fitness bands to a smartphone, assuming they even owned a smartphone that was compatible.

On top of that, most of these devices either don't have displays, or aren't water-proof, or both! If you're actually fit, and swim, bike, or do anything interesting, none of the Fitbit or smartwatch products are really usable for you.

Well, Garmin's an exception. Garmin's bike computers survive numerous bike tours, rainy rides, and all sorts of abuse I can heap on them. So I can trust Garmin. Indeed, when I first looked at the Garmin Vivofit a year ago, I was impressed. The device is rated for 5 ATM, which means that swimming or snorkeling (provided you're not diving deep) would be ok, but not diving. Yes, watch ratings are very misleading. What caused me to hold off was the insane price of $130. I'm reasonably confident that my daily activity level is high enough that any activity measurement for me falls into the "nice to have" category, rather than "must have."

Fast forward a year, and the price is now much more reasonable, around $70 or so on Amazon. That's still about 5 times the cost of an Ozei pedometer, but unlike those, this can actually be used while swimming and cycling without going crazy. Also, I've already had to return one of the Ozeris which broke, while my track record with Garmin units is usually much better. I also considered the VivoSmart, which is nice in that it syncs with cycling sensors, but at $170, is a bit rich, and also has the problem that unlike the Vivofit, it needs to be charged.

Getting the unit set up is easy enough. Select the strap (it comes in 2 sizes), put the device in, strap it on the wrist (don't forget the clasp protector!), and then put it into pairing mode with your phone after downloading the Garmin connect app. The device will only pair to one user at a time, and if you trade users it resets the device to zero. If you don't have a compatible smartphone, the device comes with a USB dongle that lets a PC sync with the Vivofit. I've tried syncing both on the PC and a smartphone and in both cases it's easy and fast.

Now, you might expect the device to automatically sync, but rather, you need to manually sync your Vivofit every so often. Garmin claims that it'll store up to 2 weeks of data, so in theory you only need to do it every 2 weeks. Unfortunately, on my very second day of syncing I triggered a bug which lost an entire's day activity. Not a big deal as it hasn't happened again, but my advice for you is to sync early and sync often. I'm not sure how frequent syncing would affect battery life, but even if it dropped from the projected 1 year to 6 months it still wouldn't be a major tragedy.

The pedometer part of the device works well. For instance, it tracks steps even if you're pushing a stroller or a shopping cart, which I have expected it not to do. It does a reasonable job of eliminating false positives, though I have noticed it giving me about 20-100 extra steps while driving. The strangest thing is that swimming using the crawl and breast strokes doesn't register, while the backstroke and duck diving do register. Cycling on a smooth flat road with a smooth cadence doesn't register, while hammering with upper body motion or standing up on a climb do register steps. It would have been nice if Garmin would register step-equivalents while swimming, but as I said above, fitness trackers aren't really designed for those of you who are actually fit!

The device pairs with the Garmin Heart Rate monitor, and one nice feature is that if you do have a Garmin bike computer, both the bike computer and the Vivofit will receive the data from the same HRM. This bodes well for the VivoSmart, since you would expect the same would be true of the speed and cadence sensors.

By far the best feature of the Vivofit (and the VivoSmart has the same feature) is the red inactivity bar. If you don't move for an hour or so, the red bar would start to fill up, and you would have to get up and walk for about 200 steps to make that bar go away. This is very  useful even for those of you who are already fit, since it eliminates blocks of inactivity during the day, which has been shown to be fairly harmful to your body. The difference between the Vivofit and the VivoSmart is that the latter will actually vibrate to let you know, while the former needs you to actually glance at it once in a while to notice the red bar. For the $90 difference between the unit and the occasional annoyance with a vibration waking you up in the middle of the night, I'd stay with the Vivofit.

The other functions of the device is that it serves as a watch (but it's not a backlit screen, so you'd still be pulling out your phone at night), provides the date, shows you calories burned, and also provides a goal to keep you walking more and more each day. The goal-setting service is set up for a fairly inactive person, ramping up from 7500 steps per day. It also tracks sleep, but the software and website doesn't provide you with any help in interpreting the sleep data, and it's a bit of a bother to put the device into sleep mode before going to sleep, so my guess is in the long run, this feature wouldn't get used much.

All in all, this (and the Vivosmart) is probably the only fitness tracker you should bother with if you swim, bike, or otherwise use a Garmin HRM. It's robust, waterproof, has ridiculously good battery life, and provides reasonably good functionality. If someone else came out with one that figured out what to do about swimming it'd be even better, but for the moment this is the device to beat. Unfortunately for me, it's not suitable for me (and I don't really need a fitness tracker anyway), so it's going back to Amazon.

Recommended.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: What If?

What If? is Randall Munroe's book of Fermi estimation questions and answers. If you've ever worked for any of the well-known (or even less well-known) tech companies, you're familiar with Fermi estimation questions because they're frequently used to interview candidates. The other community that loves Fermi estimation problems are physicists (hence the reference to Fermi), and this is a book full of them. Munroe's background was in Physics before he became rich and famous by writing and drawing XKCD.

