Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Return to Mountain Biking

I gave up mountain biking for several years. Part of it was my move to Munich (and subsequent move back) drove me to simplify the bike load and reduce me to one single bike and one tandem.The other thing was that I really enjoyed doing road cycling a lot more: there's nothing like being able to ride out your front door and being able to roll for 4-7 hours and come back without getting into a car.

But I could feel myself getting stale. While I could still easily ride unpaved fire roads and my road bike still had more off-road miles than most mountain bikes, I had reached a plateau, not being able to pick off the more technical sections of dirt Alpine, for instance. Between that and the grin on my face from the Santa Cruz factory demo, I decided to look into getting a mountain bike.

When I first bought my MB-3 in 1994, Pardo's advice was, "Mountain Biking is the process of throwing your bike off a cliff very slowly, with you on it, so there's no point getting a bike that's too good." With that in mind, I set my budget low, and went to see what I could get. Disappointingly enough, most bikes in the sub-thousand dollar range weighed in the same as my 1993 Bridgestone MB-3. Apparently all the weight savings from aluminum frames, etc., had gone into bigger wheels, disc brakes, and suspension.

The one brand that stood out for value was Airborne Bicycles. Their $830 Seeker had components that looked to be very well thought out, and weighed in around 28 pounds (the same as my 1993 Bridgestone). I tried to buy one from the catory, but they were out of stock, and didn't expect to have any back until Spring. If I lived anywhere but California, that would be acceptable. But I live in Silicon Valley, and even in winter (maybe even especially in winter), mountain biking here is still good. In winter, sometimes the temperature drops enough that road biking is annoying, while mountain biking with its lower speeds is a good substitute.

I looked on eBay, and found a Seeker my size that was in decent condition for about $200 less than what I would have paid for new (which after tax would have been around $900), and proceeded to buy it. The bike came with the deraileur hanger bent during shipping, courtesy of Fedex ground, but it was a relatively cheap fix. As a precaution, I sent e-mail to Airborne Bicycles asking to buy a spare deraileur hanger, and they sent me a new one --- for free, despite my not being the original owner of the bike. This is customer service well beyond what I expect from a cut-rate mail order shop, so I think I can whole-heartedly recommend Airborne's bikes.

The first ride I took it was up Charcoal road (which isn't a paved road at all, but is single track for much of it).
The ride confirmed my worst fears: I was woefully out of mountain biking shape. Stuff that I used to just ride over or through with aplomb I now felt nervous about, even occasionally just giving up and walking my bike. Nevertheless, stream crossings, acing a difficult section on the trail and climbing hard put a big smile on my face. The bike was clearly capable of far more than I was capable of. What blew my mind was how fast the descents were: bigger wheels and a capable front fork suspension definitely make descending fast dirt paths a quick and satisfying experience. The disc brakes were more of a mixed bag: they always stopped me even after a stream crossing, which wasn't always the case with rim brakes, but like any other disc brakes I'd ever encountered, the rotor would warp, though not badly enough to make any annoying noises, just enough to annoy me whenever I looked at it closely. I have no idea whether it's because the bike has the lowest end hydraulic brakes available, or whether it doesn't matter what I get, those brake rotors are just going to warp no matter what.
What I'm rediscovering is that mountain biking requires much more anaerobic capacity than road biking (especially road touring) does. There are many sections where you just need a big spurt of power to get over the obstacle, but when combined with the necessary technical handling skills required I would just fall over at a critical section. As they say, "If you ain't hiking, you ain't mountain biking."
For my next ride, I decided that I'd drive to the start instead of biking over. El Corte Madera State Park is a mountain biker's haven, and I remember several technical sections that featured multiple steep drops that scared me back when I was on an MB-3. 
With some experience under me and equipment that was technically advanced by about 20 years, the technical stuff was actually comparatively easier than I remembered. What I was surprised by was that the park had been renovated in several places, and there were now trails that I didn't recognize any more. And once again, the climbs did me in, which I don't remember being that difficult when I was riding the MB-3 oh so many years ago. What's really cool about doing this in late fall/early winter is that you run into practically nobody on the trails. No trail conflict, no shouting "10 behind me", just the rustle of the leaves under your tires and perhaps the sound of your heart pounding in your ears.
One thing that I quickly realized was that what works for other mountain bikers definitely won't work for me: riding with my Geiger-rig backpack placed too much of a load on my shoulders and back for long rides, and made me feel slow and heavy. Unfortunately, water bottles tend to get their nozzles filled with mud on off-road rides (or worse, horse poo if you ride on trails shared with equestrains). I'll experiment with some capped water bottles to see how that goes.
It's going to take a while to get good at this, but whatever else I can say about it, it's definitely going to banish any staleness I'd been starting to feel on the bike.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

6 Months Report: Learning the Flute

I had a couple of goals when learning to play the flute. The first was to see how hard it really was to learn an instrument. The conventional wisdom is that you should learn when you're a kid because it's much easier to learn motor skills as a kid. This is of course bollocks. For instance, there aren't any examples of anyone under 5 being able to even try to play a flute, simply because the lung power and muscles required to form an embouchure aren't there.

Now stories abound about how it takes weeks to even be able to make a sound on the flute. To my surprise, I was able to play "Mary had a Little Lamb" in under a week. It turns out that like any new motor skill, flute playing is dependent on repeated extended practice. If you put in a half an hour a day for a month, you'll get there. If you want to accelerate it, you'll need an instructor who can grade your pieces and provide you gradually more and more challenging pieces.

As an instrument, the flute is far far better than the piano. I never understood slurs because the piano doesn't really lend itself to them. A flute, however, has a clear difference between a slur and a separated note. A piano has to be played sitting down. There are clear studies showing now that sitting down is very bad for you. A flute, however, can be played standing up, walking around, or moving from sitting to standing as you see fit. I can't see forcing a little boy to play the piano as anything but sheer torture. (My perspective is that forcing anybody to do anything is a bad idea: read Producing Excellence if you want to really find out what it costs to really make it into the top leagues in classical music)

My secondary goal was to see if I could get good enough at a new instrument in half a year to be able to achieve a decent amount of fluency: I needed to be able to play any song I knew that fit within the octave range of the instrument. The flute has great range, so it turns out that I can pretty much play anything I've heard and memorized. (It's no big deal: you've probably memorized a ton of songs, from TV themes to movie soundtracks --- anything you've heard about 10-20 times is probably something you've memorized, whether you know it or not)

It turned out that this wasn't that hard. On the flute, it's a matter of being able to hit the high notes consistently (or for some people, the low notes --- turns out that for me, low notes were easy but high notes were tough). To be able to play any song well requires practice, but I can actually now compose reasonable melodies on the flute spontaneously, which indicates for me that I've reached a comfortable level with it.

So all in all, I think the only reason the meme "it's easier to learn as a child" is even mildly realistic is that while your spouse might tolerate crappy lousy playing from the child that came out of her womb, she might take offense to you butchering an song within ear reach. But for a determined adult, it's probably far easier to learn a new instrument than for the equivalent child. With that, I have even less incentive to "tiger-parent" my kid into piano.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: T-mobile Cell Spot

I've discovered that my favorite way of making and receiving phone calls is with the SBH-52. This lets me be completely hands-free, enabling me to look up the computer, write a blog post, or investigate something while being on the phone. (Yes, I still make phone calls, sometimes, it's the only way to interact with the healthcare system)

Unfortunately, part of my house is a T-mobile dead-zone. While I do have a land-line, there does not exist any device that can turn my landline into a blue-tooth compatible service (yes, I've looked, the closest is a VTech system that includes a wireless headset that you can use, but still doesn't let me connect my own bluetooth headset to it)

So when T-mobile announced that you could get a cell-spot for free, I jumped on it. The cell spot is basically a small scale T-mobile cell tower. It connects to your internet broadband via a wired ethernet connection (it also provides a pass through in case you're not one of those people with a huge switch in their equipment closets), and then uses that to provide a virtual cell tower inside your house. Using this virtual cell tower still uses your minutes, data, etc., but you effectively get 4 bars of connectivity, which is a huge step up from 0. Of course, if you lose your internet connectivity, you also lose those 4 bars, so this isn't a solution for replacing your landline, but was exactly what I needed.

