Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: Free Food for Millionaires

After reading Pachinko, I saw that Min Jin Lee had another book called Free Food for Millionaires. I checked out the book and instead of a foreword or preface, the book had a long essay about how she wrote the book under trying circumstances and struggled to complete it. I felt obliged to read the book after that.

Unfortunately, the book is horrid. The main protagonist, Casey Han, a Korean American who graduated from Princeton with a full scholarship, makes one incredibly bad decision after another. She continually spends money she doesn't have, goes into debt, ignores offers of help from friends, takes up relationships she shouldn't have, has affairs she shouldn't have, and does crazy messed up things. If this was one of your friends you would shake her or just stop dealing with her because being that kind of messed up would eventually screw you over too.

I kept reading in the hope that the book has some redemptive value. But it doesn't. The book ends with the protagonist making even worse decisions and I wanted to scream. I want the hours I spent reading the massive 577 page tome back. Go read something else. Or play a video game. Or watch a movie. This book has no redeeming value and is not worth your time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: Hamster Princess - Ratpunzel

Ratpunzel is book 3 of the Hamster Princess series. Each book in the series takes a familiar fairy tale and plays with it, though some fairy tales are more obscure than others.

Ratpunzel, of course, is a variant on Rapunzel. This one is less interesting than the previous one, as Ratpunzel doesn't actually let down her hair, but lets down her tail. There are some fun little jokes here and there for parents who are reading it to their kids, but mostly I'm having Bowen read it because it's at a level that's perfect to him. (Yes, Amazon lists it as a grade 3 book, but I'm not letting Bowen see that --- it's fine for your kid to read a couple of grades ahead and ask you questions, though apparently Bowen doesn't have any trouble understanding it)

I can't recommend the book otherwise. Read it if your child is interested. It doesn't contain anything objectionable whatsoever.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Labor Day Lassen Volcanic National Park Trip

My complaint about last year's backpacking trip was that I continually heard jet plane noises all day and all night. So this year, Arturo suggested Lassen Volanic National Park. The big concern was the smoke from the recent fires, but a check on the webcam seemed to show crystal clear views. On Friday August 31st, Arturo drove all of us up to Red Bluff, where the smoke filled the air and Bowen started coughing. We quickly checked into our hotel room and turned on the AC, whereupon his cough went away.

The next day, we went into the National Park and at the visitor center, Arturo got a backcountry permit just before the mad rush landed upon our volunteer ranger. The ranger told him that the area we'd planned to visit, the cluster lakes had been burnt 2 years ago and might not make a good trip. He suggested a longer loop. We visited the mud pots and Lake Helen before heading over to the trailhead by Summit Lake.

It was 11:00am by the time we got going, so the first thing on the agenda was lunch. Since there was a steep climb following the lake, we just ate lunch at the summit lake.
After lunch, the trail headed steeply uphill to about 7000' before it started descending. I felt tired, which was strange because I'd slept well the night before. Then I realized that it must have been the altitude. "I swear I was fully acclimated when climbing Stelvio earlier this summer!" "You lose it fast!" Darn. Your body is the laziest thing on the planet. Bowen also started whining. The backpack, which had his water bladder, his bunny, and some clothes started to become too heavy for him, and Arturo feeling sorry for him, just took his entire pack and strapped it onto his backpack.
We realized that our original goal of heading to Rainbow Lake had to be modified. We got to Echo Lake, but a big sign on the lakeside said "No camping" in no uncertain terms. So we proceeded on to Twin Lakes, where at the side of the trail there was what looked like a perfect campsite. We put down our packs and scouted around and it looked great, so we pitched our tents and then went swimming in the lake.
Lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park are the strangest things in the world. In the Sierras, you'd see streams clearly feeding a lake, and streams flowing out of a lake, but in this park, there was no apparent source or sink! Arturo guessed that these were lakes formed from spring snow and the lake levels would diminish over the summer and then get refilled over winter. There were "tide lines" along the lake that supported this view. But this phenomenon meant that every lake in the park was a surprise: you're not going to hear a stream as you approach, and that's the typical cue that a lake is nearby for the rest of us.
After the swim, we got changed and walked to the other lake that was part of the Twin. We looked for a loop trail around our lake, but it wasn't there. When we got back to the campsite, we saw a doe and two babies. They were completely unafraid of people and sauntered around our site. "We'll have to take down all the clothing that's drying overnight before turning in tonight," said Arturo. "Deer will eat anything that's got even a bit of salt in them."

We had dinner and discussed what to do next. Doing the rainbow lake loop that the volunteer ranger had suggested was clearly too ambitious, so we had to choose between staying at Twin Lakes and doing a day hike, or going through the burnt area based on the original plan that Arturo had. We stared at the map and I noted that the ranger had mentioned that the burnt area was around Cluster lake. "Did he say anything about Big Bear or Little Bear lakes?" "No, so there's a chance it could be unburnt." We didn't have any information, but at least there was an alternative. "Besides," I said, "If it turned out to be horrible, it's only 3.5 miles away from the car and we can have a long day and find a National Forest service campground to camp at." "Let's wait till tomorrow morning and see how Bowen feels."

Since we had all day on the second day to do whatever we liked, we slept late and woke up at 7:00am, getting a beautiful picture of the reflective lake. We'd ran out of drinking water in all our hydration packs, and so Arturo gave Bowen a lesson on how to purify water using Aquamira, a chlorine based purification system that gave a much less objectionable taste than the usual iodine tablets, but at the expense of the complexity of setup, and of course, the lack of iodine supplementation.
 We packed slowly and only got underway at around 9:00am, and headed down to the second Twin Lake and the trail intersection with rainbow lakes. The twin to our lake was slightly bigger and quite pretty, with a larger established camping area right next to the Pacific Crest Trail. At that intersection, we saw the backcountry ranger station, and met our first PCT through-hiker, who was going south bound.

The burnt area became very obvious, and we soon lost our constant tree cover. Despite the burn, the trees were not burnt to the ground, just that all the leaves were gone. The day before, Arturo had taught Bowen how to distinguish pine from fir trees, but today there couldn't be any distinction. One interesting thing, though, was that with the leaves stripped from the trees, sound traveled very well. As a result, whenever we got close to any kind of ridge that could reflect sound, any shouting would bring back a bunch of echoes. Once Bowen discovered this, he would repeatedly shout and scream just to hear the echoes. The nice thing about the backcountry is that with no one else around to be disturbed, he could do this until he got tired of it, with no one telling him to shush.
Bowen had stuffed his cap into the sleeping bag prior to my packing it, so he didn't have a hat today. I offered him mine but after a half hour of wearing it he got tired of it and gave it back at me. We had lunch at Feather lake on the only sheltered section of it. This was followed by a chain of lakes one after another, some not even named. The named ones included Silver lake and Cluster lake, where there was a trail intersection with the Noble Emigrant trail. "That's strange," said Arturo, "I have a marker here on my GPS. I must have hiked here on the Emigrant trail, had lunch at the lake, and then checked out the intersection before turning around."

