Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: Pearl Izumi Pro Aero Glove

I tried the Pearl Izumi Pro Aero Glove because my old gloves were falling apart. I'm a size medium, and these looked and feel nice on short (8-20) rides, so I thought I was going to keep them. But what I've discovered is that on long rides, the portion behind the fingers bunch up and cause small discomfort.

It's a pity Amazon doesn't sell Specialized BG gloves, and they're really hard to find. I'm trying out a pair of Giro Jags next (it pained me to buy them, because of the gun thing), because that's what the local shop had, and those feel very much like my beloved Specialized BG gloves.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Autonomous

Autonomous is Annalee Newitz's novel about pharmacological pirates set in a world where reverse engineering drugs has been made illegal. It's had amazing blurbs from famous science fiction authors such as Neal Stephenson and William Gibson on the cover, and the author is an editor for Ars Technica, so she's familiar with technology.

The novel switches between two perspectives, one of Jack the Pharma pirate with a heart of gold, and the mercenary robot/human team that's been tasked with hunting her down after she pirated a drug that turns out to have addictive side-effects.

I think one of the biggest problems with science fiction in the modern era is that humans tend to anthropomorphize everything, including robots. As a result, the robot in the story, Paladin, works at human speeds instead of superhuman speeds, and isn't nearly as sharp as I would expect for an AI with human-level intelligence. (It's also quite unlikely that AI tech would stay at human-levels for any significant period of time, but that's another discussion for another time)

The core plot isn't really interestingly enough to drive the story, though along the way we get a really dystopian view of a society of capitalism run amuck, where humans indenture themselves to corporations or other humans so as to better compete with otherwise autonomous robots, which are required to serve an indenture period to pay off the cost of manufacture. Unfortunately, the morality and movement behind these movements are never explored, and would have been more interesting than the novel we got.

I'm afraid I can't really recommend Autonomous: the happy ending is forced, and some of the technology (i.e., the use of human brains inside robots to provide certain functions such as facial recognition) seems highly unlikely.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Review: Sidi SD15 MTB Shoes

The thing about cycling is that it's extremely fashion driven. The last time I bought cycling shoes, Velcro was still the thing. Then when I wanted a pair of shoes that would fit while wearing my waterproof socks for an upcoming tour (yes, I'm expecting rain, why did you ask?), I found that my ancient SIDI shoes (so old that I'd have to drill out the cleats if I wanted to install new ones, but screws and all sorts of things have already fallen out) would fit nicely, but not my newer Pearl Izumis.

Of course, SIDI no longer had the exact same shoes I bought years ago, so I had to settle for the SIDI SDS15s, which were the cheapest available, especially with the REI 20% off coupon. I didn't look very carefully at the shoe, since REI sold any color you wanted, as long as it was black. I did notice that it had some weird lacing system, but I figured as long as it wasn't shoe-laces, it'd be OK.

I was very surprised to discover that the buckling system was a ratchet that's driven by a circular screw-type latch. It took a bit to figure out, but I discovered that I liked it a lot: just like with laces, it was easy to fine tune the tightness and the fit, but unlike laces, it was impossible for any excess length to get caught up in the chainrings (the bane of all cyclists), and while the toe is still Velcro, it doesn't seem to do much.

I was impressed by how comfortable the shoe is to walk in. Now you don't buy cycling shoes to walk in, but when you're preparing to do a long tour with your 6-year old, it's quite likely that there'll be many times in the day when you're going to walk him around town, or maybe even carry him on your shoulders, so walking comfort is a much bigger consideration than it would be for my adult tours, where the expectations would be that I'd get on the bike and stay on the bike for many hours without  break. The shoes do have a higher stack height than my older Pearl Izumis or SIDIs, to I did have to raise my seat a bit to retain the same fit. But that's an easy adjustment.

The biggest issue with the shoes is that there's definitely lower performance compared to my older SIDIs or Pearl Izumis: the sole isn't as stiff. Again, this is the trade off for improved walkability. As touring shoes go, this is probably the precise amount of stiffness you want: stiff enough for cycling without generating hot spots, but not so stiff that you can't walk in them. I think I'd be a much more enthusiastic hiker during my tour in Japan if I'd been wearing these instead of my older SIDIs. For many of my tours which might have a hiking component, I'd ended up carrying separate walking shoes. From that point of view, these save the weight of a second pair of shoes.

It's general advice not to change equipment just before a tour, but I've already put quite a number of fairly intense hours on the shoes. They work. They're not the shoes you'd want to have for a fast century or an enthusiastic club ride, but for touring, I think they'll be perfect.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Review: The Great Influenza

I've really only had the 'flu a couple of times in my life, both times it's been one of those "knock you down and keep you in bed for 3 days" experience. But yet most people are fond of saying "it's only the 'flu". The Great Influenza describes the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, and will change your mind as to how serious the 'flu could be.

During that time, the 'flu would kill as much as 10% of the entire population. That's not 10% of people who were infected, 10% of the entire population! Doctors and nurses died helping patients. Nurses would be kidnapped (they were harder to find than doctors). Much like SARS, that 'flu epidemic killed young adults faster than it killed older adults and children because of ARDS.

Whats great about this book is that back then, we didn't know what caused the 'flu, and researchers were led down the wrong path by thinking that it was a bacteria rather than a virus. The 'flu virus killed not just by itself, but through secondary infections, and in the case of ARDS by triggering the immune system into a "scorched earth" attack on the lungs, making it difficult to isolate what pathogen that caused it. John Barry provides the context on what created the medical infrastructure and system at the start of the century, and what the state of medicine was as well.

In addition, the political and military response hurt the public's perception of the pandemic as well: newspaper and posters repeatedly lied to the public about the seriousness of the situation, and the public was much less prepared than it could have been to face the onslaught. Even worse, military policy (this was near the end of World War 1) concentrated young men in large, overcrowded military camps in close quarters, creating ideal conditions for spreading 'flu. There's even evidence that the 'flu infected Woodrow Wilson during critical negotiations, and caused the problems in the treaty of Versailles that eventually led to World War 2.

The big question in my mind is: "Are we better prepared today for such an Influenza pandemic?" The answer appears to be "No."
Consider for a moment that prior to the emergence of H5N1, the U.S. government was spending more money on the West Nile virus than on influenza. While influenza was killing as many as 56,000 Americans a year, West Nile in its deadliest year killed 284. And West Nile will never be a major threat; it is not a disease that will ever explode through the human population. Yet it was receiving more research dollars than influenza. (Kindle Loc. 7432)
 much of the U.S. vaccine supply is manufactured outside the country; in a lethal pandemic, there is a question whether another government would allow its export before its own population was protected. (Kindle Loc. 7453)
To this day, we have neither an effective vaccine for the 'flu (though the author does point out that even a 10% protection  ineffective vaccine is still worth getting), nor do we have a cure. We would do better at the secondary infections, but our hospitals would be immediately overwhelmed:
Hospitals, like every other industry, have gotten more efficient by cutting costs, which means virtually no excess capacity—on a per capita basis the United States has far fewer hospital beds than a few decades ago. Indeed, during a routine influenza season, usage of respirators rises to nearly 100 percent; in a pandemic, most people who needed a mechanical respirator probably would not get one. (Kindle Loc. 7374)
All in all, this is a great book and well worth reading. Recommended.

Monday, June 04, 2018

First Impressions: Fairweather by Traveler 700x32mm tire

To say that I've been pleased and impressed by the Michelin Pro 700x28mm "Endurance" tires would be an understatement. Despite running them on the tandem/triplet for well over a year (including a 350mile bike tour last year), the tire refused the wear out. But an upcoming longer tour this year meant that I should swap in new tires.

The handwriting is on the wall, however: both kids aren't going to get any lighter, and running wider tires is the ideal solution for increasing load that the triplet is going to be expected to handle. Despite the recent fashion for running wider tires, I'm actually not an advocate of it for the simple reason that most single bikes are already designed with too high a bottom bracket: running a wider tire on those bikes makes the BB even higher, a recipe for making the bike less agile on descents and quick cornering. On a tandem/triplet, however, the bike handling isn't going to be affected much.

The big problem with tires wider than 700x28 is that high quality tires in that size are hard to find: most wider tires are designed for European-style "trekking bikes" and heavy dutch-style utility bicycles, not lightweight touring bikes. You can find the Compass-range of such tires north of $60. But it turns out a Japanese bike shop has a tire called Fairweather for Traveler that's made by the same factory (Panaracer) for a retail price of 30 pounds each.

When the tires arrived, I weighed them: surprisingly, the 700x32s come in at 275g each, 5g lighter than the Michelin Pro Race 28s! Mounting them on the rim, they do come out wider than the 28s, so that lighter weight isn't because I was mounting a narrower tire! There's a file pattern on them, which is mostly worthless, but it hasn't had any appreciable impact on handling so far. The wider tire does mean that the Raceblade Pro XL won't clear them, but for just this year's tandem tour I'm rotating the old front Michelin over to the rear anyway. The tread also has a divot that's obviously meant to be a wear indicator: when the divot's flush with the rest of the tire that means it's time to order a new one. In practice, I don't pay attention to wear indicators: I typically only replace tires when I'm about to go on tour, or when I can see the casing beneath the rubber.

