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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Day 1: Road Town, Tortola to Privateer Bay, Norman Island

Our paddleboard had gotten delivered the night before, and Mark's flight was thankfully only delayed an hour, so we could get the ship's briefing and get the scuba gear delivered and installed before doing one final provisioning run. Mark showed up from the airport just as we'd come back to the boat and then we were off!

In past years, I'd moor'd at Kelly Cove and then dinghy'd over to the caves for the snorkeling. But from last year, I remembered that there were a fair number of mooring balls at Privateer Bay, which was right next to the caves, so we made for it and arrived at 3:00pm or so to find a couple of mooring balls left. We picked one up and proceeded to get into the water.
The caves on Norman island are a snorkeler's delight. You can snorkel along the reefs and watch the wildlife, or dive into the caves, take off your fins, take a break on land, and then go back to swimming. We did all that, and also discovered a bunch of cuttlefish that we would also find again later, in large groups.

By the time we'd finished exploring and returned to the boat the sun had gone down, so we enjoyed the sunset and the barbeque dinner. At this point, we knew what would happen the next day, which was a visit to the Indians and then Cooper Island to refill the tanks!

Monday, December 17, 2018


American Airlines was a nightmare. First of all, they'd called several times prior to the trip to change our flight. We had gone from flying into EIS to flying into STT, and then from flying into SJC to flying into SFO. Given that the travel plans were made as much as 6 months ago, we had no choice but to accept those changes and then complain loudly to customer service, which resulted in them giving us a measly 5000 additional frequent flyer miles! Then when we finally showed up on the airline, the promised "first class" lie-down seats didn't fold flat. (I was skeptical of the airline promise in the first place, but I looked on seatguru and at that time it seemed to indicate that I was wrong)

But our nightmare was nothing compared to what Mark Brody went through. His flight was so late that he missed his connection in San Juan and was forced to overnight in a hotel there. Arturo had suggested that he fly to STT but the morning flight and wrangling with airlines made it so that Mark was too tired to try.

We arrived safely and on time in St Thomas, and picked up the baggage with relative speed, but got to the ferry only to discover that the 3:30pm ferry had sold out! Fortunately, there was another ferry at 4:00pm (and the last ferry was at 4:30pm) so we were good.
On the ferry, we sat on the top deck to get maximum sun so we could get over the jet-lag. Arturo had arrived on time with no problems, but he'd been depending on having Mark to help him provision, and with our ferry schedule and the need to go through immigration at the ferry terminal, there was no way we would make it to the Omega before 6:00pm.

Indeed, by the time we made it to the boat (there were very few boats on the Conch slip) and moved in, we were famished and walked down to the Indian restaurant for dinner, leaving poor Arturo to provision by himself and pay the taxi driver extra to get stuff down to the boat. When we were all united, we discussed various plans to leave the dock without Mark if he became delayed again, but came to no definitive conclusion.

We were all pretty tired and so turned in early.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

2019 Book Reviews

Audio Books

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Index Page: BVI 2018

From November 16th to November 27th, Arturo Crespo, Mark Brody, and my family did a sailing cruise in the British Virgin Islands. This marked my 5th trip to the Virgin Islands and Bowen's 3rd (lest I forget, however, this was also Bowen's 5th sailing cruise!). This is the index page for the day by day trip report and other expository information.

This was our first trip since the Hurricanes in 2017, which changed the British Virgin Islands in ways we expected and didn't expect. First of all, the one of the mooring balls we used to use for diving were swept away and have not yet been replaced. This wasn't expected, since I expected things underwater to not get changed that much. Then there were the indirect effects. For instance, the Wily T in the Bight sank and was replaced by a newly built one, but then the owner of Norman Island forced the Wily T to move to Peter Island's great harbor. That meant that the Bight is now a relatively quiet place, while Great Harbor is now a go-to destination for the party crowd. But it also meant that Cooper Island was less crowded, as the Great Harbor on Peter Island now draws some of the crowd that used to visit Cooper. Finally, in Gorda Sound, Leverick Bay has gone from the quietest harbor to the busiest --- the other harbors are still under reconstruction. There are still a lot of boats sailing the waters, but many of the smaller charter companies have yet to recover their enter stock of sailing and motor vessels so now is the time to visit if you want quieter harbors.
White Bay, Peter Island, BVI

Day by Day Trip Report
  • Prologue
  • Nov 18th: Road Town, Tortola, to Privateer Bay, Norman Island
  • Nov 19th: Privateer Bay, Norman Island to Cooper Island
  • Nov 20th: Cooper Island to Prickly Pear Island
  • Nov 21st: Prickly Pear Island to Marina Cay
  • Nov 22nd: Marina Cay
  • Nov 23rd: Marina Cay to Anegada
  • Nov 24th: Anegada to Cooper Island
  • Nov 25th: Cooper Isalnd to White Bay, Peter Island
  • Nov 26th: White Bay, Peter Island to Great Harbor, Peter Island
  • Nov 27th: Great Habor, Peter Island to Road Town, Tortola

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: So Good They Can't Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You is Cal Newport's counterpart to John T Reed's Succeeding. The difference is that Cal Newport's an academic, so he'll take his arguments to extremes that most normal people won't. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing, because you can see how he takes his arguments to the logical conclusion. It's a bad thing, because that approach lets him ignore practical realities that aren't necessarily congruent with his worldview. As such, I think John T Reed's book is much better, but that doesn't mean that Newport's book isn't worth reading.

There's one core thesis to Newport's book, which is that passion is a worthless idea. He points out that even "passion" touters like Steve Jobs did not have a career path with a clearly defined goal at the outset. Most success stories revolve around opportunistic approaches, where skill/talent meets opportunity. As such, Newport's advise will sound a lot like your grandparent's approach to love in an arranged marriage: there's no such thing as an ideal career or person, you should just learn to love what you're stuck doing.

Obviously, high caliber people (i.e., people who can be bothered to read a book such as this one) will have lots of choices as to what skills and careers to pursue. Newport declares that the best approach is to have career capital. In other words, be so good at something valuable that you can have your pick of projects in the related area. Again, this is kind of an odd duck. For instance, Scott Adams' advice, which I think is quite appropos for most people, is to have a combination of skills that make you unique, rather than being the best in the world at any one thing. (Newport himself is such an example: an academic who can write is far more valuable than most other academics, excepting the ones who are at the top in their field)

He then blathers on about mission and a marketing approach to constructing your ideal career and lifestyle. This is by far the weakest part of the book, since it's quite clear that Newport himself doesn't have a good understanding of marketing and mission either. His habit of summarizing each chapter at the end just looks like padding because his chapters are so short!

Ultimately, I like the book's major thesis, but I disagree that Newport's approach is clearly the correct one. For instance, there's a huge factor involved in personality and fit to your job and career. John T Reed points out that it's much easier to adjust the environment to fit your personality, rather than trying to change your personality to fit your environment. That's much better advice than Newport's. Similarly, in a world of increasingly short attention spans, in many cases all it takes to make it into the top 10% is to be willing (and able) to read a book and execute. Now, being in the top 10% is great. But being in the top 10% of basket ball players won't get you anywhere, while being in the top 10% of computer programmers will get you a good job that pays very well! So it's important to understand that when building "career capital", but Newport doesn't acknowledge or seem to understand that.

I started this review wanting to recommend that you read Newport's book. But by the middle of writing this review and reflecting on the book I've realized that the academic approach to career advice that Professor Newport espouses is as unrealistic as the "passion hypothesis" approach he inveighs against. There are much better career guides out there. Go read those instead.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants

I'm a sucker for deals. I thought I was happy with my Columbia Titanium Rain pants, but Massdrop had a good deal on the Outdoor Research Helium Pants, and in a moment of weakness, I bought it. It didn't rain in California for a while, but when it finally did recently, I dug it out and put it on.

Wow, these are nice pants. The material is thin but waterproof, and the medium fits me perfectly. These are much lighter than the Columbia I previously used. No water gets through the pants no matter how much I rode in the rain, and I never got hot. They are much thinner than the Columbia version, and lighter as well. Now I'll have to sell off my Columbia pants because these are so much better than I wouldn't go back to the Columbia again.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: The Learning Brain

The Learning Brain is  The Great Courses series on how your brain learns material. By coincidence, I audited this course while also reading How to Become a Straight-A student, so the two complemented each other, with this course providing the theoretical background, while Newport's book provided a practical approach.