What's cool about this book is that almost all of them involve scenarios that eventually destroy the Earth, hence very few of them would be ever come up in a Google (or Microsoft) interview. Nevertheless, I found the book as much fun to read as any novel, and much more fun than most. (The one question that would be useful is: "Will the internet ever provide more bandwidth than a Fedex box full of storage media?")

If your name was Sherlock Holmes, you'd disdain this book, since it's chock-full of little titbits and facts that you'll never ever need to know and irrelevant to your work. But for the rest of us, I highly recommend this book as a quick fun read that will back a trans-Atlantic flight go by at an impressive rate.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

First Impressions: Fire TV Stick

As mentioned in the PS4 review, one advantage of the PS4 is that you can use a PS Vita to stream a game while someone else uses the TV to watch live TV or do video streaming. Of course, any games running on the PS4 tend to use the entire CPU and GPU to do anything, so you can't actually stream video on a PS4 while the CPU is in use playing a game. The solution is a Fire TV stick, Chromecast, Roku Stick, or so-forth.

Of the 3, Chromecast requires a phone or tablet, and doesn't really support Amazon Instant Video. Roku is the most versatile, but the most expensive. The kicker for me was when Amazon offered the FireTV Stick at $19 for Prime customers. That got me to buy pre-order it.

Installing the device was a cinch. Plug in the HDMI extender, plug in the Stick, plug in the power supply that's a micro-USB port, and you're done! The device supports Amazon Music, TuneIn, Pandora, and Spotify, as well as playing back Photos and Videos from Amazon's cloud. This is a very nice setup, with the biggest disappointment being that there's no support for DLNA, which is what I actually use at home. There are various apps that claim to support DLNA, but what really happens is that they're really apps for throwing content over from the phone to the stick, rather than a full-on DLNA client, so this doesn't quite make up for the PS4 not being as powerful a media server as the PS3.

The UI is fast, and better yet, you can pair your phone via WiFi to the stick and not have to use the remote for text entry. Voice search even sort of mostly works. Playing an Amazon instant video is smooth and quick, though there's missing support for VUDU.

For me, the biggest problem is that there's no separate sound output, so you can't get surround sound if you the output from the TV downgrades surround to stereo, which is what most non-Sony TVs do.

All in all, the FireTV Stick is a better device than the Chromecast, but not nearly as good as the Roku Stick or standalone players. This is disappointing because from the specifications, the stick is a far more powerful device than any of the other sticks.

All in all, at $19 (cheaper than any of the other sticks by far), it's worth while to have as a backup for the scenario I mentioned in the first paragraph above. At full price, I'd give this a pass.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Vizio S4251 5.1 Soundbar with Wireless Subwoofer and Satellite Speakers

I was setting up a second entertainment system in the bedroom, and wanted something relatively simple, since I already had a full on receiver in the living room. On the other hand, I wanted some nice sound, and it turned out that the Vizio 5.1 Soundbar not only sounded relatively good according to reviews, but also had a subwoofer and satellite speakers giving a real surround experience.

Installation was relatively easy, though I ended up having to buy a soundbar mount just to get it to mount under the TV, since the TV was on an articulating mount. The satellite mounts are very well thought out, and I had no problems driving them into a drywall and then mounting them into the correct places.

The biggest problem with my relatively old LCD TV is that it does not pass through surround audio signal from HDMI to the speakers, so there's no point plugging in any of the digital outputs from the TV to the soundbar. That's no big deal, since the primary video driver to the TV is the PS4, which does have a digital output which does plug into the soundbar just fine.

What's nice is that the subwoofer is wireless, while it does also supply wired power and sound to satellite speakers.

As a result, I ended up with multiple inputs into the soundbar, with the TV driving one, the PS4 driving another, and of course, bluetooth connectivity for music. This works very well, but it does defeat the point of one of the features of the system, which is that you can train it to understand the volume commands from your TV's remote rather than using the remote that comes with the soundbar. It was just easier to train myself to use the soundbar's remote.

One nit-pick is that the increments on the sound is rather large, so you can easily go from too soft to too loud in just a couple of clicks of the remote. This is no big deal since you learn how to work with the system relatively quickly. Another nice thing to have would have been for the soundbar to take a passthrough HDMI input so that it could get full surround output from the PS4 without having to flip back and forth between inputs. But all that's relatively minor. The system works and I didn't have to buy a receiver.

The sound is rich and full, and even with just stereo inputs the system does use the subwoofer and the satellite speakers. It certainly sounds much better than the TV's built-in speakers, and of course, when playing games on the PS4 you get the full surround experience, which is exactly what you want.