Bowen got tired of carrying his backpack again and once again Arturo packed it into his bag. Upon reaching Big Bear Lake, we spotted what could be a nice campground on the other side of the lake from the trail, and voted to check it out. "That way we won't have to share Little Bear lake with the father/son pair that passed us earlier." comment Arturo.
There was a site, but it wasn't legal. The flat spot was less than 100' from the water. "What will the ranger do if they catch us?" "He'll make us pack and and move." Bowen thought about it and decided to keep hiking to Little Bear lake, which was just over a little hill from where we were." On the way there, however, we witnessed a burnt tree fall over, making a thunderous cracking sound. Once we got to Little Bear, we spotted a nice looking flat area that would make a great campground, with no burnt trees nearby to fall on us.
We pitched our tents, unrollwed all our sleeping mats and bags, and unpacked, then sat on the logs to recover. After we'd rested, we went for a swim in the surprisingly cold lake, though once you were in there and swimming, it was obviously much warmer than the usual snow-melt-fed Sierra lake.
We swam until we got cold, made decaf coffee and tea, and then had dinner. We looked at the map and computed that it was 3.5 miles to the car. "Let's see. If we get up at 6:00am, have an efficient breakfast, and left by 8:00am, we could be at the car by 11:00am, and that means with a 6 hour drive we can be at Fenton's at 5:00pm for dinner!" Bowen declared he wanted 2 packets of oatmeal for breakfast, and that was all we had, so I'd have to eat lunch for breakfast, but that was OK, because with such a short walk we could definitely make it to the car before then, and Arturo knew there was a sandwich shop before the park exit. Since no fires were allowed because of the dry conditions, Bowen had to make his marshmallows on the camping stove again.

The next morning, I got up at 6:30am, and started making hot water. We took our time with our breakfast, leaving at 8:46am. The hike out was uneventful and cool, since it was still early and we were now in a forested area. When we returned to the lollypop part of the loop I didn't recognize the trail at all!
Bowen this time happily carried his entire pack all the way. Clearly, he had acclimated to the altitude as well, since the day actually have quite a bit of steep climbing right at the start. We got back to the trailhead at 11:30, stopped for lunch at Manzanita lake, and then headed right to Oakland on the lightest traffic I'd ever seen and had dinner at Fentons before returning home. What a great trip!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Granite Gear Crown X60

Massdrop had a Granite Gear Crown X60 for $120. The Amazon price appears to be $200, so this is a significant discount. My old Lowe Alpine Contour IV was a 6.5 pound pack, though it carried a lot more, while this one was 40 oz or 2.5 pounds. The pack comes in Regular or Long, and if you're 5' 10", you're as tall as you can be before you must switch to the long, which weighs just an once more.

The pack is a single compartment with no separation, which means you can efficiently pack clothing, etc. around irregularly shaped items. The hip belt (removable and adjustable) has 2 zippered pockets, which are big enough to swallow the G7X Mk II)The lid has 2 slim pockets which are just the right size for cycling gels or little packets of peanut butter, and can be detached easily.

On our backpacking trip I carried 2 sleeping pads, 2 sleeping bags, both our clothing, lunches, pillows, and all assorted camping gear for a 3 day trip. It's an effective carrying system and had external straps for tying sandals, tent, and quite possibly a bear canister or sleeping bag. Compared to my old backpack all the buckles are a lot smaller, as are the straps. The main weight savings must come from the frame: it's now a plastic stiffener rather than metal. Nevertheless, the item comes with a limited lifetime warranty, which means that the smaller size didn't mean that the items were more fragile.

After carrying for 3 days, I was quite impressed. I think if I had to do it all over again, I would have gone for the longer version of the pack, but the pack itself was cheap and light and I'd buy it over again with no regrets.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: Klymit Static V2 sleeping pad and pillow

Costco had the Klymit Static V2 sleeping pad with pillow at an astounding price of $80 for 2, so I picked it up for our annual backpacking trip. It's much more compact than the thermarest, which meant that 2 of them would fit in my Granite Gear Crown 60 backpack easily, along with the pillows. These pads are rated R1.3, which means that they're astoundingly low insulation, but since the intention is only to use them during the summer, it's OK.

The marketing literature claims 15 puffs to blow them up. I counted 20 puffs. There's an air escape valve so you can't over pump the pad. My advice is to pump it up to the limit, because that adds to the comfort. At night, if it gets cold enough, the air inside the pad will shrink in volume and your Bowen will wake you up and tell you to add more air to the mattress.

The shape of the mattress is great, and the texture keeps you from sliding off the pad. The pillow is also surprisingly good, and didn't leave me regretting the weight it took to bring them along. The kit also comes with a repair kit, and if you're carrying 2 of these you can save some weight by bringing only one repair kit but I didn't bother.

All in all, for the price, it's an astonishingly good deal. Recommended.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Long Term Review: Rivendell Silver Shifters

I've had the Rivendell Silver shifters on my custom road bike(s) since 2009, and on the tandem since 2017. The internal ratchet mechanism is the old-style suntour power-ratchet style, and that makes shifts reliable and also compatible with any speed deraileur and cassette. By the way, people have contended that it's impossible to friction-shift 9 speed and 10 speeds, but I've never had any problems and rarely miss a shift. One of the nicest features of these shifters is that as the cable frays, you can feel it when you shift, and that tells you you need to buy new cables and install them. Brifters just break with no warning whatsoever, and many once broken are impossible to repair. In recent years, my friends have all switched to brifters, but I'll note that none of them has kept a bike for as many miles as I have.

The plastic washer on the outside of the shifter is a bit fragile, cracking and breaking at the drop of a hat. But it doesn't seem to affect performance: I just turn the screw a bit tighter and what's left of the washer keeps working. I do keep a set on hand just in case things go really wrong, but given how much abuse I give my bikes these show no signs of ever wearing out.

You can buy them as part of the Bar-End kit which includes the Shimano pods, or if you're replacing the indexing shifters on a Shimano bike you can just buy the downtube kit for a lot less. These don't ever seem to go on sale but I'm happy to pay full price for them, because they're so very good.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review: Samsara

Baraka is the only BluRay in my collection I ever wore out from watching it too much. (It also got loaned out quite a bit, so it wasn't just me) But somehow I missed Samsara when it came out in 2011! Well, it made it into the Amazon Prime Video free selection so I watched it.

As with Baraka, it's a movie without words, so you can take your non English-speaking parents to watch it, for instance. It's full of beautiful images from the natural world, as well as images from the not-very-natural world, all juxta position. The movie was filmed in 70mm, so the quality of the image is nothing short of amazing.

For me, it didn't have the same impact as Baraka. The opening sequence, while haunting, hardly has the same impact that the snow monkey scenes in Baraka did. The time lapse photography, which was rarely seen when Baraka came out, is now a common staple in many documentaries, so as a viewer I no longer found it fresh.

Still, if  you watched Baraka and enjoyed it, you should watch Samsara at least once. It might not be as impactful as Baraka, but it's still very different from the other stuff out there. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review: Words of Radiance

Words of Radiance is the second book in the Storm Light Archive series. The first book was The Way of Kings, which I reviewed 2 years ago. Each book in the series is 1,000 pages, so it's a giant book to read.

If The Way of Kings was Kaladin's story, this book is mostly Shallan Davar's story, told also partly in flashback. Unlike many other multi-book series, things do happen in this novel, and reveals come fairly fast and furious, especially towards the end. The plot exposition never stops, and the character development for Shallan Davar is much more interesting than that of Kaladin, mostly because she's a much more optimistic character, and witty to boot.

As with The Way of Kings, the magic system in the novel is consistent, interesting, and a character in and of itself and tied to spirits in the world.

As an adult, I no longer have time to waste on books that drag on without point, but I placed a hold on the next book in the series immediately after finishing this one, indicating that I liked Words of Radiance enough to recommend it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Review: Blue Planet II

BBC's Natural History unit has a well deserved reputation for being the best in the business. I'd go so far as to say that their documentaries look better than most of the multi-million dollar fictional TV series you can find, which is surprising because those TV series have the benefit of controlled studio lighting and don't have to spend multiple years hunting down footage in the wild.

Blue Planet II is part of this tradition, and is the most amazing TV series I've ever seen. When Amazon had a $10 sale on it and I had a few slow shipping credits to use, I jumped on it, and it was worth every penny. The image quality is nothing less than superb, even over streaming video, and the details are amazing, both on a 70" 4K TV and on a 42" 1080p screen.

