Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book in the witcher series, but the first novel. The previous 2 books were essentially series of short stories. This novel, however, cannot possibly stand alone, so it looks like the author went from writing short stories to launching an epic fantasy series.

Things to like: the sequence where series learns magic from Yennefer is a delight. Intimate, small scale, yet detailed and evocative. It's quiet, without the silliness often found in Harry Potter or modern notions of schooling and how it should work. The training of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea is better, but not nearly as intimate.

Things to dislike: the politics feels cut and pasted together, and the world doesn't seem real. (This is in contrast to the computer RPG, which feels much more real than any other virtual world depicted) Geralt doesn't seem to do very much.

I'd pass on this but since it does provide excellent background for the computer RPG, you'll enjoy it if you're enjoying the RPG.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: Sword of Destiny

I was playing The Witcher 3 on the PS4, It's an exceedingly good RPG (and I'd actually avoided RPGs in recent years as they tend to be massive time sucks --- a holiday sale caught me and for a change I'm really glad I broke my rule about RPGs!), and has sucked up all the play time on the PS4 as a result. But in one of the side quests, I ran across a seeming anachronism, and found myself wondering if it was there in the source material.

Since the material's drawn from the novels, I went and re-read The Last Wish, and then went on to Sword of Destiny. Sword of Destiny wasn't available in English until recently, as since it was touted as the missing book between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves, I'd elected to stop reading the series as a silent protest to the publisher for doing something stupid. It's a collection of novellas, and does provide background as to many of the characters in the game.

And yes, the book does exhibit some of the anachronisms displayed in the game, so the source material is indeed faithfully reflected in the game. The world depicted in the novels is perhaps similar to the ones depicted in Tolkein, except with a heavy dose of cynicism. That's not a bad thing, as the author (translated from Polish) clearly can't write in the high language of Tolkein, but has a good voice for depicting battles, and has world-weary attitude in his characters that makes a fun contrast.

Is it as good as Tolkein? No. But it does provide a good contrast, and provides a fun read in short spurts. Recommended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Wormhole

Wormhole is the last book of the Rho Agenda trilogy. Like the Saturday morning cartoons it's modeled after, it's a novel with 3 teen heroes who try to save the world. The storyline's simple and straightforward, but at this point with 2 books worth of escalation, the heroes are practically demi-gods, and unfortunately, this means that there's never any sense of credible threats to what they can do, even after they've been captured. In fact, the novel even goes as far as to acknowledge that in the thoughts of one of the supporting characters.

The ending is predictable, setting up for a sequel series. It does its best to not damage or eliminate any of the threats, and leaves as many doors as possible, despite some of the options available being more intriguing than the route the author took.

Set your expectations accordingly, and you'll enjoy this book as a little romp through Saturday morning fantasy land. Otherwise, I'd give it a pass.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: Focus - The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Focus is, ironically enough, a singularly unfocused book. I checked it out of the library because I thought it would cover the mechanical aspects of how focus works on the brain. Instead, it's a rambling treatise covering (via second hand), various topics from concentration to head-start, to systems thinking, leadership, and global climate change.

Goleman cherry picks examples to illustrates his points, ignoring all the nasty little details that pretty much contradicts what he says. This is particularly annoying, especially when he loves to name drop big companies like Apple and Google. He swallows the information he's given from both of those companies with zero skepticism whatsoever, claiming therefore, that Apple invented the GUI. This is English major style journalism at its worst.

Not recommended. I listened to this as an audio book, and kept going in hopes of a pay off eventually, and the only pay off I got was when the book ended and I didn't have to listen to any more of this drivel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New thoughts on gearing

For years, I resisted switching from 8-speeds to 9-speeds. I wasn't willing to upgrade until 9-speeds had become reliable (early 9-speed chains were nasty: Lisa and I not only broke a chain on a shift, but tore off pieces of the aluminum chain ring as well). With the arrival of the triplet, however, I was forced to switch to 10-speeds. Not that more speeds ever did much for me as a tourist: unlike a racer, I didn't need little jumps between gears, and friction shifting was more than adeqaute for me, even on 9-speed drive-trains.

