Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Radical Candor

Radical Candor is an ex-Googler's book about management. Kim Scott was the manager for Adsense's sales team, and grew the team for several years before joining Apple and then working with Twitter and Dropbox. That gives her resume great credibility.

She's not afraid to illustrate the number one rule to getting ahead in big corporations: know the senior boss personally (in this case Sheryl Sandberg), and have her support you no matter how you screw up. After she joined Google (immediately as a manager, by the way --- she didn't have to work there as a leaf node), she managed to piss off enough of her team to lose several team members to transfers and departures. She writes:
The great thing about working at Google was that the company gave me a chance to fix my mistake. My boss explained exactly what I’d done wrong—and then let me hire people to replace those I’d lost. I was able to bring several people who’d worked for me at Juice to Google. (Kindle Loc. 1558)
Sounds kinda like she got rewarded for pissing off  and demoralizing her existing team, doesn't it? In my experience, that was par for the course at large corporations, so don't hold it against her.

In any case, the book is actually a good one.  Her thesis is that everything in management starts from relationships. Fundamentally, you have to have great relations with your team, to the point where when you provide negative feedback, they see it as being helpful, rather than becoming defensive or quitting. The tools she provides in the book to do so are labeled "Radical Candor." Her example is that if you see someone with their fly down, you should call it out instead of ignoring it and not giving them a chance to correct it. The same applies to verbal tics, annoyances, and of course, poor performance on the job. The book covers many such examples.

One of the best points of the book is that you need both "Rock Stars" and "Super Stars." The idea is that "Rock Stars" are high performers who are satisfied with their role, while "Super Stars" are constantly looking for the next challenge who will leave if you don't move them up quickly enough. This initially sounded to me like she was encouraging you to pigeon hole your employees but fortunately she mentions that the whole point of relationship building with your team is that you understand what phase of life she's in, and what she expects out of her work. She points out that because it is human nature to over-worship "Super Stars", you shouldn't actually make a big deal out of promotions:
Announcing promotions breeds unhealthy competition for the wrong things: documentation of status rather than development of skill. (Kindle Loc. 3656)
Note: Google isn't a great example: promotions were always a big deal, at least in engineering. Similarly, I'll note that Twitter had a singularly poor engineering culture, so her constant use of Dick Costolo as being a great manager kinda lost points with me rather than being the great examples she intended. Of course, Costolo himself might or might not have been responsible for Twitter's poor engineering culture, but bear in mind that her book's probably not intended to apply to engineering management.

With all that in mind, I enjoyed the book. Everything she writes about 1:1s, skip reporting, and management by walking around rings true. The emphasis on asking for feedback in order to model desired behavior (you want every employee to be constantly asking for feedback in order to improve) is first rate. The book's readable and full of specific examples and case studies.

My biggest criticism of the book is that Scott's ego-centricism means that she barely references prior work and doesn't even mention classics of management literature (I suspect that this means that she never read them!). But that in itself is not enough for me to avoid recommending this book for every manager, engineer or not.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Becoming a Great Essayist

I started listening to this expecting a lecture series on how to write a great essay. It turns out to be a survey course on great essayists, the taxonomy of essays, and recommendations on further reading.

While the content and change of pace was nice (I'm tired of people telling me how to string together a sentence, and yes, writing is revision), I wasn't particularly inspired by the material. Part of it is that the lecturer still pretends to want to teach you how to write (by providing essay assignments), and part of it is that her definition wasn't very clear.

So along the way, we get various discussions of polemics, the food essay (!!), the comedic essay, the personal reminiscence, and so on and so forth.

In and of itself, the lecture series wasn't bad, but I expected much more from a Great Courses sequence. Not recommended.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

First Impressions: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

I've been very happy, and continue to be very happy with my Garmin Edge 800. For a complete set of features it's unparalleled, and if I were touring the Alps this year I wouldn't even consider buying a new bike computer. However, the plan this year is to tour England with my 5 year old son. What Arturo and I discovered last year in our final leg of the tour through Germany was that in flatter areas with dense road networks, the penalty of stopping at every intersection to check maps is very high. While you can pre-plan routes with ridewithgps and load them to the Garmin Edge ahead of time, you can't easily do that "on the fly."

The best thing about cycle touring is the ability to change plans "on a dime", according to weather and wind, as well as how you feel from day to day. Because of this, the ability to navigate a preferred course while touring can make a break a tour, especially one where a 5 year old in the back seat of the tandem will frequently ask: "How long until we get there?"

Pamela Blalock navigated through Ireland last year on a solo tour using the previous version of the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt, the Wahoo Elemnt. By all accounts, the difference between the two units is basically $70 and the smaller screen on the Bolt, with a 15 hour battery vs a 18 hour battery life. There's no way Bowen's going to stay on a bike for even 10 hours a day, so 15 hours was more than good enough.

Now if you search the web for Wahoo vs Garmin, you'll see a lot of rave reviews about the Wahoo and how it's a Garmin killer. After several rides of experience, I'll say that while the Wahoo is competitive, it's by no means a Garmin killer. There are many places where the Wahoo unit is inferior in many ways, so let me get all those out of the way.

Mounting: Garmin's industrial strength rubber bands are the best bar none as far as mounting solutions are concerned. Wahoo copies them, but made several decisions that make them inferior. First of all, instead of using rubber bands they chose to use zip ties. I've had many more zip tie failures than Garmin rubber band failures. They're less reliable, and of course, every time you need to move the mount from bike to bike you pretty much have to cut the zip tie. The Bolt comes with 2 mounts (like the Garmin did), and one of the mounts is an off-the-front mount. This mount interferes big time with my handlebar bag. I'd buy more mounts but Wahoo wants $15 per mount, which is ridiculous. By contrast, Garmin will sell you 2 for $10. Winner - Garmin.

Boot Speed: Since I have both the Garmin 800 and the Bolt on the tandem (the 800 on Bowen's position), I get to compare their start up time. The 800 wins handily, and that's a 6 year old unit! This goes doubly when you do a "warm start." The typical scenario for touring is that you ride up to a supermarket (or playground or museum or side trip area) and turn off your bike computer while you eat lunch (no sense wasting battery). After you're done, you startup the units again. To its credit, the Bolt "resumes" the ride correctly (the Garmin 820 and 810, both inferior units to the 800 don't always do so). But it takes a very long time to boot. I'd already be riding for half a minute before it wakes up. Winner - Garmin.

Settings: The Bolt can only be setup by a smartphone app. That's OK. But what's frustrating is that the Bolt does not appear to "listen" to the smartphone app. Try as I might, I can't turn off Live Tracking on the Bolt. I also can't get the Bolt to display e-mail notifications. It's would be very frustrating if not for the fact that I have a Vivoactive HR which handles it just fine. Now, the 800 obviously can't do any of that, but whatever settings I want to change, I can change it directly on the computer. Winner - Tie.

Battery Life: Because the Bolt turns on Live Tracking (which I can't seem to turn off, no matter what!), the battery life is reduced. About 6 hours of riding depletes the battery by about 50%, so the actual battery life appears to be 12 hours instead of 15. The Garmin 800 when new had about 15 hours of battery, and now appears to have about the same battery life as the Bolt. Winner - Tie.

Bike Profiles: Like the later Garmins, the Bolt does not do per bike statistics collection. By contrast, my Garmin 800 has a separate odometer per bike, and I can tell it which bike I'm riding. It even knows how much each bike weighs so its calorie estimates are correct. By contrast, the Bolt thinks I'm riding a lightweight carbon fiber wonder, so its calorie estimates are ridiculously low. I turned off calorie expended from my screens on the Bolt because it was so far off as to be useless. Winner - Garmin.