One of my big problems in the past with wider tires is that the tandem would blow them off on a descent. The first couple of times it happened it was scary, but I've since figured out that nobody makes tires to mount on Mavic T519 rims any more, so tire/rim compatibility is a must, and the only way to find out is to try. I descended Page Mill road on the tandem with this tire on and had no issues, so I think I'm good to go.

Friday, June 01, 2018

First Impressions: Showers Pass Waterproof Socks

MassDrop was offering Showers Pass Waterproof Socks for a somewhat reasonable discount off the outrageous $36/pair price. While it doesn't tend to rain in California, it does rain in Europe during the summer, and we have a bike tour coming up, so I gave it a shot.

The socks themselves are fairly thick, though not as thick as the SmartWool socks that I've otherwise been using for rainy situations. They add significant width to my feet that aren't bothersome in my well-worn SIDI shoes, but do bother me in the relatively new Pearl Izumis. I've ordered a new pair of SIDIs in case it's a shoe design issue.

At first, the socks felt plasticky in an odd way. It's as though you're wearing socks with stiffeners built in. But after a while, the feeling went away and I found I could ride with the socks on and no issues. The socks are relatively heavy, at 100g per pair.

It's past the rainy season, so I didn't get a chance to try them in the rain. But I ran the shower and walked into the puddles the showers provided. While the outside clearly got wet, my feet never felt wet! I guess it'll take a real rainstorm to figure out whether the squish squish feeling is what I hated most about cycling in the rain, or whether it's the wet feet part that I hated. In any case, these are clearly suitable for touring: even if your shoes don't dry out overnight, wearing these will ensure your feet don't feel wet the next day, so they're probably worth the weight.

The biggest issue with this sock is that they're tough to dry. They definitely don't dry overnight, and you can't throw them into a dryer. My guess is that in some sort of mesh bag out on the back of the bike rack they'll definitely dry while on a bike tour. You'll definitely have to rig up some sort of drying mechanism on your backpack if you're using them on a backpacking trip.

All in all, I think they're worth a shot, but obviously for most day to day riding in California you won't need them. Recommended.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Review: 5 Centimeters Per Second

After the previous bout of extremely heavy going books, I needed a break. Amazon was selling 5 centimeters per second for $1, so I picked it up, not knowing that it was a Makoto Shinkai movie that was then adapted back into a graphic novel.

After the previous books I'd read, this felt like a whole novel about first world problems. The plot is that Takaki Tohno makes friend with a girl in elementary school. Their relationship develop, but one of them moves away. In a highly romantic scene, Tohno takes a series of long distance train to visit her before his family moves to a remote island in Japan accessible only by plane. That journey cements their relationship in his mind, and colors all his future relationships with women.

The novel comes with no deep insights, no quotable scenes, and way too many cliches about relationships. Maybe if you're a teenager living in a first world country the novel would be a reminder that you're not the only one out there who understands that pining away for a lost love is painful. (Not that there aren't enough pop songs covering that topic) I guess the moral of the story is that it's silly to do that. The novel does work better in a context of Asian culture, where much is made of that silent longing, and an antidote to that is needed.

The best thing about the novel is that it doesn't have a made-for-hollywood happy ending. If you read that as damning with faint praise, that just about sums it up for the comic.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Review: Educated - A Memoir

I read Educated - A Memoir with the way I rubber-necked a major car accident: with bated breath, a desire to look away, but never able to tear myself away from the page. The author, Tara Westover, grew up in a suboptimal environment. Her parents were Mormons, but of the paranoid, insane type, rather than the Stephen Covey type. Growing up, they were not allowed to go to school: her father considered all things government to be the manifestation of Satan, and their home schooling was limited to reading the bible.

Westover was taught to despise womanhood, and the word "whore" was bandied about for any woman who dressed even a little bit more provocatively than say, a member of the Taliban. She was continually abused by her father and one of her brothers, both violently and psychologically. She was never even taught to wash her hands or pay attention to personal hygiene, or go to the doctor, with herbal remedies being the method of choice.
Two days later a package arrived, express from Idaho. Inside were six bottles of tincture, two vials of essential oil, and a bag of white clay. I recognized the formulas—the oils and tinctures were to fortify the liver and kidneys, and the clay was a foot soak to draw toxins. There was a note from Mother: These herbs will flush the antibiotics from your system. Please use them for as long as you insist on taking the drugs. Love you. I leaned back into my pillow and fell asleep almost instantly, but before I did I laughed out loud. She hadn’t sent any remedies for the strep or the mono. Only for the penicillin. (Kindle Loc 3473)
The book does offer a glimpse of how resilient human beings can be. Despite this upbringing, all the kids survived, even the one who had multiple head injuries, few of which were seen in the hospital. Even more amazing, 2 of them schooled themselves enough to get ACT scores high enough for admissions to BYU, and Tara herself not only survived the environment, but thrived enough to go to Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship and was accepted into the PhD program.which included a visiting fellowship at Harvard.

Even after these achievements and convincing herself that she had self-worth outside of the crazy family she was born in, she had a tough time escaping that legacy: her family gas-lighted her enough to convince that she was crazy, and that all the childhood abuses she'd suffered were imagined.

Together with Hillbilly Elegy, these books have convinced me that there's no redeeming value in the racist, sexist ideology that so dominates the conservative republican party today.
I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward. (Kindle Loc. 2954)
This book comes recommended, but be warned that you'll need a strong stomach to finish it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review: Spring Chicken

Spring Chicken is Bill Gifford's book about life extension. Karl Pfleger recommended it on the ex-Googler's mailing list, and since it was easily available at the library via Kindle checkout, I gave it a try. It's a reasonably good book. Let me see if I can summarize what I learned in the book:

  • Many of the popular life-extension schticks are basically big business scams. They try to push expensive therapies like Human Growth Hormone, which is suspect and may lead to increased probability of cancer.
  • Aging is to some extent a cellular event. That means many things that you think might be good for you might not be. For instance, anti-oxidants might actually undo the effects of exercise, so over-supplementing on vitamins might be bad for you.
  • Reservatrol got a lot of press but apparently its effects were mostly only seen in mice which were engineered for susceptibility to diabetes and obesity. Those results do not generalize to humans.
  • Diet: you know this stuff: more fruits and vegetables, less meat, and less carbohydrates. The jury is still out on calorie restriction, though some results indicate that intermittent fasting is easier to stick to, which makes it much more likely to be usable.
  • Exercise is a miracle pill. You probably already know this. It is the one guaranteed way to improve mental capacity and reduce or even reverse aging at the cellular level. :

One well-done study found that merely walking twenty minutes a day was enough to slow or reverse the decline in cognition of patients who had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—something few drugs have been able to achieve. (Kindle Loc 3531)
  • Telomeres supposedly indicate longevity, but a large study of more than 4,500 people found that, if you control for unhealthy behaviors like smoking and alcohol abuse, there is no link between shorter telomeres and mortality. (Kind Loc 1866)
All in all, a bunch of surprising results, and totally worth my time to read the relatively short book. We still haven't found any radical life extension technology yet, and it's not for the lack of trying. But we do know how to make the life that you do have more healthy and enjoyable, and that's a good thing! Recommended.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: Barking up the Wrong Tree

Barking Up The Wrong Tree has great marketing copy. The back of the cover and the book's description on Amazon talks about how all the usual advise you have about working hard and getting good greats and being nice is wrong, and how this book will have all the secrets that you need to become truly successful.

It doesn't take much statistics to peruse the book and realize that the author plays frequently upon the difference between what most people view as "success" and what he extremely outliers in success is. Basically, you or I might think that being a doctor, a pharmacist, or a top ten percentile software engineer's pretty good. Eric Barker instead tries to convince you that you should only settle for being right at the top, along with all the extreme situations that puts you into.

For instance, he uses Ted Williams as an example, noting that he was successful in many aspects of his life, not only having been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Fishing Hall of Fame. But then he reveals that his personal life was not quite so great, having had 3 divorces in addition to many acrimonious relationships with the team he managed.

Again, the study of extremely successful people is fraught with danger. In particular, there's surivorship bias, which the author does not discuss: many people might have tried the same approach and failed miserably, but the one guy who gains success through unusual luck or circumstance would get undue press. That doesn't mean people who try the same strategy in the future will have a similar degree of success.

The one piece of good advice I found in the book is the same advice you would have gotten from John T Reed's Succeeding, which is that it's a heck of a lot easier to change your environment than it is to change your personality, so you should find environments that play to your strengths rather than trying to change who you are.

All in all, a book that goes for the shallow approach to success. I recommend reading John T Reed's Succeeding instead.

Monday, May 21, 2018

First Impressions: Garmin Edge 25

My brother's wife Kim gave Bowen her 3 year old Vivoactive. It was in amazing condition. with almost perfect battery life, but it took all of 3 months for Bowen to destroy it. When asked, he didn't even know how he'd managed to crack the screen so hard that the waterproofing failed. I sadly came to the conclusion that if Bowen were to have a bike computer, it should have been one that stayed on his bike, and not on his wrist.

