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Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem is the second book in Yoon Ha Lee's space opera trilogy.  The previous novel didn't end exactly on a cliffhanger, but clearly the plot had started going and there were many loose ends left untied. This one begins with a deception, though one that careful readers of the previous books could easily see.

As with the previous book, there's precious little science in this space opera: it's not really science fiction, and it's more of a character study than it is say, a novel of political intrigue (though there's quite a bit of it). I enjoyed it as a diversion, though it's nowhere as good as say, early Richard K Morgan. Recommended.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Review: The Sociopath Next Door

I picked up The Sociopath Next Door during an audible sale. The biggest issue with audio books is that the voice actors reading the book might not be appropriate for the book's topic. This is particularly the case with this book: the actress reading the book read in a calm, gentle, languorous voice, completely at odds with the topic of the book.

The book, obviously, is about sociopaths, but works hard to debunk the typical impression you might have from the media, which is that they're the Hannibal Lector crime committer or serial killer. The reality is, the definition of a sociopath (according to this book), is that the person has no conscience, need, or ability to empathize with other human beings. That means they're free to do anything and everything, and will treat other people as objects or obstacles to achieving their goals.

As you can guess by now, most high level executives and CEOs are sociopaths. And of course, the profit-driven charter of most corporations means that by law, they are require to behave as though they're sociopaths! The book runs through several case studies of actual sociopaths and how they may behave with cruelty towards their peers, their patients, their students, and even their families. Then it goes on to describe the author's theory about how sociopaths may have evolved genetically, and why there are so many more sociopaths in Western societies than there are in Asian societies. This part of the book feels a little iffy --- maybe in the paper or Kindle version of the book there are references to research, but the statistics are that something like 4% of American society are sociopaths, and about 0.5% of Asian societies are sociopaths. There's some speculation about why this is so.

There's a tiny, weak chapter about how to deal with sociopaths if you find yourself in the path of one. I didn't think it had outstanding advice. In any case, the book's short, covers an important topics, especially if the 4% figure is true, and is worth your time. Just get the paperback version unless you enjoy sleeping to the sound of this particular actress's voice.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Nine Fox Gambit

Nine Fox Gambit is Yoon Ha Lee's first book in a space opera trilogy. While it has all the trappings of science fiction, it's actually a fantasy story, with magic powers and a magic system based on a complex calendar with much of the elements of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar (Lee is Korean American). The calendar system determines the powers of various battle formations, when it would afford attacks, and even what kinds of weapons are viable in a space empire.

The magic system is never fully explained: you're expected to infer it from the conversations and the actions of the protagonists and antagonists in the novel. A major plot point comes from a rebellion within an empire where the rebels have chosen a new calendar system as well as a new form of government (a democracy), and the reader is treated to a view of democracy as being a "known to have failed" system.

It's a rollicking read, and very compelling: I found myself looking forward to picking up the kindle every evening to learn more about the characters and situations. Recommended. I'm proceeding right to the next book in the series.
First: the value of a game is in abstraction. Many Nirai go in for simulationist approaches, a tendency you share, but sometimes you learn more by throwing details out than coding them all in. You want to get rid of everything nonessential, cook it down to its simplest possible form.” (Kindle Loc 3629)
 “According to the Shuos,” Jedao said, “games are about behavior modification. The rules constrain some behaviors and reward others. Of course, people cheat, and there are consequences around that, too, so implicit rules and social context are just as important. Meaningless cards, tokens, and symbols become invested with value and significance in the world of the game. In a sense, all calendrical war is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. To win a calendrical war, you have to understand how game systems work.” (Kinlde Loc 2640)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel of the Vietnamese-American experience. In particular, it could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American who's grown up with the English language with eagerness: his use of language is erudite, eloquent, and nuanced, while his exposition of the Vietnamese-American experience itself can only have been written by someone whose command of the English language betters that of most native English speakers, but is still nevertheless rejected by the mainstream culture by virtue of his cultural background, skin color, and of course, his history.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and generally books that win such prizes are not much fun to read, being concerned with being in the vanguard of Literature and Literary achievement rather than story, character, plot, and being interesting. For most of the novel, Nguyen succeeds in avoiding such idiocy. The story revolves around a Eurasian man of descent who decides to be a double-agent, working with the communists to undermine the South Vietnamese interests. That experience, of course, is a great analogue with the Vietnamese American experience: someone who sympathizes with both the Vietnamese cultural experience and the American culture he finds himself immersed in.

