Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: On the Steel Breeze

On the Steel Breeze is Alastair Reynolds' follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth. I call it a follow-up rather than a sequel, because it doesn't depend very much on reading Blue Remembered Earth, and Blue Remembered Earth's characters (with one exception) do not play much of a part in this novel.

I'm of two minds about this novel. First of all, the point-of-view character, Chiku Akinya, is a thoroughly unlikeable person. She's secretive, makes poor decisions, and trusts, no one, not even her family. She's faced with a dilemma, with knowledge that the generation ship she's on is headed to a destination already occupied by a human-created AI with no intention of letting humans settle in. Furthermore, prior automated machines and sensors sent there in advance to prepare the planet for settlement has been lying to humanity for ages. Rather than trust humanity to do something useful with that knowledge, she keeps it to herself and does her best to let no one else know about it, even though if at any point she had died, humanity would have been screwed. It's clear that Reynolds doesn't know how to build plausible characters, and this main character basically reflects the worst of science fiction's traits: the inability to fit decent characters into a plot-driven narrative.

On the other hand, the world building is great. Reynolds does a good job exploring how you could build a caravan of colony ships, complete with ecosystems and planned hibernation setups. The world of Crucible and its solar system is interesting as well, as is the state of the civilized space in the Sol system.

Unfortunately, there are plot-points one after another in the novel that just destroy the believability of the novel. For instance, we are led to believe that humanity would build a caravan of colony ships with deliberately under-supplied engines, trusting that new technologies would be invented during transit that would enable the ships to brake and orbit the target system. That sounds insane to anyone, and is unbelievable.

The net net is that On the Steel Breeze is a much poorer novel than Blue Remembered Earth, and even worse, it doesn't supply a payoff to the major mysteries introduced in the setup, expecting you to read the sequel with the novel ending on a cliff-hanger.

It pains me to say this since I'm a huge Reynolds fan: but stay away from this book at all costs unless the sequel has come out and you're prepared to spend the time reading both books at once. Not recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal is Atul Gawande's book about end-of-life care. It discusses the history of end-of-life care, and how the current nursing home environment came about, not as a natural evolution of the poor houses of the past, but as an extension of the hospital. This explains the inherent conflict between providing good care leading to happier tenants, and satisfying safety requirements and reducing risk.

What's interesting by far about the book is it's criticism of nursing home care: fundamentally, eliminating risk is anthetical to happiness in a tenant/patient. By eliminating the possibility of the patient doing what he wants when he wants to, the patient is infantilized, and ironically, the result is poorer outcomes, in addition to the reduced quality of life the regimented approach ensues.

The alternatives are considerably different: various assisted-living philosophies attempt to ensure the tenant's independence while reducing risk by ensuring staff is on hand as called upon, rather than being intrusive. The problem is that all it took was a few bad apples and regulatory apparatus will then take over and ensure that safety is the highest priority, rather than patient happiness.

Gawande ties it all together with his own experience as a practitioner: he describes several patients, and touchingly, his own father's death (not even neglecting the detail of acquiring the Giardia parasite while scattering his father's ashes on the Ganges) By doing so, he reveals something important: it's critical to have the important conversations up front: how heroic do you want the interventions to be, and what's acceptable as an outcome (and by corollary, what's not!). For instance, there's an example of a patient whose father said, "As long as I can watch football on TV, I'm good." which surprised the heck out of his daughter.

The book is sadly lacking in statistics, as well as detailed cost analysis. It does, however, mention several important details: hospice care, for instance, is intended to optimize the day to day life, rather than potential recovery as opposed to the standard heroic life-extension attempts today. However, it turns out that hospice care usually also leads to as long or longer lifespan as a result: it turns out that if your day to day life isn't hell, you actually live longer even if heroic medical interventions aren't exerted:

The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives— and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality. If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.(Kindle Loc. 2504-7)
By far the biggest problem, it appears, is that medical professionals have to be able, trained, and willing to have these difficult discussions with patients. In one example, Gawande observes a physician saying, "Well, a good outcome for this patient as a result of this procedure would be an additional year or two." At the same, time, the patient was thinking in terms of getting an additional decade or two of life for the same procedure. Without a thorough and honest exploration of what each option means, it is no wonder that so many patients get railroaded into heroic interventions at the expense of quality of life and time spent with their loved ones:


People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.(Kindle Loc. 2655-57)
  In any case, despite my mild criticism of the book above, this has so far been the best book I've read all year. If you have aging parents or are yourself aging, this book is a must-read. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Anova Precision Immersion Circulator

When Amazon offered the older version of the Anova Immersion Circulator for $100, I jumped on it. The latest version (which is not the one I'm reviewing) cost $180, and has bluetooth and app integration. As someone who's been doing sous vide for a while, I consider those apps superfluous and was happy to save the money.