Recommended.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014 Wrap Up: Equipment Reviews

After this past trip, I found the following pieces of equipment particularly useful:


  • Anker 40W 5-Port Desktop USB Charger: This was an amazing piece of equipment, charging all the electronics plugged into the boat over the 2 hours a day of engine time we had. Since the only power available on the boat was during those 2 hours and through an inverter with only 2 power plugs and 2 USB ports, this was huge.
  • Sony RX100: When I first got the RX100, I was mad at Sony for charging through a slow micro-USB port, rather than a fast brick charger like all the other cameras. This trip made me see the light. While other cameras would have hogged the sole inverter on the boat, this camera happily lived off the Anker charging port, and got plugged in often enough that battery life was never an issue.
  • Monoprice Waterproof RX100 Camera Dive Housing: Cheap and worked. Enough said.
  • T-mobile international roaming plan: Last time, we paid for an expensive internet device that didn't work half as well as our smart phone roaming on T-mobile's international plan. Posting to Facebook, shopping for Black Friday, this plan held up and did good. The only moment of irritation was when we visited St. John and found that we were on U.S. roaming data, which ironically was only 50MB of data! But once back in British waters, we were once again in happy land. Highly highly recommended. T-mobile deserves to continue to eat market share from the other carriers.
The following piece of equipment was disappointing:
  • RAVPower 10400mAh: Don't get me wrong. Having an external battery was very useful. But this particular one charged very slowly and frequently left me without power. I would have appreciated a faster charging one like the one Arturo got. The slow charging didn't bother me at home, but bothered me a lot on the trip.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Silicon Dust HDHomeRun

I'm a notorious cheapskate who refuses to pay for TV. I installed a large TV antenna on my roof, and then ran cables to various parts of the house. But I still had a problem, which is that regular TV is a terrible UI. I hate using paper TV guides, and searching online gave me random results. Furthermore, video from the TV isn't portable: you can't watch it from your smart phone, computer, or tablet.

Amazon recently had a sale on the Silicon Dust HD HomeRun, which solves all the above problems and then some. Basically, this is a device that provides 2 tuners over the network for all your compatible devices, which includes your PCs, Android devices, and even some game consoles.

The coolest thing about this is that all the other non-TV devices provide better UIs for TV than the TV. With a Windows PC that has Windows Media Center, you even get automatic video recording features, including pausing live TV and ad-skipping. Not only that, the tv guide on Windows Media Center gives you search capability, as well as "automatically record all shows in the series." The UI is is as good a UI as I want.

The device comes with 2 tuners, meaning you can record one show while watching another, or have 2 different PCs/tablets/etc. watching different programs.

For $90, it enables us to make full use of the TV antenna, and has no monthly fees. Recommended.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014

I stopped reading Year's Best story collection a few years back, when being a subscriber to Asimov's would basically net you half the book anyway, so I always felt like I was wasting my money. This year, I tried again, reasoning that my Asimov's subscription had lapsed, and that if I selected Rich Horton instead of Gardner Dozois as the editor I'd get a wildly different selection than I used to, and would get different stories.

I was only partly right. The first half of the book was very good, and the entire collection only includes 3 stories from my current short-fiction magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the Extended Edition of this magazine is the only magazine I subscribe to through the Kindle --- the value for money is simply unbeatable!).

The second half of the book, however, dragged down and had many more misses, some of which felt really lame. At $6.99, you're not out a lot of money for this book, but the time spent slogging through some of the stories are better spent elsewhere. Not recommended and disappointing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Learnings and Conclusions

The biggest thing I learned this time was to stow away the mooring lines until you need them every time. Losing a prop was a scary proposition and while I don't think we did too much damage, on a mono hull we would have been forced to moor and anchor via sail, which is not a very safe thing to do. It's a good thing that we charted a Catamaran.

This was my first time using a second tier charter outfit like Conch Charters. Overall, their customer service was nothing short of amazing, better than most tier one outfits like Horizon, Dream Yacht Charters, CYOA or Anacortes Yacht Charters. Balanced against that is the age of a 10-year old Catamaran that's been in heavy use. If, for instance, we'd decided to go to Jost Van Dyke first and then over to St. John (which is a better itinerary since provisions were cheaper there!), the engine trouble we had right at the beginning would have been very costly in terms of time. Having an engine that wouldn't start right at the end of the trip when we were due to return the boat was also disturbing. I'm very glad that I chartered with Conch only after having extensive sailing experience with others, since an engine failure on any of the other trips would have caused me to tear my hair out. Overall, I'd still recommend Conch, since not all their boats had the troubles we had.

The third thing I learned was that the clearing of customs between the BVI and U.S. VI is much less bad that I'd remembered from 2007. That time, I was new to the area, and didn't know which harbors had little traffic and were easy to work with. This time around, I knew to work with Jost Van Dyke and Cruz Bay, and had zero problems, going very fast. On the return, if we'd gone to Virgin Gorda, it would have been easy as well.

Finally, I was concerned about Bowen on the sailboat, but I needn't have been. The boy's a born sailor and loves it. It's inevitable that at the end of every ride at Disney World, I'd ask him if he enjoyed the ride, and he said, "Yes." "Do you want to repeat it?" "No." Sailing has been the one activity where now if I asked him to go sailing, he would say, "Yes." Much have been made in the press and on blogs about the challenges girls have in school and what-not. To my mind, boys have a much tougher time in schools, etc. Boys don't like sitting down for a long time, and frequently have difficulty with an indoor life, yet there's next to no literature about this, and nobody seems to care. On a sailboat, however, Bowen blossomed, taking care of himself better, and in general learning to overcome his fear of water, exploring the Baths, and so forth. I understand better now why some families opt to live on a boat for years at a time, though I have no desire to do so. This style of travel does seem eminently suited for boys, and if you have one you owe it to him to give it a try, provided he's not the type to get sea-sick.