Mapping and Navigation: The Bolt cannot do off-line navigation and rerouting. At all. All it can do is to follow a track you gave it from the Smartphone App. That it can do so wirelessly is a great feature! I tried it multiple times during dry runs, and it's amazing to tap out a route on ridewithgps and have it download immediately to the Bolt and then be riding the route with navigation entries. But if you're stuck without a cell signal or your smartphone battery is dead, you're so screwed if all you have is the Bolt. The Garmin 800 can do smart navigation even when off-line without a smartphone. The penalty is that you have to pay Garmin for maps or go through the 3-5 day procedure to load maps to your Garmin, while OSM base maps for the entire world is included in the Bolt. It's a wash in the Alps when road networks are not dense, but when you're touring a country with dense road networks the Garmin will frequently get confused or take a long time to recompute a route if you miss a turn. This is a toughie. Winner: Bolt (by a bit). Garmin really should give up on trying to make money off map sets.

Screen: The Bolt has a black and white screen which is very high contrast. This is nice, but the UI display is not done intelligently. When you have an upcoming turn on the Garmin, it doesn't matter what screen you're on as you approach the turn: the Edge will flip to the map screen and zoom into the intersection and show you how to navigate the turn. The Bolt won't do that! Instead, it'll flash a "left turn" or "right turn" arrow and the name of the street. So if you're following a route you must keep the display on the mapping/navigation screen. Even so, you might find yourself frantically pushing the zoom in or out button when approaching a complex intersection or traffic circle. This is an idiotic way of doing things and it's clear that Garmin's background in car based navigation units has transferred over to their bike units. Wahoo's PMs clearly have not thought through how people use navigation systems. By the way, the LEDs on the Wahoo are pretty much unusable in bright sunlight. I turn them off as a waste of battery. Winner: Garmin.

Looking at the above, I can see how you might love the Bolt if you owned a later model Garmin (810 and later). Those later models are not fully debugged and are missing features that the older Edge has. But if you have the Edge 800, the Bolt's a much less obvious upgrade. Now when it comes to current model Garmins vs the Bolt, it's still a tough call. Obviously, if you're a tourist on unfamiliar roads in places with dense road networks you want the Bolt. My experience, however, is that most cyclists don't do what I do. They do organized rides with arrow markings on the ground or follow the leader in group rides or rides in places that they know. In those cases, the Garmin units are probably way better.

I'm keeping my Bolt, but my guess is that in the long run when I'm not touring it will play second fiddle to the Garmin Edge 800. My solution for my upcoming tour is to bring both units. If I get into trouble with the Bolt, I'll grab the Garmin off my son's handlebars for navigating.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tire with Smart Guard

I don't usually review tires unless I've ridden them down to the tire carcass. But in the case of the Marathon Plus tire, I'll make an exception.

The history: when I had the triplet built, I opted to use my own wheels, and I supplied the bike shop with some of tires from my stock. For whatever reason, one of those tires blew off the rim when the shop installed it, and in a state of panic the shop opted to "comp" me the Marathon Plus.

The tires weigh 750g each. Yes, that's 1.6 pounds per tire, or 3.2 pounds for a set. They weigh and ride like iron. Usually when I swap out one tire for another, it's a barely noticeable difference. Swapping saddles usually make a bigger difference than tires. In this case, when I finally (after 2000 miles) swapped out the tires for Michelin Pro 4s, not only did I notice a difference, my son commented, "This is now the fastest bike ever!"

The tires claim to be flat-proof (and the reviews on the internet all claim that as well). Not true. I managed to get a flat once while riding through Cupertino. That was when I realized how heavy the tires were. Not only were they heavy on the bike, it was a massive pain to get them off the rim to remove the tube and install a new one. I bent a Minoura Tire Lever getting them off! I'd never had such a frustrating time fixing a flat!

I'm always amazed at how Europeans seem to like riding tires that are way over-built and heavy. The ride quality of the bike on these tires are horrible, and if not for the fact that they were on the triplet I probably would have gotten rid of them well before the 2,000 mile mark. I think these tires are only appropriate if you make a habit out of riding on Munich bike paths, where drunk people smash beer bottles on the bike path and these tires might have a chance of getting through them without a flat. Even then, woe upon ye if you did get a flat as these tires will then be nigh impossible to fix. They're not as bad as the famous Torelli master rim where I broke steel tire levers getting tires on and off the rim, but they're pretty close.

Needless to say, I'm done with these tires. If you want them, let me know and I'll "comp" them to you. NOT RECOMMENDED.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Shimano PD-T400 Click'r Pedal

Ever since I got Bowen his SPD shoes and mounted cleats on it, we've been riding with him fully cleated. He loves it because his feet never come off the pedals, which is a hazard on the tandem because the pedals won't stop spinning just because your feet came off!

The big challenge, however, has been getting him in and out of the pedals. Our solution was to use the kickstand, and then have him on the bike and I'll click him in by hand. There are two problems with this: first of all, it gets pretty old fast. It makes even stopping for a restroom break a chore. Secondly, when we tour, we'll have a load on the panniers, and between the load on the panniers and a 35 pound kid, this might very well overload the kickstand hardware! I reduced the spring tension on our SPDs all the way down to the bottom, but he just couldn't clip himself in or out, even when he got the position right.

What I didn't realize was that Shimano makes an entire line of pedals that a light release action called Click'r. The marketing literature claims that they have 60% less activation force when clipping in, and 50% less activation force when clipping out. Since I didn't have to use much force with my hand when clipping in Bowen by hand, I figured that might be sufficient for him to clip in and out. For $23.25 per pair, it was a cheap experiment (also, I bought it from Amazon for easy returns).

The pedals showed up and installing them was as easy as my M520s: unlike high end pedals, these came with wrench flats, which are great. We tried them as is, an no-go. His feet just wouldn't clip in. So we got out allen keys, and pushed the tension down as low as it could go. We also switched the cleats on his shoes to the ones that came with the pedal, just in case that made a difference.

Sure enough, that did the trick. Bowen can now clip in and out of his pedals by himself, and he liked it so much he practiced doing it 10-15 times so he could get it right. We took the bike for a short test ride, and after that I asked him to spin the pedals backwards as quick as he could to see if he would unclip by accident. Nope.

Bowen asked about getting these for his single bike but I pointed out that his feet never came off the pedals on that bike, and even if they did, the pedals wouldn't keeping spinning so it wasn't a dangerous situation. In fact, if you couldn't clip out fast enough you might fall over. He thought for a bit and then agreed.

These are great pedals, and I can foresee that I might be buying at least another pair in the future for his brother. If you have kids on a tandem, or if you're new to clipless pedals, get these. Recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: Spigen Rugged Armor Moto G5 Plus Case

The Moto G5 Plus proved to be too slippery for me. Furthermore, the rear camera protrudes from the bottom, and sooner or later I'm going to leave the phone on the ground somewhere and end up scratching the lens, so I decided to buy a rubber case for it. The Spigen Rugged Armor case came with good reviews. In particular, it's just thick enough that the camera lens is flush with it, so I can put it down without the phone being wobbly. In practice, Motorola should have just made the back of the phone thicker by sufficient amounts and given me even better battery life, but then I guess no one would have a reason to buy the Moto Z Play.

The case is easy to put on, easy to take off, grippier but not too sticky when putting it into and out of pockets. It's easy to reach into my jersey pocket to pick up the phone and shoot pictures while cycling, which is mostly what I ask of it. I hope never to test how well it protects the camera if I should drop it, and while the raised lip of the case on the front should protect the phone from scratching if it falls face down onto a smooth surface, it won't protect the screen from keys in your pocket, etc, so I would still put a screen protector onto the phone.

The case weighs 32g, which is much lighter than an Otterbox, and not very objectionable at all.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 10

If you use your camera enough, sooner or later you end up with a closet full of camera bags. The key is you want to be able to travel with just the right amount of equipment for the job, and different bags have different jobs.