Thus it is that we see great scenes, including the one where he, as a cultural expert, is involved in one of the many American movies written for (and by) Americans about the Vietnam war, but which of course, dehumanizes the Vietnamese as much as possible while still putting Americans (even American villains) on the center stage. He tries to change the movie by working from the inside, but of course fails.

Lots of similar scenes recur, and the story does cover the experience of being a refugee. Where the book flails is when Nguyen writes himself into a corner, by having the protagonist return to Vietnam. There's no reasonable setup in which this can happen and the protagonist has an exit (especially one in which he gets to write down what happened), so this section degenerates into magical realism and fantasy land.

Nevertheless, I found the novel worth reading. Recommended.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Your Best Brain

Your Best Brain is by John Medina, since I'm a big fan of his, I picked it up despite knowing that it covers little new ground compared to the books I'd already read, e.g. Brain Rules.

I'd say that the biggest difference between this "Great Courses" audio lecture series and the books is the emphasis on social interaction. Medina emphasizes how important that is to longevity and brain function, which I don't remember him emphasizing in his previous books. Each lecture is accompanied by a section on "practical advice", but he admits that they're still few and far between.

If you haven't read any of his previous books, this lecture series is worth listening to. If you have read his previous books, this will serve only as a review. Recommended.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Review: Dopesick

Dopesick is a book exploring the opoid epidemic in the USA, specifically in Virginia. Scarlet pointed me at the book, and it's very much worth reading for an overview of what some economists call "The diseases of despair." I learned a ton in this book.

For instance, I didn't know that selling addictive drugs has long been part of the history of the big pharmaceutical companies:
By 1899, Bayer was cranking out a ton of heroin a year and selling it in twenty-three countries. In the United States, cough drops and even baby-soothing syrups were laced with heroin, ballyhooed at a time when typical opioid consumers were by now not only war veterans but also middle-aged barbers and teachers, shopkeepers and housewives. Many were mostly functioning, doctor-approved users, able to hide their habits—as long as their supply remained steady, and as long as they didn’t overdo. (pg 24)
Even more importantly, I didn't realize that the subjective pain management scale and the relatively recent emphasis on pain management was propaganda foisted onto the medical profession by the pharmaceutical companies. It's astounding to me that the FDA allowed opoid-based pain medication out along without guidance on the possibilities of addiction to powerful drugs. Many of the drug addicts became addicted not because they were partying, but because they were prescribed a drug for too long (and it's not clear to me how studies are done about potential addiction to a pain-killer --- I remember a nurse injecting morphine into me after I'd gotten hit by a car, telling me: "don't worry, you won't get addicted to it." Mercifully, right after that injection I lost consciousness, and needless to say she was right --- I had no craving for morphine after that).
New patients were given OxyContin “starter coupons” for free prescriptions—redeemable for a thirty-day supply—and Purdue conducted more than forty national pain management and speaker-training conferences, luring doctors to resorts from Boca Raton, Florida, to Scottsdale, Arizona. The trips were free, including beach hats with the royal-blue OxyContin logo. More than five thousand doctors, nurses, and pharmacists attended the conferences during the drug’s first five years—all expenses paid. (pg 47)
Again, this is only something that happens in the USA. Other countries with government provided healthcare wouldn't have marketing driven prescriptions. Again and again, the politics of the situation rears its head. For instance, Virginia was one of the states that fought Obamacare by not expanding medicaid coverage.  That creates a cycle of drug use, since many of the addicts were too poor to afford rehab (not that they would have wanted rehab --- many of the victims had families that paid for and pushed them into rehab). After a US district attorney successfully sued Purdue Pharmaceuticals and got them to cough up a relatively small settlement, he was almost fired:
Eight days after it accepted the deal, Brownlee was stunned to see his name on a firing list, along with four other U.S. attorneys. Though he wasn’t ultimately fired, the incident provided fresh criticism of then–attorney general Alberto Gonzales, accused of trying to sway the work of U.S. attorneys’ offices. And it only underscored the long reach of Purdue: Udell’s defense lawyer Mary Jo White, a former Manhattan U.S. attorney, had been the one to press for more time in a call to a Department of Justice official. (Brownlee would break down how Purdue’s attempted influence peddling worked—or didn’t—in a later Senate hearing about the case.) (pg. 82)
I'm always amazed by how Americans seem to fear the government, which is subject to elections and public oversight, while heaping social approval on corporations, who are effectively legally required to be psychopaths in pursuit of maximum profits regardless of the social consequences, can't go to jail, and have so much money that even multi-million dollar fines have no incentive effect on their  behavior.