Having recently gotten back into mountain biking, however, I'm seeing that I should have kept track of drive train evolution in the mountain bike business rather than looking at road offerings. Unlike road bikes (and like tandems and touring cyclists), mountain bikes frequently shift under load, have to put up with dirty conditions, and need strong wheels, so evolution there has direct applicability to those of us who don't race. Even better, mountain bikers regularly climb super steep stuff, and so need very low gears that only tourists tend to use.

The most significant change in the mountain bike drive train has been the introduction of 2x10 or 2x11 gearing. What's happened there is that with the introduction of wide range (11-36 or 10-42) cassettes, mountain bikes no longer need triple chain rings in order to have a good range of gears. Going from a triple to a double is huge! Your front derailleur no longer has to do as much work, you no longer risk chain suck (I've torn off more than one front derailleur due to chain suck).

The typical mountain bike would use a 22x34 or 24x38 front chain ring coupled with a 11-36 rear cassette. (10-42 cassettes exceed $100, and are typically paired with a single 30t chain ring). This grants you a lower gear than the traditional 24x34 touring drive train, while granting a 93 inch high gear, which is more than adequate when touring. Not only does losing the 3rd chain ring reduce shifting headaches, you also lose weight on the bike. You also gain the ability to use double chain ring indexed shifting (via STI, for instance) if you are so inclined. The double chain ring STI setups are much more reliable than the triple setups, and also don't have issues with trimming. The only downside I can think of is durability: smaller chain rings will wear faster. In practice, replacing chain rings every 3 years instead of every 5 is no big deal.

The 1x11 drive train, by contrast only grants a middling lower gear and has only an 81 inch high gear, which isn't adequate for touring. In fact, even for just mountain biking it probably isn't practical either, unless you're very strong or it's combined with a very light bike. I tried it during my Santa Cruz factory demo, and it was barely usable then, but it wouldn't be sufficient for any of the seriously painful climbs that I'd want to ride without making my knees hurt.

In short, if your existing touring bike drive train works, there's no need to switch, but when building a new touring bike or replacing a drive train, the new mountain bike drive trains are a much better fit than the road components traditionally used on touring bikes. As 10-42 cassettes drop in price, the new double chain ring mountain bike setups offer the same wide range gearing as the older triple setups, with lower weight and more reliability. There's no reason to ever consider a triple chain ring setup for road touring again.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: Pirate Hunters

I picked up Pirate Hunters as an audio book because it was listed as one of the "best of the year" on Audible. I wish I'd read the book prior to a recent visit to the Dominican Republic, as it would have added color to an otherwise lackluster trip.

The book revolves around around two divers, John Chatterton and John Mattera, who got a charter from Tracy Bowden to hunter for the Golden Fleece, a ship captained by Joseph Bannister, a pirate from the golden age of piracy. Both men are famous divers and poured much of their own money into the search.

The book covers not only the search for the Golden Fleece, but also the backgrounds of the men involved, as well as providing details on who Joseph Bannister was, why he was important (he stole the Golden Fleece twice, and fought off 2 British navy ships in Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic). Against this backdrop, there's also the threat of UNESCO potentially succeeding in convincing the Dominican Republic's government to ban treasure hunting and recall the lease rights Bowden has.

The story of the search for the Golden Fleece is great. If you're an avid diver (I'm not), the story of searching for a lost pirate ship is pretty cool, as well as the technology involved. What's even better if you're an avid consumer of fantasy literature, the hunt is a lot like the stories in those fantasy novels, except better: Mattera spends a lot of time flying to obscure libraries and the Spanish national archives, digging through old documents in an effort to nail down where the Golden Fleece actually is. When he actually finds it in a surprising location (hidden in plain view), the narrative hits a climax.