We bought a Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 25 back when we started with the EOS M3. It's a great bag, and we've filled it up with the EOS M3, the 22mm prime, the 11-22 wide angle zoom, the EF-S 55-250 zoom (with adapter), a small flash, spare batteries and lens cleaning accessories. But there are days when I'm carrying 2 kids up (or down) a mountain and it's just a bit much. On those days, I'd just hang the 11-22 zoom on my shoulder, but of course, it would dig into my chest or get hammered by the kids.

BestBuy had a sale on the Mirrorless Mover 10, and I ordered it to see how it would work. The good news is that it fit nicely on the Deuter Kid Comfort III's waist belt, even with it cinched tight. It has sufficient capacity for either just the EOS M3 with the 11-22 zoom + the small flash, or the EOS M3 with the 22mm prime and the 40mm (with adapter), a spare battery, and lens cleaning kit. On the side there's enough room for a mini tripod. Together the entire kit would weigh 1kg (2.2 pounds)

The bag comes with a shoulder strap, but in practice I'll probably never use it, and would detach it before traveling. The idea is that on a car based touring/hiking trip, you would have the full kit in the car. If you drive to a trailhead and then have to carry 2 kids up a steep hill, you'd move what you need into the Mirrorless Mover 10 and then you'll have a lighter weight kit that would leave you hands free (for kid carrying) when you're going up and down a mountain. Or you could carry a spare body and lens while your wife carried the main camera.

When BestBuy shipped me the camera bag, it didn't have a strap. I called ThinkTank, and they didn't even ask for a receipt: they just immediately shipped me a camera strap. Whatever else you may think of the company, they have fantastic customer service.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First Impressions: Moto G5 Plus (Amazon Edition) 64GB

After I decided that the S7 was unacceptable, I had a dilemma. I could not go back to my 2015 Moto G, because I had given it to my mom so she could have an unlocked phone in Singapore. It seemed as though I had to give up on my desire for waterproofing as a core feature. The chipset that has the best battery life at the moment is the Snapdragon 625. Unlike the chipsets in the 800 series (or even the siblings in the 600 series), the 625 was actually designed for power efficiency. It was featured in the Moto Z Play phone last year, and while most phones don't get mentioned 6 months after they launch, the Moto Z Play is still getting rave reviews for stellar battery life.

I somehow missed all the deals for the Moto Z Play, but the Moto G5 Plus launched recently, and uses the same chipset. Even better, if you have an Amazon Prime membership, you get $60 off for the 4GB RAM/64GB Storage version. My experience with the Blu R1 HD is that the Amazon add-ons to the phone aren't obtrusive, especially if you have lots of storage and so can forgive the non-deletable pre-installed apps. Having learned my lesson about storage, I decided to go for the larger storage version. 4GB of RAM can't hurt, since I did notice that the Moto G 2015 did frequently run with very little free space.

Compared with the Moto Z Play, the Moto G5 Plus has:
  • Smaller screen (5.2" vs 5.5")
  • No NFC (the European versions have NFC but no compass!) NFC is nice, but as far as I can tell, none of the phone payment methods have really taken off, so it's a non issue. The compass is very useful when using any navigation apps, so I really appreciate that the US version has the compass.
  • LCD screen vs AMOLED screen (no question, AMOLED screens are superior!)
  • Smaller battery (3000mAH vs 3510 mAH)
  • No Moto Mods (no big deal --- as of date there are no Moto Mods worth the price or weight or bulk)
  • Lighter (156g vs 165g)
  • Different camera (can't tell whether it's any better or worse, just different)
  • 4GB RAM (vs 3GB)
  • 64GB storage (vs 32GB storage)
  • micro-USB vs USB C (this is a feature as far as I'm concerned --- no need to buy new cables!)
  • No full-time "OK Google". (would have been nice to have, but I didn't have it on the 2015 Moto G or the S7 either!)
Except for the smaller screen (and it seriously would have been nice to have an AMOLED screen), it didn't seem like it would have much of a compromise. In fact, in other ways (storage and RAM), the G5 Plus seems like the better phone.

I bought the phone and got the free same day shipping. It arrived and I immediately tried the "transfer data from a nearby phone" feature of Android 7.0. Oh wow, Google Play Services crashed! And crashed! And crashed! I finally rebooted the phone and went back to setting up my phone the traditional way.

After the setup, the phone was fast! Browsing, e-mail, and even taking pictures is reasonably fast with next to no lag. I was also very impressed by one of the new Moto gestures, which is to use the fingerprint reader as a substitute for the on-screen navigation buttons, recovering several pixels worth of space from the bottom of the screen. In fact, on-screen navigation buttons take up about 0.3inches of screen space, which effectively means that the 5.2inch screen on the Moto G Plus is now equivalent to the 5.5inch screen on the Moto Z Play! This is a great move and I wonder why other manufacturers don't do it.

Sound quality and bluetooth seemed to work better than my 2015 Moto G, which would get audio stutter whenever a music player was being asked to multi-task with any other app. I guesss I was CPU limited but didn't even know it.

And wow, storage! I didn't realize how constricted I'd been until I started installing apps and after more than 100 apps on the system the device still proclaimed that I had used only 6.84GB out of 53.71 on the internal storage. My 64GB micro SD card was definitely getting worked more., since it's the default storage location for photos, videos, etc.

Note that both Moto Z Play and the Moto G5 Plus have headphone jacks, which is very nice since one of our cars and many of our high quality audio headphones still use the traditional system. In fact, none of the other Moto Z phones were ever under consideration because of this missing feature. I hope the Android ecosystem continues to thumb its collective noses at Apple's "courage" with regards to this user hostile move.

The physical device feels slippery (I have no idea why anyone thinks that metal is superior to plastic for devices that you need to handle). At 156g, the device is pretty much the same as my old Moto G. Interestingly enough, the charger's much lighter than the one that came with the Moto X Pure. The Moto X Pure's charger is 110g (integrated cable), while the Moto G's charger is 52g with a 21g cable. The Samsung's charger was 42g by comparison.

Surprisingly, I found myself using the fingerprint scanner. That's because it was fast and consistent. I wouldn't put up with it otherwise. Similarly, I found myself using the gestures to turn the screen off (hold the finger print sensor for 1s), or bring up Google assistant (hold the fingerprint sensor past the haptic feedback buzz).  I thought the fingerprint scanner would be a gimmick, but it's turned out to be quite reasonable. (The Samsung also used it for Samsung Pay, but with no NFC obviously I'm not going to be able to use Google Pay anyway!)

And yes, ridewithgps works using Firefox on the Moto G5 Plus. One pleasant surprise is that WiFi calling works on T-mobile using the Moto G5 Plus, without any special configuration. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, that's the only feature I got from Nougat that was noteworthy.

Battery life has been nothing short of incredible, coming from both the S7 and the Moto G 2015. I regularly end the day plugging the phone in and seeing that the battery level is at 40%. This gives me hope that running Live Tracking while riding all day won't kill the battery on the phone.

All in all, I'll be keeping the phone for a while. The lack of waterproofing bothers me, but I guess I'll pack away my phone when it rains into a waterproof bag.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Otterbox Defender for the Samsung Galaxy S7

I picked up the Otterbox Defender for the S7 because the phone by itself felt too slippery. The Otterbox promised to toughen up the phone so it could survive drops as well.

The case comes in 3 pieces, an internal shell that goes directly around the S7, a rubber bumper that goes around that shell, and then a holster. The shell and bumper weigh 81g, and I didn't bother weighing the holster because it was so bulky as to be unusable.

The resultant phone inside the bumper felt very grippy. So much so that when I slid the phone into a pocket, it would grab the sides of the pocket and not go all the way into the pocket! Extracting the phone from a pocket had the same feeling.

