Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: Lightroom 6

I actually upgraded to Lightroom 6 a while back, but waited until I did a couple of trips with large amounts of photography before writing a review to get a realistic view of what it does, and which features I turned out to use a lot, and which I thought I bought it for but didn't end up using.

I'd skipped Lightroom 5, mostly because it included zero features that I thought were useful to me. Lightroom 6, however, featured several features that I thought were potentially ground-breaking:
  • Photo-Merge: including merge to Panorama and merge to HDR. I hadn't been experimenting with HDR, but prior to Lightroom 6, I was using Microsoft ICE to stitch images. It got to the point where I used a pre-set to automatically export and merge using Microsoft ICE via the command-line. The benefit of Lightroom doing it all internally is that you end up with a RAW merged file, which means that you can use ND grad filters and other tools uniformly across the final image. This is huge! Suffice to say that I would have paid the upgrade price (albeit reduced because of an employee discount) just for this feature alone.
  • Face recognition. I gave up tagging all my kids photos manually because it was too much work. It'd be nice for this to be fully automated.
  • Performance. While my i7 920 is still faster than most machines out there (very impressive given its age --- but mostly an indictment of how laptops have taken over the world), I also have a high end GPU sitting in the machine that's just begging to be used. Lightroom 6 promised to make use of this otherwise idle silicon. More performance is always good!
So in practice, how did these features fare? Face recognition was an obvious bust. Turn it on, and let your machine chug for a day, and come back and discover it's still not done. The face-recognition software seems to be single-threaded, and doesn't make full use of the CPU or GPU.

GPU acceleration was also disappointing. First of all, it crashes a lot on the 7870. I finally found some article on the internet on how to configure the driver so Lightroom stopped crashing. However, I'm not sure I noticed any performance difference: I'm guessing my machine was already fast enough, and the acceleration didn't do much for the batch jobs I use (bulk-export, import of photos). Where I thought it might help a lot would be on my wife's Surface Pro, which didn't have quite enough CPU power so Lightroom was frequently laggy, but in practice, I didn't notice much difference there either.

Photo-Merge, however, paid for the upgrade all by itself. I found myself using it a lot, and even better, the UI is designed right. You select a few pictures and hit the Merge button. The machine chugs for a bit and delivers you a preview. If you like the preview, hit the "Merge" button, and the merge happens in the background, using spare cycles while you go on to do other editing tasks! This is pretty amazing. The resulting merged image was frequently too large for Facebook (not a surprise) and also taxed the Surface Pro to the limits when loaded into RAM. But that's what I want. The same image on my desktop took appreciably no extra time to load and was subject to all the manipulation I wanted.

There are other nits in the UI that have carried over from previous versions of Lightroom (for instance, when you shell out into Photoshop to do some editing, it creates a second copy of the picture but doesn't place it next to the original for easy selection/culling). But by and large, I'm happy with this upgrade. If you don't already use Lightroom, moreover, and you want to be a serious photographer, there's really no other tool out there that does what Lightroom does (believe me, I've looked). There's good reason why many photographers go to the trouble of building a machine just so Lightroom flies. It's too indispensable a part of a serious photographer's workflow to forgo. If you trouble yourself with any camera other than your smartphone, then you owe it yourself to spend a fraction of that camera's budget on software to get the most out of it. Recommended.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction. Nowhere else is it more (and better) illustrated than in this book, A Spy Among Friends. While I've never been able to make it past the first couple of chapters of Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I picked up this book and could not put it down until I finished it a day later. I abandoned all my other books, and even stopped playing Arkham Knight, which is as eminently playable (and addictive) a video game as I've encountered since Sleeping Dogs.

The book is about Kim Philby, probably the most successful spy of modern times. Infiltrating M.I.6 before World War 2, he became a well-regarded agent, and repeatedly promoted up the ranks until he became M.I.6's liaison with the CIA in Washington, and at one point was tipped to become the head of M.I.6! His contacts and betrayal of both secret services led to internal purges and damaged the trust between M.I.6, M.I.5, the CIA, and FBI, not to mention sending multiple agents into awaiting Russian Troops and counter-intelligence officers. While doing so, Philby managed to collect the OBE.

This all in itself would make an exciting story (though one you would have mostly read about in books such as Declare, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But Ben Macintyre places everything in context accurately, and is not afraid to draw conclusions and read between the lines of various memoirs, providing accurate quotes that back up his analysis.

We get a good understanding of how Philby was undetected for so long. Fundamentally, the old boys network worked in such a way that no one thought to consider someone who was so obviously English in upbringing and background could be a mole. At every point in Philby's indoctrination into the secret service, for instance, the only background checks were: "Do you know his family?"

Even worse, when evidence that Philby was a Soviet agent emerged (after two already-known spies defected without being apprehended by M.I.6 because of being tipped off by Philby), M.I.6's "young turks" (the group of agents with World War 2 experience who had been promoted into being section chiefs) closed ranks and defended Philby, with nobody slapping surveillance on him. Sure, Philby was ejected from the service for a time, but then later re-hired into Beirut by one of his old friends, Nicholas Elliott. In fact, when Philby was finally unmasked by evidence, Elliot volunteered to interrogate him, and deliberately left the door open so that Philby could escape to the Soviet Union. Macintyre suggests that this was deliberate, in order to avoid an embarrassing public trial in the UK demonstrating the incompetence of M.I.6 and discrediting the old boy's network, and reviewing the evidence that he provides, this does appear to be the case.

More than Philby's story, however, we get several little titbits here and there that loom larger than life. That scene in James Bond where James Bond arrives in a wet suit, strips it off and has a tuxedo underneath? That's real. (Ian Fleming did work for M.I.6 at some point) The high risks, high stakes missions? Those were a product of World War 2's influence on the Young Turks, where their successes made them feel like they could do no wrong, bypass controls and checks, and launch operations (many of which were exposed by Philby to the Russians) would backfire and fail repeatedly on larger and larger scales. Unlike Bond, however, these operations were never successful because the opponents knew what M.I.6 wanted to do and could prepare for their agents to arrive.

Reading this book makes you understand several things:
  • The glamorous James Bond and spy novels (even Le Carre's), have done an excellent job of white washing how incompetent M.I.6 and the CIA actually are. Repeated operational failures did not alert them to the possibility that their internal security was compromised. Until I read this book, I had no idea how badly run the agencies were, and how at every level at every agency employees resisted the idea that someone as charming as Philby could have been a double agent.
  • The old boys club approach to intelligence was a massive failure. Not only did it mean that people were recruited without extensive background checks, it also meant that once you were in, you had a clique of fellow agents who were so homogeneous that they would naturally blab to each other about everything, which effectively meant that even a single mole could do a huge amount of damage to the organization.
  • Not having effective oversight of intelligence agencies mean that even when mistakes are made, the spies themselves will lie or dissemble or even resort to giving high level double agents to the enemy in order to protect themselves and their organization. People who lie for a living are unlikely to give up the habit just because they've been discovered to have been wrong. That makes spying and intelligent agencies suspect. In fact, at one point Macintyre quotes an intelligence officer making the assessment that all operations in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, were in fact in the negative: M.I.6's cadre could have all sat on their collective bottoms and they would have been more effective!
All in all, this was an excellent read and very much worth your time. It'll also save you a ton of time from not having to read (or watch an adaptation of) John Le Carre. So grab it and dig in.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Curve of Time

Scarlet told me to read The Curve of Time after finding out about our trip to Desolation Sound. My local library didn't have a copy, so I was forced to buy a used paperback from Amazon.