The sequences are amazing, ranging from the grouper spawning scene to the one where the film unit caught a cuttlefish pretending to be female to sneak into a dominant alpha male's lair, and cuckolded him right before his eyes. My jaw dropped in scene after scene, which made me watch even the "making of" video that came as part of the set.

There, I continued to be blown away. For instance, the first time they tried to shoot the grouper spawning scene they failed, missing the spawning by a few hours. So they returned a year later with a big enough scuba team to get 24 hour coverage of the grouper in order to get the shot. For the "boiling seas" sequence, they first tried Australia but got unlucky to start filming at the start of El Nino. They waited 18 months before approaching the shoot by using chase helicopters and following a pod of dolphins. The TV show took 4 years to make and the results more than speak for itself.

There are several sequences where the camera got so close to the action that I thought to myself: "This must have been shot by an underwater drone. There's no way the fish let them get that close." Then you see the "making of" video and in some cases not only was it a person shooting it, in some cases the guy was free diving, not even wearing scuba gear! The skill and dedication of the unit is nothing short of amazing.

Needless to say, this TV series comes highly recommended. If you watch nothing else this year, watch this one.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Review: Of Mice and Magic

Of Mice and Magic is the second book in the Hamster Princess series. While Harriet the Invincible was based on Sleeping Beauty, this one is based on the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I'd never heard of that story before this book, so unfortunately, any nuance in the adaptation is lost on me.

This one wasn't as funny as the first book, but Bowen still liked it and we went to the library to ge the third one.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Review: How Music Works

I bought the audio book version of How Music Works without knowing who David Byrne was, or even being a fan of the Talking Heads band. a testimony to what having a ton of good reviews coupled with a good sale would do.

I started listening to the first chapter and it blew me away. This was clearly a guy who'd thought hard and deeply about music, with a beautiful statement on how the music venue (ranging from the jungles ans savannah in Africa to the club venues like CBGB) affected the music that's produced. I was impressed and immediately looked up who David Byrne was and listened to a few songs by the Talking Heads.

Part of the book is strongly autobiographical, detailing how he was inspired by Japanese kabuki and other Asian performing traditions to stage his famous Stop Making Sense concert, where stage sets would get moved in during songs, starting from a bare empty stage to a full on band. I even watched the concert for myself, and even though many of the songs didn't move me, it was quite clear that every move had been thought through and rehearsed.

One shock I had was when listening to the Talking Heads David Byrne didn't sound anything like the audio  book's narrator. I shouldn't have been surprised, but maybe you would be too.

Many of David Byrne's sympathies are exactly where mine lie, so I'm afraid you're going to consider my review of this book biased. He rails, for instance, against the dominance of classical music in music education. He notes that the faults of music notation mean that nuances of non-classical music such as groove just don't make it into notation, and hence many classical musicians just cannot "rock". Not only can't they perform like a practiced musician of the genre, they literally cannot hear the difference. Despite that, children get educated classically because that's "harder." He points out that music education should be redirected towards self-expression and composition, rather than an over-emphasis of technical expertise and replaying older pieces. He thinks that rich people donating to operas, symphonies, or ballets as a balm for their guilty conscience is pathetic, and expresses sarcastic surprise that real criminals and mobsters didn't get into that act, since it's obviously been so successful for the billionaire CEOs who would donate to the opera house while laying off rank-and-file workers.

I could go on and on about the great stuff I learned in this book. But it's best if you just discover it for yourself. If I had any stereotypes in my head about "dumb rock musicians who can only write repetitive lyrics but can't hold complex thoughts", David Byrne wiped those caricatures clear off my brain by the second chapter and proceeded a complete re-education campaign. He even has a chapter on how to grow a musical ecosystem which sounds like it would be much more effective than the frequent prescriptions in business magazines about "how to grow the next Silicon Valley".

That's not to say that he doesn't have his flaws (in doing research for this review I learned that he broke up with the rest of his band during an interview with a newspaper, hardly the act of a non-self-centered rock star), but I feel like I learned even more from this book than from the well respected (though classically-oriented) Great Courses entry. That makes this book highly recommended and a no-regret purchase.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Review: Giro Jag gloves

I was packing for this year's tour of the alps and the gloves I'd been using all year were dead and clearly wouldn't survive the tour. It was too late to wait for Amazon to deliver a new pair, so I just biked over to the local bike shop. They didn't carry my favorite Specialized BG gloves, but they had Pearl Izumi and Giro.

Giro was now a verboten brand because of their association with the gun manufacturer, so I tried the Pearl Izumi first, but it was a poor fit. Plus, the gloves I had just discarded for poor durability were Pearl Izumi, so the Jag it was.

These were very comfortable, and about the only thing they're missing is a pull tab so you can pull them off  your hands. They've stood up to all the touring abuse I put them through, and I missed them when I thought I lost one of them in the wash after getting back home. (I've since found the pair, but not before I bought a pair of Specialized BG gloves from the internet)

Recommended, but they're still owned by evil gun manufacturers, so buy other brands if you can.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Review: Fire TV Cube

For the living room, we  had an echo dot hooked up to the sound system and the harmony hub. It's great to be able to turn on everything with voice, but I didn't have a good solution for the bedroom setup.

The Fire TV Cube, however, looked like it solved the problem. You hook it up to the TV, and it has IR blasters that would control the TV, soundbar, and also do smart things like say, "Switch to Playstation" and it would set the HDMI inputs on the TV to the appropriate thing. It's even smart enough not to use its built-in speakers for music, and would be smart enough to turn on the soundbar and use it.

There are interesting limitations that I wish it didn't have. For instance, it only has a HDMI output, and doesn't have sound output (either headphone jacks or RCA output), so it can't directly output to the soundbar, forcing the device to turn on the TV to stream music to the soundbar. It doesn't have a Bluetooth hub built in, so it can't turn on or control the Playstation. Of course, to solve these problems require additional hardware, and the integrated voice control has its own problems. For instance, to turn up the volume you have to talk, which interrupts any movie you're watching.

Nevertheless, the device works for what its intended for, and works well enough that I won't be returning it. Amazon has done a good job figuring out what people want, and how to make it good enough. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Review: Stress and Your Body

I listened to Stress and Your Body, and kept thinking about how familiar it all sounded. Turns out it was all a rehash of another audio lecture series by the same author. Being Human, and Biology and Human Behavior.

The content of the lecture series is fine you've never heard it before. For instance, why are symphony conductors so long lived? It's not just because being up there on stage and waving your baton is excellent aerobic exercise, it's also because they have a lot of control. Apparently, it's not uncommon for the musicians to have to ask the conductor for permission to go to the bathroom in the middle of a practice! Having that much power is apparently great for longevity. (And there you have it, the answer for why women live longer than men)

Anyway, the book's thesis is that the stress response is great. In the short term, it does a lot of good things for you, boosting your cognition and reaction time in those moments when you're running away from the tiger. It's chronic stress that's bad for you, because the human brain has the ability to turn on that stress response for things where raising heart rate and reducing digestion won't help you for, such as the need to pay a mortgage.

The book does provide some solutions for managing stress, but some of it is not as good as you might imagine. For instance, there's an experiment where they got students training to be social workers to visit people in nursing homes to see if that additional human interaction was good for them. And indeed it was great. But then when the experiment is over and the students stopped coming, the folks in the nursing home deteriorated to a much worse baseline than the controls who never got that additional interaction. So it's not like you can do this as a temporary thing, it has to be ongoing.