The theoretical approach has much to recommend it. For instance, rereading a textbook is known to be useless (Newport also appears to know this, but never explains why in his book). It turns out that it's far easier to recognize material you've read than to retrieve it. In order to pass exams or truly internalize the material, you need to master retrieving it, so the best approach is to test yourself. Similarly, highlighting material is inferior to explaining the material in your own words, which in turn is inferior to mastering the material to the point where you can teach others.

Polk goes beyond what Newport does by providing further details: here's how much spacing in between study sessions you'll need to maximize effectiveness. Even better, here's how you learn implicit skills (such as playing tennis, golf or the piano) so you can maximize performance. It turns out that randomizing your skills gives you worse performance at the time of practice but will improve performance in the long run. This is counter to most practice: for instance, many tennis players will go to the court and practice forehands, then backends, then serves. Professor Polk's approach would have you randomize which one to do. (I've found this to be true in swimming pools: most people would practice one stroke for 15 minutes, then another, then another --- I myself tend to interleave my strokes for precisely the reason Polk provides)

There's great stuff about the neurobiology behind all this learning, and in addition, there's also a section on aging and how to prevent it from affecting your brain, but of course you know the answer to that: a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and good sleep.

What I haven't seen elsewhere in this course is a study on human motivation. There's a ton of studies showing how the US falls far behind many other developed countries (and also many developing countries) despite having some of the highest per-capita spending on schools and students. It turns out that the reason is student motivation. Unlike many other countries, the USA had the highest number of students who agreed that "doing well in school is not important to succeeding in life", as well as many who worried that doing too well in school would stigmatize them socially! (Obviously, the sample for these studies drew from far more school districts than those you find in Silicon Valley) The material covers both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with results you might have read about or heard about from elsewhere.

Needless to say, this is a great course (pun intended) and well worth your time. Recommended!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: How to Become a Straight-A Student

Despite not liking his previous book, I checked out How to Become a Straight-A Student. Obviously, it's too late for me to become a Straight-A student (not that my GPA ever limited my life choices, for which I'm going to consider myself lucky), but maybe as my kids grow up I can find easy short cuts that will enable my children to skip a lot of blind alleys.

Prof. Newport claims that he wrote this book based on interviewing lots of other college students who were similar to him. In other words, he was one of those folks who could manage a social life while still having good grades. (Pengtoh, for instance, was famous for playing pool the night before exams, and got me to join him a few times) The techniques he stumbled upon turn out to have good basis in academic literature, but he doesn't seem aware of that.

The most important takeaway from this book is that one should be organized. Basically, pulling an all-nighter studying before a test or exam  isn't going to improve your grades, and the sleep deprivation might actually hurt you. So the goal of all his advice comes down to breaking down assignments and exams at least a couple of weeks ahead of time and then splitting up the studying into manageable chunks so you don't get overwhelmed.

This is, of course, an excellently organized approach. Pengtoh, for instance, gave me great advice once by telling me to do the assignment for CS162 (Berkeley's Operating Systems class) the night it was handed out. In those days, project assignments were performed on a time-shared VAX-11, and students being the procrastinators that they were, if you waited till the last minute everyone would logon and try to use the machine at the same time which would make it excruciatingly slow. So I would get my stuff done and then be working on other stuff when the machine became excruciatingly slow and my fellow classmates complained that the assignment was too difficult!

So if you grew up in Singapore or other similarly scholastically challenging places, you'll find all this advice stuff you already knew. For instance, the test taking techniques are something that every Singaporean is exposed to since the PSLE: do all the easy questions first, then the harder questions that you know how to do, and save all the "I'm not sure I can do this" questions at the end if you have the time budget for this. I have no idea how any American getting into an academically challenging institution wouldn't know how to do this, except that Steve Hsu points out that as much as 33% of Harvard's incoming classes are legacy admits and athletes.

The advice in the book that's of great use to most students from Asia is the stuff pertaining to writing a research paper. (By this, Newport means research papers in the non-technical courses --- history, etc)  This is organized into research, bouncing ideas off the professor, more research, organization, outlining, writing and revision. Newport provides a detailed timeline for how to do this, including when you should hit the professor during office hours, and how to make use of the library for research. I somehow escaped having to do this during my time at Cal, so it was all new to me.

The advice on how to truly master and learn the material is great. Basically, skip re-reading the textbook (research shows that re-reading and highlighting is a waste of your time), and build your study materials out of "Question/Evidence/Conclusion" tuples. When you organize the material like this, make sure you can answer every question without referring to your notes. If you can't, go over the questions that you couldn't, and repeat until you can. This is academically proven to be effective (though Newport doesn't seem to know that --- he doesn't provide a clear directive on how to schedule your study periods for maximum retention, for instance). For technical courses, he provides a different approach, which is problem-set based. Again, that's sound, but of course, if you grew up in a scholastically challenging academic environment (i..e, anywhere in East Asia), you already knew this.

In any case, this book is well worth your time reading if you're a middle school or high school student who would like to make better use of your time. The information provided is such that parents should read this and pass it on to their kids at the appropriate time. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is Yuval Noah Harari's book about the future of human civilization. It's not actually got 21 lessons that are explicitly laid out or organized in any form whatsoever, and as a historian, Harrai's approach is to speculate about the future mostly by example from the past.

For instance, the problem of Fake News is discussed, but Harari poits out that the biggest "Fake News" of all are the various mythological religions and founding myths! OK, sure, we've managed to get a huge number of humans hooked on traditional witch-doctor-style indoctrinated belief systems, but there's no discussion about how despite humanity breaking free through enlightenment found itself tangled up in Fake News other than that wealthy people and big data analysis and machine learning somehow have learned to hack human psychology and created a mass of people who can no longer distinguish between reality and what Fox News is telling them. Harrari carefully ignores the fact that Fox started way before the prevalence of Big Data.

Harrari points out that in the future we might just trust Google/Algorithms/Big Data Cloud with our personal lives that we would just hand them our lives and ask them what we should do. This seems unlikely given that statistics are just that: you would still have to figure out which statistics apply to you. Harrari might simply have swallowed all the hype about machine intelligence hook/line and sinker without stopping to investigate deeply what this means. For instance, even if your doctor could be replaced by a Big Data algorithm, it's very likely that you would still need human contact for optimal care, and that cannot be done just by robots.

The net net is that the book discusses a ton of big problems facing humanity (massive loss of jobs, huge inequality, and of course the upcoming climate crisis), but doesn't actually provide any "lessons" or even a reasonable call to action. These are interesting problems to think about, but I think I'd prefer an analysis by someone who actually understands the technical problems, as opposed to a historian.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

2018 Books of the Year

This year, I read 53 books worth reviewing, audited 8 audio books, and read 12 graphic novels. That's well over a book a week, though some of that is mitigated by books I read to Bowen.

My comic book of the year was Runaways. The first arc was great, and while the rest of the series diminished the work established there, it was a great story and a lot of fun.

My favorite audio book this year was Law School for Everyone.  You would think that it's such a dry topic, but the lecture series was put together very well, and if you yourself are not a lawyer, chances are some day you'll need to hire one, and this would give you a great foundation. If that's not for you, I also recommend How Music Works, which was so good that I was inspired to watch a David Byrne concert.

My favorite novel this year was Crazy Rich Asians. The novel's much better than the movie, so if you liked the movie even a little, you're going to love the book. It's a quirky, entertaining book that's worth your time and uniquely Singaporean. If that's not to your fancy, I think Children of Time or The Hobbit would be your next best bet. (And seriously, if you haven't read "The Hobbit", you should!) Finally, parents could do much much worse than to read Harriet the Invincible to their kids. Triple that recommendation if they have daughters.

This year's non-fiction finds were particularly awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed Educated, The Great Influenza, Leonardo Da Vinci, Misbehaving, If Stones Could Speak, Never Split the Difference, and No Apparent Distress. Each one of these would make great reads, and I had a hard time coming to a "best book" pick. I very much waver between Leonardo Da Vinci and Misbehaving, but if you had to twist my arm I would say that Richard Thaler's book is just a little bit more relevant to today's world. Educated is also very much worth reading but would require a strong stomach. And obviously, if you have a child (or maybe even if you don't), If Stones Could Speak is awesome and short.