The Edge 25 on an eBay sale came down to $95. At that price, it would have been cheaper to have bought one and moved it from bike to bike rather than the old-style wired bike computers that I'd been buying and installing, and it would have been less hassle too.

The unit is very very cute, and simple to run. Unfortunately, it comes with a charging cradle instead of a micro-USB or mini-USB charging cable, meaning one more thing to carry (and lose) while touring. One feature that it had that I didn't expect was that it actually allows you to download routes to it for club rides! The usual instructions didn't work, but someone had figured out that if you converted a GPX/TCX file to a FIT file it would work. The UI is confusing, though, since you can start a course, but the unit wouldn't record a GPS track unless you also started the GPS recording manually. Of course, it wouldn't reroute if you got off-course, nor is it actually useful for touring.

The battery life is a claimed 8 hours, and we did a 7 hour ride on Saturday with no problems. The big difference between the Edge 25 and the cheaper Edge 20 is that the Edge 25 will pair with the Garmin speed and cadence sensors, which I have a nice collection of but unless you already own those you should probably go for the cheaper unit, since neither has a barometric altimeter, resulting in Bowen recording significantly more climbing than I did, despite the two of us being on the same bike. Though again, for a little kid, the cadence sensor might actually be useful in telling him when to shift.

Unlike the higher end units, the Edge 25 will not automatically resume a ride if you turn the unit off without saving. It will boot with no memory of previous rides and might even lose rides if you just turn the unit off without saving the ride.

The charging interface is strange, since if I plugged the device into a wall charger, it would power the device on (useful for pairing with a tablet and uploading tracks), but then there's no way to view the device's charge status to see if it's finished charging.

I'm of 2 minds about the unit. First of all, I'm well bought into the Garmin ecosystem, so it was unthinkable to even switch brands for my son's GPS. And this is the cheapest Garmin unit you can find, short of a used/refurbished Vivoactive, which would have the problem of being wrist mounted and getting killed by Bowen. On the other hand, it's a very limited device. On the other hand, by the time the battery dies, Bowen would probably have moved on, and an 8 hour ride is probably as much as you can expect a kid to ever do. But if you weren't already bought into the Garmin ecosystem I suspect that there are cheaper devices (though probably not nearly as polished) for your kid to play with. Now you might be tempted to buy a more expensive unit, such as the Wahoo or the Edge 520 Mapping Plus, but those come with their own problems, and batteries in these units should be treated as consumables, so there's probably no longevity when it comes to getting something that your kid will grow into anyway.

Ultimately, the unit is a good compromise, and I should probably have gotten one years ago when I first started installing computers on Bowen's bikes instead of buying a wired computer for every one of those things.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review: Atomic City Girls

I read Atomic City Girls because of Amazon's recommendation algorithm, probably because I'd also read Hidden Figures. To my surprise, unlike the other book, it's a novel, not a non-fiction account. The story takes place in Oak Ridge, which unlike Los Alamos, hasn't really been documented as far as I can tell: other than a couple of stories in Richard Feynman's memoir, I don't remember much discussion about it.

The story revolves around June Walker, her roommate Cici, and a few other characters who arrive just as Oak Ridge is ramping up. Each chapter is headed by actual photos of Oak Ridge and the various posters reminding everyone to keep their lips sealed about what they were doing, even though in practice, most of the employees were apparently kept in the dark about the bomb they were building.

As novels go, the characters seem kinda wooden, more as vehicles to tell the story of Oak Ridge rather than people with their own volition. The romance between June Walker and her lover (a former assistant professor from Berkeley) seems awfully contrived, though the rampant nepotism of that era rings through. There's a side plot involving the civil rights movement, but not really enough is told of that facet to make it a major part of the story.

I kept reading hoping to suddenly find some non-fiction account that would reward my perseverance, but alas, none was found.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: The Nature Fix

I really wanted to like The Nature Fix. The entire book is about how getting out in nature cures all sorts of ills that are endemic in city dwellers, ranging from depression, ADHD, happiness, or even (in one chapter PTSD). Unfortunately, the book ends up reading a lot like a massive commercial for outfits like Outward Bound, which have always felt just as artificial as any of the corporate "team-building program" outfits I'd ever seen.

Most of the problem is that the author, Florence Williams isn't a scientist herself, but a journalist. That means her interviews of scientists in the book are shallow. There's barely any consideration about the size of the studies being done (most of the studies seem too small to draw any conclusion from, and the larger ones seem to be based around self-reporting!), or how to control for a Placebo effect.

This sort of thing hits the zenith when she visits Singapore, where the city state has recently built artificial trees. Yet she herself pointed out in earlier chapters that Singapore is one of the countries in the world that have massive rates of myopia, all traced to kids spending less time outside than in other countries in the world. This sort of easy gullibility permeates the entire book and undermines her thesis.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is the section on ADHD:
“ADHD got its start 150 years ago when compulsory education got started,” said Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “In that sense, you could say it’s a social construct.” Not only will exploratory kids feel bored and inadequate in conventional schools, he said, the constrained setting actually makes their symptoms worse. (Kindle Loc 2999)
 If, as the research suggests, outdoor free play is so important to kids’ physical and mental health, you might expect to see evidence of illness during this seismic generational shift indoors. And in fact, that’s exactly what you see, although it’s impossible to draw a direct line to a particular cause. The stats are alarming: Preschoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants in the United States. More than 10,000 American preschoolers are being medicated for ADHD. Teenagers today have five to eight times more clinically significant scores for anxiety and depression compared to young people born in the 1950s. Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has increased for nearly all groups, with the steepest rise—200 percent—among girls ten to fourteen years old. (Kindle Loc 3100)
But again, we don't see any evidence that increased outdoor time would reduce diagnosis or suicide rates. There's a lot of pontificating, so to speak, but precious little science, and next to no evidence.

I'm the last person in the world to advocate against spending time outside: if you ask me, I think  most Bay Area parents under-emphasize time spent outside and over-emphasize academics. But if you're going to approach the thesis English-major style, you're not going to do the outside movement any favors.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West

I was climbing Kings Ridge Road with the Western Wheelers on the tandem the other day. Right at the top, the pastoral scenery was glorious, my son was singing and telling everyone how much fun this was. Racers on some sort of timed event were passing us, but every one of them gave us a thumbs up. I found myself saying, "This is why people have kids, because if you're lucky, you get one like this one."

Indeed, Bowen's letting me recapture a bit of my childhood. From listening to the Hobbit with him to now listening/watching pieces of The Lord of the Rings and playing D&D, I'm reliving the part of the past when I first discovered the fantasy world that Tolkein created. But it also comes filtered with an adult perspective: that these books are deeply and fundamentally conservative and nostalgic in a way that I don't always agree with.

When I saw The Modern Scholar: Tolkein and the West go on sale on Audible, I picked it up for its excellent reviews, since it might make a good companion for the novel. (And there's that bit of me that says that I should also teach my son to read more deeply than the surface plot and characters in the novel, and for that to happen I myself have to understand the book at a deeper level)

Professor Michael Drout comes across as extremely earnest and of course, a Tolkein enthusiast. He points out several things that immediately hit me:
  • Tolkein is probably the most widely read poet in the past half century, since a lot of the book is in verse, and most books of poetry can't even come close to selling as well as his book.
  • Tolkein comes from academia, and the techniques of academic textual analysis and philology are deep in the book, in ways that I never realized. The parts where the characters go into full on verse? The part where Sam Gamgee speaks poetry that he couldn't have known? That's in the grand tradition of the study of Western Literature, where scholar after scholar might have come across the text and modified it, or written in the margins, and inserted stuff that might be out of place just because he/she knew something and thought it appropriate. That's why the language in the book is the way it is, and the pieces of the text disjointedly so.
  • There are repeated poems in the book, some of which show up in different versions, and it takes careful reading to discover why. The reader isn't meant to realize this, but this is used to evoke a sense in the reader of the change that has happened between the start and the finish. Prof. Drout mentions "The Road Goes Ever On and On" as being one that shows up 4 times, and the last 2 times is different from the first 2.
  • The sense of loss in the novel, The Lord of the Rings isn't solely about nostalgia. It's also a reflection of Tolkein's work as a philologist. Apparently, Western Literature has lost many stories and tales which are only known about because of references to them from works that survived. That sense of loss that Tolkein felt professionally also led to the themes of loss and corruption in the novel.
  • The last third of the Hobbit is a huge confusing mess, unlike the children's book it's intended to be. It's complicated enough that the multiple betrayals, negotiations and ultimate reconciliation can be viewed as the taking over of modern values over the ancient, honor-bound cultures that existed in Western Civilization before then.
There's much much more in the lecture series. Books covered individually are: The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, the Return of the King, the Silmarillon, and Unfinished Tales. The lectures were so compelling that I found myself listening to the series from beginning to end, almost in a binge in just a week. It was entertaining, fun in a way I didn't expect to be, and now I feel better equipped to answer more questions from Bowen. In fact, I wonder if he'll find the analysis of The Hobbit interesting.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Review: Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow

Sequels are rarely as good as their example, but I've had good luck with non-fiction, as long as the author picked a completely different topic instead of rehashing the same-old same-old. Unfortunately, the title, Homo Deus should have given me a clue.

