Saturday, April 22, 2017

BVI Trip Index

During Spring break, 2017, we revisited the British Virgin Islands on a 46' sailboat, the Kokomo III. It was the first time we'd done a sailing trip since Bowen learned how to swim, and a welcome return to the lovely scenery, consistent trade winds, and warm waters of the Caribbean.

Pictures

Day by Day Trip Index

Friday, April 21, 2017

BVI 2017: Prologue

Last year, after finally learning how to swim and snorkel, Bowen asked for a sailing trip back to the BVIs.  I was very proud of him, because that previous sailing trip included a trip to Disney World, but Bowen very much preferred the sailing. After much planning, we decided on Spring break this year. Joining us this time was Boen, Xiaoqin's mom, Arturo, Mark Brody, and John Gates.

We flew from San Francisco to San Juan, Puerto Rico, spent 2 nights there, and then onto Saint Thomas and then took the ferry to Road Town, Tortola, where we visited Conch charters for our first night sleep-aboard.


Ominously, Boen started throwing up at the docks, before we even took possession of the Kokomo III, a 9 year old 46 foot sailing Catamaran that was to be our home for the week. Arturo would later diagnose this as a case of the Nolo virus, which would go on to infect every one of us except for Mark during the week.

After Arturo and Mark showed up, Conch charters finally gave us possession of the boat, and we moved in. Bowen immediately went for the V-berth in the forward port cabin, which he loved. He wouldn't even hear of Arturo stealing it from him.

Provisioning was a taxi trip over to town, where we bought a few days worth of supplies. We forgot that the shore power wasn't powerful enough to run all the ships systems, and could only run the salon AC. That got fixed in a hurry, but after that we were OK.

Boen was having a terrible time sleeping at night, but other than that, we looked forward to being able to sail the next day!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Long Term Review: Nikon AW130

In January, we took the AW130 on a trip to Florida that produced decent pictures, but didn't wow us. We've since had the camera on a major diving/snorkeling trip in the BVI, and have many more pictures to check against.

Overall the pictures are excellent, frequently producing images in good light that made me go "wow!" The fact that the camera is shock-proof and waterproof meant that we were willing to clip it onto the BCDs or even to the wrist band of my Vivoactive HR and take it snorkeling and diving in places where it might get knocked up a bit.
You have to set your expectations correctly with this camera. Give it poor or dim lighting, and it's going to provide muddy, brownish pictures that no amount of tweaking in lightroom will improve. To make things worse, it does not shoot RAW files, and so you're going to have a lot of trouble making even simple adjustments. Don't expect to do much more than the JPG that comes right out of the camera.
The videos are surprisingly good, with my video of a Stingray feeding providing great detail and relatively good sound, even when zoomed in.

Is there room for improvement for the Nikon AW130? Yes. The distortion could be corrected better. The camera could shoot RAW files. I'd be more comfortable diving with it if the depth rating was closer to 130 feet than 100 feet. But as it is, for a diving/snorkeling/cycle touring camera, it checks all the boxes. If you didn't plan to dive with it the Olympus TG-3 is probably better, but for now if you dive/snorkel/swim with the camera there's nothing else that comes close to the AW130 for the depth rating. For the price, the other cameras in this category cannot beat it either.

Recommended.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Fintie Origami Cover for Kindle Paperwhite

Along with the paperwhite, we bought a Fintie Origami Cover for it. The official Amazon origami cover is only available for the Voyage and Oasis, but fortunately the free market has provided it to those who merely own the paperwhite.

The cover is surprisingly heavy, at 118g, which is much heavier than say, the 93g advertised weight of the Omotion cover, which is a non-origami cover.

The cover does fold nicely and becomes a reading stand, which I like a lot. You can orient it both horizontally and vertically, but since the paperwhite does not appear to have an accelerometer that lets it automatically detect when you're holding it in landscape or portrait mode, I do not expect to use it in landscape mode often.

The magnetic clasp is strong, and automatically turns on the the kindle when you open it. This is a convenient feature if you have an ad-free Kindle, but on a Kindle with ads you still have to swipe to unlock, which is an additional step. Given that you have to touch the screen all the time anyway, this additional swipe isn't a particular burden, but if it annoys my wife a lot I'll ask Amazon to turn it off.

All in all, a solid product with interesting features that may or may not get used often. I'm pleased with it, but will probably try the Omotion cover for our next Kindle. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

First Impressions: Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon finally offered a too-good-to-pass-up deal for the Kindle Paperwhite in late March, just before our trip to the BVI. For prime members, they discounted the paperwhite by $30, and then threw in a $35 trade in bonus for our old Kindle 3rd generation. That brought the effective price down to about $70, so we jumped on it.

The other Kindles were also on discount, but the main reason for opting for the Paperwhite was the Waterfi Waterproofing process, which can only be applied to the Paperwhite. I'm a sincere believer that everything with a touch screen should be waterproof, if only so that you can wash it with detergent and clean up the oily fingerprints that inevitably accumulate on the screen. The Kindle arrived too late for us to send it into Waterfi in time for the trip, but immediately after the trip I sent the device in for waterproofing and will report on it for a future process.

The device is significantly heavier than the basic Kindle at 203g. (The basic kindle is 166) Against that is that the basic kindle requires a separate cover to provide a lighted reading experience, while the paperwhite has lighting built in. The lighting is much more even than my old Kindle basic lighted cover, but you can definitely see some light banding at the bottom of the screen, which does not impact the reading experience.

During the trip, we got to compare the 1st generation Paperwhite, my old Kindle basic, and a second generation Paperwhite with this 3rd generation device. Of course, compared to the old basic Kindle there's no contest. Surprisingly, there's a significant improvement from the 1st generation paperwhite, with the newer 300dpi display and brighter backlight making for a better experience.

What I dislike about the paperwhite is that the touch screen latency is pretty high: compared to the buttons on my old basic kindle it feels like it takes an extra 30ms before the touch screen gets picked up and then the device turns the page. The table of contents screen also feels very cluttered compared to the simple, text based screens of the older Kindles. I'm not sure that the new entry screen is worth the change.

Other than that, I flipped between the old basic Kindle and the new Paperwhite during the trip. At one point my wife grabbed the Paperwhite to read The Three Body Problem and I went all the way back to the basic Kindle. While it was a downgrade, it wasn't so much of a downgrade that I wouldn't trade in the older device except that the buttons on it are getting to be rather sticky and occasionally turns two pages instead of one, which is very annoying.

Because of the button wearing out issue, I paid the paperwhite the best compliment possible: I opened up a chat window with Amazon and negotiated the purchase of yet another Paperwhite to replace my old basic Kindle at a higher price than we paid for this first one. Between the potential for waterproofing and the improved screen, I found myself willing to give up my beloved page turn buttons.

Recommended.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review: Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit is about what it takes to succeed in what is considered a grueling situation. Angela Duckworth claims that Grit, for instance, determines who's more likely to survive a West Point college career than your SATs, measures of scholastic achievements, or even physical fitness scores. She measures Grit through subjective surveys, including measures like: "how likely are you to have a never give up attitude?"

There are a few problems with her claims, chiefest of which is that correlation is not causation. In particular, unless the studies and effects are large, her sample sizes would have to be huge to account for "grit" being a major factor. A cursory search of the literature indicates that, for instance in her study of which cadets make it through the Beast Barracks:
what happened is that 95 percent of all cadets make it through Beast Barracks, while 98 percent of the very "grittiest" candidates made it through.
That's just 3%. Further down the NPR article we discover that the correlation of success with Grit is 0.18, while the correlation between SAT scores and performance in college is 0.5! In other words, given the choice between being gritty and being smart, you should definitely choose to be smart!

It would be one thing if Duckworth acknowledge all these flaws in her book, but chapter after chapter of the book is about how important Grit is, while sweeping aside any issues. She even discusses how to train grit into children.

To her credit, she does acknowledge that you can't just have someone tell you "get good at piano and improve your grittiness." One of her points is that no one can impose your goals on you --- you should be the one choosing your instrument, or the task or skill you would like to improve. Any other approach (including the typical tiger mom approach) is likely to fail.