The first thing I noticed was how huge the circulator was. You definitely need a fairly tall pot (at least 6" deep, and probably not much more than 12" deep), and it's substantial in weight, though obviously takes up much less room than my Sous Vide Supreme Demi.

Using it is fairly easy: you fill a pot with water (keeping it between the min and max line), clip in the clamp, touch the screen to turn on (not at all obvious at first), set the temperature, push the start button, and go! It's noisy enough if you've got nothing else in the kitchen turned on, but if you're doing even a little stir fry or the dish washer is on, you're not going to hear it. That said, it is quite a bit noiser than the Sous Vide Supreme Demi.

It heats up very quickly (much faster than the Demi, not surprising given the 1000W spec), but is also much less power efficient: there's a motor turned on all the time circulating the water, and because no pot you have is going to have a lid that's compatible with the immersion circulator, heat escapes from the top (as well as the sides, since most pots are conductive), and so the machine has to work quite a bit harder than the Demi.

That last bit is important, because it also means that it's not quite unattended operation the way the Demi is. Because water will evaporate from the pot, you have to drop by every so often to top off the water if you have a long running recipe (e.g, 72 hour short ribs, or 24 hour duck confit).  And because there's a motor running, if you stick creme brulee in bowls and dump it into the pot, the bowls will move around and clink clink all the time, which is actually quite noisy.

Because we live in a hard water area, I find myself being obsessive about scaling on the device. Since there's a motor in the device, you don't want scaling to get so bad that it impacts the performance of the motor. I do my darnedest to wipe off all the water before putting it away, and never let it air dry.

The advantages are: it scales much better than the Demi (you can always buy a bigger pot, or a huge laboratory tank if you're going to make food for 20-30 people), and it's significantly more portable, even in its factory packaging with foam and everything. Furthermore, the temperature is significantly better than the Demi's since the circulator maintains a nice even temperature while the Demi depends on convection. In practice, however, you're unlikely to notice the difference in food produced by either!

Regardless, I found it great having 2 sous vide devices available in the kitchen: you can now prep Duck Confit one day and have steak for dinner still, or prepare both chicken and steak for one meal. I'm also much more likely to bring the device along on trips (though unfortunately it's only rated for US voltages!).

If price is a non-issue, and you can only have one device, I'd still recommend the Sous Vide Supreme Demi as the one to get. But given the price difference between the two, I'd recommend the Anova Circulator (at almost 50% the price even at full Amazon pricing) unless you have a severe objection to noise in the kitchen for long recipes. And compared to the DIY devices I've tried, it's no contest: the time savings are well worth the price, especially if you're able to (as I did) find it at a discount to the retail price.

 Please see my Modernist Cuisine post for recommendations for other essential tools to accompany the immersion circulator.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo was just announced for general availability today, so it's appropriate for me to write a review for our device, which we tested for 2 weeks before somewhat reluctantly packing it up to return to Amazon.

My friend Steve Grimm raved about how it was the closest thing to a Star Trek computer experience that he'd ever had, and to some extent I agree. For me, queries like "What's today's weather" worked perfectly, as did, "Play some music", "Turn it up", "Turn it down", etc. It works way better than Google's voice query (yes, those 7 microphones actually make a huge difference). However, voice recognition didn't work so great for my wife (thick Chinese accent), and surprisingly, it didn't work for Bowen either, who enunciates correctly. This might or might not be a feature, as I can imagine you might not want your child controlling the music. But of course, if it had worked, it would have been huge, since I could off-load all the annoying toddler questions like "Why is the sky blue" to Echo.  (And yes, I tried it and Echo does have a scientifically correct and credible answer)

 I'm well aware that there's a training app you can store, but the payoff wasn't enough for my wife to even bother, and of course, a training app for a 3-year old is worthless.