Acquiring the device is relatively painless. You do have to visit a store and give them an address where the device will be installed. That's because for E911 purposes, they still need to give emergency services a location for this virtual cell tower.

The device comes with a power supply, a device, and a GPS antenna and wire. The idea is that if you move the device to a new address/location, you can install the GPS wire and that'll provide T-mobile with the new location for E911 purposes. I have no intention of moving the device, so I didn't bother connecting the GPS wire. Note that if you do move the device to a new address, you'll get pings and all sorts of reminders about E911, and in the worst case, if you don't respond (all you have to do is to reply to the text message), the device will be disabled after a week.

Once installed the device takes about 2-3 hours to get ready. I don't know what it's doing during this period, but it certainly did show a lot of blinking lights. Once done, I had 4 bars of connectivity. My phone calls now never get dropped, and I can use my cell phone at home to my hearts' content.

If you're a T-mobile customer, and have spotty coverage at your house, there's no reason not to get this device. You pay T-mobile a $25 deposit, and in exchange you get 4 bars whenever you're at home. Highly recommended!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away is a novel along the lines of The Silence of The Lambs. The story revolves around Zoe, who'd escaped from a serial killer once, but was not believed by the police or her friends. When the serial killer resurfaces in the Bay Area, she inserts herself into the investigations and thus puts herself once again in danger.

The best thing about the book is the characterization. Zoe is a survivor, and suffers from PTSD. As a result of her earlier encounter, she's dropped out of her graduate program, and now views the world in a particularly cynical as well as self-destructive fashion. This characterization is both realistic and believable.

The portrayal of the serial killer is also good, depicted as in Mindhunter, including his mindset as well as the observation that serial killers get better at it if they're allowed to get away with it for too long.

The weakness is that the police always make the wrong decision. Whether it's not to take Zoe seriously in the first place, or to leave her unguarded after the serial killer has already made an attempt to get her, to arriving at a suspect without backup, this seems unbelievable to me, but perhaps it's established in serial killer literature.

In any case, it's a good read, not too long, and written in a readable style that makes a nice movie in your head, especially the climax. An ideal airplane novel. Recommended.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: Her Story (PC)

I try not to play games on the PC: it's difficult to play because I get distracted by e-mail and other work. The high resolution and close seating position of the PC means that even though I have a relatively powerful PC, it can't quite drive the display at high enough resolutions that I get a satisfying experience without spending more money on graphics cards, which I'm not prepared to do.

Her Story, however, is an exception. First of all, it's a game completely driven by the keyboard. That means that the PS4 (or any other console) would be a poor experience. Secondly, it's deliberately shot in low definition video, so doesn't depend on high resolution for an experience. Finally, it's short: I finished it in a matter of a couple of hours, and it's fun enough for me to recommend.

The game sits you down before a 1995 era police database/computer. By typing search terms into the computer, you get access to video clips of various police interviews with a woman who starts off by coming in to report her missing husband. You then use search terms to follow threads of investigation to figure out what happened.

The story and investigative process is actually interesting: sometimes your query terms exceed the number of results that can be displayed on screen, and the game restricts you to only 5. So you end up refining the search terms in order to uncover more of the story. Your thoughts about the investigations start changing as you come up with and then discard various hypothesis and follow through. My one criticism is that I didn't think the actress was actually very good: some of her mannerisms were a little forced.

I was wondering how I was going to figure out whether I was done with the game (i.e., I was running out of things to discover), when the game figured that out and hit me with an IM which told me about who was sitting in front of the computer. After the credits roll, you're given a key with which to unlock more search results, which led me to go back through my search history to find pieces which I had missed, and also gave me a nice history of my investigation and thought process.

Her Story is priced at $5.99 on Steam. I picked it up for $3.84 during a sale, and at that price, it's at least as good as any movie rental I've made over the past years. Recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review:Terms of Use

Terms of Use is a thriller about social networks. It's written by a Silicon Valley journalist, which means that it makes use of several references that are entertaining and fun. For instance, the name of the dominant social network in the novel is Circles, which in real life, of course, is the massive failure which made Google+ so hard to use, even for computer scientists and other power users.

The story involves one of the lead engineers in Circles. When his good friend is executed, and he's framed for it, he starts unraveling a plot involving socialbots, social networks, cat-fishing, and China rare earth minerals. It's a fun read, and entertaining. It makes several statements about the role of social networks in our lives, but not in a heavy-handed or obnoxious fashion.

I could see this as an entertaining and fun movie, and it's written in a fun style. A good airplane read. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Sandman Overture

Sandman Overture is the prequel to Sandman, and takes place just before Preludes & Nocturnes. The story involves a potentially universe ending event which draws all aspects of Morpheus to go on a quest to save the universe. Along the way, we meet just a few members of the Endless, but also reveals the origins of the Endless.

The plot is somewhat straightforward, with the side-trips and occasional encounters thrown in for fans of the main Sandman narrative, but you can tell the distractions for what they are: distractions from the major plot.

What I don't like about the book is that the earlier work had established Morpheus as being much less human in the past than the events in the main narrative, and this book tries to walk that back, and not altogether too convincingly for me. While the story is OK, I wouldn't consider this a "must-read" the way the rest of the Sandman series is. I'm glad I checked it out of the library instead of paying for it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review: The Addictive Brain

The Addictive Brain is an audio course about how addiction works, how it affects the brain chemistry (and why addiction occurs) and (to a lesser extent) how addicts can break their dependency. I picked it up as a "daily deal" for $2, and it was a good deal.

The lecturer, Professor Polk, speaks at a slow pace, so I sped up the course by accelerating his speech to 1.25 times normal. I can tell you there were several professors at the Cal I wish I could have done that to! Nevertheless, the material is great. He goes into the neurochemistry of the brain in order to give you an idea of how the brain works, and then walks you through each drug to analyze which receptors the drug binds to in the brain, and how and why it has the effect it does. As he does so, he frequently provides a history of the drug as used in human society, as well as the process by which it became isolated, refined, used, and then (almost invariably) abused.

The drugs covered are:
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine (and meta-Amphetamine)
  • Marijuana
  • Morphine (& Opiates)
  • Gambling, Porn, and Video Games
Of course, the last 3 aren't drugs, but of course, can also be abused and result in addiction. I'm surprised TV watching and internet addiction isn't on the list, as I'm sure you and I can think of people who exhibit withdrawal symptoms when either of those aren't available.

Fundamentally, addiction is an unintended consequence of our brain's ability to learn. You can call it a bug or a security hole if you like. Addictive substances (and behaviors) create a feedback loop which makes use of the dopamine feedback loop to trigger "this was better than expected!" learning. This leads to an unconstrained craving simultaneous with a reduction of the inhibition circuits in the brain. Each drug potentially triggers this in a different way, but your vulnerability to addiction is also highly genetic.

Each section also discusses ways for the addict to break his or her addiction. It's by no means easy and the success rate is dismaying low (none of the drugs appear to have a surefire way to achieve better than 40% quit rates!), but Professor Polk speaks with compassion about how the process works.

All in all, I learned quite a bit in this audio course, and can recommend it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: Zero World

I picked up Zero World from the library because of some good reviews from a magazine I read. It's a purported science fiction thriller, but I was disappointed.

The setup was intriguing enough: Peter Caswell is an assassin who works on such secret projects that he has an Integrity Assurance implant. The implant would effectively wipe his memory after a certain time, which forces him to complete his mission within a time limit while ensuring that his employers could keep the secrets secret.