The Virgin Islands is one of the few places on the planet that I'd say are worth repeated visits to. (The other place, of course, is the Alps) This time, I finally saw some of the sights I missed the previous times, though a careful reading of the book indicated a few more than I missed, including the Fallen Jerusalem, which apparently has batholithic structures that rival those of the Baths. Nevertheless, I'd love to explore more of the Caribbean in the future, so am not likely to return for at least a few years. If you've never been there, do go, and do try to do it from a small sailboat rather than opting for a land cruise.

2 days after landing, I would lie in bed and would still feel the rocking experience of sleeping on a sailboat. That's how much I miss it. Recommended!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Sanders Bay to Tortola

From Virgin Islands 2014
It was a glorious sunrise, but Sail Pending had just one more challenge for us: the starboard engine now wouldn't start at all! We raised anchor on one engine, motor'd out of Coral Harbor, and immediately put up sails as the winds were blowing right at 20 knots. We had a fairly straightforward sail back to Burt's Point, taking about 10 tacks to get right into the port before we dropped sails and once again put in to a mooring with just the port-side engine.

We got out the dinghy, and went ashore to clear customs, and once again found the process easy, though with more hoops to jump through than either Cruz Bay or Jost Van Dyke. Nevertheless, we were done by 10:30am, though waiting for Conch Charters to get around to docking and de-briefing us took till 11:30.

Our trip was all over at this point, as was my responsibility for the Sail Pending. We hopped on the ferry back to St. Thomas, stayed overnight at the hotel, and the next day walked over to the airport to get on the plane back home.
From Virgin Islands 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Leinster Bay to Sanders Bay

From Virgin Islands 2014
The next morning, we snorkeled over to Watermelon Cay, where there was plenty to see underwater and well worth the trouble. Even the mooring buoy we were tied to had great numbers of fish!
From Virgin Islands 2014

Then, we motor'd over to Haulover Bay in search of another snorkel spot, but couldn't find any mooring buoys. My goal was to spend the night in Coral Harbor, so as to facilitate an easy sail back to Tortola to return the boat the next day. Arturo and Amy had spotted Eagle Shoal, a hard to find diving spot, so we raised the sails and headed over there, getting within 0.5 nautical miles by sail before I turned on the engine and asked for the sails to be dropped.

While dropping the sail, however, one of the mooring lines went into the water and wrapped around the starboard prop, and we could not get it unwrapped despite cutting the line both ways. That put a kibosh to any diving for the day, so we motor'd on one engine into Coral Harbor and tied up at the first mooring buoy we could find, even though it was private. I was getting good at mooring on only one engine, but this was not the way I wanted to end the trip!

Arturo put on scuba tanks and went down to cut the line, but couldn't make any headway with the knives we had on the boat. We took the dinghy ashore and there found someone who loaned us a rusty serrated knife. With those tools, Arturo finally got all the lines and any remnants off the prop. We called Conch Charters and they asked us to do a few basic tests and then okay'd us to continue, warning us not to motor on the starboard engine any more than necessary.

Getting off the private mooring buoy, we motor'd over to Coral Harbor proper but couldn't find a good anchor spot. I therefore opted to anchor off Sanders Bay instead. After dropping anchor, however, a dive check revealed that the area was too muddy to check the anchor properly, so I opted to stay on the boat instead while the others took the dinghy into Coral Bay Harbor for a look see. I took the opportunity to set up the BBQ, do some reading, and start rinsing gear in preparation for returning the boat. In exchange, I was rewarded with glorious views of a double rainbow as rain swept into the harbor.
From Virgin Islands 2014

We had burgers that evening but didn't get much of a sunset as it was pretty rainy.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Sandy Spit to Leinster Bay

The morning revealed Sandy Spit to be empty, with only 3 boats choosing to anchor overnight there. This was a great anchorage, for not only was it sheltered, Little Jost Van Dyke and Green Cay were both uninhabited, so we had no mosquitoes, which were unwelcomed guests at Leverick Bay. We ate a quick breakfast and dinghy'd over to Sandy Spit, where we were the only group on the island, having it to ourselves until we left at 9:30am, whereupon a visiting boat dropped off a lone snorkler to add some company.
From Virgin Islands 2014
From Virgin Islands 2014
From Virgin Islands 2014