The author, Muriel Blanchet was left a widow in 1927 in Victoria on Vancouver Island. She had 5 children and a 25' motor launch with an oar-powered dinghy. With that in hand, she became one of the first authors to write about the area around Desolation Sound and the Sunshine Coast in that era.

Apparently, most of the writings was intended for women's magazines, so her style is very short on details. She tosses out names of places in the area, but there are no maps, no charts, no illustrations. There aren't any recommendations: "Here's when you go, here are the local quirks" are apparently not of interest to readers of those magazines of that time.

As a result, I got about mid-way through the book before realizing that she wasn't a fully competent boat handler. She dragged anchor multiple times, several times requiring moving the boat in the middle of the night. And these aren't high wind conditions we're talking about. One might think that the anchors of those days might not have been as good, but later on in the book you realize that can't be so since on days when she'd used the anchor successfully, it was quite capable of holding the boat in the storm. And of course, motor boats are way easier to anchor than sailboats.

Of course, questionable decisions always make for better stories than "clear sailing and good weather." But her questionable decisions come early and often. From going camping at 6000 feet armed with only a blanket, to abandoning her kids on a beach in bear country to go fishing (though maybe if I had 5 kids I might be tempted to do that since I could afford to lose one or two), or climbing up above Princess Louisa Inlet with her children only to have the path behind her crumble down into the water, it's a demonstration of how resilient human beings are: apparently all of her children survived!

It's interesting with the passage of time to see all the things we are aware of now that we weren't back then. She thought killer whales were dangerous (they're not). She thought nothing of her son's concussion after he fell off a balcony (we know that's dangerous today). All throughout the book is breezy, almost cavalier about exploration and travel: at no point was she pressed for time, and she could have waited out any storms in the area in sheltered conditions as long as they had enough food.

Ms. Blanchet was obviously very resourceful: she fixes her own engine, fishes for dinner, and in several places rows the dinghy to tow the boat or kedge the anchor. The times when she does something that doesn't make sense (such as leaving a sheltered anchorage in the middle of a storm for no reason) leaves me scratching my head.

I'm not sure I would have gained much from the book by reading it before my trip. The book's of interest to those who'd like to see what the place was like back in the old days, and as an example of "Free Range Parenting" it's definitely worth reading. But other than that, I find it hard to recommend it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Why Nations Fail

Why Nations Fail tries to ask and answer several questions:

  • Why are certain nations rich or poor? Is it a matter of history?
  • Why do some nations stay poor, no matter what the World Bank, or the number of Live Aid events occur?
  • What are the ways nations that are previously poor can become rich?
Why Nations Fail espouses a theory as to how countries become wealthy and innovative. The idea is that such countries have inclusive/pluralistic political and economic institutions. Such institutions:
  • enforce property rights
  • make everyone equal under the law
  • prevent seizing of properties by government or its agents
  • prevent an elite minority from seizing institutions and operating the country or an economic resource for its own benefit and profit
  • forces groups of special interests to compromise and jealously guard against the possibility of usurpation of the institutions
Countries that are poor have extractive instituions. These institutions effectively allow an elite to effectively seize all the gains from the economic output of everyone else in the country. Furthermore, the extractive institutions are self-perpetuating, meaning that if a coup or revolution replaced the elite with another set of people, the new elites would be tempted to maintain the extractive institutions rather than replacing those institutions of more inclusive ones.

Most of the book illustrates this by recounting various histories, which include detailed histories and explanations of:
  • Why South American countries ended up with extractive instituions.
  • Why North America and Australia, despite being English colonies, ended up with relatively pluralistic institutions (the native population of both areas were too sparse to enslave, and indentured servitude was not possible when you can just run away and join the natives)
  • Why the southern (former-slave-owning) states in the USA caught up economically after the civil rights movement
  • How Botswana became an exception in Africa: having inclusive political and economic institutions and therefore having a great standard of living compared to its neighbors
Do I find these illustrations convincing? Sort of. Certainly the story is compelling. What I dislike about the social sciences, however, is that even with an over-arching theory like this one, the authors don't really generate any predictions that determine whether or not their theory is right. For instance, one theme that the authors kept repeating is that China's current growth is under an extractive regime, and they draw (appropriately) the parallels between China's growth and Russia's growth in the 1950s and 60s. (Remember, back then, even Western economists thought that the Communist states could have higher growth than the capitalistic states)

Rather than predict when that growth would slow, and that it would slow because extractive instituitions foil innovation (when anything you build can be taken away from you at any time, why work so hard), they do not provide a time frame. They write in wishy-washy terms, saying that they might be right, but the Chinese could (for whatever reason) build more pluralistic institutions. This is very unsatisfying.

Furthermore, the authors don't provide any prescriptions worth speaking of. None of this: "If you do this, this and this, you can break out of the extractive institution cycle and put your country onto a path towards prosperity and inclusiveness." They do do a good job of pointing out why development aid doesn't work, and neither does the Washington consensus prescriptions: If you don't root out the structural problems in a country, no amount of tinkering with economic policy will work. Finally, I don't think they did a good job of covering any of the Southeast Asian Tigers: Taiwan, Singapore, etc. The book covers Japan and Brazil, but Singapore and Taiwan to my mind started with authoritarian/absolutist regimes but managed to transition into first world class economies. While it could be argued that Taiwan is now a full fledged democracy with pluralist institutions, Singapore probably would not qualify.

Nevertheless, despite the flaws, the book is very much worth reading. If you think about it, they're taking a deep approach to historical and economic analysis that nobody else is doing. Previous analysis of poor countries have always left me thinking: "These people in charge of poor countries aren't stupid: they know that markets work, and that if you eliminate corruption people will be better off. So why are they still poor?" It turns out the answer is: "The people in charge aren't stupid: they know that by keeping their population poor and ignorant they can extract the fruits of their populations' labor and live like a king, even if it's bad in the long run for the country." That sort of incentive-based thinking is much more effective and explains, for instance, why companies that get big also become inefficient (and also incidentally become less innovative in the long run). After all, the typical person in a large organization is always going to what's best for him, rather than what's best for the organization.

Recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Carbide Tipped Pens

I'll admit that when it comes to science fiction, I like the really hard stuff. Alastair Reynolds, David Brin, Arthur C. Clarke, etc. So when I saw that Carbide Tipped Pens billed itself as an anthology of hard science fiction, I checked it out of the library.

Now, what hard science fiction writers don't usually excel at are characters. But in a short story, you're just not going to miss it. The best story in the book, however, is Eric Choi's "She Just Looks That Way", which is an excellent psychology-based story.