When he's tasked with killing everyone aboard a ship that went to salvage a long lost research vessel, his employer activates his IA implant and tells him to pursue the last remaining member of the crew and kill her, under a strict time limit. He follows her into a wormhole which takes him to another planet that looks just like Earth.

What follows is a lot like the first Jason Bourne movie: he meets up with a local agent and they go on the run after a botched assassination attempt. The action is non-stop, but the world's barely sketched out and it feels like the author's deliberately doling out reveals at a slow pace to keep you dangling just a fair bit. And indeed, it appears the novel is a setup for a sequel.

The characters aren't very well developed, and don't change very much. Ultimately, it's an action movie turned into a novel, but not so well executed (unlike say, Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels) that I'd bother reading any more books in the series.

Pass.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: The Game

If you're a frequent reader of Dilbert's Blog, you're familiar with Scott Adams' moist robot hypothesis. Basically, the theory is that we're all robots that can be programmed with external stimuli, and led to do things that our rational minds wouldn't let us do.

The Game is a book about taking this hypothesis to the next level, and applying and developing methods for men to meet, amaze, and bed women in a short amount of time. Well, that's what the advertising copy would have you believe. In reality, the book is about the community (known as the PUA community, or the Pick-Up-Artists) that not only builds (probably more than one) internet forum exchanging such techniques, as well as running workshops to train men in these techniques.

Don't ask me whether these techniques work. Neil Strauss says they do, and it's entirely feasible that they do, though apparently by the end of his run, the PUA community had so rampaged through the LA community that he lived in that most women had already been approached by those techniques and were therefore immune to further activities by PUAs. (I found that really amusing!) Strauss however, tried this technique on Britney Spears, and apparently it works even on celebrities.

Since most of the book is about the politics and social interaction within the community itself, it reads like a journalistic account of the lifestyle behind the PUAs. It's full of neurotic people, which naturally makes much interaction really tedious, making you wonder why he puts up with them. Since Strauss was a journalist for the Rolling Stone, it also meant he got massive exposure to artists/musicians going through crazy times. (Courtney Love appears frequently in the book)

There were several little gems in the book that made such great reading that I highlighted them:
The reason I was here—the reason Sweater and Extramask were also here—was that our parents and our friends had failed us. They had never given us the tools we needed to become fully effective social beings. (Kindle Loc 420-421)
 The problem with being a pickup artist is that there are concepts like sincerity, genuineness, trust, and connection that are important to women. And all the techniques that are so effective in beginning a relationship violate every principle necessary to maintaining one. (Kindle Loc. 4387-89)
 A side effect of sarging is that it can lowers one’s opinion of the opposite sex. You see too much betrayal, lying, and infidelity. If a woman has been married three years or more, you come to learn that she’s usually easier to sleep with than a single woman. If a woman has a boyfriend, you learn that you have a better chance of fucking her the night you meet her than getting her to return a phone call later. Women, you eventually realize, are just as bad as men—they’re just better at hiding it. (Kindle Loc. 6258-62)
 I picked up the book on a $0.99 Kindle deal on Black Friday. It's definitely provided great entertainment for that. Recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Immune

I reviewed The Second Ship as an example of a Saturday morning cartoon. Immune is no different. While the characters do develop a little, and the situation gets a little bit more complex, the story clips along at a regular pace, but as with the previous novel, it's fairly simplistic. You can almost see the gears of the plot driving characters along, with each new plot twist followed almost as rapidly by its resolution.

It's a decent beach read, but I wouldn't recommend it for anything more serious. Set your expectations accordingly.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

First Impressions, Motorola Moto E LTE (2015)

I have to say that over the last year or so, Android has finally redeemed itself in my eyes, and the reason for that mostly has to do with Motorola. The Moto G has been an unmitigated top level experience for me so far, so when I found $10 Moto E LTE (Verizon) being blown out by Best Buy during Black Friday, I picked up one.

In previous years, you would have been hard pressed to recommend an Android phone for anything under $200. In fact, for my parents, I'd moved them to Lumia phones for that reason: it seemed that for anything with under 2GB of RAM, Android was really sluggish, and had miserable battery life. The Motorola Moto E with 1GB of RAM didn't seem like it would be any better, but for $10 I could have a spare phone.

I'm a T-mobile user, so the first thing I did was to follow the instructions to convert the phone to GSM mode. These instructions involved turning the phone into a developer machine, and then using adb to set the wireless radios to talk to the GSM network instead. The penalty is that if you ever switch SIMs (or even pull the SIM out and reboot), the device will revert back into Verizon mode, so this isn't a phone you could expect to travel to various countries and buy local SIM cards with: you'd have to go through the unlock sequence every time you inserted a new SIM card into the device, so unless you're also bringing a laptop with adb installed and are willing to go through it every time you switch SIMs, you're better off buying a truly unlocked phone.

Part of the reason Android performance on lower end devices is now acceptable is because hardware has gotten faster. The Moto E LTE has a Snapdragon 410 SoC, which is clocked just 200MHz slower than the one in the Moto G 2015. That 15% disadvantage in clock speed is noticeable, but it's the 1GB of RAM that's really what makes the phone feel less than instantly responsive to your touch. Apps startup just that bit slower, though once started, the apps feel just as fast as on the Moto G. Note, however, that app startup is something you do frequently on Android phones: you click on a link in Gmail, for instance, and startup a web browser. You'd click the share button on the web browser, and then bring up Facebook or Google+ to post. So the performance penalty for task switching really hurts if you're a power user.

The camera is decent for taking pictures of receipts and in good light. But without even a flash to help, it's pretty much something you're not going to use and be delighted with. The 4.5" screen feels like a throwback to 5 years ago: coming from the Moto G, you wonder how anyone ever thought 4.7" was a decently sized phone, let alone 4.5". The smaller screen does help with the performance, though: with fewer pixels to push, the device is acceptably fast most of the time.

For $10, the phone is definitely a deal. It's more than acceptable, and better than any of the cheap Lumias from past years. For the full retail price of $120, I'd say the Windows Phones start looking better. Fortunately, you'd never have to pay that: the Amazon street price of the phone is around $35, and at that price, I'm think that Windows Phones aren't ever going to be taking market share from Android. The Moto E LTE is a phone that does everything that the higher end devices do acceptably, and with the full range of apps that the windows phones cannot match. I'm now convinced that even supposedly "thin" skins such as found on the Sony Xperia phones suck a ton of CPU/GPU power away from UI responsiveness, and that's to be avoided if at all possible, and if you manage to do so, phone hardware is now powerful enough that the Windows phones no longer have an advantage.

Recommended.

I have to say, if Motorola had been smart enough to make the Moto X Pure waterproof, it would now be in the running for an upgrade: that's how impressive the Moto G has been. Seriously, I have no idea why most of the flagship phones aren't waterproof. It seems like such a basic feature if even a $180 phone can achieve it!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Review: Brain Maker

Brain Maker is purportedly a book about your gut microbes, and how your intestinal flora can contribute to the health of your brain. I use the word purportedly because Dr. Perlmutter exhibits several red-flags that set off my "flim-flam" alert.

First of all, the book spends the first chapter talking like a snake oil salesman. All sorts of promises and exotic claims are made, most of which seem overly aggressive for a topic for which research is in its infancy.

As a matter of fact, a close read of the book reveals that Dr. Perlmutter's claims are indeed excessive. For instance, he cites his own patients' clinical history, but these are all one-offs, and he's careful not to claim that this works in all cases, or even to provide a semblance of success rates for his treatments. In particular, he tells patients to go to Europe to do FMT (fecal microbiotatransplant) operations, because it's still regulated as being too experimental in the US to perform as clinical practice.