Sapiens was a great book, covering Humanity's past and the rise of civilization. Homo Deus is Harari's attempt to predict the future. Let me try to summarize his argument in this book:

  • The rise of civilization was a result of human organization: human beings learned to believe the big myths (such as the existence of money, god, or the social order) in order to organize to create big projects (like irrigation, the pyramids, or expensive exploration).
  • The rise of science and technology created conflicts between the scientific enterprise and religion ("everything we know is already in the holy book"), and demanded a new "religion" that reflected the new reality: humanism.
  • Humanism values the preciousness and uniqueness of human experience. Hence, one man one vote, equality under the law, democracy, and the emphasis on freedom.
  • The further development of science and psychology means that the human experience is no longer unique: how can you say that you have a unique self if a drug or electrodes placed in your brain can modify your experience so distinctly that you're no longer the same person?
  • The new religion that reflects this reality is "dataism". Collect and use data to choose which unique self you want to be, and share that data with the internet so everyone can learn from and use that data.
  • Alternatively, our AI overlords and algorithms might make that selection for us.
I won't claim that the above 6 bullet points summarizes the whole book, but safe to say that the above is enough for you to decide whether it's worth your time. If someone else had summarized the book like this before I read it, I don't think I would have needed to read it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Review: Law School for Everyone

Nearly every lecture in Law School for Everyone is great and worth listening to. The first section of the lecture series (there are 3 different lecturers) is one Criminal Law, and the cases used to illustrate how criminal law works are current and relevant, ranging from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the OJ Simpson case.

The second section is about civil procedure, which sounded like a boring subject until the lecturer produces an example that might be relevant to you: a drunken house guest slips and falls on your doorsteps, and then returns home to sue you from another state. What do you do? From there, we get a good idea of how the federal courts work vs the state courts, and how jurisdiction works.

The final third of the series is about torts, which again is interesting, using studies ranging from the famous McDonald's Coffee lawsuit to Merck's famous Vioxx pharmaceutical mess. The lecturer does not just stop at discussing what is law and what isn't, but also includes detailed references to public policy, including why the law is the way it is: for instance punitive damages are meant to account not just the incidence where the bad guy was caught, but all the other incidences that they were not, or where the potential plaintiffs didn't bother pressing a suit. That's why they're typically so high.

I learned a lot listening to this lecture series (for instance, most criminal cases are a matter for the state, not the federal government, and how plea-bargaining became the most common tool in the AG's arsenal). It's very much worth your time. It's rare that something is so entertaining and useful at the same time.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Amazon's customer focus blows my mind

Amazon's customer focus blows my mind, especially as someone who knows how the sausage gets made at big companies. One day, I was watching an Amazon rental movie at home. Bowen would come and interrupt me, I'd pause the video, play with  him or answer his question, and then unpause. This happened so frequently that day that I eventually gave up on the movie.

The next day, I got an e-mail to the effect of: "We noticed you had poor quality video last night. We're giving you your money back."

This blew my mind. Somewhere at Amazon, there was a project to detect poor quality streaming and refund customers. The ROI on that project was negative: if the project succeeded, Amazon would lose money. Google for sure doesn't do this. Neither does Apple, as far as I know. It just boggles my mind that anyone would greenlight a project whose entire purpose was to return money to its customers.

My guess is that ultimately, the ROI must be positive, because even cheapskates like me notice excellent service and will buy more from Amazon as a result. But good luck getting big data to pick up on stuff like that and justify a costly software engineering project. I am in awe.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Running a 1 on 1 campaign for your kid

It's no exaggeration that Bowen likes D&D. He's mapped himself into D&D stats. He's turned Defense Grid into a D&D game. He'll play it at home with dice, and he'll play it on the back of the tandem using me as a randomizer.

After his first session with a now semi-regular D&D group, he wanted to roll up a fighter, and asked when he could play it. It turns out that back in 1992, TSR published a bunch of second edition modules in the HHQ series. These were designed for one on one play and came in the 4 major classes: Fighters, Wizards, Thiefs, and Clerics. One of the nice things about the 5th edition of D&D is that conversion is fairly straightforward, and the monster manual does most of the work, including even "leader" type characters that can be used straight out of the book.

It's fairly straightforward to download the PDFs from the internet, and given that these adventures are long out of print, you don't even have to feel guilty about downloading and using them.

Well, it took him 2 sessions, but he managed to get his 2nd level fighter to 3rd level and then TPK'd his party by walking into a bandit lair (after taking care of the sentry) and attempting to talk to the leader and losing surprise. I'm was very surprised that Bowen took it very well: no moaning or whining as you would expect from a 6 year old.

Here, however, are a few tips for parents running this for their little ones:

  • Start them off high. If the module says, "for 1 character of level 2-4", just start the kid off at 4th level. I started him off at second because I thought it'd be a good idea for him to get used to his character's powers one level at a time. But even at 3rd level, one mistake in the game could kill you. (I roll dice in the open, so there's no fudging --- that's the way I've always played, and I wouldn't play any other way) A high level character would at least let the child make one or two mistakes without being penalized.
  • It's great to have NPCs help, but don't let the NPCs lead the PC by the nose. All decisions should be the players'. This seems really hard, since the child will always ask, "What do I do next?" The correct answer is: "This is D&D, not some computer game. YOU decide what you want to do next."
  • Always ask the kid: "Is this what a Neutral Good character will do?" if his character is about to step out of alignment. The D&D alignment rules are there to help guide character behavior, so make use of them.
  • It's ok to deceive the kid. Some of the characters he or she meets are going to lie to him and manipulate him for their own ends. RPGs are great venues for exposing your child to that type of behavior (and teaching him to spot those issues) in a safe, controlled environment that's relatively low stakes. Far better for him or her to learn these things in a D&D game than in real life.
D&D is a lot of fun, and I hope to see Bowen solve problems in more interesting ways in the future. He seems equally inspired by the NPCs he meets as by the characters he read about in books. I'm having fun with Bowen, and these 1:1 adventures written back in 1992 are surprisingly good.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Review: OfficePro Electric Pencil Sharpener

If you have kids in the house, you're going to have a ton of pencils, and usually the regular kind: mechanical pencils aren't nearly as good for kids (the sharp points break off too easily, and kids press too hard and cause paper to tear when using them), and cost a lot more when the pencil inevitably breaks. With the regular wooden pencils, you have to sharpen them.

Over the years, we've tried a bunch of different pencil sharpeners: the hand-held kind (breaks easily after abuse), the rotary kind (too finicky to mount and not portable), and everything in between. None of them have given satisfactory results. The OfficePro Electric beats them all, and by a significant margin.

The sharpener is powered by 4 AA batteries, which would be a pain to replace if they wore out rapidly, but it turns out that they don't. The sharpener demands that you put pressure and hold it still while the rotary blades inside work. That's great. If the kid lets go, the entire pencil rotates and the pencil doesn't get sharpened, no harm done. When the sharpening is done it stops automatically but unfortunately, Bowen pushed so hard that he broke the thing.

I guess you can't make anything so robust that a 6-year old can't break it. I'd still recommend getting one, but you do need to supervise your kid while he's using it.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Review: Neurotribes

Neurotribes is a book about the history of autism. The author points out that autism has been around probably for as long as humanity has been, and the autistic portion of humanity has probably made outsized contributions to technology and human progress.

The book starts off ominously, following a couple who had an austistic child and then tries to do their best to "cure" him. They visit doctor after doctor, eventually running out of real doctors and then visiting cranks instead, falling into the usual traps of becoming anti-vaccine and it seems like the entire book is going to turn into an anti-science rant, when until finally, one of the "doctors" takes one step too far:
On the Rosas’ next pilgrimage to Los Altos, the doctor inevitably brought up chelation. But this time Craig challenged him. “Wait a second,” he told the doctor. “You’re telling me that the recommended course of action for a low reading of mercury toxicity is chelation?” “Yes,” the doctor replied. “And the recommended course of action for high mercury toxicity is chelation?” The doctor nodded yes again. Finally Craig asked him, “Is there any sort of outcome that would contraindicate chelation?” And the doctor said, “No.” (Kindle Loc 1261)
After this long-winded introduction apropos of nothing, the author finally starts telling us about Henry Cavendish and other famous scientists in history who were probably autistic. The thing is, if you work in technical fields, it's wouldn't be difficult for you to recognize parts of yourself in some of these stories:
His grandfather, William T. Price, made a fortune by shrinking the design of diesel engines so they could fit into trains and trucks. At Cornell, Price was known for giving lectures in short pants and was described by his classmates as a combination of Sherlock Holmes and A. J. Raffles, the gentleman thief created as the anti–Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung. After graduation, he embarked on a bike tour of Europe, returning just a couple of days before his wedding. Price was confused that his fiancĂ©e was upset; hadn’t he come back in time as he said he would? (Kindle Loc. 4101)
 From here on we have a history of the discovery and categorization of autism as a disorder, first by Hans Asperger, and later by Leo Kanner, who took pains not to give Asperger any credit. This part of the book is very likely to teach you to have very little faith in the "science" of psychology, as all sorts of theories were promulgated with no scientific testing. Children would be seized from their parents and institutionalized, and all sorts of nasty experiments performed on them. Blanket statements would be made about such afflicted children which would later turn out to be completely unwarranted.