The rest of the stories are milder, maybe with some traditional science fiction problem-solving stories. There are a surprising number of pessimistic stories, which is unusual for the genre.

There are several stinkers all tucked in right at the end of the book. "The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars" annoyed the heck out of me: if I wanted to read Romeo and Juliet, I'll read the real thing, not a science-fiction precis/pastiche thing. If you do get a copy of this book, stop reading at the story and pretend that the book ended there and you'll mostly be happy with it.

4 bad stories out of 17 is a pretty good track record for any short story collection, so I'll recommend this, especially if you're after light reading or frequently get interrupted while reading. The elephant in the room, however, is that Tor has chosen to price this collection at an insane price ($13.49 paperback, $14.99 kindle, and $21 hard cover). That made me glad I checked it out of the library. I would have felt cheated at full price.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

I try my best not to re-read books. But somehow Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman made it into my kindle library (probably in an attempt to use up Amazon credits before they expired), and wow, what a great book.

What comes through with the book is how much fun Feynman had with his life, coupled with how much hard work he was willing to put in (starting from first principles) compared to other people in his life.

For instance, I love the story where before he went to Japan, he painstakingly learned Japanese, because that's what his department chair told him to do. Then he shows up there and discovers that nobody else learned Japanese, including the department chair! But because he had learned Japanese, he happily engaged in life there: negotiating a release from his Western-style hotel so that he could stay at a Ryokan, for instance. It's good fun, and it's great reading.

Another story from his book that resonated with me was when he got roped into being on a committee to evaluate California's Math textbooks. Well, nobody else on the committee bothered reading the books, but he did! So he ended up being the only person on the committee who could explain why certain books sucked and were wrong, and which books were at least not completely broken. I remember being on Google's intern conversion committee for an international office. Nathan York and I would end up being the only people on the committee digging into the source repository to see what the prospective employees were doing. In doing so we uncovered outrageous acts of intern abuse: interns assigned to demo projects (i.e., code that would have hard coded data in the program), interns assigned to pair program with each other so the mentor wouldn't actually supervise, teach, or actually do any work related to interns, etc. We were apparently the first people to actually try to verify that what intern supervisors said the interns were doing was actually the work that was done!

In any case, the degree of intellectual honesty and hard work that goes into what made Feynman the man he was comes through, despite the book's breezy tone and sense of humor that permeates the entire book. It's worth reading, and re-reading carefully. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

How parents become boring people

I noticed that families would tend to just do the same trips over and over again. For instance, when I spoke to Horizon Yacht Charters, they told me that most of their bookings worked this way: family charters a sailboat, does a perfect week or two in the BVI, get off the boat and then immediately book next year's trip.

Back then, I thought to myself, wow, I could never do that. I always want to see new places, do new things. Why would I do something that I've done over and over again?

Well, it's beginning to dawn on me that parents become boring people for good reason. Take for instance, my BVI trip last year. It was a challenging trip for many reasons: the boat's engines broke multiple times, and I had to dock on one engine multiple times. We got a line in the propeller, and had to deal with it for half a day. But it was never less than fun, and I was never stressed out. Why not? I knew the area. I knew where everything was in the Virgin Islands, and I was always convinced that we were safe, even when it got uncomfortable at times. Thanks to previous experience, I even knew which harbors had doctors, and where I could find that perfect little sandy cay where we could have an entire island all to ourselves for an entire morning.

Compare and contrast it with the Greece trip, or my recent British Columbia sailing trip. In Greece, I had to return the boat in 3-5' waves, in the dark, and with nearly everyone on the boat sea sick. In both cases, the problem was in not knowing the area well: if I'd had access to decent weather forecasts, I wouldn't have headed out to the Cyclades when we did, and if I'd had known what weather was like in the Desolation Sound, I wouldn't have bothered with a sailboat. Both of these places would have been serviceable destinations with prior experience and suitable equipment, but you wouldn't see me rushing to plan another Mediterranean sailing trip or another visit to Desolation Sound. Why? Both places have unpredictable weather. If I lived in Seattle or Vancouver, and I could just grab a boat and go when the weather was nice, I'd do it for Desolation Sound. But of course, during peak summer months, all the charter boats are booked up weeks if not months in advance, and during the rest of the year good luck getting weather clear enough to avoid winter storms.

The problem as well is that neither places feature the fantastic water clarity and amazing sailing facilities (consistent wind, great collection of mooring balls and anchorages, and amazing resorts) that the BVI provide. What about the rest of the Carribean? Having sailed in St. Vincent, St. Lucia and the Grenadines, I'd be enthusiastic for another visit to that area. The deterrents? Getting to those areas are really difficult, requiring a large number of transfers and ridiculously long flights. Until the vapor-ware St. Vincent International Airport opens (it's been delayed all the way from 2012 to 2015, and no one I know has any confidence that it will actually ever open this year or any other year), getting there with two pre-schoolers in tow wouldn't just exhaust bank accounts, it would exhaust the human limits of the parental units. Even after getting there, some of the sailing distances are long enough that you'd need to motor long distances or sail at night.

It's one thing to sign yourself up to a "death march", "death ride", or crazy wind conditions while trying to return a boat in nasty weather. Putting your 4 year old and your wife through those same conditions, however, feels like the next level of insanity, while putting your marriage at risk. You certainly don't want to be one of those people turning their kids (and wife) off away from the outdoor life because you didn't know how to make it comfortable for them. I largely succeeded in getting Bowen to enjoy camping (he cried and asked to go home first thing in the morning during his first camping trip), and I wouldn't want to undo any of that work!

Every time I try a different location for an adventurous vacation and trip, I feel like an idiot: here I am, lugging the entire family up there for the fabled 80F waters of Desolation Sound, only to arrive and discover that the 80F water is maybe an inch thick, and the place has weather inimical to actually sailing. This is not to say that we didn't have fun and it wasn't pretty, just that I felt stupid for trying something new when there are places on the planet that I know are superlative, where I'm so familiar with the area that I can do everything cheaply and cope with any situation with relative ease, and where I don't feel like an idiot.

So that's how parents become boring people. A few more times of getting punished for wanting to try something new, and I bet I'm going to end up like those people who get off the boat in Tortola and immediately book next year's vacation at exactly the same place, with exactly the same charter company, doing the exact same itinerary. It's not the end of the world, and it certainly beats the crap out of jumping to your death trying a new stunt that nobody else has done (at least he left his kids alive). But it does make one feel like a deathly boring person.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Writing Great Fiction

Every so often I get one of those Great Courses catalogs in the mail. The prices are usually tempting, but audiobooks aren't a great medium for me: I prefer reading (I can read many times faster than I can listen to someone talk). Finally, when a $6.95 deal came along for Writing Great Fiction, I decided that for the price I could give it a shot.

It took me close to 4 months to listen to the entire course, and I have to say that I'm impressed. I've long been the kind of person who understood a topic better by understanding the implementation, rather than being the kind of person who could understand the theory all by itself. For instance, I understood continuations better when I realized that it was simply allocating the activation record on the heap rather than on the stack.