In nearly every case, for every published research study he refers to, the study is small (under 30 people), and has not been replicated in a large scale trial. In some cases, his optimism might be merited, but if you're a scientist, one small scale study is hardly sufficient to recommend to lay people as clinical practice!

In the cases where the results are clear, they're also widely known and accepted, such as reference to studies that show that coffee is good for you.

Now it's clear that there's a lot of promising research on our microbiomes, but unfortunately, this book appears to be a quick attempt to cash in, rather than a thoughtful survey of upcoming research. Hence, it is not worth your time.

Monday, December 07, 2015

First Impressions: EOS M3

A few years ago, Peng-Toh and I were talking about mirrorless cameras. At that time, I'd spent some time with the EPL-1. The EPL-1 did a good job of pretending to be a good camera: shutter speeds were fast, and previewed images looked sharp and beautiful. But once you imported the images into Lightroom, the results were ugly: you quickly discovered that most of the time, the focus was off, and while the images were sometimes usable, they were never ones you were proud to share. Even photos from point and shoots such as the S90 were better. The consensus between Peng-Toh and I was that Canon would enter the mirrorless market, and do it right.

Canon did enter the mirrorless market a few years ago, in the form of the EOS M, but it did everything wrong. Apparently, auto-focus was awful, so much so that I didn't even consider the camera. Peng-Toh did buy one, but he was disappointed. The one thing that Canon did right, apparently, was that the image quality was superb, but that was apparently insufficient to overcome all the other flaws.

Canon had an EOS M3 sale during the holidays (and it's still running today).  At $430, it's not cheap (though in the same ballpark as say, the Sony A6000), but online reviews indicated that Canon had solved the autofocus issues with the camera. The photo community seems to think that Canon isn't serious about mirrorless, and to some extent they're right: there are only 4 dedicated EFM lenses, and the M3 doesn't sport any high end features such as in-body image-stabilization, and Canon doesn't have any full frame mirrorless cameras like Sony.

Pit against that, however, is that for any long lens work, you might as well stick the full frame EF lenses on the camera. Sure, the lens is huge compared to the camera, and you could have shaved a couple of hundred grams off the lens if you weren't carrying so much glass, but when you have a long lens that weight difference is really lost in the noise. Furthermore, those full frame mirrorless Sony cameras are very expensive, and when you come down to the same price level of the EOS M3, you get cameras like the Sony A6000. Even a cursory glance at the sample images comparing the EOS M3 to the A6000 using the kit lens easily reveals that the combination of a Canon lens and the EOS M3 utterly destroys the Sony equivalent as far as image quality. And if you're knowledgeable, you won't be shooting with the kit lens!

With that in mind, I took the plunge and got the EOS M3 for my wife on her birthday. Along with the body, I purchased the EF-M 22/f2 and the EOS M mount adapter. We also bought and returned the EFM 18-55mm zoom. The zoom was surprisingly nice, but it had a strange color cast that I didn't find appealing.

When building a new system, my philosophy is where possible build it around primes that provide roughly a doubling of focal length. So paired with the EFM-22, I got out my ancient EF 50mm/1.8. The two lenses yield a full-frame equivalent of a 35mm lens and an 80mm lens, which nicely covers the "normal" range, with the 80mm providing a great portrait lens. The 50mm together with the EF mount weigh just 80g more than the zoom, but provide a 1.8 maximum aperture which lets you isolate a subject in its surroundings. If Canon had made a wide angle prime EF-M lens, I would have bought it as well, since that's what's missing.
When the camera arrived, I was impressed by how small it was, especially with the 22mm prime attached. It was tiny, just a bit bigger than the Sony RX100. But what blew me away was that my wife tried the camera, and then declared that she wasn't going to shoot with just her phone again. The biggest feature for her was the NFC wireless transmittal of photos from the camera to her smartphone. She'd always hated having to use lightroom to extract photos from a camera: by contrast, photos that go into her smartphone are immediately available for sharing and posting onto social networks. And the quality difference was obvious: this clearly is a DSLR in a point and shoot body.

The nice thing about the EOS M3 if you're already a Canon user is that all your existing accessories work with it. My flashes and my collection of EF lenses were immediately compatible. When you put that together with high quality primes, it blew away anything produced by anyone who owns a crappy 18-200mm zoom instead of a decent lens. To put it all together, we went to a physical store and picked up a Think Tank Mirroless Mover 25i (after trying a bunch of other bags). It fit a flash, a mini tripod, the charger, and various other accouterments for serious shooting. In practice, Xiaoqin mostly carried it around with just the 22mm/f2 attached. With a 24MP image output, even severe cropping still grants usable photo quality.

In practice, the camera produces superlative images. Low light performance is impressive:
The biggest flaw in the camera is that shot-to-shot times are slow in one-shot mode, and the 50mm tends to hunt a bit. (An upgrade to the latest and greatest 50mm STM would probably solve this problem) But by far the biggest benefit is that the camera's much likely to be traveled with than my ancient EOS 5D2. That alone made my wife decide to keep the camera instead of sending it back to Amazon.

Since I'm not the primary user of this camera, don't expect any long term reviews from me. But if you're a Canon user looking for a travel setup (especially if you're a landscape person who needs a camera for backcountry camping or cycling), I won't hesitate to recommend this to you. The image quality is superb, it's small and light (it's smaller than even the G series of point and shoots), and a landscape shooter won't have any issues whatsoever with the shot-to-shot times. Canon might not have "done it right" yet, but for someone who's got 2 kids and would like to travel with a serious camera that's nevertheless still light enough to bring on a trip, the M3 is an great alternative to the DSLR and produces far better photos than even the Sony RX100.

Recommended.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

2016 Book Review Index

Books of the year for 2016 have been selected!

Non-Fiction
Fiction
Audio Books
Comics

Friday, December 04, 2015

Review: The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project may be described as "Sheldon Cooper decides to get a wife." Written from the perspective of geneticist Don Tillman, the novel depicts a typical nerd/socially awkward unaware person's attempt to optimize the process of acquiring a wife. Hilarity ensues.

If this description doesn't get you to pick up the book, consider this: it's very well written, and sympathetically provides a viewpoint of someone with Asperger's that at once arouses sympathy for him, while simultaneously showcasing the strengths of people who uniquely possess the ability to ultra-focus on just one thing (possibly to the detriment of all else).

For instance, in one of the scenes of the book, he's told to become a bar-tender to make cocktails. Overnight, he essentially memorizes an entire book of cocktail recipes while practicing the skills to actually mix them. The protagonist is as a result extremely likeable, and is probably someone you'd enjoy meeting in real life.

I was going to write that this book is recommended reading for those of you who're married to a geek/engineer/technologist/scientist without being one. But it's so much fun that I couldn't possibly restrict it to such a small subset of humanity. It's highly recommended to everyone who breathes. Don't wait for the movie, go read it!

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review: Phishing for Phools

I'm a big fan of Robert J. Shiller, even before he won his Nobel. Phishing for Phools is his book (in collaboration with George Akerlof) about cheating in the capitalistic market economy.

Akerlof & Shiller point out that the traditional market economy treatise goes something like this: in a market economy, producers are incentivized to produce better goods in competition, innovating and therefore improving the general good of mankind. This isn't a complete story, however. The problem is, the producers are also incentivized to prey on every weakness you have, from your desire for sugary drinks, to your inability to plan ahead for busy times, whereupon you're hit by "surge pricing." The net result is that far from the idealized view of markets where improvements are driven by technical advances, we have markets where phishing is the common order of the day.

The authors provide about 6 chapters worth of examples, from politics to pharmaceuticals, from finance to tobacco. They point out that the recent "market fundamentalism" pushers are creating an economy with such weak regulation that pretty much any weakness or lack of sophistication on the part of consumers (or even existing regulatory agencies) will be taken advantage of.  By the time you're done with this book, I'm sure you can think of several other examples which the authors did not list.

