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.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Columbia Outdry Ex Gold Pants

My old pair of rain pants are so old that I've forgotten when I bought it. I want to say I bought it in Switzerland during one of the more rainy tours of the Alps (hence it must have been outrageously expensive), but it could easily have been in Austria. In any case, this winter, I discovered that it wasn't waterproof any more. (It might never have been waterproof, but the plasticky surface fooled me into thinking that it was)

Having had a great experience with the Columbia Mens Titanium Outdry Ex jacket, I bought the Gold Titanium Outdry Pants, which strangely enough are not actually gold, but are the same color as the jacket I bought. Whoever names these clothing items at Columbia must be even more color-blind than I am. (And before you tell me that it's obvious that "Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Titanium" must be obviously grade levels for gear quality, I have searched in vain on Columbia's website to see if there's any rhyme or reason to the metal-type they use in their branding and have found nothing)

The pants are relatively light at 286g for my size (size small, in both jacket and pants). They come with belt loops in addition to the elastic. That's good, because the elastic is insufficient to keep the pants up on my svelte waist, so I had to add a belt. It's also not good, because that means I have to carry a belt on tour! The pants also fold neatly into a pocket that's labeled "packable," a neat feature with no counterpart in the jacket! (Again, no rhyme or consistency in their product-line) The packed size is quite big, but the packing protects the shiny material so it won't wear out prematurely in  your pannier or saddlebag.

In practice the pants are big enough that I can wear normal (non-cycling) pants under it and ride comfortably. The pants flare out a bit too much at the bottom, so if you're a cyclist you MUST use ankle ties or the pants will get caught in the chain/chainrings eventually. Yet another thing to carry on tour. Clearly, it's designed more for hikers than for cyclists. Some complain that the pants are noisy, but they must be hikers: on my bike I can't tell, mainly because the rain drowns out any noise from the pants.

The pants do stay dry (which included time not just cycling, but also fixing a flat tire in the rain). They're also nice and warm (though how much of it was that I was wearing a whole layer of hiking pants underneath, I don't know), maybe a bit too warm. Not a problem on tour: just don't wear leg warmers under these pants. I wish the color was something bright (like the jacket), but again, these seem designed for hiking and not cycling, but I'd say that they're very good for what they do, and well worth the price. (Around $90 or so on sale) I'm discovering that I must be a Columbia fan, because my favorite pair of hiking pants (bought so long ago that I don't remember when) also say Columbia Titanium on them.

Recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Why I'm not a Strava Premium Customer

Those who know me probably know that I'm a big Garmin and Strava user. Since the day Strava became free for all users to upload their rides, I've connected my Garmin devices to Strava and uploaded nearly every ride to Strava. (I don't make every ride public, since there's no point cluttering up my friends' feeds with every run to the grocery store, drug store, etc) When I write my tour reports, every day has a Strava route map front and center.

I was wondering why I was so opposed to paying for Strava, despite using it so much. Then one day, I got yet another ad on my feed remind me to pay up for Strava so that I could get my Suffer score. That triggered an "aha" insight. I don't ride my bike for suffering. I don't even ride my bike for exercise. One of my favorite jokes (that's occasionally attributed to me on the internet) came in the form of the Zen Koan:
A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, "Why are you riding your bicycles?"
The first student replied, "The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!" The teacher praised the student, saying, "You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do." 
The second student replied, "I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path." The teacher commended the student, "Your eyes are open and you see the world." 
The third student replied, "When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, nam myoho renge kyo." The teacher gave praise to the third student, "Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel." 
The fourth student answered, "Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings." The teacher was pleased and said, "You are riding on the golden path of non-harming." 
The fifth student replied, "I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle." The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, "I am your disciple."
 Strangely enough, the only time when I felt like I was willing to pay for an internet cycling service was with RideWithGPS, where I once found an interesting route, downloaded it to my Bolt, and then rode it with great happiness. (The web-site, unfortunately, was barely usable on a smartphone, which made it mostly useless when touring) Maybe RideWithGPS will provide a "pleasure score", or a "scenery score", or a "singing with children score."

As I get older, I realize that the best things in life aren't easily quantifiable or captured in a single (or multiple) number(s). My best rides have always been the ones so good that I felt like stopping every few minutes to take pictures because it was just too pretty to pass by.



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Long Term Review: Cressi Galileo

It's been about 18 months since I last reviewed the Cressi Galileo, (original review) so now it's time to revisit the product and provide a recommendation. One big change is that Amazon has started carrying the goggles in their USA store. The price, at $60 is incredibly high, so I recommend getting one from Amazon UK, where it is just 24 pounds. Shipping from the UK to the US doesn't exceed $5 (though it does take the better part of a week), but cheap-skate that I am, last year while doing Bowen's bike tour I ordered an extra pair to bring home in case my first pair wore out.

I swim twice a week for about half an hour each time. The goggles are still holding up fine, though the crevices in the goggles have gotten moldy. That doesn't bother me very much, but if it bothers you you can get rid of the mold by soaking them in white vinegar. Unlike previous pairs of goggles that I've owned, the tempered glass in these goggles absolutely do not fade or turn milky white with UV exposure. These truly are goggles for life.

A few caveats: they're heavy: so much so that when I travel I don't bring them, but instead buy a pair of cheap goggles that will get discarded after the trip. The weight savings might not be a big deal if you're car touring or sailing,  but for bicycle touring or back-country camping these definitely get left at home. Secondly, as mentioned before, they seem designed to fit really big heads.