Unfortunately, a ton of the book is filler: there's an unusually vivid and viscereal description of shipboard surgery which felt unnecessary and bloody.

Ultimately, the fate of the Golden Fleece has become embroiled in lawsuits. It turns out that treasure hunters aren't very true to their word, and the dispute puts a very sour note at the end of the book. What's worse, the author, Robert Kurson, makes it very clear that every time Mattera and Chatterton told Bowden to authorize a search in the correct location, Bowden obstinately refused to listen to them and told them to go back to searching in the wrong place.

Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable book, and I'd recommend it. I heard it as an audio book, but I think that this is one of those books that's particularly bad as an audio book: when dealing with names, period literature, and location, while the audio production is undoubtedly accurate and easy to listen to, the fact that you can't glean the spelling of the place names easily from the audio edition means that further research and reading is made especially difficult. Pass on the audio book edition and read the text yourself.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Review: My Beloved World

My Beloved World is Sonia Sotomayor's memoir. Sotomayor was the first Hispanic (and 3rd woman) ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and while I was aware of the politics behind her appointment, I couldn't pass up the chance to read a memoir on her career and path.

I always knew that Supreme Court justices had to be pretty well-qualified, and of course as a minority and woman, that meant that she had to be better than any of the men to be selected. But the book's made me even more impressed. For instance, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 8, and because her parents fought over who would give her shots, she just gave herself her insulin shots.

Born of Puerto Rico parents, she grew up in relative poverty (though I would note that her parents sent both their children to private school, at great sacrifice, whereas an Asian parent doing so would probably be castigated as being "tiger parents"), but despite those disadvantages, graduated with distinction from her school. She was one of the first affirmative action students at Princeton, and she candidly informs us about the jealousy she encountered when other students who had better results were told that they were less likely than she was to get into the Ivies.

She's just as candid when it comes to her first year at Princeton: she found herself under-prepared compared to her classmates when it came to writing, and had to make it up by working harder than anyone else while being subject to a work-study program. All that hard work paid off, however, when she graduated at the top of her class. Even then, being the first in your family to attend college puts you at a severe disadvantage when it comes to navigating the college system:
Felice now looked more embarrassed than ever as she tried to explain that Phi Beta Kappa was totally legitimate. More than legitimate, in fact: an honor of such prestige that she insisted I had to accept the membership even if she had to pay for it. (Loc. 2600-2602)
 But in many other ways, her background also led her to a career path that others of more privilege would have eschewed. For instance, she started off as an assistant DA, whereas the typical career path would be more likely a corporate counsel, or climbing the ladder at a private law firm. To her mind, the amount of money she made as even an assistant DA was so high that it didn't matter that it was the lowest paid of her options. Note that she didn't do this blind: she knew that judges were drawn from people who'd had a combination of public service and private success, so after she'd made her mark as a DA she went for a prestigious private firm and made partner there in a few short years as well.  But it also shows the importance of not getting used to a luxurious life-style when your sights are aimed in a direction of public service.

I was surprised by how little attention she paid to finances. Even as a partner in a private law firm she still had to get help to buy a home. Regardless, obviously the story turned out very well for her in the end.

In the end, I enjoyed her discussion on affirmative action, and her observations on the difference between someone getting in on affirmative action and the privileged entries as being huge, though bridgeable through hard work, good luck, and a willingness to ignore others' rudeness. She does acknowledge that in many such programs the failure rates are as high as 50%, but does point out (quite rightly) that while she might have gotten in on affirmative action, the rest of her achievements could not have been acquired without the huge amount of sacrifice and hard work. Her perspective on this alone makes the book well worth reading.

If you like to make fun of lawyers, she might also change your mind: her perspective is that the law is what structures human society, and is the way you affect human society at scale (as a technologist, I beg to differ, but I can see her point of view). Eliminating inequity, etc., is all achievable by law, and if you have a bleak view of her profession, you can also see how it can also be considered public service.