More importantly, the book provides case studies of the drug addicts. This not just puts a face on the victims, but also points out that many of these drug addicts do not fit your stereotype of one: these were successful men and women from good families who were doing well in school. Drug addiction really does change your brain, and turns you into a desperate junkie in search of the next fix no matter your economic class or social status. (There's even a person who was a doctor on probation due to addiction) If you're a parent you will probably come away from this book fearful for your kids.

Ironically, these diseases of despair only hit white people. The black population was spared this because:
Why had blacks failed to become ensnared in opioid addiction? That question was addressed in 2014 data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Doctors didn’t trust people of color not to abuse opioids, so they prescribed them painkillers at far lower rates than they did whites. “It’s a case where racial stereotyping actually seems to be having a protective effect,” marveled researcher Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University. Put another way: By 2014, while young whites were dying of overdose at a rate three times higher than they did in 2002, the death rate for people of color was relatively unchanged. (pg. 253)
There's lots more in this book, such as the political fight over effective rehab (the scientifically proven to work stuff isn't used because the religious people and the AA types are ideologically opposed to it), and of course the individual case studies.
—he believes the five-year treatment model, common for addicted doctors and airline pilots, is ideal. It’s why they tend to have opioid-recovery rates as high as 70 to 90 percent. “There’s nothing scientific at all about twenty-eight days of [residential] treatment,” Loyd said of the kind heralded in movies and on reality TV. “It takes the frontal lobe, the insight and judgment part that’s been shut down by continued drug use, at least ninety days just to start to come back online and sometimes two years to be fully functioning.” (pg. 294)
There's a poignant section of the book where the author attends a "free healthcare" camp and compares it to 3rd world countries like Haiti:
In rural America, where overdose rates are still 50 percent higher than in urban areas, the Third World disaster imagery is apt, although the state of health of RAM patients was actually far worse. “In Central America, they’re eating beans and rice and walking everywhere,” a volunteer doctor told the New York Times reporter sent to cover the event. “They’re not drinking Mountain Dew and eating candy. They’re not having an epidemic of obesity and diabetes and lung cancer.” (pg. 274)
There are comparisons with other countries that have decriminalized drugs and reduced the cost of addicts to society by providing working rehab programs. Again, ideology (mostly from the non-evidence based crowd) trumps effective operation of society in the USA in a way that's uniquely dysfunctional.

While the author works hard to draw your sympathy, by the end of the book I was starting to get irritated that the voters of Virginia continue to vote for politicians that propound ineffective solutions that kill their children and loved ones while criminalizing them and blaming them for being victims of big pharma. Unfortunately, this book does not have a happy ending, and of course, it's not clear that the country as a whole will have a happy ending if voters keep operating as though the opoid epidemic is a crime issue rather than a medical issue.