And ultimately, grittiness can backfire. In John T. Reed's book, Succeeding, he discusses his teenage goal of getting into West Point and graduating from it. He succeeds in doing so, only to discover that military life wasn't actually very good for an intelligent, driven person, and that his personality was far less suited for it than he had imagined. In that book, Reed points out that picking your environment to suit your personality and strengths is actually far more important than the other attributes that others allude to.

In short, I don't think Grit's a  worth while book, especially given its flaws and the author's unwillingness to point out the flaws in her research. Not recommended.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I actually tried to read Cixin Liu's The Wandering Earth and thought it was garbage, so I wasn't going to bother with The Three-Body Problem. But Cynthia told me she thought it was good, so I thought that maybe my issues with the previous book was the translator. I decided to give it a try and check it out of the library.

Here's my problem with The Wandering Earth: it's science fiction as it was written in the 1940s. This might be great if you have zero scientific background, or no understanding of first year Physics or Chemistry, but for modern, scientifically literate audiences it's a major distraction and a major turn-off. Unfortunately, The Three-Body Problem also suffers from the same problems as The Wandering Earth.

The story is purportedly about the mysterious deaths of various high level Physicists. As the plot unravels, we get the real story. I won't spoil the true story, but suffice to say, the N-body problem plays a major part in it. Unfortunately, the science is implausible, and even the depiction of a VR game as depicted in the novel is a shambles. The characters are wooden, emotionally dead, and not developed. So let's see: the plot is dumb, the science is silly and unrealistic, and the characters suck. Wow, that's 3 for 3. I have to ask, "Cynthia, what were you on when you read this and liked it?"

This novel is as complete a waste a time as you can get. I'd like those hours of my life back, and I will not waste my time reading any more books by Cixin Liu. My guess is that the luminaries that have given this novel all the attention it doesn't deserve don't actually read enough good science fiction to know it if one good novel hit them in the head.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: Concussion

Concussion is the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu's first dissection of football players' brains and his naming of the disease of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This seems obvious to us nowadays, but once upon a time, nobody thought of concussions as being a big deal.

What's clear from the story is that Omalu himself did seek out the fame of being the first to discover such a significant disease. (He specifically found his mentor, Cyril Wecht, because he also wanted to be a star coroner)

Since the NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, it wasn't going to let any old medical doctor attack their business. The rest of the story is that of the NFL's attempt to discredit Dr. Omalu and his collaborators, and the eventual vindication of Omalu.

The writing is clear and compelling, and the reading is easy. I enjoyed the story, though I feel no desire to watch the movie. Excellent airplane reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, rather than a sequel, is a revision of an earlier, existing work, so if you've read the previous version of this book I doubt if you'll get very much out of this one.

If you're a fan of Dani Rodrik, you're probably well aware of the so-called Washington Consensus and its failure to lift most 3rd world countries out of poverty. In effect, the Washington Consensus invites 3rd world countries to borrow heavily in order to build infrastructure, set up "market reforms", and run a so-called capitalistic economy. John Perkins claims that most of his career was to be one of the optimistic economic forecasters who paints an excessively optimistic view of the growth of such economies in order to persuade leadership to borrow heavily.

Economic forecasters have a poor track record: it's fair to say that they basically get paid to say whatever it might be profitable to say. I'll never forget walking out of a corporate meeting where some over-optimistic PM would bring out power-point charts to convince the head honchos that China would be a meaningful revenue market for a US-based internet company. As a naive engineer I thought the numbers were fishy at best and mendacious at worst, but I figured since senior management bought into it I might be wrong. Now, would I have called that PM an Economic Hit Man? He did benefit his own career (and his promotion opportunities, as well as additional stock) by effectively lying through his teeth, but I'm not sure there was a conspiracy in China to induce Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Uber to dump huge amounts of capital into China. Greed and hubris need not get support from the Chinese government.

As a result, reading this book feels like reading the auto-biography of a self-important economic forecaster taking credit for producing results, and confessing that yes, he was unqualified to make those ridiculous forecasts, and that yes, he was recruited into doing so by some nefarious groups of government agencies and private contractors. The problem with all these claims is that he doesn't provide any evidence, and the Washington Consensus approach certainly didn't need the help of a vast conspiracy to keep pushing its agenda: greed and blind allegiance to capitalism would be sufficient to keep the momentum.

In any case, the book's entertaining, but I didn't learn very much from it (though I did learn more about various South American countries' political leadership). It's quite clear that attempts to lift most third world countries out of poverty via the Washington consensus have failed, while the Asian model has been more successful. But for better analysis you should probably look elsewhere than John Perkin's book.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: Playstation 4 Platinum Wireless Headset

I have a 5.1 surround system attached to the Playstation 4, but sometimes, it's just not practical to use it. When Amazon had a lightning sale on the Platinum Wireless Headset, I decided to give it a whirl.

The idea behind the headset is that a proprietary USB dongle plugs into the PS4, which than mixes the sound in such a way as to grant you virtual 7.1 surround sound using just the two speakers clamped to your ear. It sort of works. There's a toggle that lets you turn this on and off, and whenever I turned it on, the audio sounded just a bit more airy. But I'd be damned if I could pinpoint where the sound was coming from --- the sound stage was tiny.

Surprisingly, the USB dongle works on the PC as well, though only in stereo mode. The same applies to the PS3.

What got me to return the product, however, was that the headset does indeed clamp onto your head. After about half an hour, I wanted to take that off. Ultimately, the improvement in audio quality just didn't make up for the cost and discomfort. I switched back to using the Sennheiser PX100 instead at 1/5th the cost.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: Babylon's Ashes

Babylon's Ashes is the 6th "Expanse" novel. The previous novel, Nemesis Games, ended in a bad place, with the plot hanging in the middle of a cliff-hanger. This novel does not suffer from that problem. In fact, what's interesting about the book is that this would be a natural stopping point to stop reading the series.

The threads from all the previous plots are resolved, though not necessarily in a very satisfactory fashion. For instance, the motivation for the Earth attack in the previous book wasn't very sound in the first place, and that the people who would be motivated into supporting such an action would even raise an eyebrows in the relatively milder event of this novel seems unlikely. As such one of the major events in the novel, the betrayal of Marco Inaros' fleet captains, just felt out of character to me and never felt real.

Similarly, the ending of the book, with a pulling out of the hat of an interesting feature of the gate from the Solar system felt very much like a deus ex machina.

From the authors' perspectives, they probably felt like they fulfilled their initial promise to deliver the story of mankind's migration from the solar system. It's just not as convincing as I hoped it would be. I expect not to continue reading any Expanse novels beyond this point.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review: Now - The Physics of Time

I'd previously audited Mysteries of Modern Physics - Time and found it interesting. Then I watched Arrival and it sparked a discussion about time with my wife. Then I saw Richard Muller's Tachyon Murder quora answer and that got me to check out Now - The Physics of Time.

I sort of expected it to cover the same material as Sean Carroll's lecture series, but this book has several advantages over Sean Carroll's lecture series, not least of which is that it's fairly recent (2015) and has more up to date information. Muller also has a completely different perspective than Carroll, and approaches things very differently from Carroll.

For instance, Carroll's lecture series spends a lot of time covering entropy, and basically comes to the conclusion that the arrow of time occurs because of entropy. Muller disagrees with this theory or approach. His primary objection is that this explanation doesn't provide any falsifiable ways of proving the theory. And of course, local entropy on Earth (powered by the sun as an energy source) doesn't always increase.

Muller makes 2 key points: the first is that the physics approach to describing the universe is necessarily incomplete, not just because we have incomplete knowledge, but also because of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. In a world where we can't even predict when the decay of an atom could occur, determinism seems out of the question and the existence of free will is a strong possibility. The implication is that this means that there's no perspective in which all moments of time are equal: the now is a special time because if you have free will you can then change what will happen in the future.

The second point is that space is constantly being created by the expansion of the universe. His conjecture is that time is also continuously being created by that very expansion. He provides several approaches to falsifying this theory, though sadly he doesn't state whether there are experiments that aim to falsify it in the future.