The lecture series is fine, just don't be me and buy the other books Sapolsky has done: he's pretty much been mining the same material over and over again, so you're bound to start thinking: "Hm... I've heard this before, even in the same voice!" Otherwise, if you've never heard any Sapolsky before, it's recommended.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Review: The Magicians Season 1

The Magicians was a fair-to-mediocre novel by Lev Grossman billed as "Harry Potter for Adults".  That actually meant that the TV series had potential, because it's quite possible for the TV series to be better than the book.

Indeed, I appreciate almost all the changes in the TV series, except the selection of Jason Ralph as the actor for Quentin Coldwater. Ralph appears to have no emotional range, and just walks through the entire 13 episode series with a surly look on his face. He never quite sells any of the relationships Quentin has with other characters in the show. The TV series brings in many elements of the second book, The Magician King as well, which is great, because as in the book, Julia's story is far more interesting than Quentin's. She's also a much more interesting character.

The big reveals in the series are well done, and the rest of the setup (Fillory as Narnia, the visit to Antarctica) was a lot of fun. The boring part of the book was also eliminated, which is a wise decision --- alcoholism is too mundane for a TV series about fantasy.

If you've read the books, I think you'll like the TV series better. If you haven't, this is actually a fairly good TV series and worth your time.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Review: Beauty - A Novel

Beauty reminds me of a "made-for-tv" movie. The plot is straightforward, as is the narrative, and the characters live right up to their stereotype. The story revolves around Carol McLean, whose job at the start of the novel is that of a hatchet-man: flying in to shutdown a firm for liquidation. But she's always wanted to run her own company. Unfortunately, she's about to be laid off in favor of someone cheaper, but at her last shut-down she sees an opportunity.

The story then revolves around a fictional New England fishing town where a fish-sticks factory is located. The factory is slated to be liquidated, but McLean (who was nicknamed "Beast" until she meets a local fisherman who renamed her "Beauty") discovers that the old plant had potential and decides to try to revive it and run it as a going concern instead. The rest of the story relates the obstacle she overcomes (from raising funds to negotiating her exit) in a straightforward way without interspersing narratives or plot twists. There's also a straightforward romance that has no mystery.

The most unrealistic piece of the novel is the protagonist. There might be people who just want their own company but don't care what line of business it's in, but that definitely doesn't strike me as very likely.

The novel is short and easy to read, and would make a decent airplane novel. I'd recommend it as such, but there are probably more interesting reads you can find with relatively little effort.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: Needful Things

Needful Things is Stephen King's novel about a curio shop with a soul-collecting owner. You've probably visited one, but King managers to turn his curio shop into a mirror of the small New England town that reflects the human soul's neediness and attachment to material objects.

The hero of the story is Alan Pangborn, who apparently is a recurring character who survived a previous Stephen King novel. As a protagonist he too suffers from a past that eats away at him, but is otherwise a very sympathetic sheriff who tries very hard not to scare the kids he has to interrogate.

The story centers around the eponymous curio shop which sells the object of the customer's desire, but with money being the secondary medium of exchange: the proprietor, Leland Gaunt, asks in exchange that the customer do him a favor. The favor turns out to be something that creates and amplifies the strife that's already present in town, ranging from a neighbor's dislike of a barking dog to the clash of the Catholic church against the Baptists for opening the of a casino night.

King's writing is his classic transparent prose: easy reading yet descriptive. His depiction of life in a small town is also evocative, and made for fun reading. There are moments of grossness and horror, but by and large, the book relies on psychology and the feeling of inevitability to achieve its effect. Certainly, while reading this book I got the feeling that an external operator who knows the right button to push on all factions of a society can get them to fight each other while ignoring an external enemy that can burn a town down. The whole thing works as a great metaphor for what has overcome American society in the past 3 years, making this a particularly appropriate read for recent events. The novel was written in 1991, so there's no question of King using current events to drive his novel, unless you believe he had a crystal ball.

The ending of the novel, of course, gives you no hope that there's a non-magical solution for a society that's already in the throes of this type of external intervention. This novel is the last one set in Castle Rock, and Pangborn's solution to dealing with Gaunt isn't one that anyone could possibly hope to use in real life.

Nevertheless, I found the novel compelling and deeper than it looks on the surface. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: Limar Ultralight Helmet

I've been disappointed by helmet technology over the last decade or so, as helmet improvement appears to have stalled. Helmets haven't gotten any lighter, they're definitely not cooler, and they still don't wick sweat away from your eyes well. I saw the Limar Ultralight for sale, and hoped it would make a significant difference from the free helmet I wear daily. It's supposedly the lightest helmet ever, at around 230g, but that comes with a lot of caveats.

For instance, I'm typically a S/M in any other helmet size. The Limar gets its lightweight helmet by calling its S helmet an M. If you remove all the padding for the helmet, it fits, but now you've got the scratch velcro anchor points scratching your head, and you've got not sweat wicking material at all, and you've got no room for a sweatband.

Needless to say, I returned the helmet and got my money back.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: Misbehaving - The Making of Behavioral Economics

Misbehaving is Richard Thaler's memoir of how Behavioral Economics went from being a backwater of economics to becoming mainstream enough that he got to win the Nobel Prize. It's a great read and much deserving of your time.

First of all, you get all the references to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky's work on psychology that revealed the fundamental short-cuts that human brains tend to use whenever it's confronted with complicated problems. The result is that humans don't resemble anything close to the "rational man" so frequently assumed in economic theory and analysis.

Thaler's a characteristically modest academic, not given to blow his own horn. This is great, and he discusses his difficulty in convincing the general community that the anomalies he discovered were of note and impacted policy that mainstream economists were prescribing. So for instance, retirement plan policy are largely focused on tax incentives, but not about how easy it is to sign up for a retirement plan and whether or not to prescribe a correct strategy.
Sometimes the invisible handwave is combined with the incentives argument to suggest that when the stakes are high and the choices are difficult, people will go out and hire experts to help them. The problem with this argument is that it can be hard to find a true expert who does not have a conflict of interest. It is illogical to think that someone who is not sophisticated enough to choose a good portfolio for her retirement saving will somehow be sophisticated about searching for a financial advisor, mortgage broker, or real estate agent. Many people have made money selling magic potions and Ponzi schemes, but few have gotten rich selling the advice, “Don’t buy that stuff.” --- Page 52
Furthermore, the  idea that the competitive marketplace would punish mismanagement of corporations or businesses and drive them out of business fails in that businesses have gotten very good at manipulating market structure and the political environment to preserve themselves:
In my lifetime, I cannot remember any time when experts thought General Motors was a well-run company. But GM stumbled along as a badly-run company for decades. For most of this period they were also the largest car company in the world. Perhaps they would have disappeared from the global economy in 2009 after the financial crisis, but with the aid of a government bailout, they are now the second largest automobile company in the world, a bit behind Toyota and just ahead of Volkswagen. Competitive forces apparently are slow-acting. (Pg. 52)
He notes that frequently, many company CEOs want to  increase risk-taking, while employees are risk averse. Thaler makes a great observation: if you tie compensation to results, rather than the reasoning that leads to funding the risky project, then managers would generally try to only fund projects that are guaranteed to make them look good.
Whenever there is a time lapse between the times when a decision is made and when the results come in, the boss may have trouble remembering that he originally thought it was a good idea too. The bottom line is that in many situations in which agents are making poor choices, the person who is misbehaving is often the principal, not the agent. The misbehavior is in failing to create an environment in which employees feel that they can take good risks and not be punished if the risks fail to pay off. I call these situations “dumb principal” problems. (Pg. 190)
I hope the above quotes give you an idea of how great a book this is. If you're involved in business in anyway,  you should read this book. If you want a good understanding of how much of a death-grip the Chicago school of economics and the rational expectations assumptions had on policy prescriptions and economics thinking, this book also provides a fantastic history of how hard it was to change the paradigm.