The book does have weaknesses: I would have wanted to see a more involved examination of the various rehab approaches and the studies involved. I would rather have seen more statistics about drug movement and distribution rather than a lone interview with a drug dealer (who, like the executives at Purdue Pharmaceuticals, demonstrated no remorse about the lives he ruined). But overall, that does not detract from the point that the book's very much worth your time reading. Recommended.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Review: Prognosis

Prognosis was for me that rarest of books: an Amazon First giveaway that drew me in and force me to read until I got to the finish. The author, Sarah Vallance was a smart, risk-seeking woman who was thrown off a horse and hit her head. This resulted in what's called a "mild brain injury."

As one of my friends learned ages ago, there's no such thing as a mild brain injury, and Vallance describes her process of recovery and healing from the trauma well: from the horror of not having executive function to months of recovering the ability to read or even put together sentences, and the stories of the medical professionals writing her off after she scored with an IQ of 80.

Part of it was her very angry personality, deliberately refusing the help of social workers and other professionals. On the other hand, this was someone who'd suffered a brain injury, and the professionals should know that brain injury victims are literally unable to make rational decisions. On the other hand, she was very lucky to get her brain injury in a country with universal healthcare. In the USA, she'd probably have had her house taken away, and ended up homeless and there would be no way that this book would have been written.

The recovery process was painful to even read, but what came through in the end was that despite her self-doubts, Vallance made a good recovery and performed at a very high level after she attained her PhD, won a fellowship, and became a HR professional and expat. While she's not a very likable person (and neither were much of her family as described), the writing flows, is easy to read, and you will have sympathy for her by the end of the story.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Review: Verbal Judo - The Gentle Art of Persuasion

Verbal Judo's subtitle is The Gentle Art of Persuasion. To my surprise, the book's written by an ex-cop.  In one sense, this is good. You want tried and true techniques that have been used in life-or-death situations and you hope that's generally applicable to your daily life. On the other hand, it's not quite clear that some of the techniques he described would be ones you would (or could) use in domestic environments.

For instance, in one instance he's trying to talk down a crazy guy from wounding his son because he thought his son was possessed by demons. His solution was to lie to the guy and said: "I know a priest specializing in demonic possession." Of course in this case it worked, and he was able to save a child, but I'm pretty sure if you lied to your wife or kids about anything you'd be caught sooner or later, and that's going to ruin your credibility. Since cop-citizen interactions are frequently one-off interactions, the issues that come into play in domestic life don't come into play that often. Similarly, a cop making an arrest has formal authority and power that you probably don't have most of the time when dealing with other people in business.

That said, the book has a ton of advice that is generally applicable, including how to take a step back and keep yourself from saying things you'll regret later. That self-discipline is a useful one, and I think more people could benefit from it. Similarly, the approach towards summarizing the situation is a good one.

As with many books of this nature, it's frequently repetitive and over-written. On paper or on the Kindle, this is a big deal, but since I audited the audio book version, the excessive repetition was fine since in an audio book you can't go back and re-read stuff that's referred to earlier, so in some sense that's an advantage. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Review: Instructions

Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have been collaborating on a series of children's books. I didn't know about them until I saw Instructions on the used books section of the library. For $2, I thought that it was a cheap risk.

While Bowen was happy to have me read to him when he was younger, Boen's always been a different story, never wanting to read books. Even when he was willing to read books, he'd prefer stuff like Monster Trucks. But as an experiment I read Instructions to him and he immediately asked to have me read it to him again!

Unlike many other children's books, there's no immediate morals, or even much of a story line that's fully fleshed out in this book. Mostly, it's hints of a story (fed by instructions), leaving the reader to tease out the characters and events through illustrations. Even for adults, this is intriguing and interesting. The language and artwork complement each other, and of course, it's a very short read (10 minutes max).