The book's journey is quite fun, and an interesting read. There are a few places where Muller gets repetitive (especially in the philosophical section where he discusses determinism vs free will), but overall, I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the experiments that were used to confirm both relativity and quantum mechanics. These are particularly good ways to illustrate how science works and made for great reading.

Recommended.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases

I really enjoyed all the "Medical School for Everyone" series from the Great Courses, so I was happy to add Grand Rounds Cases to my collection. The same doctor is the primary lecturer for all these audio courses, so there's no concern for the listener that he may be paying for the same material multiple times: as far as I can tell, there is no overlap between all the audio books in the series. Each book/course covers a completely different set of cases.

When I read Algorithms to Live By, one of the interesting stories from the book was how simple mathematical algorithms (no machine learning magic needed!) did a better job of diagnosing patients than even the very experienced doctors who helped to come up with the diagnostic criteria. This set of audio courses is a good antidote to that sort of thinking: in particular, many of the cases covered challenge the doctor not because the diagnosis between differentials (the medical term for diseases/conditions that can match a particular set of symptoms) is difficult or ambiguous, but the extraction of the medical history from the patient required finesse, delicacy, and social skills. For instance, one patient was reluctant to admit to her history with alcohol, misdirecting the medical staff. The need to gain a patient's trust is what convinces me that even if AI was successful in distilling all medical knowledge, to properly substitute for a doctor would require the development of empathy and understanding. That seems to me a much harder job than merely providing an accurate diagnosis when given symptoms.

All of the cases are interesting. Not all of the patients survive, but all are worthy of the half hour or so the lecturer provides. You may or may not want to be a doctor, but by listening to these lectures and the descriptions of the doctor/patient interaction, you'll almost certainly be better equipped to talk to your doctor or be a better advocate for a loved one.

I am reminded of the day when we discussed a possible surgery for my father after he had a fall which turned out to cause bleeding in the brain. The neurosurgeon we discussed the case with looked at the CT scan and told us that the problem could resolve itself, or it could quickly need surgery. We opted to wait but my father deteriorated and we brought him into the hospital via the ED. Afterwards, the neurosurgeon told us he didn't realize that the CT scan was for a recent fall, and that he had given us advice on the basis that this was an old scan! Having listened to this lecture I now know that we should have been on the lookout for this sort of assumptions by a doctor, and summarized the medical history immediately on first contact with the doctor so he wouldn't be prejudiced by his assumptions. In this particular case the situation was rescued only because his primary care doctor looked at him that very afternoon and told us to rush him to the ED right away!

In any case, I think this course/audio book could very well save your life or the life of your loved one. It's well worth your time to listen to it, and if you can, get your spouse/significant other to audit it as well for the day when he/she might have to advocate on your behalf!

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Hanes Men's Ultimate X-Temp Lightweight Performance Boxer Brief

For the longest time, my go-to brand for travel underwear was Ex-Officio. The fabric is very breathable, dries quickly, and lightweight. You could bring 2 pairs on a bike tour and they would dry quickly enough that you never had any days where you would have to put on wet underwear. They weren't very durable, however: 30 days of wear and the elastic would stop being so tight, and eventually they'd look like they'd been worn by someone with twice my waist! Keep in mind that hand-washing the underwear on bike tours meant that I never put them in the laundry or dried them in a dryer, so I really babied these things!

I found a deal where I could get the Hanes Ultimate X-Temp briefs at a good price. To my surprised, they weighed even less than the Ex-Officio (by 30g each, they were 70g while the Ex-Officios were 100g!). They weren't as breathable as the Ex-Officios, but dried as quickly, and as a benefit, provided good support --- you could ride a bike wearing them and they wouldn't chafe. But the bees knees are that they're much cheaper than the Ex-Officios (1/3rd the price) and more durable! I'd been wearing them on a regular basis and sticking them into the laundry and dryer like any other pair of underwear and despite having put in 2 years into them they still show no signs of wear!

I paid the Hanes the best compliment I can give to any product recently: when my regular Costco-branded cotton underwear started wearing out, I bought new Hanes without waiting for a discount (to be fair, the discounts were rare!). Highly recommended. Don't bother with the Ex-Officios, heck, don't bother with the cheap Costcos either!

Friday, March 10, 2017

You know you're a nerd parent when....


  • All the other kids start counting from one, and your kid's counting from zero, because that's how programming languages usually start indexing their arrays from.
  • Your son asks mommy, "Mommy, I don't know how to tie knots. You better sign me up for a knot tying class."
  • He says, "That kid can only count with his fingers. This other kid can count using his brain."
  • He said to me after I demonstrated a piano piece to him: "How come you didn't practice and you can do this piece?"
  • One day, he was struggling with Rush Hour. I made him go swimming to take his mind off his frustration. The next day he solved the puzzle. He said, "After swimming, while sleeping, I worked on the problem while dreaming."
  • Instead of saying, "I need to memorize the song," your son says, "I need to download it to my brain."

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Review: Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality

I enjoyed the previous Great Courses work by Robert Sapolsky that I audited, so I picked up Biology and Human Behavior. I feel like the subject had great promise, but Professor Sapolsky under-delivered.

For instance, early on in the lecture series, Sapolsky stated that the Blue Whale Axon has a neuron that's so long as to be about 30m long! Wow, what a cool fact. To me, that immediately brought out all sorts of questions:

  • Why does it have to be a single cell?
  • What were the evolutionary pressures that drove this? Does anything ever go wrong? Why isn't this considered "a single point of failure?"
But Sapolsky never brings it up again, and in fact, there's relatively little to indicate that this has any relevance to human behavior.

Another interesting factoid that came up later on: While studying a tribe of baboons in Africa, members of the tribe started raiding the local tourist safari in search of human discarded food. The members that did so were the least socially connected members of the troop and also the most violent. Then those members caught tuberculosis and died, which effectively meant that the rest of the tribe was now composed of much fewer males, all of which were socially well adjusted. The culture of the tribe completely changed, and new male members added to the tribe (this form of tribal member exchange is apparently the norm) would get acculturated to the new culture, which was matriarchal. The mechanism of assimilation wasn't through imitation and teaching, but through the females of the tribe bestowing favors only to well-behaved males. Sapolsky asserts that if a single such generation shift can lead to lasting cultural change, there's no excuse for genetic determinism when it comes to humans. I then waited for a follow-on example of such single-generational cultural change in humans... and it never came!

I feel like the entire course consists of lots of little places like this, with many missed opportunities to pursue interesting venues of thought but very little follow up. The material itself is interesting, but somehow I felt like I'd heard it all before in my various readings over the years. The examination of human behavior was also limited: Sapolsky focused almost entirely on violence. Near the end of the series he claims that this selection was because while most other problematic  behaviors were unmitigated problems (e.g., schizophrenia), violence could have potentially positive impact on genetic survival and reproductive fitness, and so was a fit subject of study. I immediately thought to myself, "So's bipolar disorder, and to me that would be a much more interesting subject of study!"

This is the first Great Courses series that I'm disappointed by. It was still worth a listen, but perhaps some of the other audio books would be more interesting to you.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: Lucifer Book 3

Lucifer Book 3 resolves the story of what happened in hell after Lucifer abandoned it. We get a glimpse of hell, as well as Lucifer's plan to survive his duel with the angel. At no point do you ever feel like Lucifer is in any danger. The graphic novel is more about how he's going to get there.

After that, we get a resolution of the story of Elaine Belloc's 'soul and the recovery thereof.

The entire story was pretty lackluster. I stopped reading book 4 and never got around to writing this review until I realized that my library book had come due.


Monday, February 27, 2017

In Memoriam: Sweesam Na 1942-2017

My father was born in Gerisek, Malaysia, a kampong (village). He was in a family of 7, and his own father died while he was very young. Stories from that period was that he was so poor he and his brothers shared a pair of shorts. When the older brother met the younger brother on the way home, he'd take off his shorts and give it to the younger sibling to wear to school.