In any case, other than the occasional query, it mostly got used as a music device. Amazon Prime music is rather comprehensive, but of course, it wasn't complete. You can upload 200 songs up to it, but of course, that's not nearly enough. I wasn't going to pay for online storage of music when my file server is more than adequate, as is Google music.

Ultimately, if music storage was unlimited (e.g., via integration with Google Music), or if it did a better job of voice recognition sans training, I might have kept the device, especially since we paid $99 for it due to being Prime pre-order customers. For a full $180, I'd want it to do quite a bit more.

Nevertheless, if you're not opposed to paying for music storage, or if the device works for your entire household, then it's a very nice speaker system, and decent value for money. It might take Amazon a couple of generations, but I suspect that a device like this will eventually find its way into our home.

And of course, if it takes off, both Google and Apple will have similar devices out. Which I hope it does. I do look forward to the day when interacting via mouse and keyboard would be considered "quaint."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Blue Remembered Earth

After the lackluster Terminal World and Slow Bullets, I picked up Blue Remembered Earth with trepidation. Fortunately, this novel is miles better than either of his previous works, and leads me to believe that I will continue to enjoy (and seek out) more Alastair Reynolds books in the future.

Blue Remembered Earth is set in a near future. Nantechnology is common, as are space elevator trips, a moon base, and asteroid mining. The novel depicts Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya, two scions of an African matriarch (Eunice) who single-handedly built a lucrative empire based on space-exploration and exploitation. When the aforementioned matriarch dies, Geoffrey is called on by the other members of the family to investigate a safe-deposit box left on the moon by Eunice.

One thing leads to another, and Geoffrey and Sunday end up in the deep oceans (dealing with the United Aquatic Nations), on Phobos and Mars, as well as a climatic visit to the Kuiper belt. As far as a wild romp through the solar system it's a lot of fun, but the plot device is thin, and extremely tenuous. The world building is entertaining, but not vivid, and of course, Reynolds has no plausible explanation as to why the African continent rose to be an economic super-power other than "I thought it was their turn."

The science is mostly impeccable, and I enjoyed the depiction of man's near future self-created utopia. Lesser writers would have made it something to rebel against, but Reynolds goes out of his way to actually show how it eliminates many of the problems that plague humanity today.

Now, it's not up to par to his previous work such as Revelation Space or House of Suns, but it's still a boldly optimistic view of humanity's near future, something that's rare these days. Recommended.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: Slow Bullets

In recent years, there's been a proliferation of small press imprints. What these small press imprints try to do is to take short stories or novellas, and use giant fonts, and then publish them as books. This doesn't do very much harm, except tht they usually try to charge full price for such books. This boutique approach seems to work only for genre fiction, where the fan base for an author such as Alastair Reynolds is such that they might be persuaded to pay full price for relatively little value.

Slow Bullets unfortunately comes from just such an imprint. It's clearly experimental fiction: Reynolds strays far afield from the hard science fiction that he's well known for, and sets up the story with a few small premises: a ship has performed a jump that took it into a far future where human civilization is threatened. The ship's computer systems are malfunctioning, and the only way to salvage the situation is to copy data off the systems.

Unfortunately, if you're at all conversant with even the technology of today, you'll know that the premise is ridiculous. Even piss poor smart phones today have 4GB of storage, which is enough to store thousands of books. Sure you can't preserve videos or pictures or even live recordings of music with that little space, but in a crisis situation, you're going to be only concerned with words. As a result the story's technical premise is a shambles and pitiful.

The only redeeming feature of the story is that Reynolds is clearly experimenting with fiction, and the character study of the narrator/protagonist is somewhat interesting, and where the story goes with its (very) lame premise is reflective of his attempt to write a character-based story instead of his usual hard-science approach. Nevertheless, Reynolds isn't great at character development, and in the short space of a novella doesn't really get a chance to do a decent job.

Not recommended, not even for fans of Reynolds. In fact, fans of Reynolds perhaps should especially stay away, as it might diminish your opinion of him after reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Terminal World

Terminal World is Alastair Reynolds' science fantasy novel set in an Edgar Rice Burroughs Pastiche World. Now, you might argue that it's science fiction, but the reality is that while Reynolds' does provide somewhat plausible explanations for how the world the story is set in came to be the way it is, there's no actual exposition that makes any scientific sense, so the proper classification is science fantasy.

