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.


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.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Review: Daredevil Season 1

One of the challenges of a superhero series is the expectation built up over the years from having some really great stories. For Daredevil, there's Miller & Mazzucchelli's Born Again. That story, however, stood in context of a long series, while the TV show (for whatever reason) feels obliged to tell the origin story, recasting it in a different fashion.

TV shows get much more room to deal with their subject matter: tension can be added to scenes, and longer stories get a chance to play out. With series on streaming video like Netflix, shows don't even need to have a 3 act structure to give room for commercial breaks. Towards the end of the season, the producers and directors take advantage of this to deliver 55 minute episodes instead of 45 minute episodes, which allow them to derail expectations in certain sequences while heightening the climaxes.

The chief villain in this season is Wilson Fisk (known in the comics as The Kingpin, but never gets that label here). The actor does an amazing job, portraying Fisk as a man with genuine goals and ideals and viewing himself as a good guy.  The show spends about as much time on him as it does on Matt Murdock. Daredevil himself never gets a name until right at the end, nor does he wear a costume for most of the series.

The storyline is reasonable, and the action sequences are justifiably praised by critics. The entire thing was done on a budget, but done well. The show even takes advantage of its ability to depart from the comics by killing off characters that were long standing actors in the books, adding more shock value to those who read the comics.

Is this the best superhero show on TV? I haven't watched enough shows in recent years to be able to tell you. But it's pretty good, and with the holiday discounts, enough to justify the microSD card storage space I had devoted to it while I watched in 15 minute chunks during the holidays. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Review: Caliban's War

Caliban's War is the sequel to Leviathan Wakes, and the second book in the Expanse series. It has much of the fun and flaws of the first novel: the characters don't really develop much, and the storyline while full of plotholes, is still compellingly readable.

The novel does a good job of summarizing the previous novel for those who skipped it, so you can jump right in. There will be several references that won't be understood, but by and large the plot doesn't need much of the back story as the characters are kept in ignorance of the grand plot anyway (which is being set up in this novel).

The crew of the Rociante are the central characters of the novel, though UN under secretary Avasarala also plays a major role in the story, explaining the politics of the situation.

Most of the story takes place on Ganymede, a station that supplies food for the rest of the outer solar system. We get some insight into what it takes to keep a sustainable ecosystem, and why such systems are prone to failure and fragile while being complex enough to be unpredictable. All that exposition falls away, however, as soon as the shooting starts, and once it starts, it pretty much never stops.

In many places, I wonder why humans bother with exploring space in manned vessels. I'm pretty sure that this novel, like many space operas, will seem quaint and out of date by the time the AI revolution is over. Manned weapons cannot keep up with AI-driven machines, any more than a human player will ever succeed against DeepMind at Go or any computer at Chess. Add to that the need for human-piloted machines (acknowledged in the novel) to stay below around 8gs and the first super-power to deploy AI machines will simply wipe the floor with all the others.

If you enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, you'll enjoy Caliban's War. In a world where sequels often disappoint, this is unusual and worthy of note, though not sufficient for me to rate this better than mildly recommended.