The rubber bumper has flaps for USB charging and the headphones, and these are the most solid flaps I've ever seen. They definitely will protect the phone!

The biggest flaw with the case is that the top and bottom lips interfere with the functions of the phone. The top lip prevents you from using the "pull down" gesture to drag down notifications. The bottom lip prevents the finger print reader from registering all the time. I don't know how this could have been prevented --- one possibility is that there's so little bezel space that any lip would have intruded, but without trying a slew of cases there's no way to find out.

Ultimately, I returned the S7, but I'm pretty sure I would have to return it for the gesture interference problems anyway.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: Storm in a Teacup

Storm in a Teacup is a great book, and a lot of fun. The idea is that Helen Czerski's going to show you how physics concepts apply to your day to day life, from teacups to weather. The topics include a discussion of state changes (solid, liquid, gas), electromagnetism, wave theory, gravity (sans relativity), and the sense of scale.

The writing is great, there is no math, and her selection of day to day circumstances (including the construction of a trebuchet) is selected to be enjoyable and relatable.  There's very much of the sense of wonder that comes across when you contemplate the universal laws of physics through day to day forces like that of a platypus hunting for shrimp. I was sad when the book was over and I wanted more.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Independent Cycle Touring now available as a Kindle eBook

I tried several times over the years to put Independent Cycle Touring into the Kindle .mobi format, but it's always been an abysmal failure. Finally, Amazon finally released a tool that would preserve the formatting from the print book into the Kindle edition, so now you can enjoy my favorite cycle touring book in electronic format for the low low price of $5.

Friday, May 12, 2017

First Impressions: Samsung Galaxy S7

Much as I like my 2015 Moto G for it's price, features (especially waterproofing), and performance, on recent trips I've been forced to face its limitations. In particular, it was missing several bands, which made it less than useful in Japan, the BVI and in Iceland last year. It wasn't a big deal though, as I was traveling with my wife, whose Moto X Pure had all the missing bands I didn't have (and very occasionally, the Moto G would have a band the Moto X Pure didn't have). On top of that, I started having to juggle apps on the phone --- every new app I wanted to install, I'd have to delete another app. Clearly, in this day and age, 16GB was no longer sufficient! The phone would mysteriously go from 5GB free to 0GB free, probably because of Google Photos caching, which is too dumb to use the SDCard.

For this year's summer cycling trip, however, I would be the only one with a smartphone. In addition, advice from Pamela Balalock was that in countries with dense road networks, it was a good idea to have a device capable of running ridewithgps and sending it to a GPS navigation unit so you wouldn't be stopping frequently to check directions. I tried ridewithgps on my Moto G, and it wasn't a satisfactory experience in Chrome. I would have to install Firefox for a reasonable experience, but I was pretty much out of storage. Also, Javascript websites are effectively single threaded, which meant that single-core performance is far more important for those sites than multi-core performance, so you needed a faster processor than what the Moto G 2015 had. I visited BestBuy and found that even the lowest end tablet like the Kindle Fire 8" was capable. The Samsung S7 was capable as well, though obviously the smaller the screen the tougher it is to work the website, which isn't designed for touch control.

I initially considered the Samsung S7 Active, but a recent eBay deal with granted a $50 discount on the T-mobile version of the Samsung S7 brought the price down to $290 from a reputable dealer (mywit). That much of a discount meant the phone's just $40 more than what I paid for my 2015 Moto G, and about $50 more than this year's Moto G5 Plus, which isn't even waterproof, so I jumped on it, figuring I could toughen up the S7 with an Otterbox Defender case. Carrying an external battery was a given anyway, so I was OK with giving up the additional 1000mAH battery. The T-mobile locked version was fine with me, since I have no plans to switch carriers, and it even provides wi-fi calling, a useful feature in parts of the world where WiFi is available but voice calls would cost the $0.25/minute in roaming charges.

My first impressions was that this was indeed a slick device. The glass backing, however, didn't give me any confidence, so I was glad I had an Otterbox ready. With the Otterbox, the device became wider and taller than the Moto G though much grippier. By default, the S7 weighs in at 150g, nearly identical to the Moto G (155g). The Otterbox (sans holster) adds 81g to it, confirming what I'd always known: if you don't need the higher performance of a flagship phone, the low-end phones with plastic cases (which don't need a case to improve the grip) are actually lighter, though with the demise of waterproofing across all of Motorola's phones, there aren't any mid-end phones in the current generation with that feature. While weighing the phone, I also weighed the fast charger provide. That came in at 42g with a 21g USB cable. By contrast, my wife's Motorola fast charger is 110g with an integrated cable. Both phones are micro-USB phones --- a deliberate choice --- currently, we do not have a single USB-C device, and all our cables are cross-compatible. I'm not eager to join the USB-C revolution as a result, and will put that off for as long as possible.

The default Samsung interface, TouchWiz, is horrible if you've been used to default/pure Android. Samsung insists on having its own e-mail app, etc. included (which you can disable but not reclaim storage space for). Even the icons are different, which make them a mismash of stuff on your application drawer unless you install a theme (which I recommend doing). The lone exception is Samsung Pay, which is exceptional because it doesn't just work on NFC receivers, but also traditional magnetic stream receivers as well! That meant I can use Samsung Pay at Safeway. Unfortunately, the local Costco upgraded to chip-readers sans NFC receivers, which meant that I can't use Samsung Pay there!

The camera is nice, much nicer than the Moto G 2015's. This truly could be a convergence device.

For my primary use case, I discovered surprisingly that neither Chrome nor the built-in Samsung browser gave me usable results, though Firefox does. In case your'e wondering, the RideWithGPS app cannot do route planning. Only the web-site can. Yes, it would be trivial for Google to support this sort of thing, but Google will probably never support a niche application like bicycle touring.

What really caused me to initiate the return process, however, was the piss poor battery life. With a 3,000 mAH battery, the device was not getting through the day without a charge in the middle. This was with no gaming, just occasional web browsing, taking a photo of a receipt here and there, and listening to audible via a download. No phone, no matter how feature rich, is useless with a dead battery.

By the way, not only did mywit refund my moneys, they refunded me the value of the coupon I used to buy the phone as well, which makes them top notch in my book --- I essentially got back more money from them than I paid!

Not recommended. I won't be writing a long term review of this device, as it has gone back to mywit as an RMA.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: CamelBak Kid's 2016 Mini MULE Hydration Pack

I visited REI with the intention of buying Bowen arm and leg warmers, and it turned out they didn't have any. So I ended up looking at hydration packs (he can't quite reach the water bottle cages while riding, and it's a chore to stop and unclip him so he can drink). The hydration packs at REI looked kinda big, and Bowen didn't like them, so we went home and shopped on Amazon.

The contest was between the Mini MULE and the Skeeter. The skeeter is lighter by 63g (0.14 pounds), but the MULE had a killer feature, which was that it came in red. Bowen asked for the red, and thinking a bit about it, I thought that it wasn't a bad thing that he could carry a couple of clif bars and maybe his rain jacket in it.
OK, the thing is cute. It turned out that he would much rather carry his bunny in it.
The backpack does fit, barely. I cinched up all the straps (it looks like the Mini MULE came with straps long enough for him to use even when he's 12 or 13), and tightened up the sternum strap all the way to get it to be a snug fit, but he wears it with no sway. On the bike, he drinks a lot more when he has the Camelbak than when he doesn't, and the big bug there is I have to prime the hose for him.

The pockets actually are handy --- I put clif bars in there, and he would share those snacks with his brother. If not for the fact that this was the earliest we could have gotten him one (they don't come any smaller), we would have gotten him earlier. It's useful for hiking and cycling.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: OMoton Kindle Paperwhite Case

As mentioned before, my wife liked the Origami case, but I decided that I wasn't going to use the stand feature enough for my own Kindle to justify it. I looked around, and picked the OMOTON Kindle Case Cover.