Recommended! I'll go look for other children's books by Gaiman and Vess.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Review: Samsung Galaxy S9+ (128GB storage, 6GB of RAM)

This year's trip finally convinced me that in 2019, it is insufficient to have an Android phone with only 3GB of RAM. On the days when I was using Google Maps to navigate the route, the any attempts to take pictures with the phone would cause my Moto X4 to stop navigating. And of course, when my Canon G7II failed, my phone became my backup phone. I don't expect much from phone cameras: the idea is to take pictures that are better than nothing. The problem with the Moto X4 was that the camera startup time was 5-7s. That's an eon. By contrast, my wife's Pixel 3a XL always kicked off the camera quickly, and of course, the camera on that phone takes superlative pictures.

During this year's Prime day, the Pixel 3a XL was sold with a $100 coupon attached to it. This was tempting, but I came to the conclusion that the 3a XL was too much of a compromise: it wasn't waterproof, didn't support SD cards, and came with only 64GB of storage. I could probably give up any one of these in exchange for the pure android experience and superlative camera, but all 3? That was too much. There were also a couple of other niggling things, such as the fact that the Pixel 3a XL is not compatible with QC chargers (it only charges quickly with the USB PD standard). Google's product managers will never learn that if you're not Apple, you can't unilaterally impose a new standard on customers without that annoyance turning off their customers. Whoever's sitting in Android HQ thinking that customers just want an iPhone, only running Android OS is smoking some really good stuff.

By contrast, Arturo's Samsung Galaxy S8 had been used for the last couple of years with no problems. He'd even cracked the screen and jumped into a lake with the same phone and it was still waterproof. Arturo is almost as tough on equipment as I am, and uses his phone way more than I do, so I reluctantly came to the conclusion that if he could come to terms with the Samsung bloatware, I could do the same. He also claimed that a software update in the middle of the lifecycle actually improved the battery life of his phone! It helped that on Prime day, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ with 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM was $500. I considered other phones, such as the Galaxy S10 (similar specs, but with a 3rd camera, in-screen camera reader, $100 more, worse battery life), and the Moto Z4 (not waterproof, worse everything else, same price), and decided that the S9+ was the best fit: Samsung had fixed the problematic fingerprint placement on the S8, and the additional performance of the S10 didn't justify $100 more. I was pretty sure that I didn't want a wider angle lens than the one that came with the S9+. Note that the S9+ 64GB would have only come with 4GB of RAM, and I decided that if 3GB was sufficient in 2016 but not in 2019, I'd better have more than 4GB.

To begin with, the phone is fast. The camera starts up with a double-click of the power button in a second, as fast as my wife's Pixel 3a XL. You can then use the volume down button to shoot pictures, or you can reprogram the Bixby button to do the same with a $3 paid app. In practice, the phone is still more awkward than the 3a XL because the volume/bixby button is opposite from the power button, rather than next to it, but I could still shoot reasonable pictures while cycling:
Having said that, I'm still not as competent as on the G7X II with its real shutter buttons --- I've shot many pictures of my stokers on the back of the tandem shooting blind, but I tried the same on my S9+ and couldn't get a single usable shot! However, it did take me a while to get used to the G7X II's blind shooting capabilities as well, so there's a good chance that in a couple of months I'll be as good with the S9+ as I was with the G7X2.

There's a 2X zoom on the camera, and I thought I wouldn't use it, but in practice once you know it's there, you use it a surprising amount, which makes me think that the ultra-wide camera on the S10/S10+ might not be a waste at all.

Arturo complains that the plus size version Samsung's phones are too big, but when I compared it with my wife's Google 3a XL phone, they're about the same size, and because of the smaller bezels, the S9+ has a bigger screen. Compared to my older Moto X4, it's about 1cm longer, which isn't enough to cause it to fall out of my favorite Columbia Trail Splash shorts, even with vigorous cycling. Screen size is a big deal: for viewing maps, photos, movies, and web pages, you want as big a screen as you can get. The only thing I'd complain about is that I think they could have made the screen narrower to make it easier to reach the entire width of the screen with one hand. But I'm not going to complain about the ergonomics --- it's still better to have a bigger screen.