I also appreciated her candor about diabetes, and health issues. (She admits to being a nicotine addict, and it took her two tries to quit) The memoir also reads easily and doesn't plod. Recommended.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Review: Soldner-X 2: Final Prototype (PS Vita)

I doubt if my son will ever look fondly back at the side-scrolling shooter as a genre. I didn't think I looked back at that genre fondly, but then one look at Soldner-X 2, and I thought back upon R-type, Scrambler, etc, and of course had to pick it up during a sale for about $3.

The best thing about this genre of games is that even though they were considered high intensity games in that era, with modern hardware, this type of game fits easily on something like the PS Vita. The Vita can throw up as many sprites as the game designer can dream of, and still treat the game as though it was merely doing word-processing: the machine doesn't even overheat, and you can play the game through on one battery charge!

On an arcade machine, games like these are basically quarter-eaters, so designed to throw tons of sprites at you and then eat up your lives and force you to dump another quarter into it. On a portable console with infinite credits, and a well-set difficulty setting, you can feel like you're a great player without spending quarters. To make up for this, the game gives you ratings, A to F for each level, depending on your performance. In addition, you can pick up secret keys to unlock levels, or participate in the PvP challenges to climb the leaderboard.

The game is fast, running at 60fps, and frequently will overload your ability to keep track of objects on the screen. In fact, it's incredibly overwhelming. Nevertheless, the ship you pilot is maneuverable enough and the patterns easily detected, so it's not too bad.

I'd say I got my $3 worth. It's not Resogun, but it doesn't overstay its welcome, which makes it well worth the time spent. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Little Boys Are So Sensitive

In most human cultures, the males of the species are supposed to be tough. But of course, little kids, including boys, just aren't that way. Bowen keeps reminding me of that day after day. Now, most of the time, he is a pretty tough guy. I once watched him ride into a pit and crash with the bike falling on top of him. He cried for 10 seconds and then got right back on his bike and kept going.

5 days after his hernia surgery, the doctor told him he could ride a bike again. He was still limping and walking funny, though he'd been off painkillers for a few days. Immediately that morning, he told me to pick him up from school by bike. That it came as a surprise to his classmates was apparent when I came to pick him up: once they saw me in my helmet and riding shoes, they collectively said, "bike again?"

Over the Christmas break we decided to show him Inside Out. Earlier in the year, he'd met Rosana "Rosie" Sullivan, who was one of the artists at Pixar. Rosie (Rosie actually worked on The Good Dinosaur, not Inside Out) made an impression on him, so when we asked if he wanted to see Rosie's movie, we weren't surprised when he said "yes!"

What surprised the heck out of me, however, was that 30 minutes into the movie, he said, "I'm too scared. I don't want to continue watching Rosie's movie." Note that this wasn't his first movie. He'd already watched all 3 Toy Story movies, Frozen, Kung Fu Panda, Nausicaa and Totoro. To my mind, Nausicaa has scenes that are more scary (or sad) than what's in Inside Out, but for whatever reason, the situations and events in Inside Out were real to him, whereas perhaps it was clear that Frozen and Totoro are fantasies. He was so scared that he couldn't sleep alone, and had to move into Xiaoqin and my bed at midnight so he could sleep.

The next day, he said, "When I'm older Rosie's movie won't be too scary for me. Maybe when I'm 46, I'll like to watch the movie." (Yes, I'm 46, and my son never fails to remind me how old I am)

In any case, I don't remember being so sensitive as a kid. I only ever got nightmares when I was taken to a real horror movie (goodness knows what my parents were thinking when they took us to one --- we all had nightmares for weeks). But maybe we're all that way as kids and you only get less sensitive after you get inducted into the horrors of a formal education system.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Review: Until Dawn (PS4)

Until Dawn is that rarest of games: under-hyped, under-promised, and over-delivered. Here are the following checkmarks against it:

  • It belongs in the long reviled point-and-click adventure story, which telltale games has refined into a money-grabbing art-form, such that you can get one of those games in whatever popular media storyline at a very low cost ($10 at most) and get a shallow, unchallenging experience that's over in about 10 hours or so. Sony had the gall to ask $60 for Until Dawn. Over the holidays it got discounted to $20, but that's still twice the price of the typical game of this genre.
  • It's a teen-slasher horror movie, which is as full of cliches as you can imagine. Known for stereotyped characters, gore-fests, and stupidity, you can't get dumber than this. I haven't bothered watching any of those movies in years, and couldn't get excited about watching another one of these.
  • It's got QTE (Quick-Time Events) up the wazoo. That game mechanic is rightly reviled, and in most linear narrative games, simply just force a reload.
Well, if you own a PS4, you need to put this game on your "buy" or "rent" list. It's worth every minute of its 9-10 hour run-time, and it defiantly won me over despite my skepticism.

First of all, the game and story is anything but shallow. Just like Heavy Rain, it's a multi-branching storyline with multiple characters, where even if one character dies the game continues and the story changes as a result. The game therefore does away with save/restore features. As a result, all the decisions you make are binding, and many have ramifications much further on down. For instance, your decision might affect the relationship between the two characters, which could in turn lead to a character's death much later on. The game illustrates this through a "butterfly effect" screen, which shows the cause and effect between those decisions.

The cast is huge, and the game switches between multiple viewpoints, giving you multiple player characters. It does the trick of cutting away from a scene during high tension to switch you to another perspective elsewhere, which gives the game a very cinematic experience. What's great, however, is that since you're driving a character, you do get a chance to change the characters, making them vengeful or forgiving and playing them however you like. The characters also do develop during the course of the game, which is unusual.

What's really outstanding, however is the plot. You are given clues as you go along and you can deduce what's going to happen from the plot. But even if you don't succeed in guessing, as the game progresses and plot points are revealed, the clues are updated so you're clued-in, even if you failed to put the pieces together or find all the clues. At the very least, I enjoyed the plot and didn't find it very cliched.

The QTEs are fair, as was surprisingly the rest of the game. In places where I got characters killed I can look back and see that I was provided appropriate clues and just failed to acted on them. In any case, at the end of the game you're allowed to go back and replay sections of it to see if you can change the outcome. But even if you don't, you'll feel that you had a great experience. In particular, the twitch portions of the game frequently give you a chance to recover even if you made a mistake, and so just serve to ratchet up the tension rather than just giving you dumb hoops to leap through.

Technically, the game is outstanding, with great lighting, cinematography, and voice acting (though a few characters were over-acted).

This is what interactive fiction should be like, and even if you dislike the genre (which I did), you should give this a play. Needless to say, the game comes highly recommended.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Review: Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science

Being Human is quite unlike any audio course/audio book I've heard. Rather than a deep dive into a scientific topic, it's a mish-mash, eclectic selection of topics that have drawn Robert Sapolsky's interest over the years.

What a trip it is. From considerations as to why diabetes is far more prevalent from immigrant populations to the Western world to cultural concerns over human remains, to why we grow averse to novelty in middle age, the topics are interesting, unique, and Sapolsky always approaches these thoughts with a scientist's mind.

Each lecture is short: about 30 minutes each, and each has some interesting actionable components to it that you can take to improve your life. In particular, the last lecture, "Sushi and Middle Age" explains why Elite Scientists Hold Back Science: if you wish not to ossify and become stale in your thinking, you need to change the domain of your research every so often. This goes double if you've achieved some prominence!

My one complaint about this course is Prof. Sapolsky's voice: he has a particularly sibilant S, so in sentences with a lot of that consonant, it can feel like your phone/car stereo/CD player/MP3 player, you might sometimes think that you've suddenly reverted back to the days of cassette tapes.

But the essays? They're great. Well worth the listen. Recommended.