Occasionally, you would hear of people renting entire islands, such as Richard Branson's Necker Island for about $60,000 a night. These come with luxury accomodations, water toys, and all sorts of other things, including a large wait staff. But you can't pay for the experience of being on Sandy Spit or Sandy Cay by yourself, with nobody there (not even wait staff) while you walk around the island, snorkel, or build sand castles on a deserted beach. Even better, Sandy Spit had no mosquitoes (which was a problem on Sandy Cay in April), and was small enough to walk around even for a toddler. The only way to see such places is on a sailboat or tiny craft. Those who stay at land resorts don't get to visit such places easily, or overnight there and experience these gorgeous little places (such as the Baths) in solitude.
We had earlier debated doing more diving, or going over to St. John. I'd been very disappointed by the diving and the visibility of the water, so pushed for a visit to St. John, especially since my mom and Bowen wouldn't get very much out of diving spots. So we headed over to Great Harbor for a Mooring Buoy and Arturo, Amy, and I went over to the customs and immigration office to check out of the BVI to visit the U.S. Virgin Island of St John.
The checkout was relatively easy and painless, with an exit tax of $11. We then sailed most of the way to St. John's Cruz Bay, but discovered as we approached the harbor that the main sail would simply not come down! After a few failed attempts I gave up and motored into Cruz Bay with the main sail up and anchor'd off to the port where a few other boats were also anchored. There was only 4 feet of water below the Sail Pending, but since the Carribbean essentially has no tides, it was a reasonable temporary anchorage while we sorted out our problems.
I was all ready to get out the harness and go up into the mast to untangle the problem when Amy had the bright idea of pulling down on the reef line to pull the sail back down. Fortunately, this worked and I was saved the trouble of a hoist up the mast. Following that, we visited the customs and immigration office of Cruz Bay to check in (and out for December 2nd), and do some provisioning. Cruz Bay was tiny but there wasn't much to eat ashore from restaurants, so we chose to simply buy some ice cream and provisions and eat on the Sail Pending.
After that, we turned on the engines and headed back East along St. John. Eschewing Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, I settled on Leinster Bay as a destination because of a short hiking trail available there, some ruins, and good snorkeling.
From Virgin Islands 2014

The hike took us to an old sugar mill that was relatively intact, complete with the windmill tower.
From Virgin Islands 2014

The hike took us the rest of the day, leaving us no time for snorkeling as we got back to the boat just as the sun set and it was time for dinner.
From Virgin Islands 2014


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Review: Garmin Inertia-based Speed and Cadence Sensor

My frustrations with the GSC 10 grew to the point where I'd pretty much given up on it, leaving it turned off on my single bike. I lived with it like this for a while, since I don't really need the cadence information, but having speed jumps all over the place and not having consistent speed readings was bothersome.

You can buy the speed/cadence inertia based sensors separately, but the package gives you $10 off. At $70, this is not cheap, but given the longevity of my other Garmin products, it seemed like a pretty safe bet.

The package comes with 2 sensors, one fat and short, and one long and skinny. The fat one goes around your front hub (or rear, if you like to use your bike on a trainer), while the skinny one goes on your crank. You pair it by selecting the speed and cadence sensor option (or just one or the other if you bough tone), and then ride off. It's as painless as it gets.

There is only one potential issue with the cadence sensor, which is that if you tend to scuff your crank, you might eventually wear out the rubber band. That's not a big deal for me, but it could lead to a loss of a sensor, which is expensive.

Both sensors take the CR2032 battery, the same as the heart rate monitors. That's very considerate of Garmin, and ensures that I can just stock one battery for most Garmin products.

Assuming that this sensor's going to be as reliable as other Garmin products, the replacement for the GSC 10 is much better and a worthy upgrade. Recommended.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Marina Cay to Sandy Spit

We got up early once again and headed over to Lee Bay, a short 20 minute drive away to dive in the little area. The mooring buoy looked questionable, but it was indeed tied down to concrete at the bottom, so it was safe for us to stay there and dive. The visibility in the water was disappointing, though we managed to see a large lobster and some shrimp.
From Virgin Islands 2014

After the dive, we motored over to Monkey Point, which was highly recommended in the sailing guide for good snorkeling, but disparaged in the dive guide as not being worth the time. We got there and picked up a mooring buoy and started snorkeling and yes, it was good snorkeling, though the visibility was till not great. There was even an interesting shore entry, and we got plenty of fish and other views.
We had an early lunch and then cast off to start our first long sail of the trip, a 9 nautical mile journey to Jost Van Dyke. This was only an hour and a half, though it was interspersed with rain. We got views of the North side of Tortola, as well as sights of the various places our charter company had forbidden us to go because of the difficult sea conditions found there.
On arrival near Jost Van Dyke, we spotted Sandy Cay, but upon reading the cruising guide closer, discovered that Sandy Spit was a suitable overnight anchorage, and looked just as inviting. We dropped anchor once, but then another boat left so we grabbed their spot closer to Green Cay, and dropped anchor again. While we managed to drop the hook into sand, the anchor chain itself was wrapped around a piece of coral, and Arturo had to snorkel down to unwrap it.
From Virgin Islands 2014