Similarly, this course can be treated as a set of instructions for writing fiction, but I chose to treat it as a discourse on the implementation into fiction, which gives insight about how great fiction is constructed. For instance, I find "stream-of-consciousness" novels a complete bore and cannot bring myself to read more than a couple of pages of Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway, but James Hynes' analysis of the techniques behind those novels as well as why they're considered great made them completely comprehensible to me. (It also absolves any remaining need for me to read those books)

Similarly, he analyzes Anton Chekov's short stories, and uses examples from Alice Munro, J.R.R. Tolkein, Dashiell Hammett, Herman Melville, and James Ellroy to make various points about how to go about constructing a plot (and explains what the difference is between a character-driven story and a plot-driven story), writing dialogue, the use of first and third person narratives, and when to use narration versus painting a scene in detail. As with many college classes, he provides writing exercises at the end of each 30 minute lecture, in case you want to try your hand at some of the techniques he describes.

This is probably a great English literature class for those of you whose mind is like mine (i.e., prefers implementation over declaration/theory). I'm now even more sorry that my public University had so few spots in its creative writing courses that I was never able to snare one of the spots in those classes. While James Hynes might not be a great novelist (I never read any of his novels before starting this), he's a great instructor and quite capable of providing multiple examples for each techniques

The android Audible app (which I used to listen to all 12 hours of this course/audio book) is very well done. It remembers the state of your listening, and lets you resume precisely from where you left off at any point. I listened to this course on my android phone while hiking or doing other activities. It made a nice change from listening to music or NPR broadcasts.

Highly recommended, even for those of us who may never write a novel. This gives me more confidence to pick up one of those "Great Courses" at a good price the next time I find a deal.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers is Stephen King's literary thriller about crimes that come back to haunt us. The novel opens with a murder of a writer and the subsequent consequences, including the disposition of the murderer and his unpublished novels. The book then skips forward 20 years to a boy who finds buried treasure (which turns out of course to include the unpublished novels), what he does with the proceeds.

The plot is then complicated by the murderer getting out on parole (Stephen King does his research impeccably: his killer matches every profile described in Mindhunter), and wants to repossess what was formerly his. The boy and the murderer cross paths, and mayhem ensues.

I gather that this novel is part of a trilogy, but I didn't read any of the other parts and didn't mind at all. The series characters don't play a big part in the tension of the story, and they're introduced adequately with a few references to past events that sufficiently summarizes their trauma.

As with every Stephen King novel, it's impeccably readable, and at no point is the plot interrupted by useless details. It's a great summer read, and one I can recommend to anyone.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: The Rhesus Chart

My brother sent me a copy of The Rhesus Chart, because he saw my review of The Annihliation Score and thought that The Rhesus Chart was a much better novel that didn't deserve to be skipped. You know what, he's right. I shouldn't have skipped The Rhesus Chart.

The Rhesus Chart is the laundry series' take on vampires. Unlike the Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer novels, Stross depicts the vampires as blood-sucking investment bankers, which is far more appropriate than the usual depiction in literature.

The novel moves along at high speed once past the initial denouement and set up, and Stross is at his best when juxtaposing computer science with the occult. The integration of vampires with the laundry is fun in a typically British way, but Stross doesn't use the comedic potential as well as he could have.

The climax of the novel happens in the last 10% of the book, and worse, the most exciting part happens off-stage as it were. (My guess is that Stross tried to dramatize it and couldn't do it convincingly) Nevertheless a much more fun read than the following laundry book, though as other observers have stated, giving the protagonist so much power at the end of The Rhesus Chart probably meant that Stross had written himself into a corner as far as Bob Howard (the protagonist) is concerned.

Recommended.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: Woom 2 Child Bike

It's no secret that I'm a cycling enthusiast. A cycling enthusiast cares not just about his own cycling, but also whether his kids are going to enjoy cycling. The standard technique nowadays is to start with a balance bike. We started with a Strider, but in retrospect, the ones with air filled tires like the KaZAM would be recommended: lower rolling resistance is a big deal for a small kid.

As a result, it took us a while to motivate Bowen into playing with his strider, but by the time he was 3 and a half, he looked pretty competent with that thing. He was very close to the max seat height on the saddle, however, so it was time to get him a new (real bike).

I went with the WOOM 2 this time. There were several reasons for this choice:

  • I didn't want Bowen to have to start with a coaster brake. Have you seen adults struggling to start a bike by pawing the ground like an angry cow? You get that habit by learning to ride with coaster brakes, where you can't lift the pedal appropriately and push down on it in order to gain speed. The WOOM website lets you purchase a wheel with a freewheel attached instead of a coast brake.
  • The WOOM 2 has 2 hand brakes. Hand brakes are reliable ways to stop the bike no matter how long or steep a descent is. Coaster brakes aren't design for continuous difficult descents.
  • The bike is designed to be relatively light. Even so, at 15 pounds, the WOOM 2 is half Bowen's weight. If you weigh 132 pounds, that would be like riding a 66 pound bike. I do that all the time, but it's less fun than a 24 pound bike. Nevertheless, it's as light as I can manage without building a custom bike for a 3 year old, which would be prohibitively expensive.
  • The bike comes in a 14" wheel size. Bowen's currently right in between the 12" and the 16" wheel sizes, so 14" is appropriate, but otherwise difficult to find. A non-cycling family might simply buy a bigger bike so he would "grow into it.", but enthusiastic cyclists know that even a 1cm difference in adjustment in the wrong places can easily cause problems, and so if a 14" bike was appropriate, you wouldn't buy a 16" bike.
In addition to that, I added a kickstand to the order, since Bowen loved the kickstand on the quad. When the bike arrived, I discovered several things:
  • They forgot to gave me the coaster brake wheel, which was fine by me. They even pre-emptively gave me a $19 credit so the freewheeling kit turned out to be free.
  • They pre-installed the kickstand. This was nice.
  • They gave us a free bell, which Bowen loved.
  • The V-brakes are a major pain in the neck to adjust properly. I've long had an acrimonious relationship with V-brakes and cantilevers, and this bike did not endear me to them.
  • The bike came with solid axles and nuts and bolts instead of quick releases. This made it a major pain when I had to fix a flat tire, but replacing the nuts and bolts with quick releases would have been impractical because I'd have to replace the solid axle as well. This is not a bike designed to easily facilitate field repair, which was disappointing. After all, the kind of parent who'd order a $300 bike for a 3-4 year old isn't likely to be too dumb to use quick releases properly.
  • The bike is clearly over-built. Comparing the size of the tubes with those of my adult bikes, it's clear that it would take several generations of kids riding this bike before fatigue would be an issue. The bike will probably survive a few crashes at kid-friendly speed with no incident. There are several touches that had me scratching my head: there's a water bottle mount on the bottom of the down tube, but a bottle cage mounted there would probably interfere with steering. There are rack mounts on a bike that's so small that you couldn't find a rack that could mount there, and even if you did find one, there are no panniers that wouldn't interfere with pedaling. [Update: WOOM has informed me that in 2016 they will sell fenders that mount onto the rack mounts, which justifies the existence of those rack mounts. Racks will also be possible on the 16" and larger bikes]
Bowen loved the bike (it was his favorite color), but did not like the pedals. So I removed the pedals, and he scooted the bike over to the local middle school, whereupon I put him on a gentle incline, reinstalled the pedals, and had him roll down the incline to get started. Once he could put his legs on the pedals while the bike was moving, he quickly discovered that the pedals would let him move the bike without ever having to put his foot down. From then on, he never wanted the pedals off the bike again.