If they fit, these are the longest lasting goggles you'll ever have. (They're basically like diving masks without the nose coverage). Recommended.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: Accubattery

I will admit to not usually reviewing apps, but I'll make an exception for Accubattery, which was good enough that I paid to remove ads from it. The idea behind Accubattery is that if you want to prolong the life of a lithium ion battery, what you want to do is to (a) keep it cool, (b) don't deep discharge it, and (c) don't charge it to the maximum charge level.

Accubattery is an app that helps you do (c). Obviously, (b) is already well within your control, and (a) is not usually within your control. The app lets you set a charge alarm to remind you to unplug your phone from the charger once it hits about 80%. If you can do so consistently, the number of discharge cycles you get out of the battery goes from 300-500 cycles to about 850-1500 cycles, basically tripling your battery life. This is not so  big a deal if you tend to buy cheap phones like I do, but if you're the kind of person who spends big money on phones, this app would let you hang on to your fancy phone for longer.

If I run cheap phones, why do I care? The main reason is that most of the time, I don't really tax my phone. Which means if I start the day partially discharged, I don't care. But when I'm bicycle touring, I'll start the day with a full battery every time, since the phone becomes a crucial information tool. (I've had days when a weather forecast at lunch completely changed my route and gave me a much better experience than I would have had otherwise) So to some extent I do want to preserve battery life on my phones, despite it being no big deal if I had to replace my phone prematurely.

The other use of Accubattery, of course, is that the app will tell you what the current charge capacity of your phone is, so you know when you either need a new battery, or need to recycle your phone and replace it altogether. The information provided is detailed, though 2 of the screens provide conflicting information. I sent a query about this to their support e-mail address (which wasn't easy to find), and got back a satisfying answer on how to use the "battery health" info.

It's a good app. Recommended.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Review: Eufy Genie Smart Speaker

The Eufy was on sale for $20, which made it even cheaper than the cheapest Echo Dot. For some reason I thought it was made my Anker, and bought it for the master bedroom. It's missing a few features that the Dot has, such as being able to use it as a bluetooth speaker, but in practice, I didn't use that feature very much. It does have an audio out, unlike a Google Home, which means that you can use it to drive the nice speaker system that's attached to your TV.

The far field microphone isn't as well implemented as Amazon's, and it seems to misunderstand me more than an echo, but works just fine for setting times, listening to audible books (which is a big deal in my opinion), and listening to music. (I have it positioned so that it's easy to move it into the bathroom for showers, etc)

Is it as good as an Echo Dot? No. But if you can get it for $20, it's a bargain. As a result we now have an Echo in the dining room, an Echo Dot in Bowen's bedroom (for the nightly audio book), and this Eufy in the master bedroom. Recommended.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Not A Review: Rivendell Cheviot

About a year ago, we ordered and picked up a Rivendell Cheviot for Xiaoqin from Rivendell Bicycle Works. The process by which we ended up with the bike was long and dragged out: Xiaoqin test rode many bikes at many bike shops big and small before finally I took her to Rivendell and she tried the Cheviot and immediately said, "This is the bike I've been riding all my wife." (Incidentally, Arturo said the same of his Rivendell Roadeo clone) By the way, if Rivendell hadn't worked out I was going to take her to Calfee next,  but I was starting to feel desperate.

I've always pegged the bike as being my wife's bike. To be honest, I was initially  unimpressed. Every time I've had to lift it to put it on the bike rack on the back of the car, I've been annoyed by how unwieldy it was: compared to my Ti frame, it was heavy. It even looked heavy: Grant had put on the lightest tire he had in his inventory, but the big fat tires with 650B wheels and the triple-tubed rear triangle just combine to make it look like a tank.

The assembly also wasn't perfect. Since we bought the bike, I'd fixed the shifter and brakes a few times, and had to completely replace the chain when it completely fell apart. Not all of this could be attributed to "break-in", either. In one case, the derailleur clamp just wasn't tightened properly! But Xiaoqin was happy with the bike, so I figured it's just the kind of bicycle that you rode if you grew up with "Flying Pigeon" bikes and couldn't get used to the nice lightweight bikes that everyone else rode. When I had to remove the front wheel to stick the bike into a car, I was severely disappointed to discover very prominent lawyer lips, much worse than any of the other bikes in the garage, let alone the much earlier Rivendell or Bridgestone models. "How could you do this, Grant?" I thought. Upon reflection, maybe the kind of person who bought a Cheviot wouldn't be expected to know how to properly use a quick release skewer.

I did notice that whenever I rode it for short distances, that the Cheviot didn't exactly ride like a Flying Pigeon. The steering was light and the bike could accelerate. It didn't feel heavy, even if it was heavy.

Then this past Sunday, we rode from La Honda to Pescadero and once in Pescadero, the wife and kids decided to kick back and enjoy the afternoon. Which left me a choice of riding back to fetch the car with the Cheviot or the triplet. There was no question that I'd take the Cheviot. Fortunately, I'd equipped the Cheviot with A530 pedals, which meant that all I had to do was raise the seat and then ride.

The bike felt floppy and flexy: some of it is because of the traditional square taper crank, which don't feel nearly as stiff as the new style external BB cranks. There's also the missing top tube. But once I started cranking hard, the flexiness didn't get worse, and I quickly caught up to the Western Wheelers C+ group and hung in the draft on the flat. (Those bullhorn bars are NOT aero, no matter what) To my surprise, when the climb started, I could hang out in front with the faster cyclists, setting PRs for Stage Road and the connection from Stage to La Honda. Now this isn't a fair test: when I'm normally out here on the coast, I'd have already climbed both Page Mill Road and Haskins Hill, which means that Stage Road is an afternoon waddle and my edge has long been taken off. But what this showed me was that the Cheviot, while heavier than my normal bike, just wasn't holding me back. When it came to braking, the side-pull brakes were sure and effective. They're still the best brakes available for any except the dedicated off-road machines.