It's fairly cheap, at $13, and weighs 98g, or 20g less than the Origami cover. What's interesting about it is that it doesn't feel as tight fitting as the Origami did. It takes some effort to pry the kindle out of the case (which I will do on a frequent basis), but I don't feel like I'm wrestling with the case every time I do so. The magnet around the cover isn't very strong (there's no snap when I close or open the cover), but despite that it's strong enough to turn on the Kindle. This is nice because after the waterproofing process, the Kindle's on-off switch is harder to press.

The main reason for using my water-fi processed Kindle outside the case is for absolute light weight. Since the Kindle is already waterproof, in cases when I can easily wrap the Kindle around a towel or some other clothing that I'm carrying with me anyway to protect it, I see no reason to bring the cover as well.

Together with the cover, the paperwhite weighs less than my original basic Kindle with its lighted cover, and has better lighting.  Recommended.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Review: Waterfi Waterproof'd Kindle

As previously mentioned, once we got back from the BVI trip I sent my Kindle to be waterproof'd. It costs $99 + tax, and then I had to pay for priority mail shipping to Waterfi. When I asked how much more the Kindle would weigh, they gave me a ballpark estimate but when I got it back the first thing I did was to weigh it. The non-waterproof'd Kindle weighs 203g. The waterproof'd version is 252, or 49g more. The entire process took a week.

That's more than acceptable, since waterproofing bags that weigh less are frequently unreliable (I've had sil-nylon bags soak through and make the interiors moist), while anything that's actually waterproof tends to weigh a lot more.

I took a shower with the paperwhite and discovered that even with a mild spray of water, you can still turn pages using the touch screen. At some point, you get too much water beading and your ability to read the book becomes impaired, but I managed to shampoo myself before that happened.

If you don't already have a Kindle, you can buy an already water-proof'd version directly from Amazon, but if you have access to a Kindle sale it's probably cheaper to get a lower price and then pay for it to be waterproof'd after the fact. (Not to mention if you want a white one the after-market waterproofing is the only way to get one)


Monday, May 08, 2017

Review: I contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes is about microbes and their existence and interaction with animals, insects, and (partially) people. Most of the book is actually about animals and insects. Most studies about the microbiome have been done on animals with animal subjects, so it's not surprising that most of the book has to be about those studies.

The human research clearly has not been as advanced or as far along. There's a section in the book about Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), but while there have been successful cases, it's apparently not without danger and the risks (especially long term risks) seem to be substantial. The last few chapters are effectively fluff --- we definitely don't know enough about the microbiome to make effective use of it, though the author loves to talk speculatively about the potential uses (none of which have panned out so far).

Did I learn something from the book? Yes. But the material could have been condensed into half the pages without losing much.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Review: Tearaway Unfolded (PS4)

I had already played Tearaway on the PS Vita ages ago, so despite the hugely positive reviews for the Playstation 4 version, I had no intention of paying for it or playing Tearaway Unfolded. To my surprised, it was picked as one of the games provided as part of the Playstation Plus subscription in March.

I've had people ask me questions like: "As a thoughtful parent, do you really let your child play video games?" These questions are usually asked by parents who have never actually sat down and played a video game themselves, so they have no idea how hard it actually is to find a video game that a 5 year old can play or would even want to play.

Well, Tearaway Unfolded is the exception. First of all, don't expect to drop a 5 year old in front of a Playstation and then go away. You can't. Tearaway Unfolded relies on screen captions for dialogue, as only about 20% of the game has voice acting. Even though Bowen's an advanced reader for his age, he still needed me to read many of the words for him. Think of this as extra reading time for your kid.

Secondly, don't estimate how hard a Dualshock 4 is to use for a kid. Heck, if you're an adult, you're going to have trouble if you're new to video games. You use the left stick to move, and the right stick the change views. That takes a while to get used to. But many parts of the game requires you to do so while holding (and releasing) up to 2-3 other buttons at the same time. This is challenging even for adults, and 5-year olds probably haven't a prayer of completing the game without adult help.

Tearaway Unfolded, as a Playstation exclusive, makes full use of the Dualshock 4. You use the touch pad to draw objects that then appear in the game. The drawing isn't as nice as what you can do with the PS Vita's touch screen, but it's still very attractive for young children. Bowen never lost a chance to draw something for the game. You use the front light to light your path in some situations. You can even record sound that gets integrated into the soundtrack of the game. If you have a Playstation Camera, the game uses it to display a picture of you or to use a picture as a texture in parts of the game. The game even gives you an in game camera with which you can take pictures of the surroundings (some of the collectibles and quests involve take snapshots) and selfies! Bowen loved this feature, and took many pictures throughout the game. One of the collectible items are papercraft instructions, where certain PDFs are unlocked on a website (at which you can download and print and then make papercraft objects of the actual models used in the game!

After playing the game through with Bowen, I was granted insight as to why the game was a critical success but a commercial failure. I don't think most adults are into papercraft. By the time a kid's old enough to be able to finish this game by himself (probably around 9), he's probably done with the papercraft part of his career. As a result, there's a mis-match: no kid who's still interested in papercraft has the manual dexterity or reading skills necessary to complete the game. The in-game puzzles are actually fun and challenging for a 5-year old, but no contest for an adult. The only kids who're going to be interested in playing the game will need an adult to help them with it in order to complete it.

Having said that, however, playing Tearaway with Bowen was a lot of fun, and even after completing the game, he wants to go back and replay chapters. In fact, since we went on a trip, interrupting his Tearaway Unfolded game, we brought the Playstation Vita along, and he completed the older release of the game while on the flight.

And before you ask, no, at no point during the sailing/snorkeling trip did Bowen want to pull out the PS Vita in favor of jumping on the trampoline with his brother and his bunny or snorkeling, or going ashore for ice cream. He didn't even want to watch videos on the tablet. Given the choice between a stimulating outdoors environment and fun and a video game, there was no contest. Of course, on the flight itself, he would prefer the Vita to being bored or watching a movie, but there's no question in my mind that the problem solving on an interactive game is far more interesting than being a passive consumer of TV or movies.

Since completing the game, Bowen has gone on to play the game again (from the start), and this time he hasn't asked for help nearly as frequently. Some of the behavior from the game has also translated to the real world. For instance, since playing Tearaway, he's taken to grabbing his camera to take pictures outside (though he has yet to take a selfie, which I consider a good thing) to take pictures of interesting things.

In any case, if you have a 5 year old, this is one of the few games he can play, but not unassisted. It's interesting enough for adults, though not nearly as challenging --- just bite your tongue and let your child solve the puzzles himself. Recommended.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

BVI 2017: Observations

This was an unusual trip in many ways. Along with getting sick with the Nolo virus, I was very pleasantly surprised by how few mosquito bites I received this time. This is the least mosquito infested visit I've ever had. Upon reflection with Arturo, we concluded that the BVIs must have invested heavily into mosquito elimination programs since the Zika virus, and it's very likely that those are paying off. As a result, if mosquito bites have deterred you in recent years, don't. It's better than it's ever been. Of course, part of it was that we also avoided mosquito places like Leverick Bay this time around, and didn't do a land hike other than the visit to the bubbly pool on Jost Van Dyke, but I remember a substantial number of mosquitoes that time, and none this time!

I'm still finding new places in the area that I haven't been, as well as revisiting old favorites. I'm very pleased with our discovery of Privateer Bay and Soldier Bay this time around, and might prefer those over Kelly Cove in the future.