The bloatware is annoying, with 2 of everything, including calendar, e-mail, and even web browsers. I just disabled everything I found annoying, but of course no doubt some of the performance of the phone is compromised because it's running 2 of everything. The audio is great, and of course, unlike the Moto X4, the S9+ supports band 71. Until 5G becomes ubiquitous, this is a good setup. It's actually the only justifiable reason to get a flagship phone: excellent world wide coverage with better antennas.

There's an amazing number of features on the phone, including some that I'll never used, such as support for Ant+. (I have bike computers for hat) Similarly, there's an O2 sat sensor that I used once and decided it wasn't worth the effort. I looked for an infra-red port but there wasn't one, and of course, there's an FM radio that you can use where your wired headphones become an antenna, that's got great reception, something none of the flagship phones from Apple or Google have. This could turn out to be a life-saver in emergencies when cell phone towers go out. Since nobody has a wired landline any more, I think it's worth shopping around for a phone with this feature. (And yes, the idiot lemming manufacturers who followed Cupertino into killing the headphone jacks don't offer this, so Samsung, LG, and Motorola are pretty much the only phones left with this feature --- even the 3a XL doesn't offer this despite having a headphone jack)

The extra memory was disappointing: I hoped that the extra memory would be put to use and my commonly used apps like Audible audiobooks wouldn't get swapped out. Nope. Audible still occasionally gets swapped out even as the amount of "free memory" in the status pages is north of 1GB. I couldn't help wishing for more options to say, pin certain apps in RAM (hey, I've got plenty of it, why not give me some control) so they don't ever get closed or swapped out.

What surprised me was how much better the bluetooth audio was: my Taotronics headset, despite being too soft with the Moto X4, could be tuned louder with the S9+. I really don't understand why. The headset doesn't draw power from the handset, so there's no reason why one phone should produce louder sounds than the other, but for whatever reason, the Samsung definitely sounds clearer.

The NFC chip is in the middle of the phone, rather than the top edge where the Moto X4 was. I had to retrain my muscle memory to use it. Samsung Pay, of course, is superior to Google Pay, mostly because of the hardware. Even if there's no NFC chip on the transaction terminal, you can use Samsung Pay because the device works with magnetic card readers as well as NFC terminals. In previous years when NFC terminals weren't prevalent this would have been a major feature. Now it's just "nice to have", since NFC payments have been made available nearly everywhere except the post office and certain government offices.

Phone calls are crystal clear and a noticeable improvement over the Moto X4. Most users probably don't care, in this day and age.

Battery life is good in default mode. There are various battery management modes that I didn't know until Arturo told me during a recent backpacking trip. In the most optimized mode, I went from a 99% charge to 74% during a 36 hour overnight backpacking trip with plenty of picture taking, bluetooth turned on for connection to both my Fenix 5X and the AirMini, and occasional use as a flash light, etc. (Airplane mode was on)  This is remarkable battery life and a huge win. I'm very impressed, because I didn't notice any missing functionality and didn't baby the phone at all.

I actually tried Samsung Dex for half a day. I was very impressed. You can plug your device into a standard usb-C dock, and get 1080p resolution on a big monitor, a wired keyboard, and bluetooth mouse pairing. To get 4K resolution you need to shell out for the $90 official Samsung adapter ( While not all applications happily adapt to a desktop environment, ConnectBot ( does, and grants you a reasonably good ssh experience, complete with cut/and paste. If you're a C/C++/Go programmer, Termux ( even lets you develop in a semi-linux environment right on the phone, but doesn't support proper cut/paste.

Unlike Google phones, Samsung's phones do not get updated frequently. Even worse, the updates are frequently gated by your carrier, even for unlocked phones. I'm past the point where "upgrades" have a positive connotation --- the constant UI changes (probably driven by UI designers in search of a promotion rather than any desire to actually improve the user experience), so this doesn't bother me, but it might bother you.