If all voters read this book, we might end up living in a better world. But of course, that's not going to be true. However, even as an individual you have an incentive to read this book: once you get into the mindset of phishing as the normal operational mode of a market economy, you'll be much less subject to phishing yourself.

As such, for self-defense purposes if nothing else, this book comes highly recommended. Go find a copy and read it!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Review: Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

If you've had a good Western style education, you've probably had a great inoculation to the usual insane myths that go around. For instance, you probably understand that vaccine have a positive ROI even for the individual. You probably know that it's viruses that cause the common cold, not physically getting cold. (In fact, staying indoors is much more likely cause you to catch the common cold than going outside to exercise)

What surprised me, however, when I checked out Medical Myths from the library was that despite all that, I still harbored a number of myths that Professor Novella managed to debunk. For instance, like most people, I thought that acupuncture was a uniquely Chinese tradition. It's not, and Dr. Novella provides a succinct and thorough history and evolution of acupuncture. In addition, I always thought that regular nasal irrigation was at worst harmless. It turns out that it's not harmless, and can in fact cause a sinus infection. However, nasal irrigation while you're infected with a cold and have congestion is a good idea.

Furthermore, the lectures contains lots of information about sham supplements, some of which aren't even conformant to the philosophies they espouse. For instance, Zircam happily advertises itself as a homeopathic medicine. It turns out that it contains zinc, which is well known to help with colds. However, that doesn't mean it's safe: it turns out that the amount of active ingredient in this "homeopathic" medicine is so high that it could potentially cause deafness in certain people. Ouch.

The series of lectures is filled with lots of information like this, and Professor Novella is an excellent lecturer, never boring. You'll learn about all sorts of myths (as well as bad TV depiction of medical phenomena), and wonder to yourself, "How can anyone believe that?" Then you'll get hit with a zinger like one of the factoids I described above. It's great humbie pie and very much worth reading.

This series of audio lectures has mixed reviews on Amazon, but mostly from people who have an axe to grind (i.e., anti-vaccination people, etc). If the quality of your work is to be judged by the kind of enemies you make, I'd say that Professor Novella has a lot to be proud of.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Review: Saga Volume 1

My call for comic book recommendations came up with but one response: Saga. So I picked up Saga Volume 1 at the library after a brief sample online demonstrated that I still preferred reading comics on paper.

A lot of the pros behind why you should read this book is covered by an io9 article. My response to that is that while the art is enjoyable, it's not really up to the standards that graced the better issues of Sandman or John Totleben's Miracleman.

My biggest beef about the book is that it seems as though written by new parents. Yes, we get it that you just got kids recently. But the writing seems to blow everything out of proportion, which I guess might be accepted for a pre-teen comics, but the book is clearly not for pre-teens.

The story is OK, but with none of the internal logic that made every big reveal in Fables an epiphany. The IO9 article compares the book to Star Wars. Unfortunately, if you're an adult, the Star Wars story isn't terribly fresh, and to be honest doesn't hold up. I'm now dreading the inevitable re-watch with my son as a result.

The verdict: it wasn't a waste of time, but I'm not rushing out to buy my own copies after returning this to the library. I probably would check out new volumes from the library as they come out, however.

Mildly recommended.

Monday, November 30, 2015

First Impressions: Sensi UP500W WiFi Programmable Thermostat

I had a Hunter 44860 Thermostat that had been going strong for ages. While my wife repeatedly complained about the programming UI, the cheap skate solution was to just disable the programming and have my wife set the thermostat manually to a temperature that was acceptable to her. It didn't particularly waste much power, and I had to change the battery every year or so, but it was trouble-free.

Then I found a deal for the Sensi WiFi Thermostat on Amazon. While my ultra-geek friends went for the Nest, if you're even a little bit skeptical, you'll find on-line horror stories about the Nest failing in all sorts of potentially dangerous ways. In particular, the requirement for a C wire is such that if you live in an older house or have a system that doesn't provide the C wire, you could potentially burn down your house, because the system then draws power from the HVAC control wire. Yes, one of my geek friends rents, so he doesn't care if the house burns down, but at least another few do own their homes. Assuming you survive such an event, of course, Google (which now owns Nest) has such deep pockets that you could probably recover the cost of replacing the house, plus make a tidy profit.

Why does Nest do this? Rather than require the owner/user to occasionally replace AA batteries in the thermostat, Nest includes a rechargeable battery in the device. That device, however, charges itself by drawing upon a C wire (or in the absence of such, the HVAC control wires). You would think that the product managers would specify, for instance, that the device in such a case should shut down rather than potentially burn down a house, but remember, this is the same company that decided that it would rather prevent you from being able to receive e-mail than to separate your photo quota from your e-mail storage quota.

Anyway, after determining that the Sensi wouldn't potentially burn down my house (it includes AA batteries, and you do have to replace those batteries occasionally), I embarked on the installation project. To do this, you download the Sensi app from the app store, which then walks you through the procedure: remove the old face plate, label the wires, unscrew the old wires, uninstall the old backplates, install new backplates, wire the labelled wires into the appropriate screw slots, install the new face plate, and then visit the WiFi settings on your phone. All through the procedure, the app holds your hands, even offering you videos if you should be unsure. This is more reassuring than most manuals.

The device then sets up a WiFi network which you connect to from your cell phone. Once that happens, your smartphone app then programs the device's WiFi settings, gives your device a name, and then pairs your device so you can now can control the thermostat remotely. I checked the heating and the cooling, and then proceeded to list my Hunter for sale on Amazon. (If you live locally and want my old thermostat, just drop me a note) I could install the same app on multiple devices, and any one of them could control the thermostat.

The device isn't fancy. It has no proximity sensor and doesn't learn when you're in the house or your habits. But as my wife points out, the reason for the thermostat isn't to replace human control, but to let us turn off the device while we're away and forgot to do so. That, and not burn down the house without our help or the help of our 2 sons.

All in all, I'm pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to install, and that it was possible for a complete newb like me to do so. Even if you bought this at the regular Amazon price instead of the deal I got, it's still half the price of the Nest. It's not fancy, but that means that those AA batteries will last a good long time. And if those AAs run down when you're on vacation, rather than running up the power, the device will just shut down WiFi and run on your existing schedule, which is what you want.

Recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Little Big Planet 3 (PS 4)

I rarely review video games that I don't finish, but I was so close to finishing the main story in Little Big Planet 3 that I'll make an exception.

The biggest issue with the game on the PS4 has been the loading screens. While I also faced slow loading times on the PS Vita, and even the PS3, I've been reconditioned by the superb PS4 experiences so far to be unpleasantly surprised that every little sublevel on this title entered me into a loading screen. Not only are there a lot of loading screens, but they are ridiculously, unpleasantly long. Even in cases when you die during a level, you'll get a loading screen. If you die a lot, eventually the Hybrid SSD installed on my machine would cache it so that it's no longer unpleasant, but given that no other game seems to have loading screens, Little Big Planet 3 stands out in particularly poor fashion.

All this would be OK if the game play was great or a step up over prior versions of Little Big Planet. The introduction of 3 new characters, each of which have special game play features and puzzles are promising, but you use them far too little in the main game.

What broke the camel's back in this particular case was the final mission. You have to unlock 3 different levels. The problem is, there's no checkpointing whatsoever between the levels. So if you died in the middle of level 3, for instance, you'd be flipped back all the way to the beginning and you'd have to do everything all over again. This would be unpleasant if you're 9 years old and had plenty of time to play. For a busy parent, this is player-abuse, and caused me to ship the entire disk back to Amazon.

Between the loading screens and lack of respect for the player's time, this game gains an avoid rating. (Yes, I invented a new rating for games you should actively avoid)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Triplet Update

It's been a while since our last Triplet update.  Since our late summer misunderstanding, Bowen and I have been riding to school nearly every day. Commuting is rarely a pleasure, with driving being misery during school hours, but cycling is much better.