If there's anything I've learned this time, it's just amazing how different brothers are. Bowen loved sailing (and still does). He wants another trip next year. Boen, on the other hand wasn't nearly as adventurous, and didn't want much to do with the water until the last couple of days. When I was a new parent, I thought rather naively that being outdoors and doing adventurous stuff was good for kids (and especially good for boys in particular). Bowen proved me right and Boen proved me wrong, showing that I have no clue what I'm doing as a parent.

Conch Charters proved to be the right charter company for me. While others might have been turned off by our 2014 trip which featured broken engines, I was impressed by the way they handled our problems as well as the problems in the boat. This time, we had no broken engines, just a broken BBQ, and they definitely did not charge us for something that was clearly so old it was falling apart. The price was great, and we got a nice big boat which was well equipped. By contrast, in 2012 we went with Horizon Yatch charters, and even though the boat was much newer and cost almost twice as much as what we paid this year, we still ended up spending some vacation time fixing toilets and showers instead of sailing, diving, and snorkeling. And then at the end Horizon would be a lot more picky about charging you for every dime than Conch was. The net net is that while Conch seems like a "cheap" option, I think their staff has way more experience fixing things and I would definitely recommend that experienced sailors charter with them.

I would be happy to do more sailing trips in the BVI. When the kids are older or whenever the mythical St. Vincent International Airport opens up, we can contemplate other places in the Carribean, but right now the other locations are much less accessible, and flying with kids means you want to minimize the pain of the flight more than anything else first. When I think about how often I've sailed in the Virgin Islands but still continue wanting to come back, it's clear that this is a special place to me.

2 days after the trip, I still occasionally felt like the room was moving when taking a shower or lying down. It's a great feeling.


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 8 - Soldier Bay to Conch Charters (+ Epilogue)

The sunrise hit us nice and early, and we finished nearly all the food on the boat for breakfast, leaving only one Mac & Cheese box left and a few rolls of bread. Having had breakfast by 7:00am, we went for a nice long snorkel, during which we couldn't find traces of the shark, nor could we find the Sting Ray we had seen the evening before. Despite my best effort, I could not talk Bowen into one last snorkel. Boen, however, was seen sitting in the transom playing with water, indicating that on this last day he was finally thinking of the water as being friendly and not scary.
We left our mooring by 8:00am, and immediately raised out sails and turned off the engine. We had plenty of time, and indeed sailed back into Road Town harbor by 9:30am. Returning the boat to Conch charters is a relaxed affair. We simply picked up a mooring ball and waited until a dinghy came and the crew took over. Unlike the higher end charter outfits, Conch charters during a return doesn't treat you like a wrecking crew out to destroy the boat. As a result, we could pack, arrange transportation, and even enjoy the air conditioning without having to run the generator.

The return skipper told us we had run the generator for less than 12 hours during the entire trip. "Everybody's different. Just the other day I had someone return the boat with 125 hours of generator time for a week --- he had to refuel the boat mid-week!" We would later learn that we'd only run up $95 in fuel, a testament to how little we ran the engine and generator. They charged us $33 for the boat hook, which we had known about, but otherwise everything was fine.

Once ashore, a taxi took everyone except Arturo and I back to the ferry terminal, where we bought tickets for the return to US waters. (We opted to walk to save the $5/person cab fare) Once in St. Thomas, U.S. customs gave the green card holders a long wait while the US passport holders had no trouble, but we weren't in danger of missing the flight.

At the airport, Arturo kindly took our check-in baggage because his generous baggage allowance would let him took it for free. Bowen told me we were coming back again next year, while Xiaoqin said she wished we'd done more diving.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 7 - Privateer Bay (Norman Island) to Soldier Bay (Norman Island)

The day started at 6:00am. At this point, everyone on board the Kokomo III had shifted to the schedule Arturo and I had set, and the saloon was positively bustling by 6:10, with coffee, Mac & Cheese, milk and cereal all in various stages of consumption. Our plan was to dive a site on Dead Chest island, but upon motoring there, we broke the boat hook trying to grab the yellow mooring ball! We called up Conch Charters and they gave us a choice: we could either use the deck brush, or swing by and they'll dinghy a new boat hook to us.

Conch charters was a beam reach from where we were, so we put up sails and were at Conch charters by 9:00am. 5 minutes of circling, and we had a new boat hook, at which point I just motor'd straight to site B for diving. Site B didn't look any good for snorkeling, however, so we went back to Cistern point, where Bowen and I would dinghy over with the divers and then swim back to the mooring ball by ourselves so we wouldn't have to wait for the divers.

Cistern point is just as great a snorkel site as it is a dive site, and Bowen had fun exploring the location. I pointed out a flat fish to him and even chased it around a bit so it would be easier for him to see, but he would later claim that he couldn't see it. I guess that camouflage worked really well.

When the divers came back, Arturo proclaimed that the dive had been a bust! "I got lost," Arturo said sheepishly. That's never happened as long as I've been diving with Arturo, so I was surprised. "It happens," said Arturo. "Well, we're on Cooper Island. We can dinghy over and get a refill!" To my surprise Arturo said "No. We're finished. You know what independent events are, right? What happened this morning was not a series of independent events." Reflecting on what had happened, I realized that we'd made mistake after mistake which led to breaking the boat hook, as well as not finding the dive site we wanted to find. We were probably tired and not making good judgements, which meant that we shouldn't keep diving.

So we put up sails and headed over to Peter Island's Little Harbor, which was our initial choice for a final night in the BVIs. Passing by the island in the morning, we had noted that there were a lot of masts there. The book indicated that good snorkeling was to be had there. Getting into the harbor, we took down the sails and motor'd around. None of the obvious anchoring spots were good, but there was a place where I could do a forward anchor and back out and then tie a stern line to shore. I thought about initiating this (we had done it in much tougher conditions in Canadian waters), and then I noticed that everyone on the boats tied up in that location had no shirts on --- it was cooking hot! I thought about it and said, "Norman Island."

I'd planned to head for Privateer Bay again, but while motoring towards Norman Island spied 2 bays I'd never been to before: Soldier Bay and Benures Bay. Soldier Bay looked quiet, so Soldier Bay it was.
Soldier Bay turned out to have excellent snorkeling! We got to see a Sting Ray feeding, and John even spotted a shark!
It was a great place to spend the night: it didn't have much by the way of a sunset, but it would have an early sun tomorrow, and we might even have time to do a morning swim before having to return the boat.


Monday, May 01, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 6 - Long Cay to Privateer Bay (Norman Island)

Sandy Spit is easily one of the smallest islands you'll find anywhere. According to Strava, it took Arturo and I less than 90 seconds to run around it. There's but a single palm tree on the island, and it is in fact the quintessential small-boat experience in the Caribbean. We got up at 6:00am, ate a leisurely breakfast of Mac & Cheese, and still got to Sandy Spit by 7:00am from Long Bay. We dropped the anchor, watched a bit to make sure it held, and then snorkeled in to check the anchor before swimming or taking the dinghy to the beach.

Once on the beach, we ran around the island a few times, Bowen and Boen played with sand, and we generally had fun. The water was still too churned up for good visibility, and we reluctantly agreed that Jost Van Dyke wasn't going to be fun diving on this trip. At 8:00am, we had had enough. Another boat had pulled up to Sandy Spit and we could tell that they were waiting for us to leave: as soon as our dinghy left the island, their dinghy headed exactly for the landing spot we had picked!

Looking at Arturo's dive guide, the best candidate was Angelfish Reef, on Norman Island. We hoisted the dinghy, and sailed towards Soper's Hole to pick up water and final provisions for our last two days. Once again I was struck at how idyllic the place looked: except for a few ferry boats and one tiny cruise ship (obviously a luxury cruise ship), we were surrounded by sails.
In Soper's Hole, we were extraordinarily efficient, sailing all the way to the mouth of the harbor before dropping sails and starting the engine, then simultaneously filling up with water and reprovisioning. Our dive tanks were still full. We then motor'd back across the narrow channel and then raised the sails again.

