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.