Moving to Singapore in his 20s, he had 3 sons and went from being a laborer to a driver to running his own business. With that, he supported 3 sons. He didn't enjoy being in the US when we immigrated. But he still moved here after he retired to be with his grandkids.

The last few years have been challenging. He survived 2 strokes (both of which were caused by falls), but despite that learned to Snorkel at age 72, and just a few years ago was still carrying Bowen around in a baby carrier.


When I arrived at the house on Sunday, I heard my cousin's littlest baby crying, and so thought everything was going as usual. Then my mom told me that he's choking. My two cousins held him up while I grabbed his belly and heaved. I did so repeatedly and saw something on the floor but nothing more came out. We called 911, and when they arrived I had to lie down because I was exhausted.

They had to lever out the food and used an AED. By the time he hit the ER there'd been irreparable damage because of a heart attack. The ER doctor told us that our dad was dying, and that if it was his parent he would not go for heroic measures to keep him alive as he would never be able to breathe without a ventilator again.
We took him off the ventilator at noon on February 2/27/2017. He passed away at 4:10pm. He is survived by 1 brother, 2 sisters, his wife, 3 sons, 2 grandsons, and 1 grand daughter.

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games is the 5th book in the Expanse series. It's the first novel in the series that doesn't standalone. You could presumably read any of the previous novels without any of the preceding ones, but this novel would simply have not much impact (or even make much sense) without the context of the preceding novels. Furthermore, the novel doesn't even resolve the situations it sets up, ending on a cliff-hanger for the next novel!

Having said that, this is the first novel that I feels fulfills the promises the authors (yes, James Corey is a pen-name for two authors) made at the start of the series, which is that the Expanse is ultimately the story of humanity's expansion from the solar system to the rest of the galaxy.

The previous novels set the stage: a star gate has opened up to the rest of the galaxy, and the mad land-rush has begun. The barriers to humanity's expansions have fallen, and the alien menace that wiped out the civilization which created the star gate is nowhere to be seen.

With all that in place, of course, humanity will find a way to screw it up and make a mess of things. The crew of the Rocinante has about 6 months to wait for their ship to be repaired and restored, and so each of them (except Holden) outsource the repair job and head out to reconnect with their respective pasts. This is a welcome break, since we've never actually gotten actual character development with everyone other than Holden in previous novels, and the authors take their time to give us a detailed glimpse.

Of course, when all hell breaks loose the crew comes together, but only just in time to set up for the inevitable 6th book in the series.

As far as novels are concerned, it's the first novel in the series that I would consider recommended. Unfortunately, you pretty much have to read all the previous novels to make sense of it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: Pediatrics Grand Rounds (Medical School for Everyone Series)

Parenting books are mostly extremely badly written. But Dr. Roy Benaroch is a real doctor (a practicing pediatrician) and I enjoyed the Emergency Medicine audio lectures so much that I thought this would be a hoot.

Nearly every lecture in this 24 lecture series made me wish I'd audited this series before I became a parent. It answers so many great questions that I'd had and does so in practical, case-study type format that treats each patient complaint as a mystery, some with serious implications and some without:

  • How does sleep training work, and how quickly can you do it? (it's turns out the cry it out methods are faster than the alternatives)
  • Why are vaccine schedules set the way they are? (turns out that this is driven by medical studies and periods of vulnerability)
  • What serious birth defects do existing prenatal screens detect, and which types slip through? 
  • Why is folic acid important?
  • What's the best way to discipline your kid? How do you properly do a time-out? (It turns out consistency and immediacy is key --- if you can't impose the punishment immediately, it's better to ignore it than to mention it and not follow through)
  • Cancer is the leading cause of deaths among children between 1 and 9, but leukemia is surprisingly treatable (80% survival rate).
One might think that listening to this series would cause you to become paranoid and hypochondriac, but in my case I just felt very grateful that all our visits to the hospitals and clinics have been relatively complication free.

This is not to say all the case studies in the series have happy endings. Some of them don't, and one of the episodes might be very distressing if you're sensitive. Dr. Benaroch is very careful in calling it out in case you want to just skip that episode, so I wouldn't let that deter you from listening to the series.

Unlike Emergency Medicine, I didn't manage to get any of the diagnosis correct on the case studies (except 1), so that meant the series taught me something new in every episode!

Highly recommended. And if you're a new parent, contains valuable information about how to interact with your physician and how to make the best use of your time.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: Your Best Brain - The Science of Brain Development

I'm a sucker for anything by John Medina, so when I saw that he actually had a Great Courses program called Your Best Brain, I picked it up hoping that it wouldn't be too much of a repeat from say, Brain Rules for Baby.

It turns out not to overlap with the book very much at all, which is great! The major thesis of the program is that your brain is a physical object, and therefore is subject to all the laws of physics and chemistry, along with the rules set by evolution. The net result is that a lot of the times, Medina explains something through the thought experiment of thinking about what man's ancient ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti had to face, and what problems the brain evolved to solve.

The coverage then starts from Neurons and Dendrites, and then moves on to the major areas of the brain. Each lecture ends with practical tips on how to optimize your brain. Most of them are no brainers, like: "get enough sleep! Just a few hours of sleep debt is enough to make you behave like you're drunk!"

Other interesting tips:

  • If you need to learn something for a test, try to do the learning in an environment as similar to test conditions as possible.
  • Memories work best via repetition, but not cramming. And all nighters (as you would expect from the above) are a no-no.
  • Classic teenage rebellious behavior is a Western phenomenon. In most non-Western cultures, you do not get teenage rebellious behavior unless/until the kids in those cultures have been exposed to western media.
  • Elizabeth Kuber-Ross's ideas about the stages of grief ("denial//anger/bargaining/depression/acceptance") is BS. For most humans, the response to grief is resilience.
  • Get 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week to optimize brain function. Yes, that means Garmin's Vivoactive HR's "intensity minutes" approach is completely correct.
All in all, the course is great, and I can recommend it. Well worth the time.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Review: Lucifer Book 2

In the previous book, Lucifer managed to create an entire new multi-verse out of the current Cosmos. In Lucifer Book 2, the repercussions of it are brought forward as folks race towards the new multiverse to establish a foothold. In this book, Mike Carey reveals that yes, the DC Cosmology is entirely Judeo-Christian based, with the name of the universe's creator being Yahweh.

And this isn't the God of the New Testament, this is the God of the Old Testament. Jealous, petty, and probably appropriate for the age of Trump as president. Not only does he view Lucifer as the adversary, he views disobedience as reason to punish innocents as well as the guilty. We never do get to see Yahweh's face.

There are a few side stories in the book about the new world Lucifer's created, some of which are actually very well done (involving time differentials between the two cosmologies). Lucifer's still a sympathetic character, but it's also very clear that he's entirely self-centered, willing to sacrifice others to achieve his aims.

Comic books are fast, easy reads. This one was available easily on Hoopla. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have bothered making a trip to the library to pick it up. I'm not in a hurry to keep reading on to the rest of the series, however.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is the 4th Expanse novel. In the third novel, James Holden manages to open up the star gate through which other systems can be accessed, and of course, true to American Frontier form, squatters from the outer asteroids immediately zoom through the gate in order to claim land and territory. An official UN science expedition arrives months later, and the squatters resent the presence of official authority enough to start a pre-emptive attack.

Of course, any human venture into a new frontier would result in massive chaos, huge amounts of selfishness, and eventually our protagonist Jim Holden is asked to show up and mediate between the two sides. Events escalate from there and he and his crew have to deal with the planet trying to kill them, the two sides trying to kill each other, and the mystery that's in Holden's head trying to get him to do what it wants him to do.

From the overall arc of the novel series perspective, the meta-plot and story is advancing at a glacier pace. The novel itself sets up tense situations, but shies away from actually resolving them in a realistic fashion --- the authors treat each scene like a cliff-hanger in which the crew of the Rocinante is expected to survive, thereby draining tension from the novel. There's relatively little character development, and the main villain is horribly unrealistic.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Review: How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition

How to Listen to and Understand Great Music is misnamed. It really should be labeled: The structure and form of Western Music. I don't really fault Professor Greenberg for this: it's quite clear to him that "Great Music" is restricted to those composed by Dead White People. I'll admit to mostly being a music philistine: I hated my piano lessons as a kid, and rarely understood the point of Mozart. I labelled all instrumental-only music as "classical".