This time, we had to gybe several times, lining ourselves up with Nanny Cay before being able to make a beeline for Angelfish Reef. At Angelfish Reef, we found that the mooring buoy provided was yellow, meaning that it was supposedly only for commercial vessels. We took a chance and tied up to it anyway, and then proceeded to dive. Xiaoqin got to dive this one, while I would take Bowen snorkeling.
The snorkeling wasn't all that good, but while waiting for the divers to come back, I had time to notice that there were white mooring balls available closer to Norman Island. The divers came back just in time for us to vacate the mooring buoy to yield to a commercial diving vessel. We moved to a white mooring ball, but just as we were settling in we saw another boat vacate an even better mooring ball, right up against the caves! We immediately jumped on it: we were now such a smoothly working team that we had no compunctions whatsoever about redoing a mooring.

In the afternoon heat, we turned on the generator and the AC, but really, the far better solution was to get into snorkeling gear and go snorkeling. This time, with the surge gone, I could take Bowen all the way into the caves!

When Bowen was done with snorkeling, I took Xiaoqin out and we got to see a turtle feeding! It was a great experience. Everyone reported that the conditions were much better than our first day some 5 days ago, with clear water and no surge. There was no question that we would stay here for the night.

The sunset lived up to the standards we expected in the Caribbean. Golden, beautiful, and with a sea-breeze to cool us down. For a change, nobody was ill on the boat, and with a full moon in the night there was no more romantic place in the world.


Friday, April 28, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 5 - Soper's Hole to Long Bay

Bowen joined us on our usual 6:00am reverie, as did Boen. I made him Mac & Cheese for breakfast, after which the rest of the crew proceeded to explain to me that Mac & Cheese is not breakfast food like I'd thought, but was in fact, lunch and dinner food. I'm just bringing up my kids all wrong by feeding them Mac & Cheese for breakfast!

We raised the dinghy, turned on the engines, puttered out of Soper's hole, and once past the channel between Great Thatch and Tortola, raised the sails and turned off the engine.

The original plan was to visit Sandy Spit or Sandy Cay and enjoy a morning on the beaches, but upon arrival, we observed that the place was pretty rocky, and so proceeded to look for a less rocky anchorage. We found a mooring ball right off of Foxy's Taboo. No one was using the slips next to the bar, since it looked like it would beat up your boat just by sitting at the slip. The forecast was for the swells to slowly die off the rest of the day, so in the mean time we decided to visit the bubbly pool, which should be excellent during times of north swells.
The hike to the pool is best done in dry conditions, there are several Manchineel Trees on the trail that would blisters the skin if you stood under the tree in a rain storm! The day was dry, and except for Bowen feeling out of sorts, we made it to the pool easily and in short order. The intermittent waves from the Atlantic would blow past the rocks guarding the entrance and make a natural jaccuzzi out of cool water. With the swells, we certainly had lots of bubbles to play with!

After we had had our fill of the pool, we explored the cliffs above the pools, which presented views of the Atlantic as well as an astonishing blow-hole.
On the way back at the boat, we walked past a sign that said "Jewel's Bakery." We stopped and Bowen ordered a pineapple tart. We brought it back to the boat and checked the forecast again. To our dismay, the forecast for the swells had been pushed off and we were expected to have swells the rest of the day into most of tomorrow. We had a quick debate as to what to do --- we still had plenty of time to sail over to Norman island, forgoing Sandy Spit and Sandy Cay. But the place was nice, we had plenty of sunshine, and we were on vacation, so staying put was also a good option. In the end, we opted to stay put.
We had a cold lunch, then as the day warmed up, got into the water with mask and snorkel. The shallows were a lot of fun, having a lot of coral and feather dusters to play with. In fact, Bowen wanted to touch every feather duster he saw, though with a wet suit on, he was far too buoyant to be able to dive! I helped him and he could submerge and touch a few and make them shrink.

After a long 40-minute snorkel that even ended with me cold, Bowen took a nap, though not before asking for more pineapple tart. What I noticed was that there was a strong current coming back to the boat. I talked Arturo into running the dinghy back to get the tart from the bakery, and then after dropping it off at the Kokomo III, we ran the dinghy over to Sandy Spit to see if it was a viable place to anchor for the night.

The currents were fairly strong. At one point, it felt like the dinghy had stalled, and Arturo had the throttle on the outboard motor run all the way! The looked at various potential anchorages on the way back from Sandy Spit, which didn't look appealing at all. In the end, nothing looked appealing: the one boat which had anchored in what looked like a quiet spot was actually (illegally) anchor'd on a coral patch, while the others looked like they would be very bouncy. Our mooring ball looked good by comparison.

That evening, we ran the oven and made pizza, and used the BBQ for the last time to make chicken. Our plan the next day was to spend time on Sandy Spit, and then find a place to dive if the swells had come down. In fact, if the swells did come down, we could visit Great Tortugas, which I had never been.

At night, I started an evening star-gazing session with Bowen. He really wanted to see a shooting star, and I had actually spotted one near the start of the trip, and Mark reported he saw one the day before. "Did you make a wish, Daddy?" "Yes I did. I wished for you to be safe and grow up healthy." "I have a wish for when I see a shooting star." "Really? What is it?" "I wish for my brother to have swimming lessons and learn how to swim!" Bowen's such a sweet kid.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 4 - Great Harbor (Peter Island) to Soper's Hole

I slept for 9 and a half hours the night before, which put me in a great mood come 6:00am! In fact, I definitely felt well enough to dive. Bowen had also switched to a 6:00am rise time, so now we had a full complement of crew at 6:00 to help move the boat. We made coffee, ate quickly, and did engine checks as well as health checks. Arturo and Mark felt great, and John also felt OK to dive, so we headed off to fine the wreck of the Rhone buoy.

We arrived at the Rhone NPS buoys as the only boat around. A swim check revealed that there was a better buoy for what we wanted to do, so we moved the boat and then started prepping for the dive. Xiaoqin felt well enough to dive, so she did the first dive while I took Bowen around the bow part of the wreck so he could look around as well as see mommy dive.

We were just about done with the snorkelling and were waiting for the divers to come up from their first dive before the first commercial dive boat started showing up. Dive shops typically start at 8:00am, and it takes a good hour to prep the divers and then drive the dive boats over to the dive sites, so if you manage to get to the dive site at 7:30am, you pretty much get the place to yourself.

My third (and last) dive on this trip didn't feel as nice as the first two. My lens kept flooding, and I had a hard time descending. Add to that was a current that did nothing for my sense of peace. Nevertheless, the wreck of the Rhone is still a great dive, and I enjoyed myself. Arturo did a good job of steering us away from what had become a crowded dive site, and when we got back on-board, we were hungry enough to eat lunch before putting away the gear and setting sail for Soper's Hole.

My last sail to Soper's Hole was in 2007 on a mono-hull. With a single-engine and inexperienced crew, dealing with mooring buoys was such a chore that I opted for a slip, and didn't have a good experience --- it took a long time to pick up water, and the place felt crowded. We debated contingency plans for when we got there, including deploying the dinghy to reserve a mooring buoy if the place was so crowded that finding a free mooring buoy was going to be an issue.

Once in the harbor, we were told to go to the main fuel dock to pick up water. While we were filling up our water tanks, we put Xiaoqin, her mom, and the 2 kids ashore, while I did the dishes. Mark, John, Arturo and I found a wheel barrow, moved all the empty air tanks into it, and then Mark proceeded to wheel it to the Blue Water Divers shop. The shop had a great policy --- since we had rented the tanks from them, we didn't have to wait for a fill --- they would just exchange our tanks with already filled ones, and then bill us for the fill along with the rental equipment when the charter was entirely over.