Part of the book explains the rise and increase of autism: the diagnostic criteria was deliberately broad, and later broadened even further (once it was broadened accidentally, when the word "and" was replaced by "or" during the editing process). The motivations of the clinicians and psychologists involved were (somewhat) noble: the idea was that the broadened criteria would make it easier for parents to get state help and assistance for their children. (The author doesn't point out that this also makes more money for the clinicians and psychiatrists involved, who would be the ones collecting state money for administering such therapy) Much of the criteria seems so broad that nearly anybody who has a hobby he likes and is knowledgeable would be considered autistic.

But I did enjoy the section of the book where he reverses the situation, and points out how neurotypicals (NT) would be considered if autism was the societal norms:
By autistic standards, the “normal” brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine. Thus people on the spectrum experience the neurotypical world as relentlessly unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually turned up too loud, and full of people who have little respect for personal space. (Kindle loc 7657)
In this case, anybody who dislikes loud parties (e.g., the typical Silicon Valley holiday party) would be considered autistic. But I never found any attraction to alcohol, loud music, and spaces where you can't even hear yourself think, but the world must be full of them (or at least, the party organizers who run Silicon Valley parties must be full of those people) or parties would actually be interesting to me.

The book is a long read. I got quite a bit out of it, especially the historical portions, and was never bored. Recommended.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Review: LG E42.5" UHD 4K monitor

I normally like to wait for a bit before reviewing electronics, but there's a limited time deal on the 43UD79-B monitor ($530), so I'll make an exception.

I've used wide-screen monitors like the Dell 3818 before, but I've found them to be impractical if you're a writer or programmer: the extra width might give you multiple side-by-side windows for comparing photos or viewing graphs, but when you are writing, it's the amount of text you can fit in vertically that matters. So when I thought about what was practical, the standard 4:3 ratio is what you really want, along with a big screen.

4K is not useful on TVs because of the viewing distance. But 4K is great for computer monitors. With a big screen like the LG 43" display, you can use the screen without turning on resolution scaling, giving you huge amounts of text for writing. The screen comes with 4HDMI inputs, 2 of which allow for 60fps when driven by say, an Nvidi GTX 1030 (yes, I had to upgrade my wife's Optiplex 790 so it could drive a 4K display) , and a display port input as well as a USB-C alt-mode-capable input. The device won't switch automatically between them, requiring you to push "OK" on the remote (yes, the monitor comes with a remote!) in order to flip between inputs.

I was skeptical of the remote at first, but it's turned out to be much better than the usual buttons at the bottom or sides of Dell's monitors, which respond slowly (if at all) to text input and are frustrating to use. The monitor also comes with speakers, which lets you declutter your desk by eliminating the speakers.

Like all screens, your first impression upon unboxing it is that "it's huge." But by the next day, you're going to think: "all the other screens are so small! How the heck did I get anything done on them?" It is amusing that the various collection of monitors in the house show their age by the kind of connectors available on them: DVI-D inputs are no longer provided on the modern monitors, and one monitor actually has a VGA-input, and composite-video input which are no longer found at all anywhere. All this in the space of 10 years. It looks like mini-display ports are going to go next.

By far the worst feature of a 4K screen is that compression artifacts such as those imposed by Google Photos are readily visible. I used to think that Google Photos did an acceptable job of compressing pictures, but now that I regularly see those same photos on a 4K screen I no longer think so: edges that are even a bit off look blurry, and faces don't have the same clarity that you can clearly see from the original Canon RAW file and/or the Lightroom uncompressed JPG output. I'm glad that I have a decent backup solution for my RAW images, as I'm pretty sure I will have to re-render many of them to not be annoyed by looking at them on the 4K screen. I'm doubly happy that I have high resolution cameras and don't go through life shooting pictures of my kids with crappy cell phone cameras. I'm afraid the price of a monitor this good is that the limitations of your photo gear will become readily apparent, and you'll have to buy better cameras to keep up.

I'm red-green color-blind, so I can't comment on color accuracy. If you care about it, use a color-calibration tool.

It's very rare that the cheaper device (the LG 43" monitor) outperforms and is more practical than the more expensive device (the Dell 3818), but this is clearly the case here, especially if you use your screen for real work (programming, writing, photography). If you fit into one of those categories, take advantage of the current prices and get one (and if you're a manager of a team of programmers/writers, you owe it to your team to buy one for every member of the team --- this is one of the best bang for the buck upgrades you can get for your team, right up there with SSDs back when they were first introduced).  If you don't like buying from Amazon, Costco has it for a bit more ($550). Given Costco's longer warranty coverage that might be worth the extra $30 anyway.

Monitors last forever (though my HP ZR2740W had to be replaced under warranty once), so it's not worth replacing them unless something dramatically better comes along. It looks like the LG 43UD79-B is that something. Recommended.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review: Ottolock

I'm afraid that I'm the kind of person who doesn't really believe in locks. For instance, even on my expensive bikes, I usually use a cheap Wordlock ($4.25) instead of a fancier lock, reasoning that I'm not parking my bike anywhere where thieves can get at it.

Then I saw the Ottolock ($55), which is about the same weight as the Wordlock, but is essentially a zip-tie that's has the nice property that it can be cinched up pretty tight and be more rigid than the traditional coiled cable lock. When not in use, it can also be used to secure something to your bike like a zip-tie.

My first impression of the lock was less than good: the first version I got from Amazon locked up, prompting a customer support call from me to the manufacturer. Surprisingly enough, someone picked up the phone at 5:30pm on a Friday, and sent out a replacement that very day! She even through in a mount for the lock, which I must confess I've never used. So I can't say enough good things about the customer service.

I think I know why the lock breaks: there's a button on the side of the lock. You need to depress it when zipping the zip-tie part of the bike through. If you don't do so, the lock might assume that you're tampering with it and then it will refuse to open. So you do have to follow the instructions on the lock pretty well.

In terms of security, I'm not sure it's any more secure than the cable lock. I haven't tried attacking it with a pair of bolt cutters, but I'm pretty sure the lock won't withstand one. Having said that, as I've said I'm pretty sure I've seen a ton of bikes stolen with their Kryptonite locks still hanging on to the front wheel, indicating that a lock that you'll carry and use properly is much better than a lock that you won't be able to use correctly.

My biggest issue about the lock is that someone tampering with it and failing to steel the bike could very well lock up the lock to the point where you'll be the one looking to find bolt-cutters to cut your bike loose. Then again, at that point you'll be glad that the lock wasn't too secure anyway!

I'm not sure I can fully recommend the lock. It's pricey (10X the price of a Wordlock) and not super secure. However, as a reusable zip-tie that somewhat doubles as a lock, it's somewhat useful. That might be damning with faint praise, but that's just about what the device deserves.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: Turo Car Rental

Unfortunately, our Honda Fit got totaled in a crash earlier this year. (I won't say how, who or why, but nobody got hurt) It's by far my favorite car ever, but it's not really suitable for bringing the triplet around, and we have a Tesla 3 on order, so in the mean time we would just make do with our one remaining car and the Turo Car Rental service. So far, it's working out.

Turo is simply "AirBnB" for cars. But for someone like me with specialized needs, it's actually quite a bit better than the typical car rental company. You see, the Triplet is a pain to put into any other car: you'd have to dismantle it and stick it into the car, and then reassemble on the other end. This adds a good 30 minutes to the ride, which is a significant amount of overhead. There are only two cars that can fit the triplet inside the car: the Chrysler Pacific/Town & Country/Dodge Caravan (they're all the same car with different brand names), or the Honda Odyssey. Good luck trying to rent either of those at a typical car rental company: they'll promise you a mini-van and you might end up with a Sienna, which requires a full disassembly.

We usually end up renting a Chrysler/Dodge because those have seats that fold down into the floor, while the Odyssey would require actual removal of the seat, which most owners wouldn't do for us. The triplet (or tandem) would then fit all the way down the middle aisle of the car (with the front wheel, rear stoker pedals and seats removed --- just like the Honda Fit), provided the van had the center console removed. (The center console is actually easy to remove as well) In tandem configuration you don't even need to remove the center console. We can then install 2 kids on the middle seat (with the tandem in between, which doesn't actually reduce conflict as much as you think it would), adults in the front row, and another single bike (4 cyclists, remember?), and luggage for a weekend trip, as well as tools, etc. for the bike.

Most owners use a remote key drop: some as high tech as an app on your smartphone that connects to the car and unlocks it, and some as low tech as simply hiding the key in a location that's disclosed to you. Prices vary: in practice, we've been able to get mini-vans for about $50 a day, which is a very good deal: typically for 2-nights of hotel, the costs of the hotel costs quite a bit more than the transport.

My suspicion is that if we were to do these trips very often (which can happen as Boen gets older and can survive rides longer than 30 miles without falling asleep), then it would be worth the money to buy the Pacifica Hybrid: not only would the hassle of riding to the car pickup be eliminated, but you'd get much better gas mileage. But even if we were to drive the triplet somewhere every weekend (52*50 = $2600), Turo would remain significantly cheaper than owning the car itself ($40K after federal rebate, and you'd still have to pay for maintenance and insurance!). The cars available on Turo are significantly older than what would be in a car rental business' rental fleet, but riding the flat part of the depreciation curve is the main reason why they're cheaper.