Well, Professor Greenberg taught me a lot:

  • "Classical" music is actually a misnomer. There's "Baroque", "Classical", "Romanticism", and "Modernism." These labels apply to various epochs roughly corresponding to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy. Each of these epochs had unique characteristics that were reflected in the music. I was actually surprised that I could learn this because at one point during the program Greenberg played a piece of music and asked the listener to guess what epoch it came from and I actually got it right.
  • Beethoven really does sound different from any composers before him. His music, unlike that which came before, actually does represent extra-musical content. I tested this by playing a Beethoven symphony to Bowen, who did promptly ask: "What does this music mean?" Which is not a question that usually comes up with other instrumental music.
  • Professor Greenberg is a fan of Opera. Despite his immense enthusiasm, I still can't stand it. Despite his picking what he thinks are great musical pieces to listen to, I'm afraid I agree with one of the characters in John Steakley's fabulous novel: "Opera is for vampires. The living prefer rock and roll."
  • Life during the middle ages was tough. One of the composers had 20 children, out of which only 2 survived to adult hood. Many of them died young (Mozart at 35), and even when they were alive had poor health and frequently the medical care hurt them. Greenberg did not shy from providing excellent coverage of the composers' lives, which made them far more interesting as people than I would have thought.
  • The piano technology got hugely better from the 1600s to the 1800s. That's why in Mozart's symphonies, whenever the piano played the rest of the orchestra had to pipe down: the piano simply wasn't loud enough to compete with the other instruments in the orchestra. By the time you got to the 1800s the concert grand could hold its own against the orchestra and the symphonies written then didn't have to pipe down the rest of the orchestra as much. I wished Greenberg covered more of this since it would have been interesting to see what other technological changes in instruments affected composition.
  • Dance music (waltzes, etc) is not considered "Great Music", so I don't ever have to listen to them even if I was a music snob.
Conclusions that Greenberg didn't mention but that I drew for myself:
  • The various forms of music (e.g., Sonata Form) were really designed for music that was written in a pre-recorded era. That's why, for instance, Sonata Expositions frequently feature repeats of the themes. In a pre-recording era, you weren't going to listen to a piece of music repeatedly on demand, so each musical piece would have to repeat its themes during the exposition so the audience could hold it in their heads. This practice doesn't stand up in recorded music, since if you were to listen to the pieces repeatedly (e.g., if you listened to any of the numbered symphonies more than once a week), the expositions quickly become boring and feels like the composer's condescending to your intelligence. Greenberg vehemently demands that repeats be played exactly as written (and there's definitely a purist approach where that's correct), but I can definitely see why these already long pieces can't compete with shorter musical forms (e.g., Rock & Roll), which evolved in an era where recorded music that can be (re)played on-demand is the norm.
  • Classical music was used as the catch-all for Western instrumental music forms because it was the pop music of the day. The middle class was starting to happen, which meant that regular people could become amateur musicians and learn to play well enough to demand easy-listening pieces.
  • The need to express individuality and originality drove composers from Beethoven onwards to slowly abandon the traditional forms of instrumental music. What makes most modern instrumental composers unbearable to most people (e.g., Schoenberg) was when composers completely abandoned tonality.
I learned a surprising amount over the 42-lecture listen. The biographies of Beethoven, Listz, Tchaikovsky, and other composers were fun and added a lot of life to people behind the music. There were several pieces that I'd never heard before that I made notes to hunt down to listen to, and of course, I discovered that I'm a Beethoven fan and not a Mozart fan.

Nevertheless, I'm not convinced that Great Music should be restricted to those instrumental pieces constructed in the past. Certainly for today's "repeated listening" environments, I think many popular music genres out-compete the so-called classics for good reason. Nevertheless, if you have the time, I'd definitely consider Professor Greenberg's lecture series well worth a listen.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Review: Lucifer Book 1

Lucifer is a spin-off off of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. In that book, Lucifer gives up his reign in hell and decides to retire to Earth to enjoy his days. Of course, life is never that simple, and in this volume 1 we get to see what happens when heaven comes calling and asks him to do something in exchange for a passage.

Writing Lucifer couldn't have been easy: in this incarnation he's not really evil, but he effectively has to have unlimited power in this book. As a result, author Mike Carey contrives repeatedly to put him into situations where he's not the most powerful being alive, but has to trick his way into winning (which again, is not a problem for the former Archangel).

DC Universe's cosmology is a mish-mash of everything at best, and incoherent at worse. This allows Carey to get away with all sorts of situations where he essentially gets to make up the rules as he goes along, playing with your sympathies for the devil, so to speak. You also do get to feel sympathy for his subjects and the secondary characters in the book, since the blow-back from the main plot really affects them the most.

All in all, it's entertaining enough. It doesn't quite rise to the level of the Sandman, but I'm guessing if that's your standard you should read Fables and then stop.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Review: The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project is a biography of the relationship between Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky,  Kahneman, of course, was the Nobel Prize winner (and author of Thinking Fast and Slow), who together with Amos Tversky, pioneered prospect theory and many other pieces of behavioral economics. Their collaboration created a revolution in the future, and they were rightly feted with all sorts of prizes.

What's interesting about this book is that it doesn't just cover their theory, which you can do better by reading Kahneman's book. It mostly covers their relationship, the context their friendship started and was sustained by, and the eventual falling apart of their friendship, which was described by their spouses as being much worse than a divorce. The context of their lives turned out to be extremely important to their theories and the eventual persons they would become, and a shift in environment later led to their falling apart.

Academia (like any other organization, including large corporations) have a hard time with true partnership and collaboration. As a result there was a tendency in academia to favor Tversky (the more extroverted of the two) over Kahneman. A natural assumption would be that envy was what destroyed the men's partnership, the book makes a convincing case against such a simplistic view.

The subjects of the book are treated with respect, and I'm very impressed that Michael Lewis didn't try to draw any generalization from their unusually intimate collaboration. I came away from the book with much better insight into what drove them. As a bonus, the book also features Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, so you get to see what the legacy of Tversky and Kahneman are in today's world.

All in all, the book was captivating and insightful. It's the best book I've read so far this year and I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: Abaddon's Gate

I think I've figured out how to read The Expanse series of novels, of which Abaddon's Gate is the third novel. It is also clearly an original intended "end" of the trilogy, though like any modern author, when you get success in a series, you'll just churn out as many follow up novels as your readers can stand. The series works if you stop pretending that it's science fiction, but instead consider it to be space fantasy. Most of the mysteries and items of interest bend or break the laws of physics, and probably will never be explained to the satisfaction of an Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter novel.

Taken from that perspective, the first two Expanse novels were readable, but not great, since their characters weren't developed well enough, but the "space opera" aspects were sufficiently well done that the ending of the second novel compelled me to put a hold on the third novel. In this novel, the mystery is that of the direct consequences of the first novel have taken fruition and now takes the form of a space station known as "The Ring."

Consequences of the events of the first novel also put Jim Holden's ship in jeopardy, and we get a situation in which Jim, haunted by the ghost of the other protagonist in that novel, on a collision course with The Ring. The characters by this time are well established, and no longer the caricature that they mostly were in the first two novels. Holden no longer comes across as a pure ideologue through the plot device by which his natural tendencies are favored instead of being idiotic.

As an action/adventure/suspense novel the story works well enough that I found myself enjoying the novel. The plot is unfortunately still predictable, but would make for good TV.

Recommended as an airplane novel.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Review: Seveneves

Seveneves is Neal Stephenson's book about planetary disaster. The premise behind the book is that an unknown agent bursts the moon into the 8 fragments, and the resultant collisions between the fragments eventually comes down on earth as "hard rain," resulting in ecosystem wide destruction and loss of atmosphere and water.