For a couple of days, he only ever wanted to start the bike on a descent, but we kept telling him: "Raise the right pedal, look straight ahead, push the pedal hard, and then you'll be moving." By Day 3-4, he was able to do U-turns, ride figure 8s, and (as long as we didn't tell him that's what he was doing) start on a slight uphill incline. We're still working on getting him to use the brakes, but at this point, he's pretty much riding a bike for as long as he likes without any trauma. (He fell a couple of times, but they were always low speed falls) By Day 6, he could ride to the middle school with me running interference in traffic and telling him to stop whenever a car drove by.

Having observed him throughout the learning process, I noted a few items:
  • The bike is easier to ride than other kids' bikes because of an unusually low bottom bracket. The bottom bracket is so low that Bowen regularly scrapes the pedals while riding on an unevenly canted surface. This is an appropriate trade off, but I judge it unlikely that the plastic pedals will survive more than a couple of years of such constant abuse. Be prepared to replace those pedals regularly. And yes, if you substituted clipless pedals for the plastic pedals they're less likely to scrape, but try as I might, I've yet to find SPD-compatible shoes that are Bowen's size.
  • The kick stand is too stiff for him to use independently. I frequently have to set or reset his kickstand for him. On the other hand, the quality of the kick stand is such that it'll never set itself on its own and cause a crash.
  • The single speed gear ratio makes it tougher to get started up hill, but does encourage him to spin the pedals if he wants a high speed. That's pretty good.
All in all, comparing how Bowen's doing against his friends and classmates, I'd say we made the right choice. Other kids his age who've graduated from balance bikes into bicycles with training wheels, for instance, have gotten so many bad habits that they found a two wheeler un-rideable. Since we have a second son who'll make use of this bike after Bowen out-grows it, we get to amortize the (expensive) bike over 2 children. Finally, I hope that the resale value will be decent, as it's likely that the prices of these bikes new would provide a sufficient price umbrella such that the used market wouldn't take a big hit. As such, while WOOM offers an upcycling membership that would reimburse 40% of the bike's cost when your kid grows out of this one, it's probably equivalent to you selling the same bike on Amazon, eBay, or Craigslist at 50% off.

All in all, if you have a 3-5 year old, I'd recommend the WOOM over other equivalents due to the above-mentioned reasons. We'll probably return for a WOOM 3 when Bowen outgrows this, unless some other manufacturer provides similar features for a better price while correcting the defects I alluded to above.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Arkham Knight

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Arkham Batman games. They're fun, and do a great job of simulating Batman. I was put off from buying Arkham Knight early, however, because the reviews indicated that the game included too much time with the Batmobile. But a price glitch at Bestbuy got me Arkham Knight at $16, so I grabbed it and started playing.

The game is beautiful. When I first booted up Arkham Asylum a few years ago, it looked so good that I was shocked. (That's what happens when you don't play video games for a while) Strangely enough, Arkham City didn't impress me as much: my expectations had already been reset, and I sit way too close to the monitor for the graphics on my relatively weak GPU to impress me.

Arkham Knight, however, was written for the latest generation of consoles (so much so that the PC version had major launch issues and had been pulled from the shelves until the end of October), and it looks gorgeous. The first fight I had as Batman felt fast, fluid, and responsive. In fact, the game didn't even so much as hiccup until near the end, where driving the Batmobile would cause framerate slow downs. I didn't know how much of this was due to the game having been running continuously for days (using suspend and resume) while I finished it. The sound design isn't just beautiful, it's fully integrated into the game. For instance, one of the markers for a side quest is guided by Opera music. With 5.1 surround sound, where the music comes from tells you where the side quest can be found. The game makes full use of surround sound and benefits greatly from it.

With 3 previous Arkham console games before it, Arkham Knight does away with lengthy tutorials and dumps you right into the action. I won't say much about the plot, except to mention that I'm enough of a rube that the identity of the Arkham Knight did surprise me despite the heavy hinting and foreshadowing of his identity. The story itself is well-written: we explore Batman's psyche, history, and his relationships with the Gordons, the previous Robins (Nightwing makes an appearance and the banter between Wayne and Grayson is great to listen to), and of course, the villains of the piece. What's impressive about this game is that not only does it use all the background the comics (and previous games) provide, it's also not afraid to make massive changes to the milieu, creating its own story and give you surprises before tying it off with its own stamp on how the Batman story ends. If you played this game (like I did) with the expectation that they'll stick to canon and not make any changes, you'll be surprised on many occasions, and they'll be pleasant surprises. You find yourself thinking: "Of course! Those two characters were always going to hookup." But of course, that never happened in other versions of the Batman story!

The game play itself is excellent. One of my complaints about Batman cartoons and comics is that the villains always get to ramble on and on while Batman seems to do nothing. Well, in one of the first scenes of the game, a villain rambles while you remote control the Batmobile to come and blast the bejesus out of the villain in the middle of his speech. The game doesn't even prompt you to execute this piece fun and expects you to figure out that you can do this.

The detective mode brings back the best feature of Arkham Origins: the crime scene reconstruction and evidence scanner. Not only does it really make you feel like the Dark Knight Detective, the game's smart enough to use it sparingly: only one side quest really makes use of it, and the main storyline only does it once.

The Batmobile, while fun at first, does grate a bit. There's something wrong with a Batman game in which you have to race the Batmobile. The Batmobile also turns into a tank for battles, which would itself be a fun game, but after 10 hours or so you do get pretty tired of yet another tank fight, though there are variations that make it interesting. You end up spending most of your upgrade points on the Batmobile not because you like it, but because you'd like to finish the tank fights faster so you can spend more time being Batman. If not for the excessive use of the Batmobile, this game would be highly recommended. Of the new Batman features, the one I like the most is when you get to fight with a sidekick, and get to execute team take downs. Great fun, and I wish there were more of those!

Overall, the worst aspect of the game is the amount of padding stuck into it. While Arkham Asylum had no padding, and Arkham City felt long but didn't have required side quests, Arkham Knight has side quests galore (I finished 5 of them and still weren't close to done when I arrived at the main storyline ending), and many of them are just tedious repetition. Your primary motivation for going through these side quests is that they provide additional upgrade points for Batman. Once you've upgraded Batman sufficiently to clear the game, the content itself isn't sufficiently attractive to clean up, especially in the case of the Riddler. Clearly a case where AAA game makers feel like they have to "provide more content" at the cost of story coherency or variety.