It's been a great year for books, so I hope these recommendations don't come too late for your holiday purchases!'

Friday, December 07, 2018

Review: American Sniper

American Sniper is Chris Kyle's autobiographical memoir of how he came to be the SEAL sniper with the most number of confirmed kills in the American military. It falls in the same genre of post Vietnam veterans narrative like No Easy Day. There's a huge difference between such modern day narratives and narratives of past military ventures written by Tim O'Brien, or the non-fiction fiction, Matterhorn.

This difference can be traced to the change in the American military from conscripted troops to an all volunteer army.  Now, you can argue that many participants in the all "volunteer" army are those driven by economic factors, and that the American military is an alternate welfare program. But there are two important factors here: first of all, the American military is unique in that you will see action if you ask for it. There are many militaries (including countries like Taiwan, Switzerland, and Singapore) where you mostly will not see action. That means that it attracts people like Chris Kyle, who did went to college and could have gotten good jobs if they wanted to without military action or the risks that go with it. The excitement and joy of battle comes clearly through the narrative. Not only are soldiers like Kyle excited, enthusiastic, and well trained for the job, they're also paid well enough to supplement the equipment the military provides them with their own gear if it would make a significant difference to their on-the-job performance.

Not only that, in a military where not everyone is a volunteer, there would be a rush to get away from the battlefield into administrative or strategic positions. Not so as far as Chris Kyle is concerned: he would try to avoid promotions so he could stay in the field and shoot bad guys. Certainly, I could imagine the terror the Iraqi conscripts would feel when faced with soldiers like Kyle, who would at times abandon his position as a sniper to lead a marine unit directly in building-to-building fighting, city block style, simply because he thought that leading that unit would provide fewer casualties than if he were to stay in his sniper position. This was a guy who didn't want to take the navigation course because by becoming too important to risk in a firefight he would be kept out of the action!

There's a flip side to becoming so addicted to action. Kyle is aware, for instance, of the rift that occured between him and his wife over his military deployments. Yet despite her obvious unhappiness he re-enlisted after his first term was up. After all that unhappiness and marriage counselling he finally relented and left the military after his second term. More insidiously, Chris Kyle never questioned what the USA was doing in Iraq, and never questioned President Bush's approach, going after Iraq when going after Osama Bin Laden clearly should have been a higher priority. You could read throughout his narrative that he thought Iraq was a messed up country that required lots of violence to bring their leaders to the table to organize the country, but didn't consider that the use of American military force was what led to some of his fellow team members losing body parts or dying. I guess he thought that any excuse to get out the weapons and shoot bad guys was good enough.

In recent years there are serious political debates about the tribal nature of American politics. While I have no interest in understanding say, the parents of Tara Westover, I don't find people like Chris Kyle unsympathetic. So I think it's worth while for liberals to read this book. And unlike Educated or Hillbilly Elegy, this one is fun to read. Recommended.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Review: Blood, Sweat and Pixels - The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

Blood, Sweat and Pixels is Jason Schrieier's behind the scenes looks at various games that have made it in the news over the last 5 years. To some extent it suffers a large amount from survivor-ship bias: it studied 9 success stories and only 1 failure.

The theme across the book is the phenomenon of "crunch." That is, of working an insane amount of overtime to try to launch a game. Schreier implies that there's no way out of not working in crunch, but of course he's a journalist and taking a self-aggrandizing product manager's word for it in every case, some take what he says there with a grain of salt.

Many of the games are household names. For instance, Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 are both featured in the book. In Uncharted 4's case, it was clear that the directors suffered from burnout, having shifted from just finishing up The Last of Us right into production hell  on Uncharted 4, having ousted the previous director of the  project.

In particular, the Witcher 3's managers themselves undermined Schreier's thesis, admitting that they overdid the quests in the game and probably could have cut about 20% of the quests without hurting the game. (Indeed, I over-leveled on that game!)

The author does cover 2 indie games: Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight, neither of which I've played. In both cases, the developers were working for themselves rather than for an employer. Schreier pointed out that Stardew Valley's developer was a fresh graduate and didn't really know how to manage his time, basically moving on whenever he was bored, rather than when he was actually finished with the feature, so he was always 6 months away from finishing. But of course, he kept adding feature after feature to the game as well, only launching the game when he was sick of working on it.

Shovel Knight was a kickstarter project that was successful, but also suffered from the "stretch goals" launched during the kickstarter part being far more ambitious and costly than anticipated. I thought the coverage was good.

All in all, the entire book's worth reading (including the backstory about the LucasArts game that got canceled after Lucas sold everything lock stock and barrel to Disney, who had a poor history with video games and would rather outsource everything than maintain an in-house studio). All in all, it's quite entertaining, but the entire book reads like a series of short Kotaku articles rather than a coherent book. Nevertheless, it's worth your time and very easy to read. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Review: No Apparent Distress

No Apparent Distress is Rachel Pearson's autobiographical account about how she became a doctor and the process of medical training.

Pearson is unusual in that she first wanted to be a writer first, and then changed her mind and decided to be a doctor after graduating with a degree. Much of the story takes place in Galveston after Hurricane Ike, which gave the local medical hospital an excuse to ditch care for people without health insurance.

The book isn't a political screed about the need for universal healthcare, but you see it in Pearson's encounters with patients throughout the book: cancer patients who can't get the surgery or chemotherapy they need, poor children who have no access to antibiotics, teenagers who cannot manage their diabetes properly because their homes are broken and they have no regular physician. (It's not clear that medicare for all would even have worked for some, since many of the patients were also undocumented)

The book was also enlightening to me in that it showed how doctors get trained: in wealthier, teaching situations, the hospital could actually hire "standard patients" who would evaluate doctors in how they approached care and give doctors-to-be feedback about how they were doing. In situations like student-run clinics or hospitals that provide care to folks without insurance, many of those patients would be seen by doctors-in-training, who would occasionally miss important clues. Pearson herself described her misunderstanding of a urine test that caused one man to be diagnosed of cancer too late, and another man who had such high blood sugar that he should have been hospitalized but wasn't. She then contrasts it to the luxury clinics where patient after patient would refuse to be seen by a doctor-in-training even for low risk health issues.

I have nits to pick with the book: frequently, she provides irrelevant details for the English majors who enjoy reading that stuff. It's a depressing book because so many of the cases end tragically not because medical science can't provide a cure, but because the cruel American medical system will not provide resources to help those who aren't insured. At one point she mentioned that the affordable care act had little impact in Texas because the Texas state government refused to expand medicaid to cover its poorest population.  Of course, the poorest part of the population aren't going to vote or can't vote, so there's no penalty for doing so.

Despite the depressing read, I learned more about a doctor's education process than I knew and came away better for it. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Review: Deep Work

Deep Work is Professor Cal Newport's book about how to achieve more maker time. Likes most of his other books (and perhaps a characteristic of books written by computer scientists and other technical people) is no-nonsense and straight-forward.

Newport spends way too much time selling you on the idea of maker time (or what he calls Deep Work). I think suffice to say, most people who would pick up a book with this name would already be convinced of the need for it, so I have no idea why he tries to sell it so hard. His examples (ranging from Carl Jung to Bill Gates) are decent, though perhaps not as impressive as he think they were. (Does anyone still think Jack Dorsey is the second coming of Steve Jobs?)

Let me to summarize what useful tips are in this book:

  • Facebook/Twitter/Social Media is the tool of the devil for Deep Work. 
  • Ration your use of distractions on a schedule. He recommends 50 minutes of Deep Work and then 17 minutes of distractions, since it's impossible for anyone to stay concentrated for more than that amount of time.
  • Exercise your mental muscle in various ways (one odd suggestion is to practice improving your memory: he cites the author Joshua Foer, whose practice made him such a good student that he was accepted into stellar graduate schools for his PhD)
  • When responding to emails, take the extra time to try to complete the loop right away, rather than let the task degenerated into a million e-mail threads. For instance, rather than end an email with: "Let's meet for lunch!", you can end with: "I'm available next Tuesday for lunch @ this place. If you're up for it, you don't have to respond."
There's lot of time spent railing against today's work environment, with open plan offices, and a huge mix of instant message, e-mail, and various random crap injected into the workplace for no productivity benefit. I've long contended that engineering organization that adopts and introduces Slack into their workflow is asking for a permanent 50% reduction in engineering productivity, so I'm of great sympathy to Newport's inclinations, but again, if you're going to read a book like this, you'd much rather get a bunch of tips on how to do this than a bunch of reminders as to how great it is once you can achieve this focus.