Now, I still wouldn't want to ride the Cheviot for 30 miles (my jaunt on it was 15 miles at maximum speed), and my position on it wasn't ideal for pushing hard (and it probably isn't the right size for me anyway), but that'll teach me to turn up my nose at anything Grant designed. For the right person, it's not a bad bike, and its performance is more limited by your strength and aerobic capacity than the inherent weight of the bike. What can I say: the man's a great bike designer. The Cheviot is a lot like a Mercedes Benz. It's going to eliminate a lot of the road chatter and feedback that I like to have, but when push comes to shove, it's going to perform just as well as that BMW that feeds every road bump back into your hand (and butt). It's still going to come down to how good a cyclist you are, and no matter how much it resembles a beach cruiser in looks, get beyond that and it's a bike that will make the club riders with their fancy carbon fiber frames and aero wheels stare at you as you pass them at speed and do a double-take. And there's gotta be some fun in that! And with the 6" difference in height between my wife and I, it's remarkable that any bike that she can ride would even come close to fitting me, so this makes a great family layabout bike.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Review: Batman Arkham VR

I was really hesitating the pay the $12 sale price for Arkham VR, but then I read people complaining that the game was too short, so I paid the price and tried it. A short game means that I'll actually finish it and experience it to completion, and I'm discovering that VR goggles aren't really suitable for extended use anyway.

The story is simple and just a frame upon which for Rocksteady to show-off a few set-pieces. In fact, it's barely coherent even in those circumstances. What is exciting is the investigative bent of the game: in one sequence you use your controllers to examine a crime scene and can roll the events back and forth and view it from multiple angles. This is cool stuff that really cannot be done in any other medium. (For instance, if you tried to replicate this using live-action actors, you'd have no way to hide the camera --- 3D modeling and animation is really the only way to show this off in 3D)

The downsides: some of the gadgets are a little too finicky. There were places where I tried to use the Bat-analyzer tool and it would snap the tool back into my utility belt instead of activating the tool. Some of it might have been that I'm too close to the PS4 camera, but my guess is that they didn't really test it well enough in all possible VR configurations and separate the UI gestures correctly.

I was very excited when I got the choice between the Batwing and the Batmobile, but it turned out that I never got to experience sitting in either: the game basically blanks out when shifting between scenes with no transitions. This avoids VR nausea, but really takes away from the experiences they could have provided.

For a couple of hours, it was really fun pretending to be Batman. Many of the scenes are very well rendered, and unlike other 3D experiences where artists would slave over the details of the environment that you'd only glance at for a few seconds, the VR environment is such that you would experience each scene in detail and all that effort isn't wasted.

If you own a VR set, I'd consider $20 a bit too much to ask for this "game", but $12 (or in my case $8 since I'd gotten my Playstation Wallet monies at a discount) is a good price and unlike many other games, you'd actually get to experience all of it. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Review: The Hobbit (Audible Book)

After reading Watership Down to Bowen, I needed a break from reading long narratives to Bowen. I decided to cheat. Instead of reading to him, we'd listen to an audio book together. But which one? I settled on The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is a long book for a 6 year old kid, with a running time of 11 hours and 8 minutes for the unabridged version. (There was zero chance I'd go for the dramatized abridged version) I was worried that Bowen would listen for about 10 minutes and then decide that it was not for him. I shouldn't have.

First of all, Rob Inglis is a great narrator, not only using very different voices for each character, but when it came to the songs and poems (which I tended to skip over as a kid reading the book) he would actually sing! I don't think I could have sang the songs as well as he did, so paying for the book didn't seem like a bad idea. So after just one session of listening, Bowen was hooked. The listening took many many days, and Bowen didn't always have the attention span to listen carefully. But the nice thing about The Hobbit is that not only is it a book and audio book, there are also movies, so we would check out each movie from the library as he finished the section of the book, and as an added bonus we would do comparisons: how was the movie different from the book? Why was it different? Did Gollum look like how you imagined him to look?

The narration is not perfect: the riddles section for instance, was difficult for Bowen to comprehend because of the voice Inglis used for Gollum. But that's OK. We could get out the book and read the riddles, which Bowen loved. I need a good book of riddles.

Needless to say, I can recommend The Hobbit as an audio book for young listeners. I myself can't listen to fiction in audio book format, but I made an exception for this one. I guess I'll make an exception for Rob Inglis' Lord of The Rings next.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Review: Life is Strange (PS4)

Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game that falls into the faux-choice genre. In other words, while you're given choices and approaches to dialog, the plot doesn't actually change, and in key places in the story you're just driven on rails along the major plotline. In effect, the game has only one real choice, the last one you make in episode 5. Everything else is fluff or flavor.

The plot revolves around Max Caulfield, who's won a scholarship to a prestigious arts-oriented high school in the fictional town of Acadia Bay, Oregon. One day, while using the bathroom, she overhears a conversation between a friend she hasn't seen for years (Chloe), and a boy in the school. The encounter turns nasty, a gun is pulled, and Max discovers that she can rewind time.

The rewind mechanic is very well done, and the game provides several puzzles which can only be solved through Max's powers. Interestingly enough, dialog trees can also be rewound, so you can redo encounters and conversations until you get the response you're happy with. The game even helps you out by providing a "fast-forward" button so you can skip parts of the conversation that you've already heard.