The central conceit behind the novel's machinations is that the world is divided into Zones. Much like Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought novels, Reynolds provides areas of the planet (or even the same city-spire) that have strongly differing tech zones. In some areas, neon lights, flying machines, and high technology work, while in others, only steam engines work, while in some dead spots, even living organisms could not survive.

The protagonist of the novel, Quillion, is a spy sent from one of the higher zones to infiltrate a lower tech zone. He's offended some people, and now has to make a run for it. This plot device gives him motivation to traverse several zones, and of course that means we get to see the world Reynolds has imagined for us.

It's a fun romp, reminiscent of Escaflowne, for instance, with airships mixed in with machine guns, weird cyborg variants, and of course, magic that turns out not to be. If that had been all there was to it, it'd be a short novel, and fun. But Reynolds tries to explore deeper, and show us the origin of the Zones, and the explanation isn't really very convincing or complete. As a result, when the novel ends with obvious room for a sequel, you don't really care very much.

As with other Reynolds' novels, characters are fairly wooden and stereotyped, and Quillion never really develops.

This is a mediocre Reynolds' novel, but of course, that means it's probably much better than most novels you'll read from anyone else. Regardless, however, I'd only recommend it if you've read everything else he's written and are looking for more.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

300 Mile Retrospective: Co-Motion Periscope Triplet

Our ride to the library on Sunday brought the odometer on the Co-Motion Triplet over 300 miles. While I rode a fair number of miles solo (mostly to school in order to pick him up on the bike), Bowen's gotten at least 250 miles or so on it. We've even had to raise the seat a little since he got an inch taller!

The bike is indeed longer, but surprisingly when riding solo it doesn't feel particularly hard or different. I can mostly do the same kind of riding I can do on the other bikes, but have to take into the extra turning radius, which got me in trouble once. The bike is heavy, at over 50 pounds, so riding into the hills won't be done for a little while. For reference, and 3% grade feels like a 6% grade, and a 6% grade feels like a 12% grade. The 24x36 drive train is not nearly over kill.

What's most surprising to me is how much of a handful the bike is to manage when you're not riding it. When parking the bike in the bike shed, I always have to man-handle it in ways I never had to when dealing with the single or tandem. I've beaten up the rear handle bars a few times because I mis-estimated the distance to the door way when maneuvering the bike in and out of the shed.

One thing that I'd read about but didn't really understand until I had one is that your kids aren't going to really get tired on a tandem. They might get bored, thirsty or hungry, but tiredness is not something on the agenda. At this point, Bowen's had 20 mile days, and he'd get home and still want me to chase him around the house. I don't know what his limits are, but 20 miles isn't even close! Others have warned me that a toddler might fall asleep on the bike, but nope. Never happened. The bike's just too much stimulation for Bowen to even consider taking a nap.

One redeeming feature of the bike being this big and heavy is that I don't care about weighing it down further with panniers. The bike always has front panniers aboard, and sometimes have rear panniers when I have to bring Bowen's blankets and sheets home from school. It truly is set up as a utility bike and we frequently drop by the supermarket or library on the way home.

I fully expected the other kids at the school to get used to the bike in short order and treat it as no big deal. But no. Every time I show up to pick Bowen up, the other kids run around and stare. Bowen's learning to develop a thick skin as a result, which can't be a bad thing at all. The bike definitely gets a ton of attention even when riding to and from the library.

The bike's ridiculously expensive, but it all seems worth it for the days when I ask Bowen whether he wants to drive to the library or bike. He says, "Bike of course! The library is so close!" Maybe one day he'll realize that most adults consider a 6 mile round trip a long way to bike. Recommended!

Monday, June 08, 2015

Review: Deep Navigation

Deep Navigation is a collection of Alastair Reynolds' short stories. His most recent novels have gotten very mixed reviews (plus are part of a trilogy that aren't complete yet), but this collection of short stories is excellent.