There are too many reasons to read this book. Go find a copy and read it. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Review: A couple of fountain pens

Bowen's teacher was complaining about his writing. My solution was to get a handwriting practice book and then pens and make him practice. He didn't enjoy it though, and the pens get lost a lot.

I remembered my years as a kid in Singapore schools practicing with a fountain pen. Fountain pens can only be held in a particular way, which makes them great for getting everything right. The Pilot Metropolitan was cheap, which is important for something that's going to be handle by a kid. Dropping a fountain pen on its nib will pretty much destroy it.

Well, Bowen didn't like the fountain pen either, but I discovered a very nice property of a fountain pen. Nobody else in the house wanted to borrow one, which meant that my fountain pen could always be mine, and I'd always have a pen instead of constantly losing it. The fine nib is scratchy, and the built-in squeeze converter holds very little ink, so I went in search of a better pen.

I ended up with the Kaweco Classic Sport, also in a fine nib. This pen's a little more expensive, but it writes much smoother than the Metropolitan, and is also much smaller. Unfortunately, the pens don't use interchangeable cartridges, oh well.

What surprised me about the pens is that modern fountain pens seem to be much better than the stuff I had in school. They don't leak, even on airplanes. (I carry a pen to fill out custom forms, and again, it's such an exotic instrument that nobody ever asks to borrow mine)

I have to say that I'm surprised by how nice it is to have a fountain pen. I never would have guessed it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Long Term Review: Sony WH1000XM2

When I first reviewed the Sony WH1000XM2, I hadn't used them on an airplane. On the flight to and from Europe this time, I used them on the plane. Wow, they are amazing on an airplane. They've completely cut out the airplane noise. Music sounds great.

And comfort? Bowen hates headphones, and he grabbed them from me and tried them, and never gave them back to me, falling asleep with the headphones on his head. I was so happy that he fell asleep and I got to steal them back.

If you fly on a regular basis or have a long flight ahead of you, these are the headphones to get. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Review: Deep - Freediving, Renegade Science, and What Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves

I listened to Deep as an audio book. I expected a short, fairly easy listening book, and what I got was a long book full of scientific research, interesting people, and stories, interspersed with all sorts of random facts that would be too much to enumerate in a book review.

The story starts with free diving. OK, free diving is fun, and anyone who's ever done any snorkeling is going to love this part of the book, since it's about the amazing breath holds and how to get down to very deep depths without the bother of scuba gear and other annoying issues. Unfortunately, the sport of free diving seems competitive and driven by the one-upsmanship that happens whenever human beings start to compete with each other. The author describes competitors who black out under competition, one man who was paralyzed from the damage caused, and a man who died under competition conditions. This is not a sport you're going to be encouraging your kids to get into. And it's not even fun: most of the competitors dive with their eyes closed, because goggles would slow you down!

Fortunately, James Nestor decided it was pretty pointless as well, and goes on to other areas of oceanographic research in addition to finding an instructor and training to free dive. He even meets the Ama, the Japanese free divers who have a multi-generation tradition of Pearl diving. The book covers many topics such as the attempt to tag sharks near Reunion using free divers.

There's extensive coverage of dolphins and whales and echolocation, as well as an interesting visit to the Marinas trench, as well as the world's deepest underwater tour submarine. All in all, listening to this book took me months and provided lots more material than I expected.

My only complaint about the book is that the author uses the same voice to depict all the other characters he meets, which sometimes sounds like he's caricaturing them. That's a really minor complaint.

This book comes recommended, and is worth your time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible

Hamster Princess - Harriet the Invincible is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but with a modernist take that's quite charming. It's nominally for Grades 3-7, but Bowen could read entire chapters out loud with only a handful of words that I had to correct him on, so the take the grade level thing with a huge sack of salt.

I've been reading a chapter every night to him: it's fun reading (and obviously not as daunting as The Two Towers, which is the bonus reading he gets every night as well). The protagonist is obviously not the demure princesses of old, but the feisty, cliff-diving, sword wielding modern princess. There's even math in the form of fractions, and the wall of text is frequently interrupted with cartoons or comic book panels, which is great. The writing is not as amazingly fun as Thieves and Kings, but I've lost all hope that Mark Oakley will ever get around to completing that story.

My only complaint is that the men in the book are all whiners. Since little kids whine all the time, I would very much like my boys not to have whiner role models. It's OK for the princes to not be the heroes or protagonists, but there's no need to have all the males be whiners.

Recommended. I'll see if Bowen wants more Hamster Princess books tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Review: Netflix's Altered Carbon

To say that I'm a fan of Richard K Morgan is an understatement. I've bought and read everything in the Takeshi Kovacs series, including Altered Carbon. I'm not usually a fan of TV, however, so when I heard that Netflix adapted it into a TV Series, I didn't even think about using my free trial. Then some idiot signed up for Netflix using my e-mail address, essentially deciding to turn on my free trial for me.

OK, so I started watching it to see if it was any good. I'm not going to hold back from spoilers, because that's the only way a fan of the book can properly review the TV series. The big change is that Reileen Kawahara got changed from being the big bad to Kovacs' sister. That's probably done to heighten drama, but doesn't make any sense: the series depicts Kovacs going from CTAC conditioned soldier to shooting down members of his own squad, and then asks us to believe that he would RD (real death) his own sister. The actor portraying Ryker's sleeve simply wasn't good enough to convince us that Kovacs would do this.

Other changes: the Envoy training is changed from being part of the protectorate to being part of a Quellist uprising. This is of course unbelievable in and of itself, so Quell herself becomes the inventor of the sleeving technology. They also weakened the Envoy conditioning.

The latter is the worst part of the conversion in the TV series. In the novel, Kovacs is smart, and figures everything out. In the TV series, he's a reactive person who only figures anything out when he has it shoved in front of his face and it's so obvious even the dumbest person in the audience can understand it.

There are lots of tonal changes. For instance, the book is actually much more brutal and violent than the TV series (I know: if you've seen the TV series, you wonder how it could actually be worse, but the interrogation at the Wei clinic is one major example --- in the book Kovacs is sleeved into a woman's body so that the torture would be more effective, something that probably wouldn't be acceptable when shown to a mass audience). That's understandable and I'm quite OK with it.

All in all, the TV series could be seen as quite good if you haven't read the book. If you have a choice, however, read the book first. If you've already seen the TV series, go read the book. I re-read it for this review and it's a different experience and significantly better. Morgan manages to restyle Raymond Chandler for a more cynical world, and brings a unique stamp on it that's compelling reading. It might be a great mindless read, but if you pay attention, it's got much deeper themes in it that's worth your attention as well.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review: 3M Safety Glasses

One of the kids in Bowen's school showed up with these cool wrap-around safety glasses that appeared to fit him really well, so I asked his mom where she got them, hoping that they wouldn't be too expensive. The response, "his grandfather got them from Home Depot. They're 3M safety glasses!"

I never visit a physical store if I can help it. It turns out that Amazon sells them in a 4-pack for $10.36, and you can get them in gray or in clear. The sidepieces are flexible enough to wrap around even a little kid's head, and the nose pieces are soft enough that neither Bowen nor Boen have complained about them. You've probably seen lots of pictures of Bowen wearing them on this blog, so you can decide for yourself whether they're fashionable enough for your kid. All I care about is that Bowen likes them enough that when he lost his dark glasses in Italy, he'd rather wear the clear ones than the dark glasses we bought as replacements at the first store we found that had them, and it's more important that my kids wear eye protection than that they look fashionable.