Wow. I started this review thinking very positively of it, and ended it realizing that I didn't get much in the way of what I started reading the book for. That means that despite my great alignment of sympathies with Professor Newport, I can't recommend this book.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Review: How to Be A High School Superstar

I've been following with interest the recent lawsuit against Harvard about Asian discrimination. It's quite obvious that that being an unhooked Asian Applicant at any of the Ivy leagues or Stanford puts you at a severe disadvantage. Darwin Lo pointed me at Cal Newport's blog, including a fabulous post on the Failed Simulation Effect. I enjoyed the simple, no-nonsense writing style that Professor Newport demonstrated, so I checked out How to Be A High School Superstar. I was not disappointed. Professor Newport's direct, transparent, and to-the-point style is a great relief, compared to the pompous approach taken by many college admissions officers, who love to say things like: "Harvard isn't everything, you can have a good life without going to Harvard."

Newport makes several points:
  • There are many students taking the "do-everything" approach to college preparation: do all the AP classes, sign up for many leadership positions at various clubs, and pursue extra-curricular activities designed to look good for college.
  • Because so many students are doing so, the result is that if you take this approach unless you're at the very cream of the crop, you're going to look like yet another cookie cutter candidate. (This looks particularly bad if you're Asian, since Harvard applies a "Personal Rating" penalty to all Asians)
  • So doing the conventional "do-everything" approach is actually high risk. Not only is the field of competition larger, all it takes is one bad day at an exam to get an A- that will tank you.
Newport proposes the "relaxed superstar" approach:
  • Deliberately underschedule yourself so you have time to explore different interests, focus on one or two, and excel in them.
  • Find and join a "closed" community. Pay your dues in that community so that you're entrusted with bigger projects, and scale up from there.
  • Aim for projects that will be impressive and inspire admissions officers to think: "Wait, how did a high school student manage to do this?"
Despite the "relaxed superstar" label, You'll need discipline to pull this off. In particular:
  • Triage your classes. Yes, you'll need at least a couple of hard classes so that you demonstrate that you can handle college level intellectual rigor. Newport calls these your "showboat" classes. But you don't need to do more than 2 of these. Avoid "electives" that create a lot of busy work while not providing any value unless it's one of your avid interests.
  • Create a study schedule. Avoid wasting time on studying: when taking notes, don't just jot down what the teacher says, create question/evidence/answer-style notes, and study by explaining (simulated teaching) the concepts out loud as though you're teaching the class. Write papers in 3 days (1 day for research, 1 day for draft, 1 day for polish), spending no more than a couple of hours in each day. Separate the days so ideas have time to mature in your mind when you write. Don't cram. Aim to finish the work by 6:00pm each day. (Research shows that cramming is counter-productive to learning, so this is good advice objectively) Never Facebook when you're supposed to be studying or working on a project. Always approach a subject that you're trying to master as though you know nothing: find the best expert that's accessible to you and ask them how they achieve their results.
  • Triage your extra-curricular activities. Drop anything that requires an excessive amount of work without compensation in either emotional terms (i.e., one of your interests) or other social rewards (e.g., the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex).
Note that Newport never says that you can skip academic rigor. He says several times that you have to do well enough in your academics that you meet the GPA/SAT cut-offs for the schools you want to get into. That's just the price of entry.

Having done so, you now have the time to explore multiple interests. He points out that one early marker of success in this approach is the ability to read. Newport writes that most kids who're relaxed superstars are reading adult-level books by grade 3 or 4. Without the ability and interest to read, it's very difficult to explore interests sufficiently deeply to be able to impress a college admissions committee.

Newport provides so much material in this relatively short book that I can't summarize it all. Suffice to say that it's extensive and achievable, and is deficient in only a few areas:
  • No discussion of survivorship bias. In particular, there's no systematic study of how many people attempt Newport's "relaxed superstar" approach and failed, since presumably only those who succeed would report back to him with enthusiasm.
  • I suspect that the "relaxed superstar" approach would only work when the fashion amongst students is the "do-everything" approach. If the "relaxed superstar" method became popular, then it would become just as competitive as the "do-everything" approach and become just as high-effort/low-reward. Ultimately, there are only so many tv-spots, etc. that have room for high school students. (In other words, if this book ever got translated into Chinese, the approach could become swamped)
Someone once pointed out to me that the American college application system is the most corrupt possible system in all possible worlds. Suggest that a rich person could buy his/her way into say, the Chinese examination system or the French elite ecole institutions, and you'd be laughed at by their respective nationals. It is only in the US where there's a direct line from the donations system to the admissions office, and where the scions of the politically important get a free pass. While that criticism is valid, the situation is what it is. As a parent who doesn't plan to go all in on the "Tiger Parent" approach, Newport's book will be something I'd recommend my sons read when they're in middle school, and then I'll probably let them decide what level of risk they want to take.

This book comes highly recommended. It's a short and easy read and well worth your time. I'm intrigued enough to go look for Newport's other books.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Review: The Water Will Come - Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

The Water Will Come has a nice long bombastic title. The subject of course, is ocean levels rising and the impact it will have on coastal cities. When I first started the book I expected to hear that the project rise will be something frightening. So when the number came, I was shocked by how inconsequential it would be. The projection is that the sea level will rise by 3' by the end of the century. That's 36 inches. Now, this might have some impact on low lying areas in Florida, but I can't imagine it having any effect in the San Francisco Bay Area, where even Sunnyvale has an elevation of 125'. Indeed, the author doesn't even bother wasting time visiting San Francisco.

We get a ton of lamentation about how Miami would be in trouble, but given how the entire state of Florida keeps voting for climate deniers, it's hard for me to muster up any sympathy for any damage that happens. For instance, various cities in that state and the state itself have successfully lobbied for lower rates in flood insurance for many at-risk properties in the state, which means the rest of us will be the one footing the bill if and when the chickens come home to roost on that one. It's such a pity that there's no way to short at-risk real estate the way you can short stocks. The nice thing about science is that it works whether or not you believe in it, which means that the ability to short real estate would at least let some of us recoup some of  the losses when the socialized costs of relocating or paying for the damages in Florida eventually come.

The author does cover European efforts such as the efforts to protect Venice, Rotterdam, and other European cities where the population generally does understand the effects of climate change. Despite the wealth of these cities, the outlook doesn't look that good, but again, I can't get worked up about 3 feet (the natural sea level rise here on the West Coast of America due to the changing tides can easily be 20 feet or more!). And it seems like Venice does just fine despite being flooded most of the time.

There are a few other references to innovative architectures in Africa that can help deal with sea level house, some of which involve basically floating houses (like boat houses, an ancient technology which might come back into fashion). But again, it looks like most of the problems they have in that area are problems involving the governments of the various countries (i.e., if the police can come and confiscate your property or burn it down, there's no point putting a ton of effort into construction that's meant to last long enough to see signifcant sea level rise).

Somewhere in the book there's a mention of how during the time of the dinosaurs, sea levels were multiples of hundred feet higher. That got my attention but the author never got back to that statement and never talked about whether it was within the realm of possibility.

All in all, climate change is definitely a big problem, but I don't see sea level rise as the one that's going to be a major threat to civilization. (Yes, there will be refugees from people displaced from the coast, but even an estimate of 200 million people in a world of 11 billion people seems like it'll be a workable problem)

I don't feel like the book was entirely a waste of time, but the title of the book was definitely "click-bait", and I don't feel like I can reward that by placing a "recommended" tag on the book itself.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Alternate Mounts for the RTL-510

Shapeways has various different mounts for the RTL-510. I had 2 different applications for the 3-D printer technology, neither of which were supported by Garmin. The first was for a rack mount for the tandem/triplet/quad.
For this, I bought the Trek Madone insert. This was an oddly shaped piece. I got a matching threaded allen-bolt from the local hardware store, and then drilled out the hole so that the bolt could get in. Then I had to get the Yost Swivel Vice Clamp from Harbor Freight and used my drill bit to scrape about 3mm from the top of the center hole. The plastic would then compress sufficiently for me to get the quarter-turn mount screwed into the rack so that the head of the allen bolt was recessed. The solution was not ideal: because of the smooth circular nature of the mount, I have to get out my pliers to hold the mount steady whenever I need to unlock the light and remove it (to switch bikes or for charging), but it worked.