Many of them date from earlier in his career, which means that there's a lot of science, and there's relatively little character development. On the other hand, that's what I enjoy most about Alastair Reynold's fiction, so for me, it's a feature, not a bug. (Most of the criticism of his latest work is due to too much mucking about with characters and too little science)

Some of the greats for me include "Stroboscopic", a story about a board game based on some very alien biology. "Viper" explores the idea of using dream-like virtual reality to determine the psychological states of "reformed" criminals. "The Star Surgeon's Apprentice" is an unusual story about pirates in space, and "Fury" is an excellent robot story.

A look at the credits page explained to me why I've encountered none of these stories before: most of them are published in English (as in United Kingdom) magazines or anthologies, with only one story previously published in Asimov's Science Fiction. As a result, even if you are a big Reynolds fan and have subscription to the most popular American Science Fiction magazines you're unlikely to have encountered any in this collection.

If you've never read Reynolds before and have time for a novel, I would recommend starting with Revelation Space. But if you only have bite-sized chunks of time, this collection is a great start and will leave you hungry for more. It is priced well at $6.99.

Recommended.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Review: Robot Turtles

I was a kickstarter backer of the Robot Turtles board game way back when. I did it mostly to support a Googler, but also partly because the kickstarter promised to teach my toddler how to program. My understanding of toddler hood is that it's somewhere between 1 and 3. I'm guessing that Dan Shapiro's toddlers must have been very advanced,  because even at 2 years of age, Bowen didn't want to do much with the board game except spew the counters all over the floor. I gave up and put it away.

At age 3.5, Bowen now understands the concepts of games, and taking turns. The second time I presented it to him, he finally understood the game, and the idea that playing cards lets you move turtles. He also understands the goal is to move the turtles to a jewel. It took him a while to figure out that the turn left, turn right, and straight ahead cards are turtle-relative, rather than him relative. And he delights in crying out "BUG!".

In just a few days, he's gone from being challenged in getting the turtle to its destination on an empty board, to being able to negotiate a maze, deal with moving crates, and lasering ice walls. I don't go a day without him asking to play Robot Turtles with me, and he loves screaming "BUG!" to reverse a bad move.

I haven't managed to get him into the planning stage of the game, where you play 3 moves at once, and of course, that's necessary in order to get to the part of the game where you build subroutines. But given the amount of play Bowen's gotten out of it, suffice to say that it's been worth the $25 kickstarter price or the current $21 Amazon price.

The nit-picks are that the instructions refer to an online video to teach you how to play the game. That video is non-existent (Shapiro probably got bored trying to make it). It would be nice if the game came with sample mazes, etc. It's not a big deal that such refinements aren't there, but they're so obviously that it's disappointing that they're not.

Nevertheless, the game comes recommended.


Thursday, June 04, 2015

Review: Your Body in the World: Adapting to Your next Big Adventure

I'm not much of a classroom learner, preferring workshops and independent reading rather than the traditional classroom lecture + exam format. But when I saw the promo video for Stanford's Environmental Physiology 101 class, I was hooked. It seemed targeted almost entirely towards someone like me.

The courseware is surprisingly well done (this being my first MOOC, I was blissfully unaware of all the tech that goes into these sites). For instance, after you register and login, you can watch videos (hosted on YouTube), which you can tune the speed of (I watched them all at 125% speedup, to save time). If you're interrupted in the middle of a video (e.g., browser window crashed, or your toddler comes by and asks you to play Robot Turtles), the courseware remembers where you were, and puts you back in your last visited location. Even the video gets restarted from where you left off, which is awesome.

As to the content itself, it's great. The class goes first through both cold and heat, which gives you great practical tips on how to deal with such extremes. What really hooked me, however, was the section on aging as an environmental extreme. This module covered all the aspects of aging, and what goes on but more importantly, gives you practical, actionable changes you can apply to ameliorate or even partially reverse the effect of aging. (Spoiler: it's all about diet and exercise)

It's a truism of education that the people who most need a certain class are the people least likely to attend. It's no less true of EP101. In particular, the module on aging calls out how much more likely it is that petite women are likely to succumb to the most deleterious effects. Unfortunately, the way the promo video for this class is done, it's also least likely to attract that demographic I have very little hope that my wife or any number of my friends who fall into this category will sign up and audit this class, but in the slim chance that they do, they should jump straight to the section on aging.

For me, it was very motivational. I couldn't work through that section's videos without being scared into wanting to go out and exercise (and I'm no couch potato!).