It would be an understatement to say that riding to school with Bowen is a pleasure. To my surprise, I find myself looking forward to it, and am disappointed now in the fall, when it's starting to get too cold even for my little tough guy to ride. It's only a 3 mile commute (each way), but it rarely fails to put me in a good mood.

Upon reflection, I think I understand why. Years of commuting by bicycle has gotten me used to abuse, irresponsibility, and rudeness from motorists. I've had objects thrown at me, drivers cut me off (deliberately or otherwise), or even been hit by a motorist who claimed he couldn't see me. (His insurance paid up)

But cycling on the triplet with Bowen in tow is a different story. I've had car drivers pull up next to us and give him a thumbs up. I've had truck drivers stop and ask us where we got the bike. Cyclists all wave and shout at Bowen, "Look at that bike!" Today, we had a car pull up and drive slowly behind us. I'd been so conditioned by poor drivers that I assumed that he had no idea how to properly pass a cyclist, so I pulled over. When he drove past, I saw that he had his cell phone out and was taking a photo of us.

Even on my way home after dropping him off I had one of those giant tech company buses (the huge intimidating kind that draws unwanted attention from San Francisco residents) pull up next to me at a traffic light. The driver waved at me through the windshield and gave me two thumbs up.

I wonder when kids turn from cute to not-so-cute in the eyes of 3rd parties. I guess I'm going to get a first hand experience of that metamorphosis through the reactions I get from other road users, assuming that we keep up the habit of cycling to school. Occasionally, people tell me that some of my posts paint a rather dire picture of parenthood, but it's really a mixed bag. Along with all that crazy baggage you do get some daily pleasure. And if I ever have second thoughts about picking up a giant expensive bike just to move Bowen around to school, that daily pleasure makes those thoughts go away.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Mind Dimensions Books 0, 1, 2

I'm a sucker for deals, and when I saw Mind Dimensions 0, 1, 2 on sale for $0.99, I picked it up and gave it a shot. Indie books aren't always the best bet for good reading, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find the book not only readable, but quite fun.

The idea behind this book is that the protagonist, Darren, can freeze time. When he does so, he enters a "mind dimension", where he can move around, read, learn skills, etc. without either aging or otherwise impacting the world. The book begins when he meets someone else who can do the same things, and the plot unfolds from there, both revealing powers Darren himself didn't know he had, and two communities of similarly super-powered humans that seem to be at logger heads.

The universe is well thought out, and the authors do a great job of working through many of the implications of such powers. We even get a good look at the sociology and workings of their societies. In any such environments, it's very tempting for the authors to pile on other super-powered people or large numbers of factions in order to distract the reader or make the world look more complicated than it is, but the authors avoid the pitfalls.

The characters are a bit stereotyped (though since nearly all of them are Russian it at least feels different from the usual WASPish-background fantasy characters), but are at least functional. The action scenes are fun.

As an airplane novel, this is as great as it gets. Just don't expect more than that. Mildly recommended.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Santa Cruz Factory Demo

It's been a while since I did any mountain biking, and while searching for a mountain bike rental place near Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz, I noticed that the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike company does factory demos! The price is quite reasonable: $20 per person, and you get to book the bike you'd like to ride, complete with SPD pedals if you ride SPDs, or supply your own pedals if you have other types.

We showed up at 10:30am: finding parking was a major challenge in the area, but we fortunately found something. The friendly mechanic had our bikes ready, and we raised our saddles to a comfortable position and then took off. When I picked the bikes off the menu on the company web-site, I expected that we'd demo the lowest end version of the bike. To my surprise, the demo bike was the highest end carbon fiber wonder-bike, with top end components, including a single-chainring, 32x10-42 drive-train. The bike weighed 20.8 pounds!

As a result, when I got to the bottom of the hill at Wilder Ranch, I started up the climb and could not bring myself to pause or stop, because it was way too much fun climbing with a bike that light that I did not want to stop. Once I got to the single track, I found out to my dismay that I had let it go too long between mountain biking trails: I freaked out at some of the drops which I would have never thought twice about doing in previous visits to the park. Fortunately, an hour later, I was once again riding those drops.

One of my objectives this time was to figure out whether or not I liked 29" wheels on a mountain bike. 29" wheels are effectively 700c rims with mountain bike sized tires. The theory is that with a larger wheel you get a better angle of attack on most trail obstacles, making it easier to climb. I was pleased to discover that the theory matched up with practice: it was indeed far easier to roll over obstacles than with 26" wheels.

Unfortunately, just as I was starting to have fun, I found a flat tire. This was my first experience with flat tires on a tubeless wheel, and it was an incredibly frustrating experience. I borrowed tire levers from other cyclists, but could not get the tire off, because the tire was sealed to the wheel using some sort of sealant. I resorted to pumping up the tire every 3 minutes to get down to the bottom, and then to the bike shop.

We returned the bikes to the factory, but had to run because we had to pick up Bowen from his school. I knew it was a successful day when my wife asked me how come I'd never taken her to Wilder Ranch State Park before!

Now I just have to get a mountain bike for myself and practice a lot before I do something similar again.

Tips:

  • The factory's usually booked up on weekends, so go on a weekday. You need to reserve the bikes before you show up.
  • Bring your own pedals, or an SPD tension adjusting allen key. I found the factory pedals tough to get into and out of because they were set at too high: doubtless the person who rented the bike before me was much heavier.
  • Bring your own pump! Despite the mechanics' statement that it would be difficult to flat on tubeless, I managed it (hey, if I can crack a titanium frame, I can break anything). If I hadn't brought my own pump I would have been walking back to the shop.
Needless to say, this experience is highly recommended and an amazing value.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Hi-Float Balloon Treatment

When organizing a kid's birthday party, you pretty much need balloons. It costs about $24 to get a helium tank and a bunch of balloons. For $14, however, you can make those balloons last much longer. The trick here, is to buy a jug of Hi-Float.

Hi-Float is a plasticizer that you squirt into a balloon to create a layer of plastic which is much less permeable to helium than the latex of a balloon. The idea is that you'll squirt the plasticizer into balloon, massage the balloon a bit to spread it, then fill the balloon with helium, tie it off, and then you'll end up with balloons that'll last about as long as the mylar balloons you can buy for $1 each. Each 16oz container of Hi-Float will provide enough coating to use 2 of the standard tanks you can acquire at Target.

There are a few issues that you have to work through to use Hi-Float successfully:

  1. You have to stick the nozzle of the Hi-Float all the way into the balloon. Otherwise, the plasticizer might not coat the balloon evenly, and you'll get early deflation. This happened the first time I tried it.
  2. The plasticizer itself adds weight to the balloon. So while you might have gotten used to filling the balloon to a certain level before it'll float, you have to add more helium than before to do so. This caught me out the next couple of times.
  3. Because of this, the standard helium tank will fill fewer balloons than it would if you didn't have the plasticizer installed. However, those balloons will float for quite a bit longer.
  4. The plasticizer also has the effect of darkening the insider of the balloon. If the balloons used to be closer to being translucent, they will now become quite a bit more opaque. Test a few balloons first if color matters to you. (It didn't matter to me or the kids who liked balloons)
All in all, it's relatively cheap compared to the helium tanks, and if your kids keep asking for balloons every time the previous one deflates, this will make your intervals between helium tanks much longer. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game

Bowen's finally getting around to doing addition in school. Geek that I am, I decided that the best way of reinforcing that is to get him into D&D. I thought about ordering the Basic Set, but decided that that was way too abstract (despite the fun dice). The Temple of Elemental Evil board game, however, looked like it would be fun (and had lots of fiddly bits), and was a cooperative game, so we didn't have to worry about being competitive. And yes, I'm the kind of parent who looks at the suggested age (14+) and think that it's ridiculously silly, but it's probably set for an age where a kid can open the box with his brothers and read the rules and understand everything. I wasn't expecting Bowen to read the rules, just understand them.

