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.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Review: The Violinist's Thumb

The Violinist's Thumb is a collection of science essays about various aspects of DNA and our genetic heritage. The essays are individually well written, and each is a lot of fun to read. I was worried that the book would rehash many of the other gene related books I'd already read, but mostly it focuses on less well-known scientists.

I loved the stories about polar explorers eating polar bear livers and nearly getting killed by it. (Bear liver contains a huge amount of vitamin A, which is toxic in those doses) The other memorable ones include the title story about Paganini's thumb (which was both strong and flexible) which gave him the ability to perform feats on the violin few others could, but which was associated with other genetic inheritances which caused him no small amount of health problems. I also didn't know about the inbreeding in certain families (such as Charles Darwin's) which also led to some genetic diseases that they suffered from.

Finally, the story about Craig Venter and the race to map the human genome (and how we seemed to have gotten very few useful results despite how important it seemed) is told, and when it reveals how few genes humans have (around 20,000) and how little genetic diversity humans have (which makes the huge difference between individual humans even more amazing) was well told, though a little bit more inside baseball than I wanted to know.

All in all, well-written, easy to read, and fun. Recommended.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Review: XCom 2 + Season Pass (PS4)

Over the holidays, I picked up XCOM 2 with the associated first year DLC (called the Deluxe Edition) for around $25. I normally don't expect to get around to the DLC, but Enemy Unknown Plus was so good that I thought it would work out. I would have much preferred a PS Vita version for the ability to pick up and play, but given the steep system requirements for the base game I didn't expect that to ever happen. I thought that with remote play I'd at least get some use out of the game.

I was wrong. I fired it up for a bit and got sucked right in. Before I knew it, I'd restarted a game since the strategic game at the top level wasn't explained very well during the tutorial (I didn't figure out for a while that your supply drops came from adding resistance countries), and the game was punishing enough that you'd pretty much lose if you don't do the strategic level right.

XCOM 2 and XCOM are extremely addictive games to me because of the combination of RPG mechanisms along with squad level tactics. This appeals to the D&D munchkin in me: fundamentally, it's D&D without all of the associated role playing and fancy improv theater stuff. It's just the game mechanics (even the move + shoot action essentially come from 3rd Edition D&D), the monsters, and you.

The Alien Hunters DLC introduced monsters that would break the rules: they'd get a free reaction move every time you got to move, which made for tense, engaging fights and painful, hard-earned victories. As with D&D, most of the great story moments come not from the built-in plotline of the game (which is mediocre stuff), but from in-game results of the interaction between you, the game engine, and the random number generator. For instance, there was a massively difficult mission I was on when I encountered the Archon King. He'd flown up into the sky and was about to unlease a massively painful attack (with no possibility of me moving my squad members out of the way) when my sniper armed with an enhanced rifle hit him and rather than just cause damage, he executed the toughest monster in the game in one hit, saving everyone else. What a great story!

My criticisms of the game are that the loading screens are excruciatingly long: around 2 minutes of loading are required before the start of each mission (and that's on my hybrid SSD equipped Playstation). The game has also crashed a couple of times (but my saves were never corrupted), and is in many ways buggy: cut scenes would cut out randomly in the middle, as would the depiction of the combat actions. And of course, the PS4 version doesn't let you mod the game, though the game itself felt so long that I'm not sure I'd have the stomach for the Long War mod anyway. Even game startup takes a long time (also 2 minutes), making me grateful for the PS4 resume feature.

All in all, a great game and one of the few that were so compelling that I played it through beginning to end. If you like D&D-style tactical combat and am willing to put up with the lack of role playing, this is pretty much as good as it gets (don't hold your breath for a follow up to the ToEE PC game). Highly recommended despite the bugs and slow loading times. I'll be looking out for a discount for the War of the Chosen.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Review: Eagle Creek All Terrain Money Belt

I've used the previous iteration of the Eagle Creek All Terrain Money Belt since 2007. The previous iteration was a great belt: lightweight, with the zippered money pocket that I've used to pay for sailing charters in cash while traveling through foreign countries where crime may or may not be a problem. (Since I was never robbed while wearing the belt, I can't say)

I decided that it was a good idea to get a second belt, since my first one is now more than 10 years old, though it shows no sign of wearing out. The price seemed high (but as an old fogey, it would seem high even if all it did was match inflation). What amazed me about this belt is how much more belt you get. The Amazon description says to cut to length and fuse to shorten, but I didn't have to do that with the previous iteration. This iteration of the belt is enough to go 2 rounds around my waist, indicating that while I might have lost weight in the last few years, most Americans are going the other direction.

Overall, the belt seems heavier than the previous one: the buckle, while made out of "simulated metal" seems heavier but is still just plastic, so you won't have trouble with airport metal detectors. The extra length if you're too lazy to cut and fuse (which I am) is troublesome. The rest of it seems the same as my previous iteration, which was great, and of course, it's a good idea to have a spare. Especially if you're in the habit of doing long distance bike tours during which weight loss is an expected part of the journey, this type of belt is much more flexible than the standard kind, as well as being significantly lighter.