Given that Sandy Spit was more crowded at the moment, we decided to take the tender over to Foxy's and hike over to the bubbly pools. The hike was ok, though surprisingly long given its description as a "short walk". The bubbly pools wouldn't have been more exciting in north swell conditions. As it was the bubbles came only semi-frequently but it was enough to fascinate and excite Bowen.
From Virgin Islands 2014
Bowen fell asleep on the way back to the Sail Pending, so we dropped him and my parents off and snorkeled over to Sandy Spit for one last look at it. Then it was a beautiful sunset and we enjoyed dinner and the lovely views.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Leverick Bay to Marina Cay

It was time for a land excursion: despite visiting Virgin Gorda many times in the past, I'd never visited Gorda Peak, and Amy was itching for a hike, so at 8:00am we piled into the dinghy, and took a short taxi ride to Gorda Peak National Park where we told the driver to come back after an hour and a half when we saw that the trail was only 800m long.
From Virgin Islands 2014

The hike wasn't pretty, lots of rain forest amidst a steeply climbing trail, and even at the top the folliage covered up everything, except that the park service had built a viewing platform so you could climb up over the trees and look at the panaroma around you, and maybe even spot the boat.
From Virgin Islands 2014
From Virgin Islands 2014
From Virgin Islands 2014

Upon returning, we docked the boat against the fuel dock and acquired freshwater, got the dive tanks filled up, and then left to visit Prickly Pear Island for a snorkel and swim. We then ate lunch and headed over to the dogs for more diving. The first site we tried had too strong a current, so we visited a second site, called Billy Bronco, which lived up to its name.

By the time we were done it was 4:00pm and we made a beeline for Marina Cay, where we knew they would have mooring buoys to spare. It was nearly 5:00pm by the time we got there, and we got to watch the sunset from the boat this time in preparation for the long sail to Jost Van Dyke the next day.
From Virgin Islands 2014



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Price Drop: How to Interview A Financial Advisor

It's been a year since the launch of How to Interview A Financial Advisor. The book's about matched my expectations, but it's the only one of my books that's really written for a general audience, and could potentially reach more people.

Effective today, I've reduced the price of the Kindle edition to $4.99, and the paperback to $11.99. Note that for the next few days, Amazon's running a promotion where you get to take 25% off any printed books by entering BOOKDEAL25 when you checkout, and the paperback qualifies.

I've also enrolled the book into Kindle Select, which means that it's also available to borrow if you have a Kindle Unlimited acccount or are a Prime member. This should further reduce the barrier to anyone wanting to read the book.

Happy Holidays!

Virgin Islands 2014: Marina Cay to Leverick Bay

Much of the good diving in the area near Marina Cay was near the Dogs, a small cluster of islands between Tortola and Virgin Gorda. The most famous was the plane wreck at Great Dog in the Coral Gardens. According to the book, it was tough to find, but we had the fortune to get there just as another dive boat arrived, and Arturo snorkeled around to pre-scout the site, so he could lead us to the plane.
From Virgin Islands 2014

The wreck was a lot of fun, but we also saw sting rays on the return to the Sail Pending. We then went over to the Pinnacles, another dive site literally around the corner, which was known for good snorkeling. A quick snorkel told me that the place was over-rated and I opted out of the dive, but Amy and Arturo went ahead with it, and reported that the surge and terrain made it fun, but there wasn't much else to see.

We then headed over to the Bitter End Yacht Club, which I had missed the previous visit, and there to our dismay discovered that they didn't have laundry facilities! Upon learning that, we dropped off some garbage, Amy bought a pair of sailing gloves, and dropped our mooring to visit Leverick Bay, where in addition to having laundry and on-shore showers, they gave you 100 gallons of free water and a bag of ice for staying on their mooring.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Cooper Island to Marina Cay

We woke up early and were the second boat to leave the marina and the second boat to arrive at the Baths.
From Virgin Islands 2014
The Baths' entry had changed once again from 2 years ago when I last went. Last time, I could still dinghy into the beach to drop non-swimmers there. This time, the beach had been cordoned off and everyone had to swim. Bowen was no problem, since he'd demonstrated a willingness to let me tow him around in his lifejacket. But my mom upon seeing this just gave up and decided to stay on the boat.
From Virgin Islands 2014
The Baths are called that because of the Batholiths, not because you can actually take a Bath there. The hike through them is easily one of the prettiest and most exciting short walks you can take anywhere. Don't take my word for it. My son's idea of hiking is sitting on my shoulders, but upon entry into the Baths, he insisted on walking every step, only taking assistance whenever the water got too high for him to walk, which didn't happen very often.
From Virgin Islands 2014
The disclaimer on the entry claims this to be a difficult and challenging walk, but in reality, both the 3 year old and the 70+ year olds had no problem negotiating the stairs, the steep rock surfaces, and the water-laden portions of the walk.
From Virgin Islands 2014
Upon reaching Devil's Bay, we took a swim and spied a hole in the barrier where the dinghy could get through. Arturo went back to get the dinghy and my mom while the rest of us waited and played in the sand and water. By the time Arturo got back, however, the crowds had arrived and it was impossible to beach the dinghy, so I dragged my mom through the water onto the beach where she had no problems getting the walk back. The return to the dinghy was made easier by the lines the dinghy was tied to.
From Virgin Islands 2014
After that, we had lunch on the boat and then there was only a time for a single 60-minute dive at the Aquarium (just outside Spanish Town) before we headed to Marina Cay. At Marina Cay, Arturo and Amy went for tank refills while I took my family to the beach for an evening swim. The long dive and the swim made me realize that my recent weight loss had one negative side-effect, which was that I got cold and stayed cold even in 82 degree water.
From Virgin Islands 2014