The art direction is superb, though there are several technical glitches here and there on the PS4, where voices don't line up with character animation. This could be because the dialog has to be localized into multiple languages, but I think could simply be a limitation of the facial capture and animation technology. The music and sound direction is also excellent, providing a multi-media experience that's enticing, and in many moments lyrical. The music soundtrack is actually worth listening to, independent of the game.

In terms of story, the writing is actually better than many critically acclaimed movies. For instance, I think the story in Life is Strange is much better than Your NameThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time or even The Time Traveler's Wife. In any case, throughout the 5-Episode series the game winds and rewinds time continually. You get more exposition about the limits of Max's powers, and insight into the people who fill the world she lives in. By the end of the story, you've learned to care about them. Even the reveal is a surprise, though fair. The game's also not afraid to spend time on character development, rather than dumping puzzle after puzzle on you

Here's the best thing about the game: Max Caulfield is actually a really nice person and a great protagonist. The game portrays her as an introvert and her voice actress is great at showing her hesitancy in expressing herself. It's rare to see well-written introverts in the movies, but in video games? Max stands alone. At every point in time, you see her always trying to do the right thing. She's full of empathy and you're always rooting for her. She's a great heroine and when she faces agonizing choices you feel for her, even though you know most of those choices are false.

My biggest issue with this game is that the story isn't improved by it being an interactive game. Some of the puzzles are tedious and just break the flow and narrative. I think doing the plot/storyline as an actual TV series with great actors might actually be better than the medium of interactive media, especially given that many of the choices provided turned out to be false and fake.

Nevertheless, compelling story, great art direction, many interesting puzzles, and good music make this a complete package. It's worth your time and deserves its awards. Recommended. And play it with a good sound system. The game deserves that effort.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Review: Kissral Bluetooth Earbud Headphone

My refurbished Moto Hint+ has started to have battery deterioration, to the point where a fresh charge wouldn't last 20 minutes of talk time. If you've ever been on hold and had to wait 20 minutes, you know that having the headset cut out at the worst possible time is a major pain. Not wanting to buy new old stock (which probably has been sitting around for along time), I decided to see what Amazon had to offer.

It turns out that $16 buys you a Kissral Bluetooth earphone that looks very similar to the Moto Hint+. The device is tiny, as small as the Moto Hint+ was, but without a battery case. The battery case is very nice, not just because it recharged the Moto Hint+, but also because it was big enough for me not to lose. This tiny thing is very easy to lose. On the other hand, at $16, it's not a disaster if you lose it. The annoyance is that it charges using an old-style Nokia-phone type barrel tip rather than micro USB, which is one more wire to carry and lose while touring.

The advertising touts 8 hours of phone calls and 6 hours of music. In practice, I think I got about 3-4 hours of phone calls and 2 hours of music (really using it for Google navigation audio while renting a car) before it started complaining about low battery. The problem with the device is that it wouldn't just complain about low battery and stop. It would continuously nag you about the low battery, rendering the headset unusable. So there might have been more talk time left, but it was too annoying to use with low battery.

Is it as premium a device as the Moto Hint+? No. But it seems to get the job done, and the price can't be beat. I find that a device like this is great for cycling or touring, where sometimes you just NEED voice directions but can't be looking at the screen all the time, or need to be on the phone talking to the host while searching for the AirBnB in a foreign locale. At 13g including the charging cable it's well worth putting this into your touring kit. Recommended.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Review: Timbuk2 Command TSA Messenger Bag

I really like my Quora-Top-Writer issued Half-Mass messenger bag. It's light, roomy (I can carry Bowen's blanket, lunch box, and accouterments to school for him, so he can ride his single bike unloaded). However, it has one fatal flaw, which is that it's not waterproof.

I found an older model of the Timbuk2 Command Laptop TSA messenger bag on eBay for a decent price, and figured, why not. It's supposedly waterproof, and I got a small, having complained that the Quora bag was too big. The biggest difference between the old and the new as far as I can tell is that the buckles have been replaced by a hook/loop (not velcro) system.

When it arrived, I was dismayed to find that it was heavy: much heavier than the Half-Mass, which isn't surprising, since it actually is waterproof, and that doesn't come for free. I'm sure the TSA exterior zip-pocket for a laptop doesn't come light, either. The main (non-laptop) compartment is also messily subdivided into lots of little pockets with zippers, velcro pockets, etc. It's nice for organization, but I don't think I need to be that organized. The extra pockets also make it hard to use, and I'd prefer one big compartment so I can just dump Bowen's blankets, lunchbox, etc. It also didn't come with a side-stabilizer strap. An e-mail to Timbuk2, however, solved that problem: they asked me for a few pictures and sent me a side stabilizer strap almost immediately.

I recently got caught in the rain and verified that yes, the inside of the bag stayed dry even though I'd gotten soaked. It's heavy, however, so I'm not sure I'd use it unless it's raining. I don't know how bike messengers use this bag all day.  I think I'd recommend the Patagonia Half-mass over this except for the waterproofing, and of course, any of the Carradice saddlebags for day to day use.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Review: Batman - City of Owls

City of Owls follows on the lackluster successful Court of Owls. The story is still a bit incoherent: the Court of Owls comes after Bruce Wayne, and discovers that he is Batman, infiltrating the Batcave. We get a nice glimpse of the safeguards and extra weaponry that Batman has to defend the Batcave, but nothing you wouldn't expect.