The first part of the book feels a lot like traditional, Heinlein like science fiction, tales of technological feats, derring do. Elon Musk even makes an appearance in the form of an analog. Of course, the events of the past year have probably convinced you that even in the face of impending total disaster and destruction, humans would never behave as nicely as those in a Heinlein novel, and to Stephenson's credit, they don't. Politics abound, intermixed with technical heroics, and humanity is reduced in size as a result of self-serving actions until its not clear that there's going to be humanity left by the end of the book.

This is a typical Neal Stephenson novel: you're going to get massive multi-page info dumps in the middle of a story to explain the technical details behind the technology, which may or may not be interesting to you. If you don't like Stephenson, this novel is not going to change your mind, and in many ways, it's nowhere as interesting as Snow Crash. Characters are caricatures, and the last third of the book is incredibly unbelievable, as we're asked to believe that the remnants of the first part of the book are capable of rebuilding civilization without being at each others' throats over past behaviors.

So: bad science (at least, if the moon were to blow up in such as a way as to kill the Earth, it's unlikely we'd have time to launch any sort of crash survival program!), unbelievable plots, and pretty stereotyped characters. But it's still the most readable Stephenon since Cryptonomicon. Mildly recommended.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: Packable Handy Hiking Backpack

When I travel, I frequently have to tote along my CPAP machine in a shoulder bag. On top of that, sometimes I have to tote along a child in a kid carrier, which means that I have no room left for a backpack. The solution is to grab a packable backpack.

While I've looked at various packable bags in the past, none of them have folded into their own pocket as elegant as the Handy Backpack.  When on sale, it goes for $9, which makes it very cost effective. It's not waterproof, nor does it have a hydration bladder port, but does have side pockets that fit a full size water bottle, which is very useful.

I can see this easily becoming a staple of my travel kit. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Batman - Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

For whatever reason, I missed Neil Gaiman's What Happened to the Caped Crusader when it first came out. Turns out I didn't miss much. The cover story is essentially a series of what-if stories about a funeral for Batman, exploring alternate world explanations for Batman's life. It's a little fun read, but compared to the really good Batman stories? It's not even close.

The rest of the book features some fairly inspid stories that have nothing to do with Batman. I'd give this a pass, despite the pedigree of Neil Gaiman.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: The Gene - An Intimate History

Every so often you'll read something about how genome sequencing has gotten cheaper, or how genetic engineering has led to a breakthrough in certain agricultural products. But then you'll think to yourself: "The Human Genome Project" was done at least a decade ago. How come we haven't gotten anything interesting out of it? Has there really been zero progress? Where are the gene-engineered babies and super-athletes that's going to make doping obsolete?

The Gene: An Intimate History goes a long way towards explaining what's going on in the field. It's biggest problem is that it's a layman's book. So in addition to having to suffer through the personal stories of the author and his family (yes, it's relevant, and if you're an English major you might find it interesting as it adds personal color, but I just rolled my eyes and skimmed it as quickly as I could), you have to suffer through the pedantic explanation of the discovery of genes through Darwin, Mendel, and various other folks like Galton. There's also significant coverage of the eugenics movement and the horrors of world war 2. If you're a reasonably well-read engineer this is all old hat and you can zip through as quickly as you can read.

The story gets interesting only when you get to Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. From then on, the exposition gets far more interesting as we start to explore the current knowledge about DNA, it's relationship to RNA, the relationship to epigenetic markers (which I didn't realize were real markers with chemical traces) and why progress in gene-engineering has been so slow.

Part of the problem is that the number of genes in the human genome is surprisingly small (19,000-20,000). You might think that this is good news, as that means that there are fewer genes to study and make sense of. That's not correct. Genes in the DNA are activated and de-activated as needed, and used to generate proteins. The problem with a much smaller than expected set of genes is that it means that the genes are probably used in multiple places in surprising ways with complex interaction between them. In other words, you'd much rather read 100,000 lines of well-structured code than 20,000 lines of spaghetti code, some of which modifies itself (or is used to generate code that then generates more code!). For instance, the human immune system has to have generic approaches to creating and reacting to anti-bodies, since at the start it cannot know which types of viruses or bacterial infection it has to respond to.

The other problem is that gene expression is not 100% all the time. The biological term for this is "penetrance." In other words, if a gene's presence causes a disease only 50% of the time, it's not enough to detect for the presence or absence of the gene. You also have to understand the environmental triggers that cause the disease in the presence of the gene. That's a problem even for single-gene diseases where a distinct gene can be tracked down that causes say, Huntington's disease, or certain forms of breast cancer. It's an even bigger problem for multi-variate factors like intelligence, where multiple genes from all over the genome might contribute. In other words, unlike genes for hair color and eye color, most genetic determinants of attributes we care about cannot be tracked down to a single gene, which makes everything much harder to develop.

Then there's the editing problem. Until relatively recently, there's been no easy ways to edit a gene sequence. So even if you did know the changes you want to make to a genome, you'd have no way to edit precisely the change you wanted to make. The barrier to this is slowly falling as new techniques are developed, but even with the new techniques the delivery mechanism to an adult human is full of danger: previous gene therapies have been tried which have killed the patient.

Finally, there's no complete model of the human genome as it interacts with the environment. This is a severe problem, so editing a gene could have unintended side effects and consequences. It boggles my mind that there isn't a project to provide a computer model of the human genome from the DNA up. You would want there to be a "virtual human" the way there's a "virtual machine" that lets you experiment when you build a new operating system or to see the changes you make. (Or at least, maybe there is such a project but the author of the book didn't see fit to mention it) Until that kind of technology is available to at least predict what your changes are going to end up doing, gene engineering seems kinda dangerous, like writing code on a machine with no process isolation --- any mistake could end up killing the patient!

All in all, this was a decently comprehensive book, and does a great job of explaining why we don't have super-intelligent engineered babies or super-athletes that don't need doping to win. Recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: Gears of War 4 (PC)

Over the last few years, Microsoft's been increasingly making rational business decisions. One of the less seemingly rational ones, however, is the introduction of XBox Play Anywhere. The idea is that if you bought an XBox game, you'd be able to play it on both an XBox and a Windows 10 PC (well, a PC that had a decent graphics card, at least). In theory, this is a nice perk for folks who've bought completely into the Microsoft eco-system. Except that I don't know why you'd have both a high-end graphics card PC system and an XBox.

There are several problems with this: first of all, if you have a capable PC, this definitely means you won't buy an XBox. Maybe Microsoft doesn't care, or maybe it's just a side effect. The second issue is that the PC ecosystem is still wonky. Some games, (e.g., Quantum Break), may or may not play on your system.

In any case, I wouldn't normally pay the absurd prices digital vendors ask for consumables such as video games. But over the holidays, Microsoft ran a series of Microsoft Reward specials that enabled me to convert Microsoft Rewards points to cash for the Microsoft App store. Since I had 20,000+ points, I took full advantage and ended up with a large app store bonus. The Microsoft app store, sadly is lacking in useful programs, so I picked up Gears of War 4.

Gears of War 4 belongs to my favorite genre of shooter games: the 3rd person cover-shooter. Gears of War has the reputation for being the series that introduced this genre to the world, so I downloaded the multi-gigabyte download to my D drive and started up the app. PC gaming has a reputation for being very complex, requiring lots of tweaking and tuning in order to maximize image quality while still retaining a high enough frame rate to be acceptable. To my surprise, out of the box, the app detected my system settings and picked a compromise that I could not casually improve in about 10 minutes of playing with the dials and sliders available in the settings screen. That made me feel like Microsoft had really done its homework.

Then, when I started up the game, upon the opening titles starting up, the game crashed. Not only did it crash, it crashed without a dialog box, without a log file for me to look at, or even any indication that there was anything wrong. The system snapped back to the desktop as though I'd quit using a keyboard short-cut. Not cool. I searched around for a solution but couldn't find an answer. I eventually stumbled upon this: a Universal Windows Program (UWP) game cannot be installed onto any drive other than C in order to run. What's this? Did we regress to the mid-1990s, where everything had to be installed into the C drive? Wow.