We paid for a mooring ball and water, and then got off the docks to grab a nearby mooring ball. There were a large number available, so it was a non issue.
Ashore, Bowen and Boen had gotten ice cream, but when we arrived at the land showers (might anticipated), we discovered that the marina office was closed! While the staff manning the fuel station was willing to give us the code to the bathroom, the showers would only operate using a token that can be purchased from the marina office.

Arturo was unhappy. "No land showers, no way am I going to eat ashore!" We reprovisioned, piled into the dinghy, and went back to the Kokomo III intending to get a BBQ dinner. Even that was almost thwarted, as the BBQ literally fell apart in Arturo's hands when he mounted it! It was so old that the hole around the screw cap had rusted off. Arturo salvaged it by screwing back everything in an "unauthorized" fashion. "It probably won't hold for more than 2 more BBQs, but we don't have to BBQ more than that!"

For once, everyone had a decent appetite, but right after he had his burger, Bowen threw up! He'd gotten the Nolo virus. We cleaned up, gave him a nice hot shower, and put him to bed with a garbage bag and instructions to throw up into the bag if he felt sick. This left Mark the only person who'd gotten away without getting sick. Not coincidentally, he had imposed quarantine by labeling a bowl, plate, and eating utensils with his name and making sure he was the only person to touch them.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BVI 2017 Day 3 - Cooper Island to Peter Island (Great Harbor)

Upon waking up, Arturo told me that he threw up a couple of times during the night, which must have sucked. Well, definitely no diving today. He didn't feel well enough to lead any dives. For whatever reason, I always thought the motor from Cooper Island to the Baths was 2 hours. It turned out to be closer to 40 minutes.

Arturo reminded us that the Baths had been listed as one of the 250 places you have to visit in your lifetime. Visiting the Baths in a small boat is the best way to see it. For one, by arriving at 7:15am, we had our choice of mooring balls and could moor near to the dingy buoys for a short swim ashore. The waves were surprisingly big, but it was not a problem for Bowen to swim to shore, after which I went back to fetch Boen. Boen did not care much for the swim ashore, however, screaming all the way from the dinghy to the shore, whereupon he attached himself to mommy and refused to let anyone else hold him.

The hike from Devil's Bay to Spanish Bay is unique: you walk amongst the Batholiths, negotiating over and in between boulders, occasionally wading in water the came up to your waist. You're assisted along the process by rope, stair cases, and in many cases have to bend down, squat down, or squeeze between places. Xiaoqin's job was made much worse by a clingy baby, a far cry from the last time we visited the place with just adult friends. Bowen, by contrast, loved it, and walked every step himself.

Upon reaching Spanish Bay, Arturo realized that the swim to the dinghy line there was shorter, so he and Mark volunteered to return to Devil's Bay, pick up the Dinghy, and shuttle it over so that Xiaoqin wouldn't have to walk all the way back. Xiaoqin agreed and shortly thereafter, the two of them returned with the Dinghy. I swam out with Bowen, Arturo met me half-way to pick him up, and then I went back to grab Boen, who screamed once again all the way back to the dinghy.

Arturo was effusive with praise for Bowen's swimming. "I held out my hand to him in case he needed help but he pushed it away. Then as he approached the boat he started corkscrewing just for the heck of it, and I realized that I wasn't there to babysit him. I was just there to observe and keep him from getting over-confident! You're swimming like a dolphin, Bowen!"

Once on the boat, we ate some snacks and then hoisted the main halyard while on the mooring buoy. Then I powered on the engine, we dis-engaged the mooring lines, and sailed on a broad reach towards Peter Island. Since all our air tanks were filled, we did not need to stop at Cooper but could get a less rocky harbor. Half of our freshwater was gone, however, so I knew that we would have to make a stop somewhere for water the next day or the day after at the very latest.

Arriving at the Great Harbor, we looked about for anchorage space but there wasn't any. There were plenty of mooring balls, however, so we picked one deep on the inside of the harbor for the smoothest night, and then proceeded to rest and eat lunch. At about 3:00pm it got so warm that we needed to go for a swim, and proceeded to look for a snorkeling place, which the cruising guide said that the Great Harbor was known for. Taking the dinghy out towards the restaurants on the west side of the harbor, we looked for a dinghy buoy but didn't find one. We ended up tying to the dinghy dock for the restaurant, whereupon the staff told us to just jump off the dinghy dock and look around!

Indeed the area was full of wildlife and fish, including a barracuda which I didn't spot but Arturo and John did. However, the north swell had churned up the water so much so that visibility was very limited so we didn't get many pictures.
That evening, Boen seemed much recovered, while the rest of us were still feeling a bit sick. At least without Boen screaming at night we'd all have a chance to rest. So we all took an early night, hoping that sleep would heal all.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BVI 2017: Day 2 - Norman Island to Cooper Island

We got up at 6:00am, made coffee, checked the engines, and headed out to the Indians, enjoying the sun rise and solitude as we were the first boat to arrive. The biggest problem with arriving at the BVIs during spring break is that the solitude is soon gone. By 7:30am, all the mooring buoys were taken, but we had the prime spot! Soon, we were in the water exploring the area.

In the past, we'd always opted to do 2 dives at the Indians, but the current warning from the chart briefing was to arrive at Cooper island before 12:00pm to be assured of getting a mooring ball, so we opted to do just one dive. Xiaoqin was still feeling ill, so I would get to dive and then take Bowen for a snorkel after the dive.

While many complain that the dives in the BVIs are shallow, I don't mind. In shallow waters you get better light, and that makes for better photography. The dive in the Indians for me felt like I'd never left diving. The BCD Arturo had rented for me felt perfect, with weight pockets so I didn't need a belt, and 8 pounds of weight felt very comfortable. The swim through was no problem, and holding a 15' depth for a 3 minute safety stop didn't result in me bobbing up and down.

Upon returning to the Kokomo III from the dive, we talked Bowen into a wet suit and got him into the water with his mask and snorkel on. As Arturo instructed the day before, I refused to give him any towing, and made him swim to the reefs by himself. As expected, he wasn't at all uncomfortable in the water, and in fact, swam all the way around the Indians navigating the shallows with ease and making it onto the swimming ladder by himself. In fact, he even took off his own fins and threw them onto the boat! He would improve from day to day at a dramatic rate for the rest of the trip.

We motor'd up wind to Cooper Island, arriving just half an hour short of the 12:00pm deadline. Sure enough, there were only one or two mooring balls left and we grabbed one directly from the dinghy dock for air tank refills. We had lunch, then dropped off an air tank refill for the Cooper Island dive center. After digestion, we loaded 3 dive sets onto the dinghy. John was filling sick and had started to throw up, indicating that he had contracted Boen's Nolo virus. Xiaoqin was similarly out of sorts, so it was just Arturo, me, and Mark diving Cistern point.

Cistern point was a great location for wildlife. We spotted a lobster (rare sighting during the day), and a turtle. It was a long enough dive that I started feeling cold towards the end, and we all ended the dive with well over 1000psi in the tanks, indicating the being cold was the limiting factor, not running out of air.

Upon the return, we delivered air tanks back to the dive center for another round of refills, and picked up the previously filled dive tanks. Bowen refused to do more snorkeling despite having seen the turtle, but agreed to go ashore with mommy for ice cream. Arturo started feeling a bit ill, so we checked the weather forecast to plan the next day. The original plan was to dive the wreck of the Rhone, but with everyone feelling so ill and North swell conditions being in effect, we decided it would be better to do the Baths the next day and then come back to Peter Island to do the Rhone the day after.

Sunset was pretty as usual. It was muted because so many folks were sick that we didn't really cook very much as not enough people felt like eating. We retired early to try to rest up for another 6:00am start the next day.