The other use was for touring: I wanted to be able to mount the RTL-510 on the saddlebag or whatever carrier I had when I was touring, and those tend to be cover the seat post. The Shapeways Saddlebag Clip does the job. I could use this unmodified, but again, the mount is super-stiff, so I have to use way more effort to mount and unmount this than the standard Garmin mount. Since these are 3-D printed items, my guess is that the designers simply went for stiffness so that there was no way the unit could unmount itself and fall off, but I'd much rather that Garmin provide me with a real solution, even if I have to pay more.

All in all, the RTL-510 is great technology, and I'm glad the community is supporting it so I can mostly jury-rig what I need. Maybe some day Garmin (and Shimano, etc) will wake up and realize that seat post mounts are really not good compared with seat stay mounts or rack mounts and start to support those alternate mount systems. Until then, us cyclists will just have to make do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review: The Diabetes Code

The Diabetes Code is Jason Fung's book about the root cause of diabetes and his cure, which he claims to be incredibly effective, in some cases curing people of diabetes in as little as 2 weeks.

The thesis of the book is that Diabetes is always and everywhere an Insulin phenomenon. The idea is that insulin secretion causes fat storage while lowering blood sugar. The problem with adding more insulin to this system is that it makes you fatter, increasing insulin resistance while not solving the root cause. The solution, therefore, must come in reducing fat, which initially might not decrease blood sugar levels, but in the long term should reverse diabetes.

Fung's proposal for curing and reversing diabetes is the intermittent fasting diet: once (or twice, or three times) a week, don't eat for 24-36 hours, drinking only water (or other no-calorie drinks, but he recommends avoiding artificial sweeteners as well, though for no documented reasons). The idea is that within the first 8-12 hours your body will deplete the glycogen stores and then be forced to burn fat. Now this isn't a crackpot diet: Dr. Fung insists that you avoid carbohydrates in your diet even when you're not fasting. This isn't a license to eat chocolate and drink fruit juice on the days when you're not fasting.

Fung contends that diet and exercise by itself doesn't work. (Strangely enough, it seems to work for me!) Basically, nobody in the general population can keep up an exercise program, despite well-known studies that note that being unfit is even worse than being diabetic! If that's you, then Fung's intermittent fasting program (in either the 24 or 36 hour form) is something well worth trying.

All through the book are scattered case studies of people who've cured themselves of diabetes. I'll note that all of them conform to the Western model: fat, out of shape, diabetic. None of them conform to the Asian model, where normal BMIs can still lead to diabetes! This is expected, as Dr. Fung works in Toronto, where there's presumably a shortage of Asians that he can reach in his practice. I would love to see Dr. Fung practice on people who do exercise, have normal BMIs, and aren't already diabetic.

All in all, the book makes a convincing argument, but I'm not a medical doctor. In any case, given the prevalence of intermittent fasting in traditional cultures, if you're diabetic, intermittent fasting probably can't do much harm and might be worth discussing with your doctor.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Review: Rich People Problems

Rich People Problems is Kevin Kwan's most recent book starring the characters from Crazy Rich Asians. As with the previous novels, it is a short and breezy read, but you should read the previous books in the series to have some context, as many characters get carried over from the previous books.

The story is that Nick's grandmother suffers a cinematic heart attack: a heart attack that's fatal, yet leaves sufficient time for all the relatives that might stand in line to inherit a great fortune to fly in and start the various political and emotional shenanigans to try to increase their share.

Of course there are twist and turns and the side plot about Astrid Leong and Charlie Wu. On a more serious notes, there are references to the second World War and the Japanese occupation of Singapore. As with prior novels, every chapter ends with a series of footnotes that are just as fun to read as the novel itself.

I probably should have saved the novel for a flight, but I didn't. It would have made an ideal airplane novel. Recommended.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Event Report: Levi Gran Fondo 2018

In recent years, I've given up on doing centuries and other organized rides. Not only have prices gone up from a manageable $20-$30/entry to $60-70/entry, having to bundle the kids into the car and move the bike has much less appeal to me than going on a club ride and riding with people we know.

This year, however, the Levi Gran Fondo was free for the kids (and for anyone under 24). That made the price palatable, since that meant Bowen and Boen were free. The Gran Fondo is nice because the roads were closed for the first 2 hours, and you got a police escort. I also figured that the mass start event would be a good experience for Bowen, since regular club centuries aren't mass start events.
We drove up the day before, stayed overnight at an overpriced hotel, and got up bright and early to park the car and ride to the start. The official start time was at 8:00am, but with 3000+ cyclists, it took us 10 minutes to stride through the traffic jam to get to the point where we could ride. Even then, there were way too many times when we had to slow/brake in order to avoid shaking looking cyclists.

At the first rest stop, John McDowell and Davis caught up with us. After that rest stop, the route split up and now the roads were open, but there were still CHP officers at every intersection controlling traffic, which made for a great experience. The coast was clear and gorgeous, as expected in early October.

At the second rest stop John and Davis caught up with us and we decided to ride together. John had rented the tandem from the bicycle outfitter, and they had setup the bike wrong. Davis' left pedal had been placed into the shortest slot in the crank shorteners, but his right was on the next to longest slot, which meant that he couldn't reach the pedals at the bottom of the stroke. It was too late to do much, as much pedal cranks which were part of the S&S wrench wouldn't do much for removing pedals that had been put on by a bike shop, so they had to climb Coleman Valley road this way. Davis got so frustrated at times that he would put his right foot on the top tube.
But we didn't have to stop or walk on the climb, and we passed a few adults who'd had to walk, so I thought we did pretty well. At the top of the climb, a SAG wagon showed up and John and Davis stopped to fix the pedals while Bowen and I rode on to the last rest stop. We took a short break there and rode to the finish slowly, having been worn out by our efforts. On the final run to the finish on the bike path, Bowen said, "Dad, does your butt hurt? Mine does." I told him to stand up to unload his butt, and that took care of the problem long enough for us to reach the finish, where Xiaoqin told us that Boen had ridden the entire 10 miles of the family route on his own!
After eating a late lunch and getting ice cream, we piled everyone back into the rental van for the ride home. All in all, it was a good ride, but I think I'd still rather do Coleman Valley road as part of the Western Wheeler 2-day camping trip!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: Why You Are Who You Are

Why You Are Who You Are is the great courses introduction to personality. It takes the academic approach to personality and explains it (the big 5/6 HEXACO traits: conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and honest/humility). The lecturer explains why these are considered the most important, while also discussing minor traits.

He then launches into a discussion of the heritable nature of these traits (most of them have been discovered to be 50% heritable), how upbringing and genetics interact so people express these traits differently at different times, and how the studies were made. Then there's a huge discussion of the various mental disorders, some of which I didn't know about, such as schzoid personality disorder, and narcissism.

The lecture series ends up with a big discussion on what personality means, what it means to be "authentic" or "true to yourself", and how to grow resilient kids who are well adjusted (the answer to the latter is easy: read and apply the lessons in John Medina's book, Brain Rules for Baby).

As someone who failed to take a single psychology course in college, I found this a useful introduction and different from the pop stuff that's out there. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review: Factfulness

Factfulness is Hans Rosling's legacy: he wrote the book and it was published after he passed away. The book is a great accompaniment and follow up to his various Ted Talks, using statistics, graphs and visualization tools about how the world is a much better place than the gloomy news you might get. The reasons are pretty much the same as in Greg Easterbrook's It's Better Than It Looks: much of the world has moved from the poverty line of having only a dollar a day to spend to 2, 4, 8 or even 16 dollars a day.