Then we get the reveal of who the mastermind behind the Court of Owls is, but it's not even all that exciting. To end the book, we get a flashback to Alfred's father, as well as an introduction to Mr. Freeze. At least the main story from the previous book js completed and there's no cliffhanger.

The like the Court of Owls storyline, but I feel like it got dragged out way too long for no particular reason. Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: Aukey QC 3.0 Dual Wall Charger

I'm forever trying to keep the weight of my touring kit down. Since QC phones have become the norm, it's nice to have a QC compatible charger while traveling, since while on tour, the phone has become the navigation device, the hotel/AirBnB booking device, the emergency contact device, the livetrack device, and the camera/RAW processor.

The Aukey 3.0 dual charger was on sale for about $6, so I picked one up hoping that it would be light enough to replace my old standby, the lightweight New Trent NT90 or the Moko Universal Charger, neither of which had QC.

Unfortunately, the dual charger weighs in at 111g.  The Newtrent + the QC charger that came with the Moto G5+ came in at 113g, but that gives me 3 USB ports! With the Moko, the weight might go up a little, but since you need power adapters anyway, it's still a win. So this charger's no good for touring. It's useful for car and hotel tours where I can charge both my wife and my QC compatible phones at full QC speed, and for $6, it's a very good deal. I guess the physics dictate that there's no way to shave the weight of these high power chargers past a certain point.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Review: Oh My Goddess! Vols 1-3

There was a Comixology sale on Oh My Goddess!, so I bought Vol 1, Vol 2, and Vol 3 all at a fairly low price just to see what it was about, since the series (which runs to 48 volumes) got fairly good reviews.

It turns out that the series is basically a sit-com in comic book format, very similar to Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2 or Bewitched. The idea is that a lonely nerdy guy at a technical university dials a wrong number and gets a direct hotline to the gods/goddesses. The goddess shows up and grants him one wish, and thinking that it's a prank, he wishes for her to stay with him forever, and of course, the wish is granted and she moves in with him.

The goddess Belldandy has a bunch of powers and limitations, and the first couple of books explore the hilariousness of her powers and of course, many times her solutions don't really help solve the problem. By the end of the second book, the writer/artist (Japanese comic books tend to be written/drawn by the one person rather than being a team effort) has ran out of ideas and of course, more characters are added to the cast to spice up the situation. (As someone once said, "Rumiko Takahashi's idea of character development is to add more characters", and Kosuke Fujishima didn't hesitate to use her playbook)

I can see where this series is going (and it is oh so very predictable), so I'm not even going to bother checking out the rest of the series from the library.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: Caesar's Last Breath

Caesar's Last Breath is a non-fiction collection of science essays about gases and our atmosphere. It's got a lot of great stuff about gases, including details about the discovery of Oxygen, as well as the number of different atmospheres the Earth has had since it formed 4.5 billion years ago.

I enjoyed the coverage of various aspects of atmospheric science, including scary stories about the death from radiation that some of the scientists and engineers engaged in the Manhattan project had. In both cases, they both knew they'd gotten fatal doses, and it must have been a horrifying thought. What's sad was that both incidences were quite preventable.

The coverage of weather forecasting by computer was probably the least detailed, but that subject probably deserves its own book. And yes, there's coverage of climate change, and Kean editorializes that he thinks that humanity would probably rather find a way to sequester carbon or engineer the planet's thermal systems than to cut back on its luxurious lifestyle (probably sadly true).

Finally, I also enjoyed the account of how various gases were liquefied (I've always wondered how liquid nitrogen was made) and Einstein's excursions into inventing refrigerators.

Good stuff, and well worth your time. Recommended.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Nashbar Headband

The Nashbar Headband looked just like the old lycra headband I had, except that rather than being tie on, had an elastic band at one end that held it to your head. In practice, it's not too tight, and fits nicely under the helmet.

I worried that it wouldn't wick sweat as nicely as my old headband, but despite riding the tandem on Saturday where the climb from Calaveras road all the way to the top of Sierra road took more than an hour in early afternoon heat (the grade exceeded 12% in many places), the sweatband did not overload, and sweat did not get into my eyes. Comparing it with the SweatVac, I think it's because the band does a better job of channeling sweat to the back of the head than the SweatVac, because of positioning.

The band weighs 13g, 3g less than the SweatVac, so not only does it work better, it's lighter too. At $5, you can buy several at once (and top up the order with chains, etc to get free shipping) and rotate them during a tour so if you lose one it's not a disaster.

Recommended.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: Keen Arroyo II Sandal

This is one of those times when my cheapness got me. The Arroyo II Sandal was on sale on Amazon at  $55, and I picked up the exact same size as the Newports I usually use. The Newports are so great that whenever I wear out a pair, I just buy a new one, but they are expensive.

Unfortunately, the Arroyos aren't nearly as nice. They're still wearable, but I just don't like them as much. For one thing, they're a half size big compared to the Newports. For another, the casing is leather instead of fabric, which means that you can't treat them roughly (e.g., use them on a sailing trip, run in water, etc).