The game does come with a ton of fiddly bits. There's a load of miniatures, multiple dungeon tiles that fit together like a puzzle piece, and a couple of rulebooks. There are also character cards, condition markers, hit point markers, and a set of character cards for each character. And of course, the trade-mark d20. We spent a happy hour punching out all the counters, sorting the cards, putting the minis into various zip-loc bags, and then proceeded to play the game wrong once before finally figuring it out.

The sequence of play is straight forward: you can move and then attack (or attack and then move), then draw a dungeon tile (if you've stepped onto a square to extend the dungeon) and/or an encounter card, activate monsters, and then pass it on to the next player. What's tricky about the game is that it makes a distinction between tiles and squares (the grid marked onto the dungeon tiles) and I failed to understand the difference at first because real D&D only counted squares and didn't have the concept of tiles.

That aside, Bowen found the game surprisingly fun. He immediately decided to play the Cleric, and I picked up the Rogue. The game has a lot of traps, but that was part of the fun. He loved rolling the d20, and then I'd help him add the modifier. (There's only one, and it's usually +5 or +6, but there are +4s, +2s, and various other combinations here and there) I had to frame his decisions for him, or he'd get lost, but he loved killing monsters and picking up a treasure card.

The game itself is actually quite hard. Encounter cards are very dangerous, so you have an incentive to keep exploring as much as possible so as to not necessarily have to draw encounter cards. (You have to draw an encounter card anyway if the tile you drew had a black arrow, and yes, Bowen had no problem understanding that rule) You can prevent encounter cards by spending experience (which you accumulate by killing monsters). You can spend treasure to level up (each character only has 2 levels)

The game thus scales itself with more players: each additional player means more encounter cards. In addition, if you play the game with its 13 scenarios as a campaign, the game self-adjusts in difficulty: the more successful you are, the more dangerous encounters and monsters get added to future scenarios. If you barely succeed, then less dangerous encounters get added, and you also get more treasure to spend to upgrade your characters and buy items. If you fail completely, you get to keep the treasure, but you also have to replay the scenario. I can see scenarios under which this gets you into a death spiral and then you'd have to replay the campaign and start over.

All in all, the game does a good job of simulating D&D, and teaching someone how to add. It does have a ton of fiddly bits, which meant that until Bowen was 4, there was no way playing this game wouldn't get all the minis destroyed in short order. I'd also worry about small children swallowing the d20, so I'm keeping the game strictly away from his younger brother for now. But it definitely seems like a great game for the rainy season. And hey, maybe one day that D&D Starter Set wouldn't seem like it would be too abstract for him.

Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Games of the Year 2015

2015 wasn't as good a year as 2014 for games. Part of that was because in 2014 I was catching up on years and years of backlog, which meant that I managed to get really good games to play. 2015 was more of a mixed bag, but nevertheless still had quite a number of highlights.

Not surprisingly, Sleeping Dogs was easily my game of the year for 2015. It's an old game, but on the PS4 it shines, and manages to break all the stereotypes of an Asian protagonist in a video game, while providing not a single moment of downtime. I've since tried a large number of open world games, and none of them are as well executed as this one. I'd look for more games from this developer.

A close second was Arkham Knight. The game was a victim of unrealistically high expectations, which resulted in lackluster reviews online, as well as a few own goals (due to excessive emphasis on the Batmobile, and of course, a famously blotched PC implementation), but taken as a whole, it's an impressively good game and highly playable. I was surprised by how I dropped practically every other game on the PS4 to play it.

The PS Vita is still a great platform, with many excellent games on it. I really enjoyed Little Big Planet, which was my platformer of the year. Surprisingly enough, another platformer, Murasaki Baby, is closed behind. While Little Big Planet undoubtedly has more replay value and higher production values, Murasaki Baby is one of those quirky games that could only have been executed by the Vita.

Finally, I still managed to use the PS3 for what I consider to be the best game of that genre, Heavy Rain. If you're a fan of Telltale games' episodic adventure stories, I think you owe it to yourself to check out Heavy Rain. It makes those games look like cheaply made children's toys, worlds where actions and decisions have no consequences, and with stories that aren't ambitious. I haven't been able to bring myself to even try any of Telltale's newer products, because I've been spoiled by a game on a platform that's 10 years old. If that doesn't make a strong statement, I don't know what does.

An honorable mention must be made for Monument Valley, the only Android Game I played to completion this year. On a platform marred by crappy puzzle games that never fail to be a complete waste of time, or micro-transaction driven revenue engines, or ad-driven infinite runners, Monument Valley stands out as a game that respects players' time, and a clear labor of love, rather than a money grab. I can't recommend it enough, especially since if you have a smart phone, you have access to this game, and it's an experience worth savoring.

Looking back at it, I'd say that if 2016 was as good as 2015 for games, I wouldn't have much to be disappointed about.

Monday, November 16, 2015

First Impressions, Motorola Moto G (3rd Generation)

Never plug your phone into an untested charger that's not made by the OEM. I learned the hard way when I plugged my phone into a newly bought charger (my wife bought it in an effort to get rid of the rat's nest of wires on the charging desk --- needless to say it's the most expensive charger she's ever bought --- lesson: keep your rats nest and stick with well-reviewed chargers). Well, my Xperia Z1's motherboard got fried, and I had to shop for a new phone in a hurry.

I liked the Xperia Z1, so my initial thought was to just simply purchase an Xperia Z3. Alas, the price I got from Amazon did turn out to be too good to be true. Upon receiving the phone, I checked it against Sony's website and discovered that the "new" phone I was sold only had 2 months of warranty left. In other words, some reseller had bought the phone from Sony or T-mobile, and was reselling it to me as "new." The full price of the phone ($550) was more than I could stomach, so I went looking for other choices.

My criteria were:
  • Waterproof: having learned from the Xperia Z1 how useful a feature that was, I wasn't willing to give this up.
  • MicroSD card storage. Sorry, I'm not paying $100 to get an extra 16GB of storage. That's for Apple users. (I paid $25 for a 64GB MicroSD card)
  • 2GB of RAM, preferably 3.
  • 5" screen. More than that, and it's too awkward to hold one-handed.
  • Camera shutter button preferred.
  • Cheap. Let's face it, phone processor performance hasn't improved in years 
Not surprisingly, other than the Xperia Z series, there are only a few phones that offer the first feature:
The Samsung was too much to pay for, and I never liked the UI, so it came down to the Sony Aqua and the Moto G. I honestly did not expect the Moto G to be a contender, but since Lenovo acquired them from Google, Motorola has finally put microSD card storage even into its high end phones like the Moto X. Back when Google owned Motorola, it suffered from severe Apple envy and thought it could charge Apple-type prices for storage. The addition of waterproofing was a nice surprise. In fact, the higher-end phones in Motorola's line up all only have water-resistance, rather than being IP7 waterproof. I would have considered the shatter-proof Droid Turbo 2 if it had included water-proofing along with the 4 year anti-crack warranty. As it was, I figured I could get 3 Moto Gs for the price of one of those, and waterproofing trumps crack-proofing.

My experience with the Sony Z1 was that I was constantly getting applications killed. I'd play music and turn on navigation and music would die. I've also had the reverse happen. That made me wary of getting another Sony phone with just 2GB of RAM. (For whatever reason, this doesn't happen to my wife's Xperia Ultra Z, which at 6.5" in size is so big that it also has wonderful voice and data reception!)