At these prices, you won't cry if the kids loses them, sits on them, or abuse them in any way. They're sturdy enough to survive a bike tour and then some. Eye protection is essential even if you're not cycling: UV exposure can cause cataracts.

I hope my sons never need prescription glasses. As long as they don't, these are the best bang for the buck UV/rain/wind/dust protection anywhere. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Google WiFi

I usually try to stay away from Google's hardware consumer products: it's quite clear to me that Google's product managers suffer from a severe case of Apple envy, and as a result tend to go for an unimaginative copy of Apple products rather than technical excellence.

Our problem is that the house we're currently living in is huge, too much even for our old "Dark Knight" router to cover. There was a sale on the Google WiFi 3 pack during the Amazon Prime Day, so I picked it up, hoping the mesh network coverage will work out.

The marketing literature claims 3000 square foot coverage. In reality, that's going to be true only if you have the primary unit in the optimal section of the house. Since we couldn't choose where to put our primary unit, the coverage isn't quite there. I was surprised by how close the units have to be: the instructions say the units have to be about 2 rooms apart, which is about 20' or so. The wifi units don't really work together: they all want to link themselves to the primary unit rather than doing an extra hop through an intermediate wifi point. So much for smart configuration.

Setup is easy, though time consuming, as the setting up of the WiFi unit requires an app which seems to take forever to run. The unit in the office got a wired connection to an ethernet hub and serves 4 computers. Speeds on computers in the unit reading and writing to our Windows Server in the equipment closet went from about 50Mbps to 150Mbps, which is a significant speedup.

Unlike the Dark Knight router, Google WiFi serves only one access point, rather than letting you split coverage between 2 bands. This makes covering units very easy (only one WiFi password to remember) but also means for instance, that you can't deliberately set certain devices to certain channels to avoid conflict. Google claims that the software does the right thing automatically, and provides testing features in its app for you to check wifi speed.

The units require a reboot about once a month or so. The irritating part about this is that the mesh would break down and tell you inane things like: "move the mesh wifi points closer together" even though the units had worked correctly the day before. You just have to pick the "reboot" option and hope everything comes together.

All in all, Google WiFi was surprisingly decent for a Google hardware product. As of this writing, the TP-Link Deco (based on the same hardware) is cheaper ($170) and comes with Alexa, so it's potentially better, but I've had bad luck with TP-Link hardware in the past, so I'm not about to experiment. It's nowhere as good as having wired Ethernet all over the house, so if you have an option there I'd still recommend that you run wires.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter is Blake Crouch's novel about a man who's kidnapped by a mirror world substitute. Rather than a serious or speculative novel, it's structured as a thriller, and doesn't spend much time actually discussing quantum mechanics, despite the author's proclamations.

The protagonist, Jason Dessen, is kidnapped and drugged one day, and wakes up in a world where he's a famous scientist, and he was never married and had no kids. He discovers that his alternate world counterpart has invented a machine that can traverse the multiverse, and he escapes to find his family.

Crouch is a screenwriter, so the novel reads a lot like a movie would, with lots of action, dialog that performs exposition instead of stream-of-consciousness descriptions, and obvious places where the camera cuts from scene to scene. The writing is fast paced and smooth, and zero thinking is required on the part of the reader as everything is spoon-fed to you.

This makes Dark Matter a reasonable airplane novel, and can be recommended as such. If you want deeper stuff go elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: Nomatic Minimalist Wallet

If you're like any regular cyclist, jersey pocket space is at a premium. This leads to certain routine behaviors like getting a zip-lock bag and just putting in a bit of cash, health insurance cards, id, and just one or two credit cards into it before going on a bike ride so the jersey pocket can contain other stuff like food or your garage opener.

I saw the Nomatic Wallet on sale (2 for $15), and decided that it might be a nice alternative to a zip-lock bag. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do, to the point where I've pretty much retired my 3-year-old BigSkinny.

The wallet has a main compartment that will hold a few cards (the claim is 15, but I'll be surprised if you can stick more than 8 cards in there). On the other side, there's a key and cash wallet. You shouldn't attempt to stick coins in there (unless it's very few coins) or you will almost certainly lose them.

In use, it's fast to get cards out of the wallet, but much slower to get cash or keys out. The wallet bunches up the cards together so that you'll notice if the wallet falls out of your pocket when you're sitting down, for instance, which is a good feature, and better than the zip-lock bag solution, where if the cards are diffused, you might not notice the entire bag falling out of your pocket.

For travel use, I still think the BigSkinny passport wallet is the right solution for most people, but for domestic use where you're not carrying passports this has turned into my daily use wallet, to my surprise. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Review: Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci is Walter Issacson's biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. It covers his life in great detail, covering his entire life.

What's interesting to you about Da Vinci might or might not be interesting to me, and we all pick and choose what we like. But the nice thing about this book is an explanation of how or why Da Vinci's important works were interesting and important. I enjoyed Issacson's explanation of why his portraits were so long sought after: Da Vinci would layer his paintings, adding a brush stroke here and there, year after year to create a translucent effect on the portraits. For "the last supper", he constructed the painting so that the perspective would look correct from various parts of the room, which was innovative both in the use of perspective as well as integration into the area where the room was.

Much has been made of Da Vinci's inventions. Issacson points out that many of the drawings that are used to illustrate these might actually have been drawings meant to prepare costumes or props for pageants and stage plays or big events, rather than meant to be used for actual military or architectural purpose. This information would have caused me to view the various Da Vinci exhibits I saw in France several years ago.

Da Vinci was the ultimate (and probably most famous) renaissance man. He was curious about everything, drawing tons of illustrations and investigated science before Newton. That curiosity did not translate, however, into advancement of human understanding for his time, because he didn't care about publishing. Despite his notebooks having a wealth of detail, what happened was that after his death his notebooks were sold and scattered, and no one actually went back and condensed all that detail into books that could be reproduced and learned from. As a result, a lot of the knowledge was independently rediscovered much later (including his insight as to how the heart valves' fluid dynamics worked). All this happened despite the fact that he had two proteges that he was close to.

One thing that was revealed in this book is that Da Vinci was a master procrastinator. Either that, or you could call him a perfectionist. He would take 14 years to work on the Mona Lisa, never delivering it to the person who commissioned it (though it seemed like once he took a liking to the work he never intended to deliver), but just adding a brush stroke here and there over the years. So he died with the Mona Lisa near him. This habit of procrastination was so famous that the city of Florence tried over and over again to write contracts to ensure that he would deliver, in one case even goading him a long, by commissioning a painting from him, and then also commissioning one from Michaelangelo for a wall right next door to the one he was supposed to paint. (This particular story backfired: neither artist finished his painting) According to Issacson, this made Da Vinci an artist, instead of just a master painter.

There are lots of other stories about Da Vinci that stood out in this book, and many lamentations of "what-if", mostly related to Da Vinci's lack of concern about publication. His one publication that made a big contribution to mathematics happened when he teamed up with a mathematician who was writing a text book. A similar collaboration almost happened with a physician, but that physician died of a plague (ironically) before anything came to fruition. Da Vinci was like the archetypal professor with tenure: he could essentially explore whatever he liked, without concern about delivering sufficient commercial success to make a living.

I wished I'd read this book before visiting the Louvre or visiting any of the Da Vinci exhibits, so I would recommend this book to anyone who was about to visit any of those.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Things I would have done differently

I'm always thinking of ways to improve the next tour, and if there was anything I could have done differently to improve the experience. Of course, it's very likely the next time we do a tour Boen will want to come along as well, so we may or may not finally break down and do a supported tour. On the triplet, we'll definitely have to scale back on the degree of difficulty and passes that we need to ride.