I should have tried them on earlier but didn't do so until recently so I can't return them now. I'll just have to wear them to death. Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

First Impressions: Canon G7X Mk 2

I've been wanting to replace the Sony RX100 for a long time. Roberto owned and recommended the Canon G7X Mark II, and it ticked all the right boxes: 24mm wide angle, 4X zoom (the 24-100mm range is easily my favorite range), fast (f/2.8 at maximum zoom, f/1.8 at minimum), 1" sensor, image stabilization, fast continuous shooting (missing from the RX100) and a flip up screen. Retail price is a nose bleeding $679. But Canon had a refurbished sale for $450 (Canon refurb'd cameras come with a year warranty), so I jumped on it. You might be tempted by the G9X Mark II, which often sells for cheaper and is a newer camera, but don't. That camera has a much slower lens and does not get to 24mm (the wide angle side of the lens only goes to 28mm)

The G7X Mark II is heavy (11.1oz vs RX100's 8.55oz). Most of the reason is the tilt screen. It still fits in a cycling jersey pocket (important for my use case), and the start up time feels a little faster than the RX100's was (2.2s vs 2.8). But most important of all, it has physical controls, which makes shooting with it while riding much better than with most phones (the Moto series is a notable exception, with twist to shoot and the volume buttons as shutter buttons, as is the Sony).
Continuous mode was great. You could hold down the shutter button and just twist the camera, letting you get a guaranteed good shot of your son on a tandem while riding. The penalty, however, is an astonishingly long 15 seconds after that it'll take for the buffer to clear before you're allowed to close the camera and put it back into your pocket! So that makes continuous shooting a bike path or easy riding feature only. Fortunately, the shutter button is correctly calibrated, and I never took a continuous sequence of shots when my intention was to shoot a single shot instead.
At 21 mega pixel, I could crop 80% of the pixels and still get usable images. That makes it a good choice for shooting from a moving bicycle.
When stopped, you can get great images, and the fact that you're shooting RAW files means that even when you forget to turn on fill flash,  you can recover shadow detail in Lightroom. As a relatively old camera, this is supported even in the pre-subscription-only version of Lightroom.

One of the great practical features of this camera for bike touring is that it will charge either via the included charger or via micro USB port. No more carrying a dedicated charger while on tour, but if you do carry the dedicated charger the charge time is significantly less. The other good feature is that you can use a wireless connection from your phone to download photos from the camera to the phone and also geotag the photos from the camera's GPS log. Again, very useful when touring, but I still wished the camera geotagged itself like the Canon S90/95 series did.

It's a great camera, and at a discounted price, well worth the money (and extra weight). Recommended.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

First Impressions: Columbia Mens Titanium Outdry Ex Reversible Jacket

I needed something heavier/warmer for winter riding, and came upon the Columbia Titanium Outdry jacket on sale. Like the Rab Windveil, it comes with a hood, but unlike the Windveil, the material is heavy enough that it doesn't flap in the wind. The sleeves do flap in the wind when you're descending above about 20mph, but all jackets are going to do that if they're not 100% form fitting, and good luck with that if you're skinny!

The jacket is relatively heavy, my size small jacket came in at 345g, or almost 3x the weight of the Rab Windveil. In exchange, it's much better in cold weather, comfortable in a range from about 32F to about 50F in active conditions (i.e., you're cycling, not standing or sitting and reading a book, for instance). I tested it on a morning ride and found that near about 48F you start wanting to unzip and take it off. The jacket is reversible, so you can wear it shiny side out or matte side out. My guess is shiny side out is better for rainy conditions (so the water beads off the waterproof coating and doesn't soak into the jacket making it heavier), and matte side out is better for around town where you don't want to look like someone equipped for severe weather conditions.

The jacket absolutely will not roll up to fit inside a jersey pocket: don't even think about that. It's purely a pannier/backpack item. I can't decide whether it's a better item to have in conjunction with the Rab Windveil or weather a fleece will be better. My guess is that fleece jackets are less practical on a bike tour because having an extra layer of waterproofing is potentially more useful.

I'll be keeping this one. Even when not on tour, it's a great cold weather jacket. I guess that means I'm recommending it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: Balancing on Blue

Balancing on Blue will probably never make the best seller lists: you can't even find it at your local library. It'll never be made into a major motion picture, and that's a good thing. Unlike more dramatic accounts of through-hikes, it's made up of days after days of competent hiking:
The soles of my feet had formed the usual hard covering of skin, the body’s method of dealing with constant wear and tear. Two, small ridges ran along the underside of my little toes which always happened on thru-hikes and the pads below my big toes were hard and calloused. Now on full throttle and fighting fit, I slowly started making inroads into the mileage deficit. My mileage was hovering around twenty-five each day and I’d even thrown in a couple of thirties. (Pg. 144)
The author, Keith Foskett, has already hiked the El Camino de Santiago and the PCT, so long distance hiking is not new to him. He doesn't make a big deal out of camping, getting dirty (though there's several pages devoted to crotch rot, which I'd experienced in my youth as a recruit in a tropical army), and enjoys giving people trail names far too much.

The trail descriptions are fun, and also provide me insight that I didn't know, such as nobody seems to carry a trail map on the AT, but usually just a digital guidebook with elevation profiles (apparently it's hard to get really lost). There's also a little bit of history, as well as a story about a death on the trail of another hiker. There's plenty of great prose about the beauty of the scenery, and of course, the great gift of the American wilderness: solitude.

Foskett has plenty of attitude, and is at least honest about how rude he is (in one instance, he insists on his personal trail name for another hiker, despite her picking another one for herself). It's also quite clear from the book that the AT is such a long hike that days away from the trail are necessary in some cases to recover.

I'll probably never do a big through hike of the 3 major US trails, but Balancing on Blue is a fun short read without the whining, moaning, and groaning (and insanely stupid stunts) that mar other memoirs of such accounts. In short, it's not incompetence literature, and therefore recommended.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: SweatVac Ventilator Cap

I don't know about you, but one of my limiting factors when cycling is sweat output. Basically, the point at which sweat runs into my eyes is the point at which I have to back off my effort level and slow down. One of the problems of growing up in the tropics is that you develop excessive sweat glands, which means that any time you workout you sweat way too much: enough to leave salt stains on your clothing and salt on your face after a hard ride. The best solution, of course, is to not let your kids overheat when they're growing up or they'll end up with too many sweat glands too. But that's too late for me.