This is genuine cause for celebration: 90-95% of kids now finish elementary schooling of one form or another. Most kids are vaccinated against the childhood diseases. Even many developing countries, childbirth rates have plummeted because improve infant survival rates and education of girls meant that family planning is now the rule rather than the exception.

Rosling accompanies each chapter not just with a summary, but a contrarian rule to remind yourself to avoid the simple answers but also to read between the lines as to what's not being reported. A shark attack or polar bear attack might draw the news, but that's because they're unusual. The flip side of it is that something that kills a lot of people (such as the 'flu or traffic crashes or domestic violence) gets ignored because it's not interesting enough to the news media.

The one place where Rosling fails is his depiction of the climate carbonization problem. He claims that the environmental activists tend to exaggerate the problem. From what I can tell, the planet is actually warming faster than projections, so I'd venture to say that the problem is more urgent than what the activists are suggesting.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book to read and well worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Long Term Review: Cressi Galileo Goggles

Two years in, I finally broke the strap on my Cressi Galileo swimming goggles.  Fortunately, I had spares that I bought the last time I was in the UK. (For whatever reason, that set of goggles still have not made it to American shores)

It turns out, however, that that the strap on the goggles are compatible with Cressi diving mask straps, which can be had for a mere $6.

Arturo told me 2 years ago to treat goggles as disposable items. This pair of goggles have shown that not to be true: they're still great goggles, and are repairable and I highly recommend them.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: Never Split the Difference

People occasionally pay me to negotiate their pay packages. As such, Never Split the Difference came to my attention and I read it looking for tips and advice that I can use to help my clients.

Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator, (the kind of person who tries to get hostages out of kidnappings) and then ended up starting his own company to help negotiate business deals. There are a number of good tips in the book, as well as great stories:

  • Whenever possible, the FBI and the police negotiate in teams. One person does the talking, but two or three people listen in and look for clues. This explains why despite my book (with its own chapter on negotiation) being easy to read and follow, some people still paid me to do the negotiation: it's hard to listen while you're talking!
  • The goal of listening is to extract information. This can be information about constraints (e.g., its another member of the team/business that's making decision), deal-breakers (e.g., the person has a religion and you need to frame the situation in religious terms to make the sale), and other hurdles necessary to reach your goal.
  • You can't extract information with simple Yes/No questions. You need to first establish rapport with the other person (Voss goes over mirroring as a way to simulate sympathy even when you don't have sympathy for the kidnapper/terrorist), and then ask calibrated and open-ended question. In a recent negotiation for a client, I told the engineer to ask the hiring director the following question: "In the past, I feel that I've missed opportunities because I wasn't attuned to the company culture. What can you do to help me avoid that mistake at your company?" The company ended up assigning a high level executive mentor to the engineer. Open-ended questions recruit the person you're negotiating with into using their contacts/brain power to help your cause, and setting that as your goal will make you a more successful neogiator.
  • Look and try to recognize situations you've not encountered before. Voss calls these a "Black Swan" event. I'm not sure the nomenclature is correct, but basically, when you recognize a situation that changes the deal (e.g., the hiring manager is under a time constraint), then you have leverage you might not have had otherwise.
All through the book, there are plenty of stories that depict situations that I wouldn't want to  be a negotiator for: kidnappings, murders, bank heists, and suicide bombers. As a result of that, the book is fun reading, but a lot of the good tips are hidden under the stories. The book could easily have been much more organized and useful.

Nevertheless, even someone who negotiates way more than than typical Silicon Valley engineer learned something from this book, so I'd recommend that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Monstress

John Gates recommended Monstress to me, and the first volume was $3.99, so I picked it up on my Kindle Fire HD. The art, by Sana Takeda is great: a mix of traditional Asian and Western influences, along with the typical Cthulhu-mythos tentacled stuff.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't quite fly. I'm can't quite put my finger on it, but my guess is that the exposition feels like the author dragged it out and split it into pieces deliberately so as to not run out of new ideas, which caused the plot to drag.

I don't think I'll bother reading the other books in the series. Fables is much better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition

Finding Ultra is Rich Roll's book about how his alcoholism nearly ruined his life, his subsequent rehabilitation, and his late blooming to become a world-class ultra-marathoner in his 40s as a Vegan.

A ton of the book is devoted to his descent into becoming a full-on alcoholic and his recovery. I am reminded of John T. Reed's statement that the only way to guarantee that you won't be an alcoholic is to never try a single drop. His constant relapse through much of his adult life is a reminder of how much this addictive and poisonous substance can destroy your life.

Roll's ultra achievements are pretty amazing, though I'm not sure it's super worthy of emulation. I'll note that just as his alcoholism probably had some genetic components to it, so did his subsequent rise to the top of the ultra ranks: even as a teenager he was already winning swimming races. It's also clear from his experience crashing his bike in unchallenging situations that he never bothered actually learning how to ride his bike, a common situation amongst triathletes, whose races rarely involve pack riding or technical descents but are rather a test of mental toughness and endurance.

Much of the book is devoted to his "PlantPower" approach, which apparently involves using a Vitamix blender to blend a lot of raw vegetables together with various seeds, etc into smoothies. He goes out of his way to mention that he's not actually sponsored by many of the supplements he mentions, but I didn't do any fact checking.

It's an OK book. I didn't come away feeling like it was time wasted, but I'm not going to go looking for other books or podcasts by him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

First Impressions: Garmin Fenix 5X

After I returned the Edge Explore to Clever Training, I no longer had a navigation-capable and radar compatible head unit on my bike. My ancient Garmin Edge 800 was still good, but I was of course, lusting after the Garmin Descent Mk I, which would add a dive computer to the mix. I had half a mind to get one when I spotted the refurbished Garmin Fenix 5X on Amazon for $330 (now $350), which was too good a deal to pass up.

Compared to my old Vivoactive HR, the Garmin Fenix 5X has:
  • Sapphire glass for superior scratch prevention (no big deal - I never scratched the HR anyway)
  • Better battery life (20 hours in GPS mode, 60 hours ultra trac mode)
  • Navigation (this is only available in the 5X and the latest 5+ series)
  • Open water swim mode
  • Compatibility with power meters (like I care!)
  • Much bigger display
  • Ability to beep when connected to the Varia Radar (a very handy feature)
  • Sailing App (untested for this review)
  • Warns you when speed/cadence/hrm sensors are running low on battery. This seems to be a function of newer units, since Bowen's Edge 25 also does the same.
  • Better integration with the RTL-510, with the Fenix turning on the light when you go for a ride, and turning it off automatically after you stop the ride.
Compared to the Edge Explore:
  • Smaller screen
  • No touch screen (which means you can't actually enter addresses as navigation destinations)
  • No incident detection
  • Compatibility with power meters
  • Hiking, swimming, and other watch-type modes
  • A real, honest to goodness barometric altimeter which doubles as a weather forecasting sensor. The unit will display gradients while climbing.
Compared to the latest model of Fenix watches (the 5+ series):
  • No music
  • No Garmin pay
  • No pulse oxymeter (only on the 5X+)
The unit arrived in an official "Garmin Refurbished" box, indicating that I had the full Garmin warranty. (The unit was sold by Amazon, so presumably there's a relationship between the two companies) out of the box, the device was about 50% charged, and I fully charged it before pairing it with my phone and wearing it.

The first thing I noticed was how heavy the watch was, compared with the Vivoactive HR. It's also huge, about as wide as my (admittedly slender) wrist:
And of course, it had a different charging cable, one that's much smaller than the Vivoactive HR's cable. On the one hand it's lighter, but on the other hand, there's no clip to keep the cable secure, and I found that the cable easily falls off when jostled, so you could easily think you've securely plugged it in for charging only to discover that you didn't or that you'd jostled it off when putting it down.

It's quite obvious that the Fenix is a serious athlete's watch first, and an activity tracker second. By default, the device won't even buzz to let you know it's time to move. (Professional athletes, for instance, are urged to rest whenever they're not actively training) It even comes with FirstBeats integration, and after every workout, will tell me how long I should rest before doing another workout. It even flatters me by telling me that I have the fitness of a 20 year old. I was really skeptical of that and then realized that I could definitely ride the pants off the 20-year-old version of me. For FirstBeats to provide active advice, you have to have worn the watch for at least a week before it starts telling you what to do. As someone who's too cheap to pay for a personal trainer, this is actually a useful feature.