First, the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt cannot serve as our primary navigation device. I'd like to replace it with either a Garmin watch that can do navigation, or a Garmin head unit that can do navigation. I'd like to replace the tail light with a Garmin Varia Radar as well, so some thought will have to go into compatibility and mounting options.

I think the bike tour from Merano to Trentino and Verona was a mistake. It was too hot, and not at all suitable for a summer trip. In retrospect, what I should have done, knowing what I know now, was to take the train from Bolzano up to Fortezza and then ridden over to Dobbiaco and then Misurina. That would have provided easy access to Cortina and then gotten us to the Badia area for riding in the Sella Rondo Bike Day. On the other hand, it was nice to see Lake Garda, which was new to me on this trip.

In any case, hammering up the two hard days right after Fuessen while jet-lag wasn't very smart. I probably should have taken it easy, and not promised Bowen "breakfast in Austria, lunch in Switzerland, and dinner in Italy." I probably could have stretched that out a bit so as to get a bit more rest in the afternoon on those days

I should not have switched brands for melatonin. Perhaps the correct approach next time for combating jet-lag is to get stronger medicine, but I guess I'll have a chat with my sleep doctor prior to the next trip.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Review: Moto X4

Amazon Prime Day had the Moto X4 (Amazon Edition) for $199. At that price, I'd jumped on it, given that I had cracked the screen on the LG V20 multiple times during various bike rides and during Bowen's tour. I'd avoided the X4 last year because it had only 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM, a downgrade from the Moto G5+.

On paper, the X4 can be described as a "no-compromise mid-range" phone. The key features are:
  • USB-C (some people consider this a feature, but I didn't)
  • NFC (missing on the Moto G5+)
  • headphone jack (missing on many "flagship" phones)
  • MicroSD card slot (missing on Google's "apple-envy" phones)
  • Waterproof (missing on the Moto G5+)
  • Android Oreo (missing on the Moto G5+, but to be honest I don't really think it's a big deal: recent Android versions have introduced very few features that are noticeable)
As you can see, there's good reason people have been hanging on to their phones longer and longer: quite a few features on this list have been dropped from pricier phones, and many of these features aren't really required. For instance, NFC payments while nice, still aren't required in 2018. I got used to it when the neighborhood Safeway started accepting Google Pay and quick grocery runs no longer needed me to bring my wallet, but otherwise, even credit cards have started providing NFC chips even if your phone doesn't have one.

What drew me, of course, was the waterproofing and microSD card slot, which have been a mainstay in many Android phones since the beginning. The phone has a glass back, another fashionable and unnecessarily fragile feature which makes it slippery and demands a case. I picked the Spigen Armor case, which brought the weight of the phone from 174g to 206g, heavier than the LG V20 without a case. But there's a reason the LG V20 now has several cracks in the screen. While the LG V20 was milspec rated for drops, that doesn't apply to screens, apparently. For true ruggedness you'll have to get a phone that weighs more than half a pound.

Booting up the phone and inserting my sim card and micro sd card from the LG V20, I'm forced to realize that software matters a lot. While the Snapdragon 630 is a whole tier below the Snapdragon 821 and theoretically slower, the Moto X4 boots up just as fast. The Moto gestures (twist to shoot, chop chop to turn on flashlight, use the fingerprint sensor as a navigation button) are great and I can't tell you how much I missed them. Camera startup appears to be slower than on the Moto G5+ (5s), but that could have been fond nostalgia working. The camera shoots crap pictures. But all camera phones shoot crap pictures: they're meant for receipts, bank deposits, and moments when you really don't have a better camera with you, but when your intent is to make good pictures, bring the real camera. I don't even know why they bothered with the dual camera thing. They should have just kept the same camera in the Moto G5+ and I'd have been happy.

One very welcome feature in Oreo is the introduction of LDAC pairing over bluetooth.. That meant my fancy noise canceling headphones get high quality audio. Since I actually use music stored on the phone most of the time, this was great. Of course, the headphone jack itself isn't strong enough to drive my Sennheiser 600s but I'll keep the LG V20 around for that. Occasionally, the music playback on the device gets very confused and everything will play and skip. A reboot takes care of that.

The shortage of onboard storage was worrying: after installing my typical in-use apps, I only have about 8GB free on the onboard flash storage. In general, you don't want to fill up flash storage. Not only do you end up spending a lot of time managing storage, the more you fill up flash storage, the slower it gets, and the shorter the life of your storage device. I would have been much happier if Lenovo had launched the 64GB version of the phone in the US. The additional RAM would also have been nice, but in practice I don't find that RAM is a limiting factor in today's phones.

The phone gets regular updates, which is a pleasant surprise, getting security updates on the first of every month. Now a lot of Android enthusiasts make a big deal out of this. I don't. It's nice to get updates, but I've never had an Android phone get hacked (and neither have the less technically involved members of my family), so I don't think phone security is as big a deal as those guys make it out to be. Recent Android OS updates just haven't been compelling, and some updates introduce bugs that slow your phone down or drain battery fast. What is interesting is that the Moto X4 is one of the few devices to support A/B partitioning. That means that system updates can happen in the background, and the system has a backup OS partition in case something goes badly wrong in the update. This is only a useful feature if software updates come frequently, which in the case of the Moto X4 appears to be the case.

The phone charges fast, but because the Snapdragon 630 is just an overclocked 625 made on the same process, the battery life is worse than the Moto G5+'s, since the battery pack is the same size. Both are miles better than the LG V20, which would take an extended battery to survive the kind of trip the Moto G5+ handled with aplomb. My suspicion is that the Moto X4 would have to be topped up with some kind of power bank on a bike tour in the middle of the day. Overnight, the battery would drain by about 8-10%, indicating a screen off battery consumption of 1% per hour. I ended up turning off the Moto display feature because it would drain the battery superfast during the day, flashing notifications all the time.

In case you're wondering, the Amazon Edition of the Moto X4 also qualifies for Project Fi. This will be great for international travel as this year I discovered that the regular T-mobile speed just isn't fast enough for sync'ing routes to the Wahoo Bolt.

All in all, the X4 is a great phone. It's got all the features "flagship" phones have and many features the $600+ don't have. You will never feel like you're missing out on features you need with this phone. Recommended.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Review: Columbia Men's Trail Splash Shorts

Columbia recently had a sale on their Trail Splash Shorts. It being the summer, I bought one. When it arrived, I weighed them at 145g. By contrast, my no-longer-made Cloudveil Capris were 186g, but those required a belt!

These shorts are super comfortable. They wick sweat well, the super-light fabric feels great, and they don't need a belt because they have an integrated one.  They bead water, and my guess is in a pinch you can even use them as swim suits. After I put them on, I immediately went and bought another pair.


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

I didn't realize that Crazy Rich Asians was set in Singapore, so when my wife started asking about Singaporean 富二代, I found myself saying that I'd never met any of them. But I was intrigued, and so I picked up the book.

The novel is a reversed culture shock comedy story. We're probably all familiar with the typical Asian culture shock story: the Asian immigrant moves to the USA and gets into all sorts of incidents because this is the first time he/she has ever seen a supermarket or Costco warehouse store. This novel depicts Rachel Chu, who is unknowingly dating a super-rich Singaporean in New York, and when he asks her to travel through South East Asia for the summer, agrees and is thrown into the insanity that is the plight of wealthy "old money" in Singapore.

The book thrives on stereotypes and cliches. There's the ABC (American Born Chinese) girl who refuses to date anyone other than white people (but refuses to admit that). There's the aunt that everybody nicknames "Radio One Asia" because she'll broadcast every bit of gossip to everyone in the extended family. There's the snappy dresser cousin who acts as a secret agent for the Matriarchs of the family. And of course, all the female parents are the master wielders of the vicious rumor mill and are crazy enough to hire private investigators to check out their sons or daughter's girlfriends and boyfriends. Don't forget the stereotypical grandparents who use their children's potential inherited wealth as a threat to keep everyone in line. And all the young women are into visiting Paris for the Boutique fashion houses and spending a half million dollars at the time for designer dresses. And of course, every rich guy has a harem of mistresses and/or is in an unhappy marriage but has hung on because of the children.