Type "sweat band" into Amazon, and you'll get a collection of terry-cloth bands. These might work if you're a tennis player, soccer player, or basketball player, but any sport where a helmet is essential safety gear rules those out: they puff up your head to the point where a helmet won't fit. Ages ago, I bought a 3-pack of lycra sweat bands that were perfect from Nashbar. They were thin, and absorbed sweat very well. They were also comfortable, because they didn't come with elastic: you tied a knot, which let you adjust the appropriate tension. Their fatal flaw is that they're easy to lose, and this year I lost the last of them and of course, neither Nashbar nor anyone else carries anything similar (they were probably too low profit margin). This illustrates the major principle of cycling as a hobby: if you see something you like, make sure you buy a lifetime supply, because the cycling "industry" is incapable of leaving something that works very well alone.

By the way, the best sweat band ever made is the cotton cycling cap. They're great and I use them when touring in the Alps, where multi-hour climbs are the norm. But they don't work well under helmets and give me a headache if I try to use them in combination. And of course, when touring with my son I can't not wear a helmet if I'm to set a good example.

So now Nashbar only carries two types of sweat bands, the skull cap, or the elastic band which is much thicker than the lycra bands I used to use. I ordered both types. The elastic band looked like it'll die on me after a few rides (elastic does tend to do that), so I tried the SweatVac cap first. It's thin, fits nicely under the helmet, and not too tight.

Unfortunately, a mere 50 minutes of hard riding up a mountain and these immediately fail to keep up with my sweat output. I was once again forced to back off my effort and slow down. Not recommended!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: Transit Metro Trunk Bag

Trunk bags are a strange beast. They don't carry very much (not even the huge ones), and they depend on you having a rack on the back of the bike. Most of the time, if you're going to have a rack, you might as well use panniers, which have much higher storage capacity, and don't weigh very much, considering you already have a rack on the bike.

Pretty much, their primary use is for day rides on a bike where the rack is permanently affixed and/or too much trouble to remove for the occasion. In that case, when you're trying to ride with a club, they're more aerodynamic than panniers, even if they're not much lighter.

Well, actually, the TransIt Metro Trunk Bag is the first trunk bag I found that's actually quite a bit lighter than our panniers. At a 215g weight (which I checked against a postal scale), they're one quarter the weight of one of our Robert Beckman panniers.  They're also less than half the weight of the huge Escape DX Trunk bag that it replaced. The Escape also had the problem that it would lean to one side during a ride. That didn't bother me or Bowen, but it bothered a lot of other cyclists we rode with, to the point where at least 5 cyclists would bug us about it during a ride.

So for $25 or so, I got rid of the annoying comments, and have a lighter bike at the same time. That makes this trunk bag recommended.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: The Disappearing Spoon

After The Violinist's Thumb, I decided to see if his other books were any good. All of his books were readily available in ebook format from the local library, so I soon had The Disappearing Spoon on my Kindle.

It's been decades since my high school chemistry classes, so this was a great refresher: it covers the periodic tables and the various elements that form it, as well as going into deep physics. One thing I didn't know, for instance, was that there's active investigation as to whether the fine structure constant is actually a constant.

The various biographies of scientists (some of which never got a Nobel prize despite deserving it) were also great. For instance, I wasn't aware that Marie Curie's daughter Irene Curie, also was a Nobel Prize winner. (Clearly my liberal arts education is missing several spots)

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of topics, and the way Sam Kean covered them. This book is highly recommended and well worth your time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

First Impressions: Woom 4

Bowen's been asking for a bike with gears forever, ever since he started spinning out his Woom 3 on the way back from school. The logical next bike for him was the Woom 4. The other major competitor, the Benin 20 costs $100 more, and isn't appreciably better (it weighs more, for one!).

The Woom 4 comes with SRAM 8 speed grip shifters and mini-V brakes. Like the Woom 3, the Woom 4's brakes come preadjusted and work correctly out of the box, which is rare to find with V-brakes from any manufacturer, let alone from a kids bike. Out of the box I found several interesting features:
The bike comes with a chain-catcher installed on the inside of the bottom bracket. This is a nice touch! Since there's no front derailleur, it is possible for an aggressive kid to hop the bike and cause the chain to fall off. On the outside, the pant-leg protector would keep it from derailing, so on the inside they put a chain catcher. Both front and rear wheels have quick releases, and the grip shifter has a gear indicator labeled from 1-8. In practice, Bowen looked at it a few times while learning to shift but after that will probably never use it again.
The seat came a little low, but Bowen wanted it even lower, so I removed the rear reflector (I installed a light right away, so the reflector was redundant) and gained another quarter inch to lower the seat. I also removed the front reflector, installed a handlebar bag, and installed a front light. No computer was needed this time, since Bowen's aunt recently upgraded to a Vivoactive 3 and gave Bowen her old Vivoactive.