It takes a bit to get used to not having a touch screen again, but in practice I discovered that I preferred it. When swimming, touch screens are worthless, and I've often found myself frustrated trying to get the Vivoactive HR to save after a swim because wet fingers on a wet screen means fingers the size of the screen at contact. With the Fenix, there's no problem. You push the stop button and the "cursor down" button and then the "select" button and it saves 100% of the time. Similarly, there's no more fat-fingered selecting "Hike" when you meant "Bike". After a while muscle memory burns in and you know exactly what to push every time.

The watch is blazingly fast when starting an activity. Basically, it'll take me longer to clip in than to start an activity on the watch. I can no longer play my "confuse the GPS by riding hard" game. For cycling, the device paired to all my ANT+ devices and never gets confused, even when I ride into the garage with one bike and immediately ride out with another. (I do this when I get home on my single and bike out with the tandem to pick up the kids, for instance) For utility cycling, I keep the watch on my wrist. The penalty for that is that you don't have an easy view of the screen (no big deal, you're utility cycling), so fortunately the device chirps loud enough when the radar detects cars coming for you. For longish rides where I do want to actually see the display, I've taken to mounting the device on a Garmin Forerunner Bike Mount. This has the penalty that the unit no longer reads your wrist for HR, so if you want HR, it's back to wearing a HRM strap. The HRM strap is more reliable anyway, so if you're in serious training mode, that's what you want. Roberto says that the "bra" nature of the strap bothers him, and recommends the Scorsche Rhythm+, which I've also heard good things about.

Having the unit mounted on a bike mount also means that you get more accurate temperature measurements (assuming you're not linked to a Tempe sensor). In theory, this means your altitude measurements will also be more accurate.

Navigation: this is the entire reason for getting this (rather than sticking with the Vivoactive HR, or getting the smaller Fenix 5S or regular Fenix 5), since it'll replace the Edge 800 for navigation while touring. While the smaller screen is worse, the idea with this unit is to perform the "last mile" type navigation, rather than Wahoo-style "pre-plan your route the night before." (The prior might work if you're Pamela Blalock, who can actually stick to a plan, but the father of 2 kids on a triplet probably can't) Like previous Garmin units, you can use the POI database, which has cities and even supermarkets and most hotels listed. This is good enough for general navigation. Since the input method doesn't allow for address entry, you have to either pan and zoom, or you have to use the SendPoints app. What I dislike about this is that you still need internet connectivity on your phone to use the website to locate your destination. But once the location is entered onto the Fenix, all navigation is done on-board, including rerouting, which means your internet connectivity only needs to be strong enough to find a location, not download an entire route with routing directions. Since those entries are now in your device database, you wouldn't need connectivity again. I expect this to be much less frustrating than depending on the on-board app to run the navigation and send the entire route to the device, which is what Wahoo does. In practice, the device chirps when it gets to your turn, and does it loudly enough that I can hear it even on a fast descent. When touring, I expect to slow down to check, of course.

What I dislike is that the turn notification takes up the entire screen, rather than including a map and turn like on the navigation units with bigger screens. There's also no microSD card for expanded storage, so you're stuck juggling map sets when you transition between continents.

The on-board navigation isn't as nice as Komoot's in terms of knowing where all the bike paths are, but you can also install the Komoot app, so all my money spent buying navigation on Komoot isn't wasted. I can still use Komoot routing on the days when I don't trust Google.

One of the nicest touches of the Fenix 5X for the touring cyclist is the enable to pause the ride and select "resume later." With the Vivoactive HR, your choice is either to keep GPS turned on while you eat lunch (or stop at a playground, etc), or to stop the ride and save it, turning your one day tour into multiple rides. This feature enables you to pause the ride, put the device into a power-saving mode (an automagically turn off your radar and other ant+ connected lights!), and then resume it later, so your Strava activity/GPS track will be one activity, rather than multiple activities on the same day. In the old days when running the Edge 800, I'd just turn off the device and turn it back on, but in recent years, Garmin's firmware (such as that on the Edge 25 or even Arturo's 810) will simply lose the ride if you do that! The Wahoo Bolt will happily resume a ride, but not without spending minutes reloading everything, something I don't have much patience for.

The Vivoactive HR's gym feature was pretty worthless, only good for recording heart rate while you're working out in the gym for lifting weights. The Fenix 5X, however, would actually count reps while you lifted, and automatically switch between rep counting and rest interval at the press of a button. Very nice! Gym rats will definitely love this feature.

What are my complaints about the unit:
  • It charges a lot slower than the Vivoactive HR. Bigger batteries take longer to charge, and there's no getting around that)
  • In practice, I don't expect it to last 20 hours. Various internet reports say to expect 16 hours on a full charge. I observe about 6% an hour battery drain, which sounds about right. (Note that I'm measuring this with 4 ANT+ devices, including the radar that makes it chirp whenever a car is behind me and light up the screen as well)
  • The screen is small enough that I might still be stuck lusting after an Edge 1030 when all is said and done, but maybe not. Unlike the Edge 1030, the Fenix 5X is a device that will stay on my wrist all year, while the Edge 1030 will only see serious use while touring. Since Boen will probably inherit the Edge 800, on tour, I'll still have a backup navigation device in a pinch.
All in all, I'm pretty impressed by the package that Fenix 5X represents. Would I have paid the MSRP $650 for it? Even at the current "Christmas sale" price of $500, I would have to think about it. At full price, the Descent at $300 more would have been my choice. But at $350 with a refurbished unit that looks brand new and comes with a full warranty? This is a no brainer compared with even the Vivoactive 3 Music edition. MyVivoactive HR will go to Bowen, and this has become my full time fitness/navigation device. That means it earns the "recommended" rating.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: The Universe from Nothing

The Universe from Nothing is a cosmology book written by a physicst/scientist/cosmologist. Lawrence Krauss says it started as a lecture that went viral on YouTube. The topic is of course, where did the Universe come from? What do we know about how it formed, and what the future of our visible universe is.

To explain all this in a 5 hour narration is a massive challenge, since the topics involved are difficult, encompassing quantum mechanics, relativity, and speculation about the nature of vacuum energy. What I liked about the exposition is that the concepts are introduced via experiments and empirical results, not just theory. Some of the history of the science concepts are provided (including the exposition on the Cosmic Background Radiation) but much of the history is just mentioned in passing.

The evidence for the Big Bang Theory is provided, as is the evidence (which I was not aware of) that we live in a flat universe. What's interesting is that in addition to being flat, the universe is expanding, and the stuff that's furthest away is expanding at an accelerating rate (from our perspective). The ultimate implication is that eventually those distant galaxies are going to disappear from our light-cone horizon, and we're not going to be able to be able to observe or detect their presence at all! (The timeline for this is about a trillion years, so the sun will be long gone before then, as will the Earth)

Krauss points out that in that far future timeline, astronomers and cosmologies will not be able to detect inflation (if you don't have a reference point because you can't see outside your local group, you can't detect that inflation is happening), which also means that evidence of a Big Bang would also have been erased!

OK, so much for the future of the universe. What about the past? The problem here is that we don't have a theory of quantum gravity, but the idea here is that in a vacuum, virtual particles can be created and destroyed at quantum time. My understanding of Krauss' explanation is that it is possible for space to be created at this level (which is how our Universe is expanding), but also for a whole universe to arise from vacuum as well! He never comes right out and say this, because as stated we don't really have a quantum theory of gravity that can provide a basis for such speculation. In any case, this is still an unsolved problem in physics, but at least we know that the Big Bang happened and that inflation is real.

I learned quite a bit from listening to the audio book. It's suitable even for non-technical audiences (or someone who flunked Physics like me), so I'd recommend listening to it if you're interested in the latest developments in cosmology.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Review: Garmin Edge Explore

When eBay had a 15% site-wide coupon, I gave in and bought the Garmin Edge Explore, the latest of the Garmin Navigation/Touring units. I'd been very unsatisfied with my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt's navigation and dependence on the smartphone for routing, and thought that I wouldn't miss the barometric altimeter on the more expensive units that have all sorts of training and Strava live segments features that I would never use anyway.