Other than that, the program had been mostly stable. In the last act of the single player campaign I ran into hard system crashes, but then again, my 8 year old PC is starting to get flakey in general, so maybe that's to be expected. In any case, once I figured out the C drive issue I could play, but I can certainly understand how the PC gaming ecosystem got its reputation as being unfriendly or even user-hostile, on top of being expensive and bulky.

The game itself is fun. Here you have to split your understanding between "fun as a game" and "fun as a movie experience." Games nowadays have movies driving a plot in between playable parts. Games like Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, or Batman Arkham Asylum have excellent plots, fantastic pacing, and a nice balance between game play and movie watching so you're never bored and have a good experience. A game like Rise of Tomb Raider might have better game play (including more complex but satisfying resource management systems), but much worse writing and plotting. Gears of War pretty much says, "Forget the story --- it's just an excuse to dump you into the Game Play loop."

Gears of War's game play loop, however is pretty bland! There are no resource management issues: you fundamentally have to pick up ammo or switch weapons. Sometimes the weapons left for you on the battlefield are a hint as to what's coming up. Several times, you have to play a "hold the line" scenario, in which you can deploy fortifications which can help you hold the line and even carry over resources from one wave of enemies to another. These are particularly fun and can withstand repeated play. But that's it. Now it's been a while since I got a cover shooter to play, so I had a lot of fun, but there's no way you would pick up an XBox just for this game, nor would you even bother paying money for it, since it's something other games do a much better job on. Nevertheless, as a freebie, it's a game that doesn't waste a lot of time, jumps straight into what it does best, and gives you loads to do.

There are a few mechanical niceties. First of all, the game always gives you at least one companion character at all times to play. Those companion characters can even take care of themselves and each other, as well as saving you if you get hurt badly (you can also crawl back to one of them to get "rescued."). Then I noticed the enemies doing the same, so the mechanics apply to them as well. Very sweet. The game is much less lonely than a Batman game or a Tomb Raider game as a result, which is a very good thing.

The story and characters aren't much to go by, though some of the banter is great at making fun of the game itself. The boss fights are fair, and the game never overstays its gimmicks. In short, this is competent, polished work. Just not inspired. If you have an XBox One (or a gaming capable PC) anyway, a sale might make this worth picking up. And it is one of the few games where configuring the graphics settings isn't an exercise in frustration. As such, I can recommend it if you enjoy 3rd person cover shooters.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Laser Maze Jr Logic Game

Laser Maze Jr is a puzzle game (like Rush Hour) that features a laser built into the board, 3 obstacles, 2 rocket ship targets, 5 satellite mirrors, and 1 splitter. Unlike Rush Hour, Laser Maze Jr is deliberately not compatible with the adult version of the same game. The reason behind this is that the adult version allows you to pick up and move the laser, which would be dangerous for a little kid to do since the kid might shine the laser into somebody else's or his own eyes.

The game is set up like Rush Hour: you get a bunch of cards that tell you how to set up each puzzle, and the goal is to make all the target rockets on the board light up using the pieces that you're allowed to use. There are several problems with the components. First of all, the laser is very low powered and subtle. In fact, in a room with windows and bright sunlight, you cannot tell whether the targets are lit up! You'll have to draw the curtains to make it obvious.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the components are small and easy to lose, and Thinkfun's policy is $5 per part. Fortunately, the lossage occured within Amazon's window (in fact, the game could have arrived with one of the mirrors missing). With such an unfriendly policy it was a no brainer to return the entire game to Amazon. One way to have mitigated the lossage problem would have been to have a decent carry bag bundled in the box, or some way to lock unused pieces to the board, but neither of those features were available.

With all the design defects with the product and the extremely , I would not recommend this puzzle to parents. Wait until the kids are old enough not to lose pieces.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: Batman and Psychology - A Dark and Stormy Knight

There was an audible 2-for-1 promotion that included Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.If anyone's going to have psychological issues, it's gotta be Batman, so this sounded like a fun read (or in this case, listen).

In practice, it's pretty boring. No, Batman isn't insane (despite dressing up as a bat). Neither does he suffer from PTSD, multiple personality disorder, or any of the alphabet soup of problems he should have. Given what he is, what he does, and the world he lives in, he truly is the best possible person he could be. That's pretty boring.

The analysis of his rogue's gallery proves to be more interesting: what are the aspects of his personality that his villains reflect? What about his femme fatales? His relationship with the father figures in his life? And the relationships with the various Robins? How to reconcile all of the "what-if" stories that have been written over the years? How about the campy TV series, the Tim Burton movies and the Christopher Nolan movies?

The author, Travis Langley has an excellent command of the source material, and uses them to good effect (though I noticed that he quotes much more from the Chris Nolan movies than the other movie materials). He's conducted several interviews and/or been in comic book convention panels with various Batman writers. I certainly couldn't remember even half the Batman trivia the book provides, though I suspect Tom Galloway would probably be able to top it and correct any typos in the quotations.

Overall, the book does do a good job of dispensing with the various myths propagated by years of comic book stories. "No, the Joker would not get away with the insanity defense, nor would any of the other comic book villains." Multiple personality disorder cannot consistently recur with a blow to the head. The book even cursorily covers parenting styles!

But despite all that, the book never really captured me, despite what should be fascinating subject matter. Maybe because the psychology of a character that's been through multiple authors just can't be that consistent, or that I'm much more interested in Batman's role as a symbol and place in popular culture than in the psychology of what actually makes Bruce Wayne tick. I found myself switching between this and other audio books to give the grim subject matter a break.

Thus: not recommended even if you're a Batman fan.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: Rush Hour Jr

I saw a copy of Rush Hour Jr for sale during the holidays and grabbed it, having had fun memories of the original, adult version. The game is essentially a "slide puzzle", but with restricted direction of movements for the "cars and trucks" and a goal of getting the key piece out.

The game components are better than the adult version: the toy vehicles aren't any better made, but the game comes with a carry bag, and the vehicles are kid-themed: buses, fire trucks, police cars, and of course, the ice cream truck "key" piece.

I expected Bowen to have to struggle with the puzzle, but he actually got to puzzle #26 before getting stuck! The best thing about this puzzle game is that if/when he runs out of the puzzles in the base piece, the expansion card decks are fully compatible with the adult versions of the game, so more curated puzzles are available. Whenever Bowen got frustrated, he'd put away the game for a few days and then come back and start all over at Puzzle #1. I'm rediscovering that kids just don't get bored of repetition the way adults do.

There are Android app versions of the game, but I discovered that they were all geared for adults and the puzzles are a bit too hard for Bowen. Curation is really what you're paying for, and of course, there's something satisfying about pushing the plastic pieces on a board versus swiping away at a phone.

To the extent that your child likes puzzles, this is a cool, easily portable kit that can actually engage your child for a good afternoon at a time. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review: Heat Moisture Exchanger

If you travel with a full-size CPAP machine (which I do when I travel with family), then you might consider bringing the humidifier as well. However, the humidifier adds a huge amount of weight, not just because the humidifier itself is bulky and includes a heating unit and water chamber, but also because the power supply need to drive it also needs to size up!

This winter, on our travels, I looked at the HME attached to my Z1 CPAP and realized that it could also serve as a replacement humidifier for the Resmed S9!

The HME is supposedly disposable and needs to be replaced every week or so. (In practice, every 10 days is sufficient) For the last 3 days of the trip I decided to do without just to see. It was horrible. I went from being able to use the CPAP all night to taking off the machine after 4-5 hours of therapy. (This might have contributed to my catching a nasty virus on the flight back!)

Suffice to say, next time I buy a batch of HMEs, I'll be buying far more than for use with just the Z1! This is essential equipment and it doesn't go bad and I can easily buy enough to qualify for a discount!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Disney Magic Kingdom and Universal Islands of Adventure

On paper, it looked like a good idea to return the rental car in the Orlando area, and visit the theme parks there before returning to California. My idea was to visit the Kennedy Space Center on the transition. A deluge of storms and a wrong turn on the highway made that plan worthless.

My memories of Magic Kingdom were colored by the 2014 visit. At that time, the crowds were minor, and we could do every ride Bowen could do in 2 days.


