Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: Free Food for Millionaires

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: Hamster Princess - Ratpunzel

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Labor Day Lassen Volcanic National Park Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Granite Gear Crown X60

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: Klymit Static V2 sleeping pad and pillow

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Long Term Review: Rivendell Silver Shifters

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review: Samsara

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review: Words of Radiance

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Review: Blue Planet II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 08, 2018

Review: Of Mice and Magic

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

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

Friday, October 05, 2018

Review: How Music Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Review: Giro Jag gloves

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Review: Fire TV Cube

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Review: Stress and Your Body

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 01, 2018

Review: The Magicians Season 1

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

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

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

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