First of all, the big 3" screen is awesome. I love it, especially when the brightness is turned up. Everything is sparkly clear, and the radar output looks gorgeous on it. It paired happily with my speed and cadence sensors as well as my RTL-510, but wouldn't activate the RTL-510 as a light to automatically turn it on. This might have been because the RTL-510 was already paired with my son's Edge 25.

On short rides the unit is nothing short of superb. One of the improvements Garmin made since my venerable Garmin Edge 800, for instance, is that on the road, sharp curves will provoke a warning as you approach them. This happens even without navigation turned on!

Garmin sent me a coupon upon registering the unit, and I tried using it to buy the EU maps. When Garmin Express tried to download the map, however, it complained about the lack of storage, even though the unit reported 8GB free! A call to Garmin confirmed that I needed 10GB, which meant that the lack of SDCard storage meant I couldn't have both EU and US maps on the unit at the same time! Garmin refunded my money.

On the Levi Gran Fondo, however, the unit failed in several ways that made me request a return. First of all, it disconnected from the Varia Radar in the middle of the ride, about 3 hours in. I can understand my Vivoactive HR doing that, since I'd get off the bike and go to the bathroom and get food at rest stops. But the Edge stayed on the bike the whole time, and had no excuse. Bowen's Edge 25 had no problem staying connected. The only solution would have been to stop the ride and save and then restart the unit. It also disconnected from the cadence sensor at the same time. I called Garmin support and they blamed it on (1) the length of the tandem causing disconnects and (2) being surrounded by lots of other cyclists with ANT+ units.

I didn't think that it would bother me not to have a barometric altimeter, since my Vivoactive HR would record the proper elevation gain (or loss) anyway. But it turned out that because of the missing barometric altimeter, the unit also doesn't have a temperature sensor either. And it wouldn't pair with my Garmin Tempe sensor! So I was now missing 3 pieces of data that I would have liked to have displayed on that nice big screen: temperature, gradient, and elevation.

That in itself might not really have bothered me, but the last straw was that about 6 hours into the ride the unit complained about low battery and then died on the way back to the parking lot after the ride. Looking at Garmin's specs, the unit is rated for 12 hours of battery life, and to get only half that was disappointing. The Edge 25, for instance, had no issue staying on for the entire ride, and neither did my Vivoactive HR. Various net searches indicate that lowering the brightness from 90% to 60% and then staying off the map screen would yield better battery life, but the screen at 60% loses much of its appeal to me, and that, in combination with all the other disadvantages made me conclude sadly that the unit should go back to Garmin.

So here's who might find this unit useful:

  • Flat-landers who don't need elevation/gradient/temperature data
  • Navigationally challenged riders who don't exceed the battery life of the unit (about 6-7 hours)
  • Those who don't tend to tour in other continents, or who don't mind swapping maps in and out of the unit
Unfortunately, I don't fall into the above categories.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Review: If Stones Could Speak

While doing research at the library for Bowen's history class, we ran across If Stones Could Speak. I asked Bowen if he remembered visiting Stonehenge, and of course he did, so we checked the book out of the library and it became his bedtime reading for a few days, while he did his own history supplementary reading by himself.

I don't usually expect to learn much from kids non-fiction. But this one is amazing. Not only is it an exposition of Stonehenge, Wood-henge, and the archaeology of the area, it's also an introduction to the scientific process and the importance of getting diverse insights from non-traditional sources! It turns out that Stonehenge is not an ancient Druidic temple the way much of popular media has traditionally depicted it, but was a cemetery. This insight was only arrived at in recent years after someone thought to ask a historian from Madagascar what he thought the significance of the site was. The response was that "It's a house for the dead. Stone for the dead, wood for the living."

The book then goes deeply (but in simple language!) into the search for evidence that would prove (or disprove) the conjecture and how the process goes, set-backs and all. The final results are not stated as a "just so" story, but is instead discussed as a theory that's still undergoing refinement and discussion and how it led to a change in how archaeology is performed at Stonehenge. This is an amazing introduction to the scientific process and how it works.

This is a great book, and the perfect book for a computer scientist to read to his kid. You should do so as well. I certainly wish I'd read it before I visited Stonehenge! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Review: Spider-Man The Art of the Game

Both Boen and Bowen have thoroughly gotten into Spider-man, as a result of playing the PS4 Game. Beon even knows how to hold his fingers in the web-shooter gesture, which is amusing as heck. I saw some pictures in a web-article from The Art of the Game, and decided to pick it up.

The darn thing is a huge coffee table book. Paper doesn't have HDR, but in the case of this book, the materials clearly came from actual painted and physically drawn work. I expected to see scenes from the game, but the book also provided many examples of concept sketches that never made it into the game, including alternate versions of the characters that were intriguing and well drawn. It's impressive seeing how many sketches artists did just to get to the final product, but what's even more impressive was how many fully-worked-up paintings, etc. there were in the book! I've seen how quickly a Pixar artist can make a few pen strokes come to life, but a fully realized painting is significant work, no matter how talented you are.

Computer games are a truly multidisciplinary art, especially the modern AAA games which have all the production values of movies and require pretty much just as many people and as much time. The art book was a lot of fun to look at, and to my surprise holds up even for adults. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Review: Marvel's Spider-man (PS4 Pro)

So we now had a 4K HDR TV, but scarce content to drive it with. Well, since the TV was bought within the same time frame as the Limited Edition Spider-man PS4 Pro Bundle, I decided to place a pre-order for it. For $400, you got a bright-red PS4, a retail copy of the game with codes for the future downloadable content, which is about a $80 value. I figured if the game had horrible reviews,  I could still sell it unopened for a profit on eBay.

Nowadays, you can tell whether a game's going to be good by the press embargo. A game that the manufacturer expects to be good will lift the embargo days before the game is released, so that the press hype helps to sell the game. That was indeed what happened to Spider-man, so I ended up installing it (downloading the multi-gigabyte day-1 patch in the background) and playing it.

AAA-games, especially those backed by Sony as an exclusive game for the Playstation do several things very well:
  1. Tell a cinematic, movie-like experience, complete with all the special effects you would expect from a blockbuster-movie experience.
  2. Be relatively accessible (i.e., with a little experience you can play and be expected to "finish" the game)
  3. Make full use of the platform's capabilities, showing off all the capabilities the device is capable of. In this case a 4K video output with plenty of HDR effects would be expected.
Spider-man delivers on all these fronts. The story is great, with an expectation that you already know who Peter Parker is, and conversations introducing and driving the characters supporting Spider-man. I especially liked the Mary Jane Watson as depicted in this game, who's a spunkier and braver character than in the movie Spider-man 2. And yes, Stan Lee makes a cameo, just like in the movies! Bowen didn't even play through the first act of the story and but became inspired to actually finish watching Spider-man 2, still the best Spider-man movie ever made. I didn't particularly like the character model that was used for Peter Parker, but I got over it eventually. You don't spend a ton of time being Peter Parker anyway.

The game does everything right: the swinging in New York City is a delight: Bowen would pick up the controller and swing around the city for fun, not trying to advance the story or even stop any street crimes. The combat liberally borrows from the Batman Arkham series, but with its own feel: Spider-man is a much more agile character and moves around the scene quickly and easily, and Spider-man loves bringing enemies up into the air and swinging down at them. I became comfortable with the combat in ways that I never did with any of the Batman series.

There are a few frustrations: there are times when you have to play Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales. You can tell that the game has a certain direction/solution that it wants you to use, but the direction is sometime too subtle and you end up getting misled. But fortunately, those sections are short and don't overstay their welcome.

Insomniac studios shares the same office building as Naughty Dog, so you can see some cross pollination of ideas here and there, with a few scenes where you can take a breather and just explore an area without combat being thrown at you.

The game has no loot-boxes, no multiplayer, and no "insanely difficult get this timing correct or die" challenges. I successfully completed the game on "Amazing" (medium) difficulty. To be honest, Bowen tried it on "friendly", and I can't really tell the difference.

I don't get to play many video games these days, but Spider-man is definitely one that you shouldn't miss. It tells a great story, and I'm looking forward to playing the DLC as it comes out. It's the first game that I've actually gone to the trouble of getting a Platinum trophy for.

Highly recommended. This is a game worth buying a PS4 for!