Monday, November 30, 2015

First Impressions: Sensi UP500W WiFi Programmable Thermostat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Little Big Planet 3 (PS 4)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Triplet Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Mind Dimensions Books 0, 1, 2

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Santa Cruz Factory Demo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips:

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Hi-Float Balloon Treatment

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Games of the Year 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

First Impressions, Motorola Moto G (3rd Generation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Books of the Year 2015

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Sigma Sport BC5.12 Bike Computer

I decided that it would be fun to stick a bike computer on Bowen's bike. GPS units are now so cheap you can get the Pyle Bike Computer for $60. I was seriously tempted to pick that up, but on second thought decided that I had enough devices to charge as it was, and a child's bike computer only exists for fun value (and so I can actually check on things like chain wear at appropriate service intervals), so the $15 Sigma Sport BC5.12 it is!

The device showed up, and being familiar with previous models, I wired it up and had the magnet ready to go. To my surprise, the wheel size on the manual didn't go all the way down to the 14" wheels on Bowen's bike, so I had to manually measure the circumference of the bike and convert to mm to enter the data. I was also surprised that the battery on the device was dead, but fortunately I have a stash of the CR2032 batteries sitting around, so I just popped a new one in (yes, I popped the old one in and out just in case the device had gone into "deep sleep", but nope, it was dead as a door nail) and the bike computer was in business. Sigma estimates the battery life of these things to be in the 1 year range, but in my experience, I've never worn out a battery before some other accidental damage took out the wiring of the device.

Bowen was excited to try it and immediately took it out for a ride. My first thoughts was that I'd made a horrible horrible mistake installing the bike computer on his bike. He paid so much attention to it that he almost hit a stationary car! My constant yelling at him eventually got through to him, however, and he stopped paying much attention to the bike computer after that. Now it's just a fun thing for him to look at when he stops, though on occasion, he'll decide he wants to see how fast he can get going and really let her rip so he can see the numbers go up. Fortunately, I can still run fast enough to keep up and grab him if he gets in trouble, and intervals are supposed to be good for you, right? (For what it's worth, his top speed's somewhere around 10mph, which is a full on sprint for me)

So, the device works, and seems reliable. But the wisdom of putting it on a 4 year old's bike is questionable. I wouldn't do it unless you're confident you can keep up with the kid. Fortunately, his recent crashes (not the fault of the computer) have made Bowen quite a bit more cautious when cycling than I expected.

Recommended. But yes, you need to roll a wisdom check before you put it on a kid's bike.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: The Second Ship

The Second Ship is the first book in The Rho Agenda trilogy. Given that it's in the Prime Lending Library, it was no effort for me to checkout the book and start reading.

Overall, the book reminds me of decent Saturday morning kids series cartoons. 3 teenagers while exploring find an alien ship, and while exploring the ship, discover super-powers and a nefarious government plot headed by an evil scientist. Along the way, they encounter super-villains, love interests, NSA agents (who are for a change not immediately bad guys), and of course, evil high school teachers.

The science, such as it exists in the book, is plausible, and not immediately insanely stupid, as long as you squint a bit and suspend your disbelief on account that this is basically a Saturday morning cartoon novel.

Fun, but I wouldn't pay money for the book. If you're already a prime member, just check it out from the prime lending library.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Misunderstandings

A few funny misunderstandings between Bowen and I this summer.

At the end of the summer holidays, I was worried that Bowen wouldn't want to go back to school. (I needn't have worried, but the sight of kids crying in the school parking lot when I dropped him off during summer school put the fear into me) I told him the night before: "You can go the hard way, with me dragging you screaming and kicking into the car, or you can go the easy way." The next morning, he woke up, got himself ready, and said, "I'm ready to go to school the easy way --- on the bike!" He thought I was telling him that the car was the hard way and cycling to school was the easy way.

By the end of the summer, all the outdoor activities we'd been doing had me pretty tan. One day, Bowen said to me, "Daddy, why are you brown?" "Because of all the time I spent in the sun. I don't always wear sunscreen, either." "I want to be white!" I did a double-take. "I want to be white like mommy!" "Oh, you mean you want to be pale. OK, you can wear sunscreen and not spend too much time in the sun." For a minute I thought he didn't want to be Asian. Phew!

Friday, November 06, 2015

Review: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

After reading the magnificent A Spy Among Friends, I checked out Double Cross from the library, hoping for repeated success. I was disappointed.

This is not to say that it's not a good story. The problem is that it's not comparable in importance to the story behind Bletchley Park (referred to as "Most Secret" throughout the book). Essentially, the book describes the operation (known as Operation Fortitude) to fool Hitler and his command staff that the attack on Normandy on D-Day was a distraction for bigger invasions in Norway and to the South.