Would I have paid the full $840 price for the S9+ when it first came out last year? No way. But at $340 less for the upgraded 128GB/6GB RAM version? I think it's well worth the slight premium over the Pixel 3a XL. Waterproofing, microsd expansion, QC compatibility, and more RAM are well worth the extra money, no matter what Google's product managers think.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Review: Purdoux Cotton CPAP Mask Wipes

When it comes to stuff like CPAP mask wipes, I'm discovering that the most important factor is the packaging. You can get those big cylinders of wipes,  but those are painful to bring on a bicycle tour, camping, or even a sailing trip where you have to start by getting onto a plane. Then Lofta sold me some Purdoux Mask wipes.

These are the perfect packaging. They come in satchels of 10 wipes each, so you can bring just the right amount for your trip. (For a 3 week trip, bring 2 satchels and then just reuse the wipe for the last day) They're resealable, but once you've opened a satchel to prevent them from drying out just use up the entire satchel. They're more expensive than the big cylinder wipes, but if you have a habit of going on bike tours or trips where light weight is essential, these are a great supplement. Recommended.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Connection Options for the LG 43UD79-B

Over the last 6 months, I still have not found a monitor as good as the LG 43UD79-B.  It's huge and does not require font scaling at 4K, and performs well for writing, photography, and video editing. I feel like I'm going blind every time I have to use anything smaller.

The monitor, however, comes with 4 HDMI ports and only 1 display port as well as a single USB C port. 2 of the HDMI ports are special, allowing for 4K60fps. While the display port is reliable and has always worked, as soon as I acquired the XPS 13, I wanted to be able to connect it with the monitor. This demonstrated that several of the cabling standards are anything but standard or reliable, so I'm documenting everything I tried.

The first thing I tried was a Keychron 10 in 1 USB Hub adapter.  This one was very appealing, because it was cheap (about $40 if you find a coupon), had 4K output, charge the laptop, as well as providing 3 USB hubs and an ethernet jack as well as a VGA port. (nowadays, monitors don't even come with a VGA port, but you might have a legacy monitor sitting around) The problem? No 4K60fps. 4K30fps max. Back it went to Amazon.

Then I tried the Cable Matters USB C with DHMI, DisplayPort, VGA, and Ethernet adapter.  No HDMI 4K60fps either, even though the very same adapter's Display Port would give you 4K60fps. But the DP port was already spoken for by the desktop machine, and seriously, if I was going to do that, why not get the Amazon Basics adapter, which is way cheaper?

Finally, the uni USB C to HDMI 4K60fps cable worked. I went for the short 3 foot cable, and this one was reliable, and gave me 60fps. At $19, it's not the cheapest cable in the world, but as I've already discovered not all HDMI cables are made equal, so if you need one of these, this is the one to get.

I'd tried several USB-C cables that claim to be alt-mode compatible. This has great appeal, since the cable has the potential to provide USB, display output, as well as charge the laptop, simplifying your setup to only one cable. To my surprise after the previous years of trying one cable after another and failing, the cheap ($12) Nekteck USB C 3.1 Gen 2 cable worked, delivering me 60fps.  To my disappointment, the XPS 13 wouldn't charge from the monitor, as the monitor only delivered 7 watts of power!

So there you go, I've got 2 cables that'll work with 4K60fps, and 2 that wouldn't! Compared to last year, the situation is definitely improving!

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Review: The Weather Machine

The Weather Machine is a history of the weather forecasting system. It discusses a history of weather forecasting, the network of weather stations that collect the data, the birth of the satellite weather observation stations, and the rise of modern super-computers that do the forecasts that have become fairly reliable in the short term (1-3 days).

It's a short read, and I love short reads that provide deep insight, but unfortunately in this case the coverage is extremely shallow. There's no coverage of how the forecasting computation actually works. There's no coverage of how the new systems of climate attribution work. There's nothing about how the old "front" system of forecasting works.