Nevertheless, Arkham Knight is as well designed as games go. The puzzles aren't unfair, and the graphics and sound are gorgeous. Well worth the time. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: The Martian

The Martian, as everybody knows, is the science fiction novel about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars, and what he does to survive. It's been made into a movie (by Ridley Scott), but if you have 2 kids, you don't really have time to run out and watch a movie, but books can be read in drips and spots where you have time, so I checked it out (digitally) on the Kindle from the library.

The first part of the book read like Robinson Crusoe in space. Out of all the pieces of equipment left to him from his expedition, Mark Watney has to learn to grow food, and create enough rations to survive. Things, however, get a heck of a lot more fun (and exciting) once he scavenges one of the pathfinder probes and resumes contact with NASA. The project to rescue Watney and the coordination between Earth, Watney, and the ship in interplanetary space portrays a heroic effort with many people pitching in. Unlike many depictions of government agencies, NASA here is competent, filled with intelligent people, and makes effective, meaningful decisions.

The Martian's also a great illustration of how important story is. Weir does not write in fancy language, there are no multiple threads of narrative weaving together, and the entire story is written in linear fashion almost completely from the beginning to end. Yes, there are obvious places where he switches from first to third person, but those were essential. There are a few places where the accidents and setbacks that face Watney feel almost contrived, but I can forgive that: the book is interesting, provides lots of science, and is in the best tradition of science fiction. It's the story of an engineer who solves problems as they come up, and despite bad luck, survives via ingenuity.

The technical details are great. I'm normally a nit-picker, but I can't pick any technical holes in the plot or story.

An excellent read, and I doubt that the movie will be anywhere as good or detailed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

British Columbia by boat: Tips, Conclusions, and Brief Equipment Reviews

It is indicative of how superlative my experiences are in the Alps and Caribbean that whenever I do comparable trips, the inevitable question I ask myself is: "Why am I not cycling in the Alps instead?" or "Why am I not sailing in the British Virgin Islands/Caribbean instead?" In most cases, the answer comes up short: I'd never chose most locations over corresponding trips in those places instead.

Unfortunately, British Columbia's coast (including Desolation Sound) falls into this category. First of all, the reports of warm water is overblown: 74F water might feel like 80F if you've grown up in the Pacific Northwest or live in the area, but compared to the Carribbean's crystal clear waters and temperature, it's not even close. What's not overblown is the stunning natural beauty of the area: snowy peaks that come all the way down to the sea, Fjords that are the rival of any place in the world.

Set against that are the physical properties of the area: distances are long point to point, and tidal currents and heights make it challenging sailing. Worse, from a sailor's point of view: in summer when weather is finest, the winds are light and there's not much sailing to be had. In poor weather when you have wind, you're in a hurry to get from one sheltered area to another, so motoring is preferred over sailing, unless the wind's blowing exactly where you want to go. To wit: British Columbia is a motor-boating destination, not really a sailing destination. The other problem is that there's limited things to do on land in the area: there's limited hiking trails and the terrain is too rugged for bush-whacking to be appealing. On the other hand, if you're a peak bagger, that means that there's plenty of first-ascents ready for you: the combination of boating skills and climbing skills seem to be rare enough that many of the peaks in the area have never been climbed!

Having said that, the area's pretty enough that like Yosemite, is probably worth a visit. Here are my best tips for exploring the area:

  • Charter a motorboat, not a sailboat. If you get a sailboat, be warned that you'll spend most of your time motoring. It'll be unsatisfying, and to top it off the sailboat's much harder to anchor and stern tie than a motorboat with twin engines.
  • Charter out of Powell River or Comox. Both places have motorboat charters that are ideal for exploring Desolation Sound.
  • The ideal time should be a week. In peak season, the anchorages are very very crowded. Be prepared to stern tie with an anchor most of the time. Be prepared to find favorite spots captured by folks who have the time to spend multiple days in one location.
For exploring the sunshine coast, a combination of car and boat is best:
  • Rent a car for about 4 days from Vancouver, and drive North using the Ferry system to get to Egmont or other places with charter motorboats
  • Rent a high power motorboat (top speed of at least 25 knots) and use that to explore Jervis Inlet and Princess Louisa Inlet. Use the boat to camp out at nice places. Return the boat and get back to the car for more exploration or return to Vancouver.
Would I do the trip again? I wouldn't say never, but my guess is you'd have to flatter me or bribe me by into organizing another trip in the Pacific Northwest again. The sailing isn't really good enough, and the swimming/diving in cold water isn't really appealing enough. Given free boat and lodging I might do it, but I'd rather be in the Caribbean.

The following equipment gave excellent performance during the trip:
Not so performant:
  • Sony Xperia Z1 (US Edition) When I got a replacement phone after the original one died, they gave me a US phone which doesn't pick up all the signals in Canada. This left me without data most of the time.

Monday, October 12, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 14: Seattle

The bus ride back to Seattle was uneventful. Being a veteran of the area, I showed my family the Pike Place Market, then signed up for Beneath The Ground, the Underground Tour competitor that's sprung up since I did the tour last. I sent Xiaoqin's aunt and uncle up the Space Needle, while Xiaoqin had dinner with her classmates.

The flight the next day was also uneventful: we took the bus to the train connection, and used the train to access the SeaTac Airport.

An hour after we'd arrived at San Jose Airport, I was hauling suitcases from the bus towards my house in the afternoon sun. I normally dislike afternoon heat in Sunnyvale, but after a week of freezing rain and wind, it felt good.

Friday, October 09, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 13: Vancouver

We took our time getting going today. Along the way back to Earl's Cove, we stopped at several harbors that we might have wanted to visit on the trip. In the dismal weather, none of them looked appealing. Just drab and down-trodden. The day before, the tour pilot had said that at the height of the storm in Egmont, even the harbor was seeing 3-foot waves, and there were water-spouts going up the inlet. This made us feel quite a lot better at having abandoned the Stray Cat to do a luxury tour by powerboat instead.

On the ferry, we said goodbye to Bowen Island, and then made our way to Grouse Mountain to see if there was good weather to be had. But one look at the weather cam convinced us to keep our money firmly in our pockets, and we made it over to the Vancouver Maritime museum instead, which had beautiful historic boats parked outside, as well as the St. Roch inside.
After that, it was time for the breaking of the fellowship, as we all went our separate ways (Arturo had another trip to embark on, while Larry was planning to fly back after another day or so in Vancouver). We had time to visit the Vancouver Outlook to watch the sunset, and then had to settle in for an early morning bus back to Seattle the next day.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 12: Egmont

Everything went well as planned for a change, and we all piled into Arturo's van for a drive to Horseshoe Bay. The traffic was pretty bad, but it wasn't so horrendous that it derailed our ferry crossing. We grabbed lunch at Earl's Cove at a generic Korean/Japanese place that provided generous portions at a fair price, and then drove relentlessly towards Egmont, where we arrived at the marina just minutes before the boat arrived from the previous excursion up to the Princess Louisa Inlet.
If any excursion was custom-designed to provide evidence of my contention that the Sunshine Coast and Desolation Sound was motor-boat country, the Sunshine Coast Tours of the Princess Louisa Inlet is it. When Arturo and I planned our assault on the Inlet, we carefully read tide-tables (yes, multiple of them, as you had to consult multiple sources in order to derive proper timing) and painstakingly measured and re-measured distances so as to plan to arrive at the Malibu Rapids in time for slack-tide so our 7-knot maximum engine power would be able to traverse the rapids. With a motor-boat, not only was the all-day journey condensed into an hour, there was absolutely no consideration needed whatsoever given to the tides for Malibu Rapids: with a top speed of 30 knots, the excursion's powerboat could easily overpower any tide and make the traverse not only safely, but also without the need to coordinate with other traffic that may also have needed to use the slack-tide period in order to enter or exit the Princess Louisa Inlet.