Again, we're an unusual family: most people would be driving their kids to school every day in the mini-van, and would get much more use out of a motor-vehicle than we would. But even if you were a normal family, Turo would enable you to drive the smallest car practical for day-to-day use, and switch to bigger cars only for the times you really need them. That's no small amount of savings, and it also reduces your carbon footprint significantly.

Needless to say, I'm now a Turo fan and can recommend the service. Use my link to rent a car from Turo and you'll get a $25 credit! (I'll get a $25 credit too!) Recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Wealthfront's Customer Service

Recently, someone pointed me to the wired article about the risk parity fund that Wealthfront introduced and asked me why I wasn't even concerned enough to think about it? The honest answer is that Wealthfront has great credibility with me because of the way they handled customer issues in the past, so when I saw the risk parity e-mail I just said to myself, "This is Andy Rachleff introducing something cool, and I don't have to think about it."

Here's what happened 2 years ago, which has made my wife and I Wealthfront investors, instead of just customers who got a really good deal. Turbotax had indicated that our tax bill would be significantly reduced if we contributed to our IRAs. My IRA was with Vanguard, so I just did that. My wife's IRA was with Wealthfront. She initiated the process, but Wealthfront sent a confirmation e-mail that required that she click on a link to complete the process. Since we were traveling, she ignored the e-mail and forgot about it. The result was that her IRA contribution didn't go through and we were forced to file an amended return.

When Wealthfront found out about this (which happened to other customers, not just us), they were very apologetic. We got phone calls asking how they could make it up to us. They offered other customers a permanent waiver from fees, but since we already had that, their solution was to ask if we'd like to get stock options in Wealthfront instead. Yes, at this point, you're probably thinking about the irony that Wealthfront had screwed up, and the net result was that we ended up buying their stock and giving them money, but if you know anything about me and my wife, you know that it takes a very special company (with exceptional customer service) to get us to put money in.

Nevertheless, since I got prodded by a friend of mine, I contacted Andy Rachleff to ask about his response to the wired article. His response impressed me: Risk Parity is essentially taking academic research and bringing it to the masses. The idea is that lower volatility securities have higher risk-adjusted returns in the long run. The reason why bond funds have always returned lower is because they're much lower risk. So how would you take advantage of this? The answer is to use leverage: borrow money to buy bonds, multiplying the risk (and the returns). If you know me, you know that I'm allergic to borrowing money, but in this case, what's happening is that Wealthfront is borrowing at wholesale rates and the yield on the bonds exceed the interest the Risk Parity fund is paying, so there's no risk of being forced to sell if the bond market crashed. The expected return on this maneuver is high enough that at the 20% cap Wealthfront expects your overall returns to improve. The reason for the 20% cap is that tax loss harvesting is a big feature in a Wealthfront account, and there's no reasonable alternative for Wealthfront's Risk Parity fund to tax loss harvest into.

Wealthfront just announced yesterday that they're cutting expense ratios on the Risk Parity fund in half (to 0.25% from 0.5%), to avoid accusations that they're using the Risk Parity fund as a hidden profit center. The expectation is that cost savings from increased scale would also lead to further reductions in expense ratios in the future, just as Vanguard fund has done.

So, in response to people who're asking the question: would I still recommend Wealthfront? My answer is: "Yes, whole heartedly." I'm happy to be both a Wealthfront investor and customer. They've been very good about both fixing mistakes, and introducing features in their products that make money for their customers. I intend on adding more assets to my Wealthfront account in the future.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: The Sun is Also a Star

The Sun is Also a Star is a romance detailing the meeting and one day encounter between Natasha and Daniel. Reminiscent of Before Sunrise, Natasha's family is facing deportation and they have just one day to go through all the phases of a relationship, including the attraction, intensity, and of course, the lovers' quarrels and argument.

The cynical person in me wants to call this a paint-by-the-numbers romance. But it's "paint-by-the-numbers" via opposites. For instance, to make the boy and girl break stereotypes, Nicola Yoon makes the boy the poet and romantic and the girl the data-scientist wanna be. Like Nicola and her husband, the Natasha is Jamaican and Daniel is Korean. (Just in case you're wondering, there's probably a lot of autobiography in this novel: Yoon majored in electrical engineering at Cornell, and herself married a Korean American)

Daniel cites the study mentioned in the New York Times article about ways to make people fall in love, and proposes that Natasha and he perform that experiment. Woven about this narrative are side-glimpses into the lives of the people who touch them (and whom they in turn touch). There are a few wise glimpses into American society depicted by the novel:
America’s not really a melting pot. It’s more like one of those divided metal plates with separate sections for starch, meat, and veggies. I’m looking at him and he’s still not looking at me. (Loc 1620)
Ultimately, the book is short and enjoyable, not outlasting its welcome. To the extent that it feels youthful and shallow, it's probably because its protagonists have never done any bike touring:
When they do finally pull apart, it’s with a new knowledge. They have a sense that the length of a day is mutable, and you can never see the end from the beginning. (Loc 3920)
Perhaps most people who're giddy about falling in love are that way because it's the only intense experience in their life where one day can be made to last forever. The book is slightly mar'd by an ending that's too similar to Your Name, but otherwise can be recommended as a quick easy read that won't strain you while you're recovering from a cold your kids just gave you, or as an easy airplane novel.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review: Captain Marvel: Caro Danvers - The Ms Marvel Years

One of my goals of buying a Kindle Fire HD8 was to read more comics, and to some extent, that's been fulfilled. Marvel regularly has sales that bring down the cost of books like Carol Danvers - The Ms Marvel Years to $1, and given that the library doesn't have the book, I don't even feel guilty buying it even if I don't read it.

The problem is, the book wasn't any good. A glance at Ms Marvel's list of powers indicates that this is a hero with distinctive possibilities: energy absorption and reflection seems like a great unusual power that in the right hands could be used creatively and intelligently. The problem with the book is that "creative" and "intelligent" seems out of the question for the main character. Her primary weapon seems to be her fists, and every problem seems to be resolved by beating things up. Even her ability to shoot photon pulses out of her fingers is seldom used or prove ineffective.

The book is huge, at 432 pages. But in the end, the character is just too boring for me to want to read more about her. Wikipedia quotes: " "she's now the House of Ideas' premier heroine"" I can't imagine what their B-list is like.

Not recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review: The Year of Living Danishly

The Year of Living Danishly is a memoir by Helen Russell about her move to Denmark with her husband. Russell is a freelance journalist, and her husband decided to take a job with Lego in Jutland and the story of her move comes along with her attempt to investigate why the Danes are the happiest country in the world.

It's quite clear early on that Russell loves to exaggerate for what she imagines to be comic effect. Early on in her move to the country, she makes statements like "not knowing where the bakeries are." Of course, anyone with a smartphone always knows where everything is, and she later admits that, completely destroying her credibility with me.

The book is not without redemption and facts. She does interview several people about their happiness (in very unscientific fashion, of course), and gives you a good overview of Danish society including the warts (an incredibly high divorce rate, dreary winters that not even a sunlamp could cure), and perhaps a high degree of uniformity (right down to the baby names needing to be a on a list provided by the government). But overall, the society seems well constructed and stress free.

I enjoyed the glimpse into a move by an English speaking country into a Scandinavian one. I'm not sure I needed the embellishments and exaggerations, so I won't recommend this book.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Review: Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder

After 3 years, our Cusinart CBM-18 finally bit the dust and stopped working. It was way past the warranty, so time to buy a new one.

First, I tried one of the cheaper models. The one I tried was the Mr. Coffee automatic burr grinder. It worked fine, but it was noisy as heck! So I ended up ordering the Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder. The marketing literature claims that the stainless version is the quietest grinder in the industry, so I bought the stainless version.

Well, it's quiet for sure! The noise is no longer deafening, and the timer seems to work. The grind is also consistent and fine, which is what I expect from a conical bur grinder. But the best feature is that the grind collection basket is sanely designed, making it easy to pour the grounds into an aeropress without spilling grounds all over the place.

The only improvement I can think of for this grinder would be to have a way to slot an aeropress right into the middle so I can avoid having to pour grounds at all. Recommended.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

First Impressions: LG V20

To be honest, I didn't purchase the LG V20 to use as a cell phone at all! What happened was that I was shopping for a high res music player. In particular, I wanted LDAC or AptX-HD support as well. But even the cheapest high res music player from Sony was $218 and wasn't capable of say, playing back movies or doing anything interesting except for playing music.

The LG V20, however, has always had great reviews for audio, and during an eBay sale, you could get one for $135 after a coupon code. That's even cheaper than a refurbed or used Sony, so I bought it, reasoning that at worst, I had a music player that could double as a portable movie machine on a plane as well.

The biggest problem with buying used or refurbished smartphones is the battery life. Lithium Ion batteries have a limited lifespan usually measured in cycles. If the battery on the phone is regularly drained, within a year, the battery would have gone from barely making it through a day to not making it at all. But the LG V20 was the last of the flagship phones that has a removable battery, so that concern was not an issue either.