The local dive shop didn't have a cold fill, so we had to wait a while for the divers to get back to return us to the boat. However, watching the sunset from Marina Cay didn't suck at all.
From Virgin Islands 2014
From Virgin Islands 2014
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Peter Island to Cooper Island

The morning rose and we discovered that the starboard engine was empty of coolant. I suspected that I hadn't closed the coolant cap properly during the previous coolant check, which caused the coolant to all leak out while the engine was running. We filled the coolant back up but I decided that the prudent thing to do was to bring the boat back to Conch Charters anyway.
From Virgin Islands 2014
Well, as we approached the mooring buoys off Burt's point, the alarm went off again and I found myself once again mooring with only the port engine! This validated the prudent decision we'd made earlier, and to reward us we got a few rainbows while waiting for the repair man to show up. When he showed up, he looked at it and realized that the water pump had broken, leaking coolant all over the place. "This is going to take at least an hour to fix, so feel free to go ashore."

We went ashore, reprovisioned and generally cooled our heels until the repair men (he didn't clone himself: he got reinforcements) declared the engine fixed. We ended up leaving Tortola around noon, and immediately headed for Cooper Island, since there was not a moment to spare in acquiring a mooring buoy: we ended up getting one of the last 3 available, and the others were immediately filled up within minutes after we were secure.
From Virgin Islands 2014

We took the tender over to the Cooper Island resort, and spent the rest of the day, snorkeling, getting ice cream, and swimming on the beautiful swimming beach. I decided to swim back to the boat using mask and snorkel, instigating a race with the tender. Unfortunately, I got lost and headed for the wrong boat and had to be steered back to the Sail Pending by the tender, which ensured that I lost.

It was a rolicking ride, because our late arrival meant we had one of the most exposed mooring buoys available, but we slept well, except for my son waking up in the middle of the night and upon seeing my CPAP mask, decided that since daddy was wearing a snorkel at night, he had to have his snorkel as well.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014: Norman Island to Peter Island

As was my wont on these sailing trips, Arturo and I got up at 6:00am, made coffee, checked the engines, and moved the boat to the Indians. The seas were still rocky, but that didn't deter us from doing a dive and snorkeling in the area.
From Virgin Islands 2014
The waters were churned up, and so lacking in the clarity that I'd seen on previous trips, but it was still very good.
From Virgin Islands 2014
After lunch, we intended to motor over to Cooper Island to spend the evening, but just off Peter Island we heard an alarm from the engine, and quickly ascertained that the Starboard engine was overheating. We quickly turned off the engine and I took the boat into Peter Island's Great Harbor to a mooring Buoy to assess the damage. Upon examining the engine, we found some coolant on the floor but didn't see any other obvious damage. Calling Conch Charters, they asked us to run an experiment again in an hour and report back. We tried it and the engine quickly overheated once again, so they asked us to bring the boat over to them again tomorrow for a thorough check.

I didn't feel like moving the boat after that, so we grabbed the tender and went ashore, where we hiked over to Sprat Bay and walked up the hill towards the hotels until we saw Deadman's Bay and Honeymoon Beach, where we anchored during the previous trip. The winds were so high that there were no boats anchored on Deadman's Bay. Arturo successfully negotiated a low price for a diving boat at the island's dive shop, and we headed back for dinner and a beautiful sunset.
From Virgin Islands 2014

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Virgin Islands 2014 Trip

Bowen, my parents, Arturo Crespo, Amy and I chartered a sailboat and visited the British Virgin Islands and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands from November 23rd to December 2nd. It was my longest sailing charter yet, and in November we got great weather, plenty of rainbows, but murky waters (comparatively) for diving.

This is the hub for all the blog posts from the trip report, as well as photos, etc.




Virgin Islands 2014: Tortola to Norman Island

We got off the plane, spent a night in St. Thomas, and then took the ferry to Tortola to spend our first night on the Conch Charters catamaran, Sail Pending.

From Virgin Islands 2014
The Sail Pending was a 10 year old Leopard 43 that looked like it had been well used. Some of the hatches wouldn't seal properly, while everything felt just a bit loose. I'd always said that I'd take an old, well-maintained boat over a newer boat that'd been abused any day, but this was pushing it quite a bit.
Nevertheless, Sail Pending was half the price of all the other charters available at this time, so it was either this boat or we wouldn't have done the trip, given my difficulty in recruiting crew on short notice. Joining me this time around was Arturo and Amy, who were also present for the previous BVI trip.
From Virgin Islands 2014

As sail briefings go, Conch was very personal, but also very casual. In addition to going over ship systems, we were also given a chart briefing that was mostly unnecessary, but still a good refresher. Our dive equipment arrived just as the briefing was over and we were ready to sail. The engine tachometer on the starboard engine didn't work, despite the staff's attempts to fix the problem, but we promised not to over-drive the engine anyway, since we were in a sailboat!