The excursion was exceedingly well-designed, with stops to admire the pictographs on cliff-sides, some seals/sea lions, and the pilot was exceedingly well-versed in the history of the area. This was a nice and relaxed way to see the Inlet, with the disadvantage that we couldn't camp out at the Inlet. But given the cold weather and wind, we were happy not to have to camp out at all.

The Princess Louisa Inlet was written up in the books to be "The Most Beautiful Fjord In The World". By now we were very skeptical of the marketing literature written about the area. For instance, "The Sunshine Coast" has proven to have anything but Sunshine, and of course, the water temperatures might have only ever reached 80F for 1cm of the surface of any of the lakes or inlets of Desolation Sound. However, Arturo, who'd been to many Fjords in Norway and Chile, confirmed that it was indeed one of the top 5 Fjords in the world, and better than any Fjord he'd seen in Finland. The park was small, and the hike short, but it was definitely jaw-droppingly pretty. I wouldn't make any visit out to see it again, but there's a lot to be said for seeing it at least once, while you're in the area.

By the time we made it back to the car it was nearly dark, and we had to roust the inn-keeper out from behind the "store closed" sign at the inn in order to get our keys, but at least we had a full-on kitchen and unlimited hot water to shower in.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 11: Vancouver

I woke up late around 8:00am, and as was my wont after long boat journeys, still feeling as though I was swaying and shaking in bed. A cup of coffee and breakfast soon woke me up, however, and by 10:00am, we were out on the city's buses, ready to explore Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium.
The highlight of the Vancouver Aquarium was the Beluga show, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the 4D show depicting life in the age of dinosaurs. The rest of the exhibits were also very well done. I was impressed and happy to be indoors while it was raining outside.

We then made our way over to Queen Anne park, where the conservatory and the gardens were impressive. The day ended with all of us at the Shanghai River restaurant in Richmond, where the Peking Duck and other dishes were all well-priced and delicious. We made plans to check out of the hotel the next day, and Arturo managed to get a great deal on a huge car that would take us over the ferry to Egmont.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 10: Vancouver

I woke up multiple times in the night, because the wind was blowing so hard that the Stray Cat, though tied to a marina, was listing and yawing as though it wanted to blow away. I wasn't alone, it turned out: I found out later that Arturo had to get up in the middle of the night to pull the flag pole out of the stern of the boat because it was making a noise like a wind turbine and was about to fly off.

With the lack of sleep and the on-going howling wind, I checked the forecast at 4:45am, and sure enough it had changed: gone was the window for moving the boat. The forecast indicated that the wind might die down in the afternoon and become manageable some time late the next day. Our plans for Princess Louisa Inlet was shredded by the wind. Furthermore, the adventure had turned from fun to annoying: I couldn't ask my wife, 3 year old, and her relatives to put up with 6 hours of moving the boat into the Jervis Inlet, and even once there, one look at the position of Saltery Bay on the map indicated that it would provide no protection from this wind. I didn't know the area well, and a call to Cooper Boating indicated that nobody knew what the conditions were like in Egmont.

I called Cooper Boating and asked them if I could return the boat right then, or if they could provide a delivery skipper who would help us move the boat while I flew the rest of my family to Vancouver so they could wait out the storm. At this point I had no confidence in the Canadian forecasting service that fine weather would even return by Thursday. I'd shaken enough trees by the time I was done that Danielle called back and said she'd arrange for a delivery captain to pick up the boat where we were, and we could all fly to Vancouver (on our dime, of course). I checked with both Arturo and Larry, and they were also in concurrence with this plan, as opposed to trying to stick out the rest of the charter.

I was pretty sure I could still deliver the boat safely to Vancouver (having delivered in much worse conditions in Greece), but it wouldn't be fun, and we would be basically spending 3 days motoring against the wind, beating ourselves up for no reason whatsoever. We hurriedly made flight and hotel arrangements in Vancouver, and then packed up and said goodbye to Stray Cat. I was very depressed, feeling as though I'd abandoned a trip (the last time I did so was during the 2005 Tour of the Alps). But it would have been unconscionable to subject the rest of the non-sailors to this.

Arturo found a way to do the Princess Louisa Inlet, but in my sleep-deprived befuddled state I gave him wrong dates. Fortunately, a hurried phone call in Vancouver indicated that the company was willing to accommodate us on  a different day, so we would still manage to see Chatterbox falls after all.

It took all of 35 minutes to fly to Vancouver's South Terminal, and another 40 minutes to make it to L'Hermitage in Vancouver, a thoroughly well-appointed hotel. That night, I slept for 11 hours, which indicated that the decision to abandon the trip was the right one: while I had believed at that time that I could deliver the boat, in sleep-deprived states you frequently think you can do things that you actually cannot, and my repeated mistakes that day could easily have been a harbinger of a much bigger disaster if I'd insisted on driving the boat further.

Monday, October 05, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 9: Beach Garden Marina

The predicted calm window showed up and we promptly left, alongside several other motor-boats. We got out of the harbor and deployed the main sail, only to promptly find it flapping in the wind! The main needed to be threaded through a jig in order to retain its tension and be self-furling. After 15 minutes, Arturo and Larry figured out whats what, and began the heroic job of threading the mainsail through the jig and then raising the main. Unfurling the jib then gave us sail power.

It was great to be sailing, but there was one ominous sign that I should have paid far more attention to than I did. Nobody else was sailing. Everyone was heading south at speed, and everyone had their engines on. At the time, I had every reason to believe that the next day would grant us another similar window. But nevertheless, I should probably have abandoned sailing and motor'd south at maximum speed.

As it was, it was thrilling to sail at full power in a 20 knot wind, despite not making much headway since we had to keep tacking. After a couple of hours, we were back near Savary island, but the wind had picked up, forcing us to put in a reef. Xiaoqin's aunt started looking green as the water got choppy. We had expected the tide to work with us, pushing us south at a good speed, but what had happened instead was that the south wind was fighting the receding tide, creating choppy water which didn't help us make any kind of progress.
Recognizing defeat, we furled the sails, started up the engines, and after a half hour of motoring into the wind made our way to Beach Garden marina, lured by the guidebook's promise of a swimming pool, untimed showers that didn't require coins, and safe harbor. We refueled at the marina before putting in on a slip, and then checked in.