OK. Those are the bad parts of the novel. The good parts are that Kevin Kwan actually did grow up in Singapore. The references all ring true and authentic, including mentions of the Anglo Chinese School (where my brothers and I spent our formative years), Raffles Institution, and of course, MGS, the sister school of ACS with the distinctive pinafore uniforms. Upon reading this book, I realized that I'd inadvertently lied to my wife: so those wealthy kids were the kids whose families were actually Christian, who did go to church on Sunday, and who'd shown up at grade one already speaking English, making me feel like I was already far far behind everybody else. (My mom, upon hearing that, switched all my younger brothers to an English speaking kindergarten) Thinking back, I remembered that one of my brother's friends would send a chauffeur with a Mercedes Benz to pick him up for a play date. I never actually had one of those play dates, being too introverted to actually make more than one friend in Primary school, though I remember a classmate living in a house so ginormous that they'd have a whistle next to the phone: when you called them and asked for the person you wanted to speak with, the person answering the phone would blow the whistle a certain number of times to indicate who should come to the phone!

Every Hokkien (福建), Cantonese (廣東) or Malay phrase is foot-noted, and there are plenty of those thrown in there. The footnotes are somewhat amusing, though not always entirely accurate (and frequently incomplete), and the Anglicization is always difficult to parse because neither Hokkien nor Cantonese have a standard phonetic romanization.

And then of course, there's the food, which is the only thing I ever miss about South East Asia. The enthusiasm of Singaporean culture about food comes across and is authentic, and of course, the description of the various foods are spot on. I'm even miffed that my favorite Singaporean dish Mee Pok never made it into the novel! And of course, the mention of the ACS cafeteria losing its Mee Siam vendor made me sad, even though I'd long known that the campus I'd grown up in (with its 10 cents bowl of noodles and fantastic lunches) was long gone. The movie might be worth watching just for awesomely videographed food scenes. True to form, the older Chinese people in the book always complain whenever a non-Chinese dish is served.

There's lots more to give the novel authenticity: Gurkha guards --- I'd walked past Lee Kuan Yew's house with its Gurkhas on the way to kindergarten every day.  There's the references to different parts of Singapore which only a Singaporean would know.

What's missing, of course, is all the great stuff that a non-wealthy Singaporean would know about. The fantastic public transportation system (MRT and the public bus system). The mini-buses which would be stuffed with school children to and from school, complete with a conductor hanging off the door rails to keep the kids on the bus from falling out as the bus moved. The incredible safety and 24-hour food access (it shocked me when I went to school at Berkeley that you couldn't find food at 2:00am!) are barely mentioned.

I didn't expect to enjoy the novel as much as I did, and it almost makes me want to see the movie just to see how much the city has changed since I left. I'm placing a hold on the next book in the series at the library right now, so that means the novel comes recommended.

Notes on the movie:
After I wrote the above, I saw the movie version of the book. To say the least, the movie is disappointing, with many subplots eliminated or simplified. But that's not an issue: most movies are like that. The movie drops many of the distinctive feature of the novel which make it uniquely Singaporean:
  • Very little Hokkien and Singapore slang. While the book is full of footnotes explaining unique Singaporean/Malay/Hokkien slang, most of the non-English words spoken in the movie is either Mandarin or Cantonese. You can go through most of your life in Singapore without knowing Cantonese, and the movie might as well have been set in Hong Kong. None of the distinctive culture that makes Singapore not Hong Kong or Taiwan has made it into the movie. 
  • Very little emphasis on food: in the book, the characters argue about where to go get food all the time. There isn't even a single 30s sequence in the movie where the characters do that in the movie. The food photography/cinematography could also have been much better. The scene set in the hawker center might as well have been at any American food court.
  • All the scenes set in Malaysia like Malacca or the Cameron Highlands are gone.
Other notable changes:
  • The book spends gobs and gobs of time on boutiques and fashion. Famous designers and fashion icons are mentioned. The cinematography didn't even waste any effort there.  
  • Nick Young comes across much more as a compliant Chinese kid than someone willing to give up everything for Rachel.
All in all, if I'd seen the movie first, I probably wouldn't have given the book a chance. So if you saw the movie and thought it was inane, please don't skip the book. The book's got a billion times more flavor and authenticity than the movie, which works very hard to dumb down the book into a simple "American vs Traditional Chinese person" plot that Hollywood thinks an American can understand. That doesn't mean the book isn't flawed, it's just that the movie blows up all the book's flaws without providing any of the book's fun.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Packing List for Tour of the Alps 2018

This year, I didn't bother with spare tires or spare derailleur and brake cables. The Park Pin tool is for adjusting the eccentric in place of carrying a much heavier bottom bracket wrench. I carried 3 missing links because if the timing chain gets messed up, having spare missing links would help make up for any broken links. I carried a separate chain tool after losing the one that came with the folding tool. The separate chain tool is much more usable anyway, but like with the spoke wrench, it's one of those things you bring as insurance and are happy not to use.

I solved the problem of constantly leaving chargers behind in hotels by having a new policy of not obsessing about charge state of the electronic devices. I now pack up those chargers when I wake up, not leaving any chargers around to top up any electronics. The Moto G5's fast charger is still the smallest and lightest Qualcomm QC 2.0 charger I've found, and it works on LG phones.

One thing I've learned is that if there's something I bring for myself, I need to bring an equivalent for Bowen. I brought arm coolers for myself, but he refused to let me wear them when I discovered that he didn't have any! I probably no longer need to carry the Minoura tyre levers. The VAR lever is good enough for the tires that are on the bike.

It turned out that one spare bite valve was not enough. By the time we got to Pontresina, Bowen had bitten through the replacement! The kid has sharp teeth!

Tools & Spares
  • toothpaste
  • cough syrup (acquired on the road0
  • floss
  • pills, calcium supplements, and vitamin supplements
  • kids ibuprofen (acquired on the road)
  • first aid kit

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Travel Credit Cards Overview

This time, we traveled with the Capital One Quicksilver and Amazon Prime credit cards for travel use. Both offer no-fee international transactions, which is why I started using CapitalOne credit cards in the first place.

The Capital One credit card I've used before, but for 2018, there was a twist that made the card really useful when in Europe: NFC wireless built in! What's even better, for small amounts like what you'll typically buy in a grocery store, if you use the NFC chip, they don't make you sign for your purchase! This made me not even bother with Google Pay on my phone. All cards should have this feature.

The Amazon Prime credit card was new to me for international travel. I think I learned not to trust credit cards that claim no-fee international transactions, since you won't know about any hidden fees until you get home and check your purchases. I was sparing with it, but I can confirm indeed that it has no fees for international transactions, now that checked my statement. Unfortunately, it doesn't have an NFC chip.

One trick you want to use is to set a pin on your credit card before you travel. This takes a month or so, on occasion, but what it does is to allow you to use your credit card to buy train tickets, where the machine demands a pin. I did this with the Capital One card, and it works well. (No, the train ticket machines don't take NFC)

The Amazon Prime card offers quite a bit more benefits than the Capital One card. The lack of NFC might be worked around by you setting it to be your default card on Google Pay. But I didn't really try Google Pay in Europe this time. That'll be an experiment for future travel. I'll probably try to use the Amazon Prime card a lot more next time, now that I'm confident that the "no-fee" clause is true.