Reviews consistently state that the Moto G has a better camera (surprising, since the Moto G's camera is a Sony sensor). The Sony M4 Aqua also has a faster processor, NFC, supports up to 128GB of microSD storage and is thinner. Both phones are 720p 5" displays, which is fine. What's interesting is that the Moto G did support my 64GB SD card, despite not being officially in the specs. I did have to reformat it with the phone, but after that it worked just great. It's unusual for companies to under promise and over-deliver, so I wonder what's going on there.

In practice, however, the Moto G actually appears faster than the M4 Aqua, even in the 1GB configuration! In the end, between the camera and improved performance, I went with the Moto G. Later research showed that the Snapdragon 615 used in the M4 Aqua has severe throttling issues due to overheating, so I unwittingly dodged a bullet.

Since I was buying in a hurry to replace a dead phone, I ordered the black version from Amazon rather than going through Moto Maker. It's also much easier to return something to Amazon than to Motorola, so that was a consideration.

The phone itself is fast, as fast as the Xperia Z1. Installing software, starting up software all felt faster than the Z1 (undoubtedly helped by not having to push as many pixels), while task switching was surprisingly quick with no latency experienced. The camera was about as fast as the Z1's, though obviously picture quality isn't anywhere close to the benchmark set by that camera. The twist to shoot gesture is a nice gimmick, and I thought it to be useless but to my surprise after a few days with the phone I could shoot with the camera while cycling! Video is surprisingly good:
By far the biggest issue with the phone is sluggish bluetooth pairing. In fact, for both my cars and the SBH52, I had to reboot the phone in order to do a pairing. Neither the Logitech X100 nor my vivoactive (which unfortunately needed a factory reset to unstick its pairing from the Z1) needed such a reboot. Once paired, the pairing sticks, so at least this is only a one time problem.

Sound quality is, not surprisingly, lacking compared to the Z1, but not so much so that I found it objectionable. Some have reported annoying cross-talk when plugging in headphones into the microphone jack. I was prepared to have to do without (most of my listening is via blue-tooth over the SBH52 anyway), but when I plugged in headphones it sounded just fine.

To my surprise, going from the Z1's 1080p screen down to the 720p screen didn't bother me at all. Of course, watching movies on the Z1 has always drained the battery so fast that I rarely did it, and in any case to save storage I'd always watched movies in 720p.

Motorola is well known for providing a near-stock Android experience with no additional UI tweaks. I didn't expect this to make a big difference to me, but it does and is a pleasant welcome after the Sony modifications to the OS. I also expect that this also contributed largely to the higher performance of the UI and software despite the supposedly slower processor.

After my experience with the Z1, which begged to be recharged nearly all the time, so much so that I put the phone into stamina mode full time, any change had to be better. The Moto G was disappointing at first, barely lasting  12 hours without a charge. But 2 charge cycles later the battery life improved dramatically, with me typically ending the day somewhere around 40-50% of battery life. On a heavy use day it'd drop to 15%. This is a huge improvement over the Xperia Z1, and makes use of say, the Garmin Livetrack feature much more feasible than before. With the Xperia Z1, even with stamina mode, I was unlikely to make it to the end of the day without a mid-day recharge. Lithium ion batteries will generally lose 20% of their capacity after 300 recharge cycles. If your battery is barely able to get you through the day, after a year, your battery will absolutely not get you through the day. And yes, this applies even if you're the type to keep it plugged in as often as possible. The relatively long battery life of the Moto G means that you can expect to get at least 2 years of use out of the phone before the non-replaceable battery starts to lose enough charge capacity to be annoying.

All in all, given the price of the phone and the features (waterproofing is huge for me), the performance of the phone is such that I will be happy to hang on to it for a good long time. I expect that if you manage to buy this phone during the inevitable black friday sales, you'll get it for a significant discount which will be an even better deal.

Recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Books of the Year 2015

I read 65 books this year, which surprised me because I didn't think I was reading that many. As usual, the non-fiction books leave a much deeper impression on me than the fiction I read. This is perhaps not surprising: my favorite genre of fiction is still science fiction, and we're definitely living in a science fictional world.

My favorite book this year was Being Mortal. It's an important reminder that we're not invincible, and that sometimes, giving up the fight is not only not shameful, but the right thing to do. If you haven't read it, you should. A close second is A Spy Among Friends: it's far more exciting and fun than any number of spy novels or movies.

On the fiction side, I'm afraid that not much stands out. Easily the best book I read was The Stress of Her Regard, which is well over 20 years old! The Martian, however, comes a close second. Both those books will have you on the edge of your seat and wishing for more.

Unfortunately, I didn't find any great new comics this year. If you have any recommendations, please pass them by me.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in SIlicon Valley and Route 128

Silicon Valley detractors are fond of saying that in this day of easy internet collaboration, video conferencing, and telepresence robots, Silicon Valley's comparative advantage in software and design is over, and it's only a matter of time before cheap housing and infrastructure elsewhere makes Silicon Valley obsolete or less attractive as a place to start companies or scale them. What's common amongst people who make such statements is that they've rarely had a substantial career in Silicon Valley (e.g.., working at 3 or more different firms at varying stage of development under different management teams), and more importantly, a lack of interest or knowledge in the history of Silicon Valley and Massachusetts's Route 128.

Regional Advantage is a book well designed to alleviate most such ignorance. It covers the history of both regions stemming from World War 2 defense department funding and procurement, the rise of Route 128, which originally was much more developed than the area near Stanford, and the ultimate fall of Route 128 and rise of Silicon Valley. In the process it debunks the usual myths surrounding Silicon Valley, land use, and how "expensive housing, land, and high taxes" is unlikely to ever derail Silicon Valley.

In particular, one advantage that the author notes is that Silicon Valley has always been geographically constrained: housing prices started going up as early as the 1970s, and people have always complained about unaffordable housing. The flip side of this has been density. Within the same 20 mile radius, you could switch jobs between multiple companies that are competing with each other for talent as well as product traction. Engineers back then were switching jobs at least every 2-3 years (sounds familiar to most Silicon Valley engineers). This high rate of job-switching is a disadvantage for employers (who even back then had to deal with bidding wars and a workforce that could walk out the door any time), but was also a benefit as it circulated ideas and shared social network contacts that made informality, contracts, and handshake deals the norm rather than slow, ponderous official methods.

What's just as interesting are the ways that Route 128 failed: not only was land cheaper, the geographical sprawl enabled companies to hold on to employees longer. Furthermore, it was harder to get startup funding, or for employees to even notice them and want to join them. The preponderance of defense contracts that were easier to get also isolated the region from market competition, which led to longer design cycles and vertical integration.

If the story behind the book was: "Silicon Valley went on an upward trajectory and never looked back", the book wouldn't have been as interesting and would have been over in a few pages. What I really liked about the book was the study of Silicon Valley in the 1980s, during which it lost the memory business to Japan and other areas, yet went on to regain the dynamic economy that it hadn't lost today. It turned out that during that period of scaling up, Silicon Valley ignored its advantages, and tried to go for Route 128-style vertical integration, keeping secrets from other competitors, and the like. The result wasn't good, but the story of how the valley recovered is also worth reading.

What the book doesn't cover, however, is the modern era of how this story continues in software. Unlike manufacturing, software doesn't have standardized components, but depends much more on process. Companies like Google and Apple are much more secretive than the manufacturing equivalents of the days described in the book, though obviously the flow of people moving between companies do continue to circulate ideas. It would also be interesting to explore the migration of startups from Silicon Valley into San Francisco. The book could use an update along these lines, but I also expect the research required to do so would be much more intensive and difficult to get access to.

All in all, this book is a great antidote for the usual Silicon Valley detractor story, while also providing good ideas for how a region could attain similar advantages for itself. Given how long the book's been out, however, I suspect that its lessons are much harder to apply than it seems. Nevertheless, given how quickly San Francisco grew as a startup hub, I wouldn't consider it impossible. It's just that the usual detractor cry of "lower taxes, cheaper housing, and more land" isn't going to do it at all.