This time, the clouds were extensive,and our fast passes of limited use as all the good rides were already taken. The waits were long and the food expensive. The fireworks was something to see, but it disrupted the kids bedtime enough that they were cranky. I feel no desire to ever repeat the Magic Kingdom visits except under some very ideal conditions.

With that, our expectations for Islands of Adventure was muted. The customer service was horrible, with long lines just to wait for the tickets an app that refused to issue tickets! But once into the park it was actually a better experience than the Magic Kingdom. The lines were short except for one ride (the King Kong experience), and more importantly, Bowen loved the Spiderman ride.



The Spiderman ride is a 4D ride, with water, heat, and 3D glasses. The roller coaster experience along with the other sensory inputs were so much fun that Bowen went on the ride 5 times! We tried some of the other rides, like the Jurassic jungle experience, and I tried the Hulk roller coaster, but none of them were as complete as the Spiderman one. We didn't stay too late, but one nice thing about the park was that if you did stay late, the park's lines become even more diminished and it's a much more pleasant experience.

If I had this trip to do over I'd visit the Islands of Adventure first and stay late to that one, and not do Magic Kingdom again. One interesting feature is that while Disney now owns Marvel, Orlando Universl has an exclusive license to use those characters in a theme park, which is why Disney's theme parks don't actually have Marvel characters! Just buy your tickets ahead of time at your hotel or online and you won't have the massive wait we had to get into the park.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Florida Keys 2016

This winter break, we took the family over to the Florida's Keys area for a warm weather visit. There are a few reasons the Keys is attractive: first, it's in the continental US, so the flights are fairly easy, and the areas are familiar. Even stores like Costco and Target are available, which makes shopping for supplies much easier than some of the more exotic trips. Secondarily, it's almost at the Caribbean, which makes the water warm enough for swimming and snorkeling, as well as providing ideal location for a refresh dive. Added to the attractiveness is the idea that much of the Keys will be gone in a few decades as sea levels rise, so we should see it while we can! Houses in the area, for instance, are already built on stilts, with the idea that when floods and storms happen you would escape by car and abandon your garage/parking area to nature.

Neither Google nor Facebook no longer allow embedded slide shows of albums to blogger, so you now have to put up with a crummy web-link if you want to see the photo album.

Because it was our first time in the area, we screwed up a lot. First of all, we booked our rental house in Marathon, instead of Key West or Key Largo. When I looked at the map, I naively thought that Marathon being between Largo and West would make an ideal base from which to commute to both sides. What I didn't know was that traffic in the Keys is terrible, and Florida drivers are much worse than California drivers by several orders of magnitude. Commuting from Marathon to Key Largo was an ordeal during traffic hours, and there was one day when we abandoned a trip to Key West because there was a 4 hour traffic jam!



We did a dive trip from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. All those months spent teaching Bowen how to snorkel finally paid off as he enjoyed the water and loved looking at fishes. His limit was basically his ability to keep warm in the water. His favorite movie quickly became Finding Dory!

On New Year's Day, we went to Key West for the Yankee Freedom to ferry us to Dry Tortugas National Park. This place was touted as having the best snorkeling in the Keys and lived up to its reputation. While most tourists stayed near the beach, if you make it over to the coal pilings, it's like swimming in an aquarium!



We paid a visit to Bahia Honda State Park. Unfortunately, the wind and waves made it impossible to do any snorkeling, and the swimming was mediocre. Both kids enjoyed the sand and sun though.




One interesting feature of Marathon was that we could easily visit the Turtle Hospital. You need to make reservations for this, but it was all Bowen could talk about for a few days. The facilities were indeed impressive and it's interesting to see what sort of ailments are solutions the hospital developed. It's well worth visiting, and yes, some of the turtles were named after the mutant ninjas.





On our second visit to Key West, we visited the Hemingway House. At most museums you would avoid the dry, boring tour. Not here! The tours are led by funny guides who did a good job of making the writer's life interesting (not that any life which involved 4 marriages, several wars, and affairs needed a lot of help!).





We got to watch the sunset, but boy, the crowds were something as well. The house we were in had a dock, so we rented a tandem kayak to explore the area, and did some final snorkeling before leaving for the Orlando area.

If I had to do this trip all over again, I would either stay at Key Largo or Key West, preferably with a base in each area rather than trying to split the difference. The rest of it you're dependent very much on the weather anyway as to how good the snorkeling is. One thing worth trying is to rent a boat in Miami and sail/motor down to the Keys. It's not as pleasant as the BVIs, but there are enough anchorages that it would be prettier than trying to see the place by land.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Panasonic Ergo Fit Earbuds

The Playstation Vita supports bluetooth, but in a funky way that disconnects every time it goes to sleep, and occasionally finds it difficult to pair. I wasn't willing to spend a lot of money on dedicated headphones for it, so got the Panosonic Ergo Fit  Earbuds, which had great reviews on Amazon.

The ear buds are surprisingly comfortable and do a reasonable job of sealing out outside noise. What's really nice about traditional headphones using the traditional headphone port is that the power requirements are minimal and the devices last forever, whether they're smartphones or PS Vitas.

For $8 + tax, these are a great deal. In fact, I wish I'd sprung for the version with the inline mic so it can serve as a backup for my regular bluetooth headsets.

Recommended.

Monday, January 09, 2017

First Impressions: Nikon AW130

The Nikon AW130 isn't nearly as good a camera as a high end smart phone. While it will start up pretty fast and take pictures, and the optical zoom is obviously better than any smart phone's, the camera is missing features like Auto HDR, and the sensor in the camera isn't any bigger than your smart phone's.



The lens features awful distortion and the wide end (see the curved horizon line above), which even Lightroom is unable to correct (I'd have to pull up Photoshop). At the wide end, it probably any better.

Of course, it's 30% of the price of current high end smart phones (at $199), and it shoots pictures under water even down to a depth of 100 feet. The camera also features shock-proofing for a drop from 7'. The zoom is internal, so there are no moving parts underwater to break, and it features wireless connectivity to your phone so pictures can be exported without a 3rd party app. It does all this without a case, but unlike say, the Olympus TG-4 ($379), does not feature RAW mode.

In practice, the pictures from the camera are better than the Moto G 2015. I picked the camera because there was a sale during Black Friday for ($199), which made it too attractive given a snorkeling and diving trip that we had in December. The price difference between it and more expensive cameras is such that I'd rather have this one with the better depth rating like the above-mentioned TG-4. I opted not to go with an underwater case for one of the better cameras because I've flooded way too many cases in the past, and the extra bulk didn't seem worth it.

In practice, the lack of RAW is by far the most punishing problem with the camera. Let's face it, under water, I'm not going to be adjusting white balance, zooming, or setting aperture and shutter speed. I would rely on RAW post-processing for all that. Because the camera only shoots in JPG, I can't do that and have to  live with limited adjust-ability. In ideal conditions that's not a big deal but in challenging lighting conditions or murky water your keeper ratio is just going to drop like a rock.

Another issue is that the camera is not neutrally buoyant, so you're going to have to find a way to secure it or it'll sink like a stone if you let go. During this trip it wasn't a big deal. Every time I needed to use both hands for other uses I'd just stuff the camera down my wet suit and recover it later. But the camera does not come with any kind of strap suitable for underwater use, so I'll have to find another solution for the long term.

Waterproofing is done via a lock on the chamber that provides access to micro-USB charging and the SD card. There are no rubber grommets to break and lose, and the inside of the chamber is colored bright yellow so you know that the camera hasn't been waterproof'd. The closure is a bit finicky and I'm fearful that the locking mechanism will break some day, so I would avoid opening and closing the chamber frequently. The wireless transfer via smartphone would be one way to avoid doing that, but Nikon's solution/app is even worse than Canon's, which surprised the heck out of me. The result is that I'd process photos every other day rather than  every day.

Overall, I do like the camera enough to recommend it at $199.00 (which Amazon  still supplies). Hopefully, competition will drive one of the major manufacturers to provide a better camera in the future for a similar price, but for the moment this is the best compromise for the money.