The seas were high today, as were the winds. Rather than go out with reef'd sails, we were told that just opening up a reef'd jib and sailing downwind would get us to Norman Island on a broad reach rather quickly, and indeed we got there in a record 45 minutes! What was even better, my favorite anchorage, Kelly's Cove, had a mooring ball open and we quickly took it.
From Virgin Islands 2014

Then, it was the requisite visit to the caves, followed by a visit to shore where we did some light hiking. Sunset from Kelly's Cove was gorgeous as usual, and we got a dinner of Pasta as everyone was too tired to cook that evening. It was a rollicky night, but with the exhaustion from travel, we all got plenty of sleep.

From Virgin Islands 2014


Monday, December 08, 2014

DisneyWorld Magic Kingdom

From December 4, 2014
Our goal was to visit the BVIs for another sailing trip, but since it was such a long flight, I decided to break it up and visit DisneyWorld with Bowen.

DisneyWorld tickets are expensive, about $90 per day per person. You can opt for more expensive "park hopper" passes, but in practice, the overhead of switching parks is so high that you'd never do it with a toddler, so I opted to visit only one park a day. Given the realities of a 3-year-old, we could only visit the Magic Kingdom as he was unlikely to get much out of the other parks.

We landed in Orlando and got a hotel at the Ramada Inn Suites near the airport, rather than try for one of the park hotels. The park hotels are closer, and you don't have to rent a car, since they'll pick you up from the airport, but on the other hand they're very expensive, and you pretty much have to eat on site if you don't want to drive.

One fairly well known trick is to sign up for the FastPass+ in advance, so you can skip lines. There are books and apps that tell you which rides need Fast Passes and which rides don't, but I figured I'd just wing it. It turned out that we visited on low-crowd days (crowd level 4 on the first day and crowd level 3 on the second), so while the FastPass was good, it wasn't critical.
From December 4, 2014

It turns out that the FastPasses are most useful for kiddie rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Goofy's Barnstormers, Buzz Lightyear, Winnie the Pooh, and the Haunted House. The rest of the rides like Pirates of the Carribean or Under The Sea were relatively unimpacted and we didn't need fast passes to see them. One ride that most needed FastPasses was the Astro Orbiter, but didn't offer them
From December 4, 2014

The fun ones for Bowen were the Tomorrow Speedway, where he got to drive his own car, Buzz Lightyear, because he got to rotate the car, and the Barnstormer, the only roller-coaster style ride in the park he was tall enough to do. But true to form, he tried every ride once and didn't actually want to repeat rides. He wasn't scared by Haunted Castle, but didn't find Winnie the Pooh as much fun.

One thing we did was to rent a stroller. That was OK, but it wasn't strictly necessary. I thought it might give him an opportunity to nap, but it turned out he was too wound up to nap anyway.

For me, about 2 days is right for a 3 year old in the Magic Kingdom Park. It's enough that you can do every ride (provided you arrive on a low crowd day), and watch a substantial number of shows, but not so much that you would have to repeat rides. The Orlando Park is a lot bigger than the California Park, so it's nice to see things like the steamer or the Tom Sawyer's island take on a scale that California just can't do.

As a break just before this year's Virgin Islands trip, it was just the thing, but I wouldn't want to do this more than once every few years.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Review: Asus RT-N66U Router

My 5 year old used Cisco E3000 was on its last legs, and the cheap $20 replacement TPLink wasn't any better. Worse, in an attempt to upgrade the firmware on the TPLink, I bricked it, and was suddenly indeed of a decent router.

The problem with routers is that most of them use the 2.4GHz band, which is very prone to interference as everything in your house probably uses it as well. Furthermore, your neighbors also probably use the 2.4GHz channel for their wifi, and soon you're in connectivity hell.

The answer, then, is to get a dual-band router, one that will handle both 5GHz and 2.4GHz channels. You can't just get a 5GHz router, since legacy devices only support 2.4GHz, and chances are you have at least one of those in active use.

My lesson with bricking my TPlink also taught me that I should just rely on the firmware that comes on the router and not mess around with installing open source stuff. The net net is that I ended up with the Asus RT-N66R.

The weird thing about Asus is that rather than have only one product in each category, they have lots of products with the exact same name differing by only one character, but for all purposes there's no difference between the R and the U units, they just get revised at random and it's just pure insanity.

Installing the router was easy, as was configuring it. What you want to do is to separate the 2 SSIDs into 5GHz and 2.4GHz one so that there's clear separation. I then did an internet speed test and wow, ok, now I'm getting all the speed I was promised by comcast, rather than a pathetic performance. The real test came over the next few days as we saw zero dropped internet connections. The router was rock solid, as were connections with the devices.

You can spend lots of time dicking around with equipment or you can just throw money at it. This is one of those cases where throwing money at the problem solved all sorts of problems, and hence the product is highly recommended.