The hotel looked pretty run-down and ramshackle, and there weren't very many people about. We made it just before brunch buffett was shut down at the restaurant, and had a filling breakfast. Then we talked to the hotel manager who said that the hotel was $3 for unlimited swimming and showers, but we had to be escorted by an employee who would unlock the pool/shower building for us. To minimize hassle, we went for a walk first, which yielded wild blackberries that were delicious. The walk took us to the local supermarket where we stocked up a bit on supplies before making our way back to the boat and hotel for the swimming pool.

The swimming pool was a tiny 14 foot affair, but was still big enough to do laps on. I did so, and then with Arturo's help, moved Bowen back into the boat as he was quite unhappy about everyone else being able to swim but him.

Arturo and I planned the rest of the trip: we'd use the window to move us into Egmont, which looked reasonably sheltered, spend a day moving up the inlet to Princess Louisa Inlet, and then the next day back. It looked like it would then be a long tough day returning the boat via motor, but the weather was forecasted to be calm by then, so we anticipated no problems. We looked into a day tour that would eliminate all that motoring, but they were all booked up for the days when we would be there, and we had the time, so why not.

We went to bed with full stomachs and strong confidence that we could do this, fully supported by the forecast from the Canadian weather service.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

British Columbia by Boat Trip Index

We recently toured British Columbia by boat, but a storm came in the middle of the trip and aborted the sailboat part of the trip. This is the collected trip index for the entire trip.

I have abandoned Google Photos for OneDrive photos for public photos. Not only doees OneDrive provide more free storage (200GB+ for me), it's storage management capabilities aren't opaque, and there's no chance of my using up so much quota that I end up being unable to receive mission-critical e-mails.


Friday, October 02, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 8: Lund

We woke up to howling wind and impending rain, as judged by the clouds on the horizon. I looked at the weather and then told everyone else to go back to sleep: I had no intention of moving the boat in weather like this. I was further vindicated as I amusedly observed a monohull leave the port, and then 10 minutes later immediately limp back to its space in the slip: while being tied to the breakwater must have been very uncomfortable, it was probably even worse out in the channel.

We observed kayakers coming into the harbor. Our first impression was: "Wow, those Canadians are tough." When we went down to the dock to see them, however, it was very clear: these were folks on a multi-day kayak tour escaping from a storm, not people who had voluntarily gone out in this weather that very morning. "We were going to be out for another day, but took a look at the weather forecast and paddled the heck out of the islands to get back a day early," said one very cold and soggy kayaker to me.

Thus it was that I declared the day laundry day. We hiked near the area, helped Bowen buy art supplies, did laundry, bought supplies from the delightful bakery in town, and had a very boring day. That night (Saturday night) was to be the worst of it, and in my experience there's usually a window the next day which might let us move the boat and do some sailing.

We decided to abandon going North back to desolation sound and head south towards the Louisa Inlet instead, if the opportunity arose. We plotted out several possible stops the next day, but I said I'd be OK if all we did was to make it South to Westview.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

British Columbia by boat Day 7: Lund

We had a debate in the morning about whether to move the boat. While the night had been windy, it wasn't rough, indicating that Tenedos Bay was an excellent location. On the other hand, if we wanted to move the boat, all indications was that tomorrow would be a horrible day to do it, while the morning looked like it was going to clear. The problem with Tenedos bay was that we'd exhausted everything you could do there, while at Laura Cove or Melanie Cove, it looked like we could hike and swim.
After breakfast, however, the blue skies came and we decided to move the boat so that we'd be in Laura Cove at low tide. Piloting the boat out into Desolation sound, we congratulated ourselves on making the right call as it looked gorgeous! The scenery was moving, but as we moved into Prideux harbor, our optimism about spots opening up diminished. Piloting into Laura Cove, I was dismayed to find that despite all assurances that the place had quieted down, there was not a single place where I'd be satisfied to anchor at, given the big blow that I knew was coming: I did not want to settle for anything less than a secure anchorage.

We settled for Prideux harbor, right inside the entrance. There was little wind protection, but enough swinging room that I could drop anchor with 200' of rode! When it comes to anchoring, more rode is better, especially in tidal waters, and I felt good about this decision.

After lunch, we took the dinghy out and used it to explore Melanie Cove (also very crowded), and planned to swim in the lagoon between the coves. At low tide, we could see all the Oysters bedded along the tidal flow, and tried to think of ways of plucking the oysters. I got into my swimming trunks and waded in the water, which was cooler than the Unwin lake. After it got deep enough, I plunged in and swam onto the opposite shore, where the water was warmer (maybe 76F) but no less shallow. It wasn't a very pleasing swim. I had just started swimming back when I heard Bowen crying.

"We're going to have to drive into the harbor and get a doctor," said Arturo. "What? How about calling on the VHF to see if there's already a doctor within the area?" I said. "Great idea!"
We went back to the Stray Cat, and after I looked at the wound it was obvious that it needed stitches. I got onto the VHF and radio'd my question, and immediately the Canadian Coast Guard responded! After some discussion, they called me on my cell phone, and we had a conference call with the emergency services, where they ascertained our location, and got a team out to the Westview harbor where the Coast Guard would ferry the paramedics out to us. The plan was to get Bowen and Xiaoqin out to the Powell River hospital while we would then follow in the Stray Cat.

It was a tense hour waiting for the coast guard boat, but they arrived in good time, identified us, and tied up along us with professionalism and speed born of practice. They didn't even examine Bowen's wound, and just shuffled him and Xiaoqin aboard the high speed rescue vessel. We asked their advice on how to follow and they suggested Lund. While Bliss Landing might have slip space for us, they emphasized that it was a dirt road connection to Powell River, which would not be comfortable or cheap from Powell River.
With tension and impatience, we weighed anchor and drove out of our precious parking space. Arturo noted that the anchor came up with pounds of mud, indicating that we had dug in well and good and would have been very secure. For the first time but not the last, I kicked myself for not getting a fast motorboat instead of a sailing catamaran, which was turning out to be a ridiculously unsuitable charter for the area.

The trip to Lund was easy, and the water was surprisingly flat given the weather. Upon arrival at Lund, we discovered the public dock was full, leaving only the breakwater floating slips available to us late arrivals. Not only would it be uncomfortable, it would require ferrying Xiaoqin and Bowen in the dinghy. We opted for the hotel dock, and it turned out they had room for us. It was a tight docking maneuver, but the couple in the home-made boat a couple of spaces ahead of us moved a dinghy to fit us in better. They even turned out to be from Bowen Island!

By the time we were docked and paid up, Xiaoqin had called and said that Bowen's stitches were all done! She had to buy some medical supplies but would soon be on a taxi over to Lund. That was a relief, and gave us permission to take pictures at the "End of Highway 101" marker, and have a scrumptious dinner over looking the beautiful sunset at Lund. We even sprang for the fried snickers bar dessert, which was every bit as decadent as you might imagine.
After dinner, Xiaoqin showed up with Bowen and a bunch of bandages and medical supplies, and the crew of the Stray Cat was united once more, if a little bit exhausted and tense by the emergency. We had started the morning making decisions based on the possibility of being bored while at Tenedos Bay, but at that moment we all wished we'd had a bit more boredom and a little less excitement!