To feed fake intelligence into the German military, the M.I.5 created a bunch of double agents, and was so successful that it essentially controlled every German agent that the Nazis had sought to place in the country. So effective was this system that not only did the Germans fall for Operation Fortitude, they actively funded the double agents who were feeding them misinformation.

While all this was important, mid way through the book what you realize is that M.I.5 could not have even attempted a deception with this magnitude without the constant feedback provided by Bletchley Park. Essentially, M.I.5 could see the information it had fed into the system pass through the German chain of command, and map out how effective the deception was.

Furthermore, later on in the book we see that the reason for this incompetence wasn't that M.I.5 was all that great, it was because the Nazi intelligence service was filled with people who were lining their pockets and siphoning money from the German agents. In the end, you get a story full of the essentials of James Bond: seduction, gambling, lots of liquors, and even parachuting behind enemy lines. But none of it would have been possible without Bletchey Park.

It's a fun read, but ultimately I felt empty at the end of the book.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

I don't usually review movies on this blog, but I'll make an exception for Ex Machina, a delightful science fiction movie about AI written and directed by Alex Garland.

Let's face it, most science fiction movies are summer block busters: the goal of the movie is to provide spectacle, and not move the viewer or engage the mind. Ex Machina, however, aims to do both, which places it in a special category indeed.

The story revolves around Caleb, who's a programmer for the world's most popular search engine. He wins a lottery to visit the founder of the company in his secluded home, which turns out to be a research facility where he (Nathan) is working on a strong AI. Caleb discovers that his true purpose is to determine if Nathan has succeeded in his creation. (The movie uses the phrase Turing test, but in reality, the way it's administered is completely wrong --- but I'll forgive this movie the technical error, since it's quite clear that both Nathan and Caleb understand what the real Turing test was, and why they're approaching it differently)

I won't go into the details of the plot: it's excellent, and well worth your time to watch the movie. There are just a couple of plot holes in the movie, but the story is told well enough, and the outcome unpredictable enough, that these plot holes only become apparent after you're done ruminating over the show and have thought about it enough. Most of the technical conversation and language, however, is correct and plausible.

The movie is slow: there aren't any action set pieces, just lots of people (and an AI) talking. The special effects are restrained and under-stated, and the outdoor scenes are shot in Norway, which renders it unfamiliar enough to me that it looked different from the usual North American shot movies. And if you're a busy parent, Ex Machina is great because it's a 108 minute story, not one of those 3 hour epics that make it impossible for you to watch in one sitting. That said, Ex Machina is rated R for violence and nudity.

I didn't hear a lot of hype about the movie (wikipedia says it was shot for $15M and made $36M in the box office). As such, you've probably not heard of it, but if you're a science fiction fan (or perhaps, if you've worked for the world's most popular search engine), give it a shot.

One note: The movie's available in SD or HD on Amazon Instant Video. I picked the HD version (which streams in 720p), but to be honest, there's very little in the movie that depends on HD. Unfortunately, most of my movie viewing in recent months has been in Blu Ray at optimal viewing distance, which meant that Amazon's 720p stream looked disturbingly like SD to me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Review: The Last Child in The Woods

I really wanted to like The Last Child in The Woods. I grew up in Singapore, in a city where door-to-door inspections have eliminated the Anopheles mosquito. Growing up, we hated visiting Malaysia, where mosquitoes were still prevalent and would make us itch. Our Malaysian cousins had all sorts of bite marks and nasty stuff on their legs, and we had no desire to become like them. My first camping experience as a kid was so unloved by me that I never considered camping again until I was in my twenties. I only became an outdoors person when recreational hiking and commuting cycling brought me into contact with so much natural beauty that I said to myself, "There must be more out there." Once I realized that as an adult I could plan my own trips around what I liked rather than being dictated to like a child, my enjoyment of the outdoors increased a million fold.

The Last Child in The Woods is about nature-deficit disorder. It's an entirely made up syndrome, and the author admits as much. After all, lots of children (especially those from Asia) grow up without any appreciable contact with nature (much like myself), but when given the opportunity as adults, do learn to enjoy the outdoors. The author cites many studies that demonstrate the calming effect of nature exposure to children with varying disorders (such as ADD), but then extrapolates that to include healthy, normal children. This is questionable and there's not a shred of evidence in the book to lead to that conclusion!

Then I ran across this passage:
One might argue that a computer, with its near-infinite coding possibilities, is history’s deepest box of loose parts. But binary code, made of two parts—1 and 0—has its limits. Nature, which excites all the senses, remains the richest source of loose parts. (Kindle Loc: 1261-63)
I don't know if Richard Louv could have destroyed his credibility or demonstrated his ignorance more.