Through a freak accident, on the same weekend my LG V20 arrived, the camera on my Moto G5 Plus was smashed. My best guess as to what happened was that I had the Moto G5+ in my cycling jersey pocket, and my kids pedaled the tandem right into my back and the nose rivet of my brooks saddle smashed the lens like a hammer. In the old days, losing a smartphone camera would have been a "so what" event, given that I have dedicated cameras and are not afraid to use them. But nowadays all sorts of apps on the phone depend on the camera, including the all important check deposit app.

So when I got home and unboxed the LG V20, I didn't just plug it in, I removed my sim card and sd card from the Moto G5+ and put those into the phone as well. I did eventually repair the Moto G5+, but it was a ham-fisted repair and didn't really restore the camera to full functionality (the camera's output is still marred).

The LG V20's SoC, the Snapdragon 820, dates from the same era as the Moto G5+'s, the Snapdragon 625. In all the benchmarks, the 820 runs circles around the 625: not only are the cores fully custom Qualcomm "Kryo" cores, they're also clocked higher. In real life, we run applications, not benchmarks, and the LG V20 doesn't feel appreciably faster than the Moto G5+ did, just more power hungry. With one exception: RideWithGPS's route planning web-site does feel faster, because the single-threaded Javascript website just run faster with higher single-core performance, demonstrating that for native Android apps, the 625's 4 additional cores make up for each core not being as fast as the 820's faster cores.

In exchange, the phone's battery life is abysmal compared to the Moto G5+. While I could regularly charge the Moto G5+ to 80% and make it through the day, there's no way the LG V20 could do so. In fact, if I charged it to 100%, it might make it to 6pm before begging for more power. And that's without doing anything expensive like navigation. I immediately bought a 2nd battery for the phone. Given that the phone's battery is replaceable, I could charge the battery to 100% each time without worrying about longevity.

The big pluses are significant. First of all, the audio is indeed awesome. I'd come close to retiring my Sennheiser HD 600 headphones, because they weren't appreciably better than other random stuff I had sitting around. Plug those into the LG V20, and wow. OK, I just didn't have suitable amplication to drive them before! They sound awesome! The bluetooth stack seems better engineered as well, dropping much less frequently than the Moto G5+ did when playing music wirelessly (and the device will use AptX-HD if your headphones support it). My garmin watch also disconnected much less frequently and at higher distances than Moto G5+ did. It does connect with Apt-X HD with  my Sony X1000/M2, but I don't think I can actually hear the difference between Apt-X and Apt-X HD.

The bigger screen is better, though I'm not sure I notice the resolution increase. I didn't miss having NFC on the Moto G5+, but it's actually fairly useful, not just because of Android Pay (which is mostly a gimmick --- you still wouldn't leave the house without your wallet, not just because your driver's license and health insurance cards are in there, but also because enough vendors still don't take Android Pay that you'd be stuck without a payment method in the worst possible places), but because of the "tap to link" camera implementation that Canon has implemented in both the M5 and the G7X2. Now that's a feature that no iPhone has. The NFC antenna/chip is implemented in the back cover of the case (near the top), rather than the battery (like some Samsung phones), so you can swap out the battery without losing NFC, a very nice feature. You can even buy a Murgen 9300mAh extended battery that comes with a new cover and the NFC chip for an extended run-time, though apparently the added weight of that battery means that the phone is no longer mil-spec for drop purposes, and you can't find a protective rubber case for the phone if you attach the big battery.

The fingerprint reader's on the back of the phone, which is useful when picking up the phone off the desk, but not useful if you're trying to use it on a table while eating breakfast, for instance. I also miss the "touch gestures" that Motorola implemented on the Moto G5+, which saved some screen real estate. That's made up by the fact that a 5.7" screen with .2" lopped off for the navigation buttons still gives you a 5.5" screen.

The camera is meh. It's not nearly as good as the Moto G5+'s, which surprised the heck out of me, given that the LG V20 has 3 cameras (2 front and 1 self-facing). I was also surprised by the lack of a selfie-flash, which was present in my wife's Moto Z Play, another phone that's also not in the same price range. It's also not waterproof, but again, if it didn't have a user-swappable battery, I wouldn't have even given the phone a second thought --- my experience buying a refurbished Samsung S7 was that refurbished phones are worthless not because the phone's not functional, but because battery wear usually renders the phone useless:  it doesn't matter how many cool features your phone has if the battery is dead.

The second screen on the phone is also pretty worthless -- it just doesn't add enough usability to the device for me to value it highly, and it feels that it's just using up power for no reason. The LG V30 probably eliminated that feature for this reason.

I do miss the Moto G5+'s gesture: twist to shoot, shake to turn on flashlight. The LG equivalents are clunky: you tap the volume down button twice to activate the camera when the phone is locked, but because of where the buttons are positioned, I have to use my thumb to do that, which is ergonomically unsound. Maybe if I was left-handed it would work better. And the flashlight has mysteriously turned on in my pocket for no reason I can discern, and then it's a bear to turn off requiring unlocking the phone and multiple gestures.

For those who care, the V20 does get excellent updates for the software. After I booted up the phone, it immediately popped up update notifications, and a few days later gave me yet another security update. The phone's even supposed to eventually get Android Oreo. The Moto G5+, by contrast, got maybe 2 updates in the nearly 1 year period during which I owned it, and even though it too is supposed to get Oreo, it's quite clear at this point that Motorola isn't only going to follow through on that reluctantly, if at all. My wife's Moto Z Play does get fairly regular updates, however, so this is entirely due to the price/tier of the phone rather than Motorola's inability to keep up with Android revisions.

All in all, there's no way this phone was worth the $500 premium over the Moto G5+'s price when both were new. And I wouldn't pay more than the $135 I paid for the LG V20. But at the price I paid, I'm somewhat OK using this phone. It's got some pluses, some minus, and overall, the pluses are just barely enough to make up for the minuses as long as I'm not traveling.

But I now know what I'd really like to see as a "flagship" device. I'd like to see the "flagship" features (e.g., huge screen, NFC, waterproofing, nice camera, micro sd card, headphone jack - especially with the Quad LDAC that LG put in), but paired with a power-efficient chipset like the Snapdragon 625 and a lower resolution screen to save battery power. Now that would be a phone worth paying real money for. But of course, no such phone exists, and it doesn't look like any of the Android vendors will have the courage required to make such a radical move in the near future --- they're too busy chasing Apple. Which is a real pity, because again, a phone with a dead battery is a phone with zero features, which is what I see all too frequently with this phone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Review: Columbia Featherweight Hiking Shirt

I was very skeptical that Columbia's "featherweight" hiking shirt was actually light. How can anything with long sleeves, buttons and a pocket be light compared with a short sleeve cycling jersey? But indeed when I bought it off Columbia's website with a $5 coupon and free shipping ($39.98), it weighed in at 3oz, handily beating my lightest weight cycling jersey (4.2oz) and my standard weight cycling jersey (5.4oz).

I put it on, and it's comfortable. It's as comfortable as any T-shirt I've ever worn, which is saying a lot. In fact, it's as comfortable as silk. I wore it on a cool spring day carrying Boen up and down various hills in Diablo State Preserve, and it was very comfortable. Not having to wear sunscreen on the arms is a good bonus factor, but the comfort factor is by far the best thing about the shirt.

It remains to be seen how long the shirt will last with regular wearing and washings, but Columbia's One Year warranty is reassuring, and the shirt comes with spare buttons (which were included in the weight of the shirt I listed above!) After writing this review, I went out and bought another one, which means that this shirt came highly recommended at the current sale price.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: D&D Starter Edition (5e)

I seem to be in the habit of playing only every odd numbered edition of D&D. I skipped 2nd Edition, played 3rd Edition to death, and got into 5th edition (after selling all my 1st and 3rd editions of the book) because Bowen, after reading The Hobbit, started pretending to be certain characters in the story, and of course, the grand-daddy of all RPGs inspired by Middle-Earth is D&D.

I picked up the 5th Edition Starter Set for $12 on Amazon, thinking that at worse, it would turn into reading material. The starter set comes with 5 characters, no character creation rules, and no rules for going above 5th level. It comes with a set of polyhedral dice, and a 32-page starter adventure. There are no miniatures, but the game doesn't really need it, as 5th Edition is a bit of a throwback to the old 1st edition.

Things seem pretty loose: most DM adjudications are pretty much only "advantage" (roll 2 d20, take the highest) or "disadvantage" (roll 2 d20, take the lowest). Most modifiers do not stack, and there are very few "named" modifiers, which I remember being significant load to take care of. This is a good thing, because I was going to run a game for 3 6-8 year olds and their Dads, and we already had our hands full with the kids.

Bowen had set his mind on playing "Gendalf", his imaginary version of the well-known Wizard. On an initial reading of the rules, I was quite impressed: the power scaling of the characters are much different from the 3rd edition of the game. Characters' proficiency bonuses do not scale up rapidly: at high levels in 3E games, you can pretty much ignore the d20 unless the results are a 1 or a 20. The modifiers overwhelm the d20. The maximum proficiency modifier in 5e at 20th level is a whopping +6 (as opposed to +2 at 1st level). That means the threats scale quite differently as well.