Well, Bowen got on it and for his first ride rode to the local library and back. Those 20 inch wheels definitely rolled a long quite a bit better, and he exceeded his past speed limit of about 9mph with his new gears. When he was done, he told me that I would like to ride his single to school and back home again from now on. Coming from him, that means the bike is recommended, and I probably shouldn't have put off giving him a bike with gears for as long as I did. I now worry whether he'll end up going too fast on that bike, but a quick calculation indicates that even in top gear he still only has 65 gear inches. At 90rpm that's still less than 20mph, which is still fast but not horribly scary. I'd be much more worried about big descents.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Rab Windveil Jacket

Having your son as a stoker means that you can't ride with worn out bedraggled clothing any more. When he was just 4 years old, Bowen poked his finger in the hole in my bike shorts. Then during the winter bike tour, he told me that my jacket now had holes in it. That jacket, the Pearl Izumi Zephyr, is now out of production, having been replaced by an exceedingly expensive Pearl Izum Elite Barrier. Here's the thing: nice as the Pearl Izumi was, it had several issues: it wasn't waterproof, and it didn't pack into its own little pocket (I had to replace it once because it fell out of my jersey pocket), and now it's expensive too?! Forget it. I decided to broaden my horizons and look for stuff that wasn't necessarily cycling specific.

The Rab Windveil came with exceedingly good reviews, including claims that it was waterproof! The specific model is now out of production, but a coupon code net me free shipping and a sub Pearl Izumi price on campsaver.

On arrival, the material seems much thicker than the Pearl Izumi Zephyr was. It also weighed more, coming in at 136g instead of the 76g the Zephyr weighed. It comes with a hood and zippered pockets, which the Zephyr does not have. The hood would catch wind when cycling, but it also had a little bucket that could be used to roll it up and tuck it away. (In practice, this failed and the hood would catch wind anyway!)

I used it on Saturday's LDT ride. On top of Patterson pass, with strong wind blowing against us, I put it on and rolled down the hill exceeding 37mph. It was fast and when we turned I immediately warmed up, which told me that the jacket did a good job of warmth retention, but I wanted to push it and so kept it on in the sun to see how breathable it was, and almost made it all the way up to the 580 intersection before I got warm enough to stop to shed it.

The zippers and outside pocket don't seem to be very useful for cycling, but I could see using it for hiking/backpacking. The same goes for the hood. I've retired the Pearl Izumi to my clothes drawer as a backup and switched to carrying the Windveil in my handlebar bag, which is an implicit recommendation. It's not ideal by any means, but if it truly is waterproof I think it's a real winner.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Review: Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience

I got Brain Myths Exploded off an Audible sale, despite it probably covering many topics I'd previously read or heard about. These included Brain Rules, Thinking Fast and Slow, and of course, Predictably Irrational. Indeed, most of the lecture series was like that: Viskontas would start on a topic and I'd immediately check off some item I'd read about elsewhere. What kept me going was that she's a great lecturer, and very personable, frequently bringing in lessons from her day to day life.

The last lecture in the series was great, taking a very contrarian approach to much of the current hand-wringing over screen time, computers making us dumber, or even social networks being moved into the internet. Her thinking is that most people are actually pretty good at shifting cognitive loads over the computers and search engines, but the research told you that you weren't going to be able to use a computer to find something in the future, people would pay more attention and still be able to remember what they needed to remember.

Similarly, social network unhappiness leads to people using fewer social networks or using them in ways that don't make them unhappy. I wonder if she feels the same way about how we know now that social networks and Google played a big role in the last election.

In any case, if you haven't done as much reading as I have on neuroscience, this would be a great introduction. Even in my case, I learned a few things here and there, and found it entertaining and well presented.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review: Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)

We returned our first Echo because the technology just wasn't there yet, instead opting for an Echo dot. But Xiaoqin wanted a speaker in the dining area, and the dot just wasn't any good if you didn't hook it up to a pair of real speakers, so we ended up with a second generation Echo during the holiday sales.

The Amazon Echo is a triumph of product management over engineering. The voice recognition and search isn't nearly as good as Google's. Yet despite me having uploaded my entire music collection to Google Music, we ended up with an Amazon Echo. There were several reasons for this:

  • At the time when we bought the product, not only did Google Home not support Audible audio books, it didn't support audio books of any kind without you having to pair your phone to the speaker and treat it like a Bluetooth speaker. Google now supports audio books, but of course, my entire audio book collection is on Audible, and Google's prices are abysmal compared to Audible's frequent sales and 2-for-1 deals.
  • None of the Google Home products have an audio output jack, which would enable you to plug your Google Home product into a decent set of speaker systems and use the nice speakers you paid for. This is a huge product management issue: if you read Steve Yegge's rant about Google's lack of innovation carefully, you'll realize that Yegge isn't complaining about Google's actual lack of technical leadership, but it's inability to actually listen to customers and make something they want. Hence, Google has built expensive phones that can't keep up with their competition and smart speakers that work well only if you think that smart speakers are only good for doing voice search.
  • Amazon Echo's priced much better than Google Home. Not only is Amazon now reaping economies of scale in the smart speaker market, they're also much more used to the low margins found in consumer electronics, so the Amazon Echo will remain the price leader for some time to come.
The speaker's sound quality is as good as you can expect from a single cylindrical tube. You're not getting high quality sound, but if you bought this for sound quality you don't have high expectations anyway. It's loud enough that I can set a timer from the kitchen and hear the response from the dining room, which is good enough.

Bowen has learned to talk to the Echo. In particular, he learned very quickly that if he got Alex to play the Paw Patrol Theme Song, his brother would be engaged with the speaker and not bother him, then he could get out his tablet and watch Paw Patrol without his brother fighting for it. I haven't hooked up any smart home devices to the Echo yet, and I don't expect to. We don't use it for huge amounts, but for what we use it for, it works well enough that we held on to it past the return period.

I'm still not sure I'd recommend it for anyone, but it's yet another example of Amazon executing very well despite having less great technology than the competition. Consider me impressed.