This is a pity, as I agree with much of his complaints about American society and its approach to play and nature. For instance:
Typical Americans spend 101 minutes in their car daily, five times the amount of time they spend exercising. They also take fewer vacation days and work harder than the Japanese or Europeans. (Kindle Loc 1705-6)
I deplore the disappearance of see-saws from American playgrounds because of liability lawsuits. I definitely think that most American cities have little character and definitely aren't as livable as the European cities I've visited. I certainly agree with many of his prescriptions for building a more liveable, green, and environmentally friendly city, where kids get to build tree houses, and children falling out of those said tree houses and breaking body parts wouldn't cause multiple lawsuits and a media frenzy.

The reality, however, is that parents, if they truly cared about the issue, have a lot of control over what trips they take their kids on, and how they portray recreation with their children. For instance, I visited the Montebello OSP Backpack Camp expecting Bowen to be the youngest kid there. He was instead the oldest, with several 1-year olds who were ferried into the campground by dads on Mountain Bikes. I certainly do my best to take Bowen on trips where driving isn't the primary mode of transport as much as possible. There's tons of evidence that building aerobic capacity also improves intelligence and performance in school activities, so this sort of thing isn't even contradictory to being a tiger parent, if that's what you're after.

But Richard Louv chooses instead to wring his hands over declining membership in the Sierra Club, and the graying of hairs and reduction of outdoors activities in the Boy/Girl Scout organizations. The Sierra Club, especially the Loma Prieta Chapter here in Silicon Valley, is famous for fighting against Mountain Bike access to trails, so it's not a surprise that the later, more cycling-friendly generation of outdoors people no longer consider them a friend, but find other ways to express their environmentalism and love of the outdoors. And the less said about the Boy Scout organization's reputation, the better.

All in all, I'm very disappointed in the book. If you're an outdoorsy dad trying to convince your wife that all this hiking/camping/cycling/sailing is good for your kids, the evidence in this book is thin and unconvincing even to me, let alone your wife. If you're looking for help in advocating for more greenery in urban spaces, the book undermines its own credibility in enough places that I'd be leery of citing it if I were faced with determined opposition. I hope the outdoors advocacy literature has people who have more coherent arguments than Richard Louv. But in the end, maybe it doesn't matter: the last time Bowen took friends with him camping, they all became fans of camping, so he's not going to be the last child in the woods.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

ANT+ vs BTLE

I had no idea that ANT+ vs BTLE was politically charged until I continually ran across people online who were "anything but Garmin", mostly because of BTLE support. Since I'd always been a Garmin user, I never even gave the issue much thought.

Garmin owns ANT+ by virtue of buying Dynastream Innovations, which organized the ANT+ Alliance. Apple, of course, has many engineers on the steering committee for BTLE. What this means is that even though Apple's hardware contains ANT+ compatible antennas, Apple will never support ANT+. (Interestingly enough most Sony phones actually support ANT+, since Sony doesn't care enough to disable the support) Similarly, even though many Garmin devices use an SOC that support BTLE, Garmin deliberately only enables bluetooth for phone connections.

In practice, what this means is that you're committed to ANT+ if:

  • You have sunk thousands of dollars into ANT+ power meters. (newer power meters will also presumably support BTLE)
  • You have plenty of legacy ANT+ hardware that still works (e.g., old Garmin computers, watches, etc)
  • There's an ANT+ sensor you care about that doesn't have a corresponding BTLE version. (e.g., the inertia-based speed/cadence sensor, which are miles better than the magnet-based versions)
  • You have a need for a single transmitter going to multiple head-units, which is something that BTLE doesn't currently support. (BTLE currently only supports Star network topologies, so only one head unit per slave)
The last use case is actually a big deal for me, since I have a triplet/quad which will at some point have multiple head units connected to the wheel sensor.

In practice, I've found that unless you're a casual cyclist, the battery life of a smartphone is such that any serious bike ride would rule out using a phone as your primary head unit (not to mention the lack of water-proofing on the phones). The question is whether Garmin will continue to own the serious athlete market or whether the anything-but-garmin crowd will win.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Review: Year's Best SF 10

I checked out Year's Best SF 10 froom the library prior to a trip, but read it mostly because all the stories in it were new to me. The first three stories, Sergeant Chip, First Commandment and Burning Day were outstanding, but then to my dismay the rest of the collection started wandering into fantasy instead of science fiction (though James Stoddard's The Battle of York was delightful). Then Ken Liu's The Algorithms for Love (爱的算finally provided some good reading, and the last few stories by Robert Reed, Neal Asher, and Brenda Cooper rounded out the collection with some excellent reading.

The collection isn't a waste of time, but I found myself skimming through quite a few lackluster stories or stories out of genre. Worth checking out of the library before a flight, but not worth going out of your way to buy or find.