My only criticism in the class is that it doesn't cover the ultra-marathons (RAAM) or extreme sleep deprivation events (anywhere from having a baby to doing any of the solo sailing races). But hey, the class is free! My other issue with the class is that the online discussion forum doesn't seem to get the attention of the instructor and her TA. Also, the review questions and exams are too easy. But maybe that's just an indictment of grade inflation found in modern instructional program.

In any case, as an introduction to MOOCs, and a survey of topics that are both fun and interesting, I thought this class was very much worth my time. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Review: Smart As (Vita)

Recently, my father's doctor told him to start doing some brain games as part of his recovery from stroke. I remember playing Smart As for a bit and that it fell into that category, so while visiting him, I let him have my Vita and play it. I had set up a Wii for him in his house prior to this, but the problem with a home console is that the effort for an older person to learn to turn it on, switch HDMI inputs, etc. was just too much. The Vita has a touch screen, and most of the games don't require any thing more complicated than touching the front or back touch pads on the device.

Well, Bowen saw the game, and immediately took to it, and now refers to Smart As as the "drawing letters game." Basically, he starts the game, switches to the language module, and then starts the spelling game! Since he hasn't actually learnt to spell, I'd tell him each letter as he needs it, and he'll draw the character. It's very cute, since every time we get to a letter that he can't draw, he'll shake his head and I'll pick up his finger and draw it for him. He's learnt how to draw a few more letters this way, with me guiding him.

The games are split into four categories: language, math, observation, and logic. Each mini game comes in multiple difficulty levels, and while the easy levels truly are easy (though some of the logic puzzles at easy difficulty are plenty hard!) as you work your way up the difficulty levels you end up
at incredibly fiendish levels, including words that I have trouble with!

The game has a "daily training" functionality, which basically tests a random game from each category and then comes up with a bogus "brain meter". It's fun, but the problem is that it's used to unlock various games in the other free play modes, so you're pretty much forced to wait before all the games get unlocked.

There's also a "street smarts" area where local (to your area) challenges are played and you can visit different places to get different challenges. I didn't explore this too much, but in my limited play the biggest problem is that the loading time is exceedingly long.

Regardless, if you have a Vita and a kid, this is one of those games you probably wouldn't mind seeing your kid play lots of. Recommended.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Garmin Live Tracking

The Vivoactive has a cool feature that I didn't realize about in my initial review.  It turns out that you can enable Live Tracking on it.

Why might you want to use Live Tracking? The most common use case is the "concerned spouse." You're going off on a solo bike ride to who knows where, and your spouse says, "What if something happens to you?" Your answer can then be, "I'll turn on Live Tracking. You'll get an e-mail with a link. That link will take you to a map showing where I am, what my progress has been, and that way you don't have to panic if I'm a little late." Another interesting use case is to stick a Live Tracking device on your free range kid while he runs off hiking/cycling/wandering the neighborhood. Of course, that means you'd have to hand him a Garmin-enabled cell phone as well, and he would still have the capability of turning it off. Note that you don't have to buy a dedicated device: you can pay for a subscription to Garmin Fit Android or iOS app instead.

Most of you who are Android users will probably remember when Google Latitude provided much of the same functionality, but nobody used it because (1) it was a massive privacy invasion (2) it was a battery suck. The fact that it requires an explicit e-mail invite and the user has to activate it eliminates (1), and that it depends mostly on your device's battery to power the GPS rather than the phone's makes it easier on (2).

Here's how it works. You go into the Garmin Connect app on your phone. Select "Live Tracking", enter the e-mail address of your concerned one, and then push the "start" button on the Vivoactive. The e-mail goes out immediately, and your progress is hence force updated via your phone's data plan.

There are a few obvious limitations to this. First, if you have no data access, the live track won't update.  That's not a big deal for cycling, since you will almost always have data in populated areas. It is a problem if you're going to go base jumping in Yosemite National Park. Secondly, it does impose a battery drain in that your phone has to update the live track. On my Xperia Z1, it looked like the drain is somewhere around 10% per hour: much less than if I was running GPS on my phone, but still significant, though it looks like my Vivoactive's 10 hour battery life will drain  in much less time than the phone's.

All in all, it's an interesting feature that I will probably make use.