The rules for spellcasting are also quite different: spell casters now "prepare" spells by selecting what spells they have available (and again, the scaling is very low), but now they can use whatever spells they have prepared in the spell slots they have at will. Spell slots scale very slowly and there are no ways to get bonus slots. On the other hand, cantrips have been boosted in power and can be used an unlimited number of times, so the Wizard is never stuck shooting crossbows and can always hurl an attack cantrip (which while doing the same amount of damage mechanically, does add quite a bit of flavor).

The packed-in adventure is intended to take in characters from 1-5, and is very reminiscent of The Keep on the Borderlands in all sorts of good ways. The characters are thrown into an open world, and have the flexibility to go in whatever direction they wish (and also get themselves killed an a number of creative ways). It took all of 30 minutes of play for my characters to jump off script in a way that only D&D characters can.

All in all, Bowen loves the game, and has now made me read The Players Handbook or The Monster Manual to him at bedtime. The game sessions double as practice sessions for arithmetic, and he gets excited about the game sessions. And any thing that gets him wanting to read more is good in my book. Recommended.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Review: The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

Larry Hosken highly recommended The Lost Art of Finding Our Way on his book review. I love navigating and navigation problems. When I walked across England, I got lost nearly every day on the trip and loved it. One of my favorite things about cycle touring is that you get to do it all: you pick the destination and decide on the best way to get there, based on what you get to see and do along the way. There are some who just want to be told where to go, but to me that's missing the joy of exploration.

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (LAFOW) is written by a Harvard Physics professor. It doesn't, however, read like dry academic prose, though it's hardly a practical manual of navigation either. It starts out explaining his explorations by kayak during which a fog bank rolls in and obscures the view of land. He then used the wind to navigate back, and upon returning discovers that two young women in kayaks had gotten lost and were not found until their bodies were discovered days later, dead.

He then discusses a bunch of topics near and dear to navigation: what people do when they get lost, and how search and rescue operates. Surprisingly, most people are found within a mile of when they got lost: the definition of being lost is that you've completely lost track of where you are, and hence it's easy to literally walk around in circles without aim. I guess that by that definition, I've never really been lost, because even as a kid, if I lost track of my parents I always knew where the car was, and would be found crying next to the car waiting for my parents to get back.

The typical topics include triangulation, use of landmarks, use of sun and wind for direction finding as well as the rules of thumb used to gauge distance by measuring it against your fingers or your hand. Then there's coverage of celestial navigation and an unfortunately short description of the use of the sextant as well as how it was developed. The methods of determining longitude have been covered elsewhere, so fortunately Huth doesn't spend too much time on it. One of the best sections of the book covered the use of waves and swells for direction finding as well as predicting the weather and determining current. In one particularly educational story, the book describes some ocean navigators discovering some unusual wave patterns, and upon checking against their celestial reckoning realized they were miles off where they thought they ought to be, and realized that a huge storm was coming and changed direction, escaping a storm which claimed the lives of other sailors who were caught in the same storm.

The final part of the book surprisingly enough, goes into the design of hulls and sails that allow ships to sail into the wind, but of course, have little to do with navigation. (Hey, how could a Physics professor abstain from a treatise on the Bernoulli effect) And the entire book is finished off with a story of a navigator who led a tribe to invade another island, but on the return trip, didn't explain her approach to navigating home, whereupon the rest of the tribe rebelled and threw her off the lead canoe. She was picked up by a loyal member of the family at the tail end of the flotilla, and of course, she survived to navigate home while the rest of the tribe, having lost the only person who knew what she was doing, got lost and were never seen again. It's both a parable about the importance of navigational skills as well as the need of even a star navigator to be able to explain herself to her friends, which is something I need prodding on as well.

The book is full of illustrations and pictures and wouldn't translate well to a Kindle (one of the Amazon reviewers also noted that the Kindle edition of the book is terrible and full of typos), so it's one of the few paper books I've bought in recent years. Recommended. If you'd like to borrow my copy please let me know.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Review: Peter Parker - The Spectacular Spider-Man - Into the Twilight

I thought that Spiderman: Homecoming was the best Spiderman movie in years, and decided for $1, I could pick up a recent Spiderman comic. Into the Twilight was on sale, and the reviews weren't bad. The book starts off well enough, with Peter Parker on a "date" with Mary Jane Watson. Apparently there was a marvel universe reset ages ago that I missed since I distinctly remember a period when Peter Park was married to MJ.

Then the plot gets even stranger as more characters from the reset that I didn't know about showed up. Most of it is explained well enough, but it never felt like it got to a resolution. The last chapter of the book nearly redeems it all, as Spiderman is forced to have dinner with J. Jonah Jameson. But not enough, since the story ended too quickly.

Spiderman as a character is great. This book, however, wasn't enough to get me to pony up more money to find out more about this rebooted Spiderman.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review: Vision - The Complete Series - Director's Cut

I never really paid much attention to Vision as a character until I saw the Age of Ultron. Paul Bettany's performance as Vision was great, and so when marvel had a $1 sale for the Eisner award winning graphic novel I picked it up.

The pace of the book is great, with plenty of foreshadowing, and reveals galore. I enjoyed the Vision's attempt to construct a fully synthesized family, and how well integrated his backstory was (including his former relationship with the Scarlet Witch). The book attempts to juxtapose the Vision's role as white house adviser and superhero with his attempt to lead a normal life with his family.

There are a few false notes, the worst of which is the book's attempt to explain P vs NP. If you don't want your kids to grow up with an incorrect understanding of what an NP problem is, keep this book out of their hands! On the other hand, the Marvel universe has always treated Physics, Chemistry, and the various hard sciences as being optional rules, so maybe it was time for Computer Science to get its turn at getting bent.

As a superhero book, it's superior: the characterization is great, and the plot has many elements of classic tragedy: one bad decision leads to another, over and over until things fall apart. Recommended. Just try not to wince too hard when the discussion of CS theory comes up.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A case of too much privacy

The current brouhaha about the Cambridge Analytica use of Facebook data has gotten lots of people to talk about privacy and the use of Facebook. My take on the situation is that now I know why in recent years there's been a spate of "Quizes on the internet" spreading on Facebook: it's information gathering.

I, personally, think that our "big bad overlords" like Google and Facebook aren't actually making good use of their data. For instance, even after you've already bought a product from Amazon, ads for that product continue following all around the internet. Don't sell me the product, sell me accessories for the product. Or show me competitive products in the hopes that I might return the first one and buy the second one instead!

One particular use case bothers me: when touring, I'll use Google maps to derive a cycling route to a location. After deciding between a few alternatives, I'll fire up my Wahoo ELEMNT app and then try to get it to route me to that location. Wahoo ELEMNT proudly tells me that it's "powered by Google Maps", indicating that they use the Google API to derive their routing directions and then pass that along to myWahoo Bolt. But 9 times out of 10, the route shown to me on the Wahoo ELEMNT isn't even close to what the Google maps app shows me! ON THE SAME PHONE! I want Google to derive from my phone's IP (or other identification) and give me the exact same route I just found on Google Maps. But no. Where's my evil overlord when I need one?!!

One of Garmin's best recently introduced features is Garmin's Heat Maps routing. Unfortunately, they only use it to suggest loop rides. That's silly. When I'm touring, I don't want to ride a loop! I want to get to a certain destination. And since I'm cycling, I want to use routes favored by other cyclists. Heck, I'd love it if Garmin profiled me and gave me the perfect route for when I'm riding on my single bike vs riding on the tandem with my son. But again, despite having all that data (which Google probably also has), they refuse to do anything useful with it.

In any case, I don't want to argue against privacy (or that Facebook shouldn't be punished for not revealing about how that data was used until 2 years after the fact). I just think that when it comes to using customer data, the big tech companies both go too far while simultaneously do not go far enough.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: The Tangled Lands

The Tangled Lands belongs to Paolo Bacigullpi's peculiar brand of ecological fiction: the environmental allegory. This time, he teams up with Tobias Bucknell to bring us the world of the Tangled Lands, a fantasy world where magic exists, but the use of magic makes bramble grow, but not necessarily in the immediate vicinity. This bramble is a particularly evil plant: anyone pricked by it falls asleep (think Cinderella), but unlike in Cinderella, this doesn't put the person into suspended animation: the flesh can still be preyed upon by various creepy-crawlies, etc. In any case, since the fantasy world doesn't have advanced technology, healing, etc has to be done by magic, and this puts the inhabitants of the world in a dilemma. Use magic, and cause bramble to grow (and it's very difficult to cut back), or live without the conveniences and (occasionally) life-saving magic and watch your neighbors do it.

The 4 short stories (2 contributed by each author) in the book explore the implications of this world: the wealthy and powerful use their privilege to crush the less well endowed, and even suppress technologies that could resolve the dilemma. Disappointingly, there's no overall arc in the stories: they're all unrelated to one another, and the result is that while each story is individually in and of itself relatively well-written with good characters, by the end of the second story you feel that the authors of exhausted the implications of the world they've created and are just committed to showing you how desperate the folks who live in it are.

While this in itself isn't a bad thing, I feel like the world has much more potential, and the authors could have made better use of the reader's time and theirs in crafting stories set in it. Perhaps a follow up novel would be much more worth your time.