In other words, this is a "science book" written by English majors for English majors who don't actually know anything about anything. The author probably got excited about this book in the morning, whipped up a short summary by afternoon, and got bored 2 weeks into writing the book and couldn't be bothered to actually turn it into a book with real substance. I ended the book disappointed and was glad I didn't pay money for it.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Review: The Story of Human Language

The Story of Human Language is one of the best "great courses" audio lecture series I've ever audited. I have no formal training in linguistics other than auditing other lecture series, and came into the lecture series thinking it'd be something like a history of the English language, but instead it's a principles-oriented discussion of language evolution and the implications of those principles!

Here are the principles as discussed:

  • Vowels at the end of words are in danger of being eroded away
  • Vowels tend to shift over time
  • Words and phrases tend to get shortened and sped up over time
  • Intensity of semantics tends to erode overtime, so meanings get diluted. (Think about how you used to be able to say "Great!" and mean it, and now you have to say "Awesome")

    From these, John McWhorter discusses:
    • Where do tones come from? (if you erode away words, eventually what's left as the difference between words becomes tonal)
    • Are all languages equally complex? (No, the complicated languages are the ones that are spoken by a small insular group of people with no larger interaction with the outside world --- when adults have to learn a language they learn it badly so complicated languages get shaved down and simplified... As a result, the more widely spoken a language is, the simpler it becomes --- as a result, Mandarin Chinese is easier to learn than Cantonese, for instance)
    • The corollary is that a language that grows out of a pidgin gradually develops grammar and becomes more complicated as it needs to express more, but is still easier that ancient languages.
    • Because words tend to disappear over time or get diluted, only written languages can maintain a big vocabulary.
    There's a ton of other stuff in here, including a discussion of what's a language versus what's merely a pidgin (this is highly technical). It turns out that Hawaiian Pidgin is actually a creole language. There's a great explanation of why English is so different from old English, and why we find Shakespeare nearly incomprehensible. There's a discussion of artificial languages such as Esperanto and the various sign languages including Solresol, a musical constructed language. It sounds so delightful that I had to look it up after auditing the entire course.

    I can't do this audio lecture series justice. Just the anecdote about how he walked into an elevator with two men who grew up together but hadn't seen each other in decades, and how they gradually code-shifted from formal English into their native dialects made the entire series worthwhile. It's well worth the 18 hours (or you could speed it up with the audible app by listening at double speed) . This is the "great courses" audio lecture series where I went back and read the lecture notes that accompanied the audible download.

    Highly recommended!

    Friday, August 30, 2019

    Review: The Salt Path

    The Salt Path is Raynor Winn's memoir of her backpacking trip on the South West Coast Path in England. It differs from "incompetence literature" in several ways:

    • The author and her husband are not photogenic young people searching for themselves. They know who they are (being in their 50s), her husband (named Moth in the narrative) is dying from CBD, a neurological disease that the doctors say will kill him. And they've lost all their possessions in a court case, including their home, and all the wealth and equity they've had. They are literally homeless at the start of the narrative.
    • The budget for their trip essentially came from welfare: 48 pounds a week, everything they sold to buy their backpacking equipment, and time left from having lost all their other worldly possessions
    • Unlike other conventional narratives of redemption through journey, the protagonists are not looking for love. They've already found love. This is the story of a woman's love for her husband, undiminished despite years of marriage, loss, and faced with the loss of her beloved.
    The start of the narrative certainly read like "incompetence literature." Winn has never done a long backpacking and camping trip, and they lost their home by being incompetent at both investments and legal procedure. But over time, the narrative delivers redemption: Moth gets better and recovers from his pain through daily backpacking and hiking:

    We should add “don’t get cold” to the already extensive list of things to do to counteract CBD. What had the consultant said just three months ago? “Don’t tire yourself, or walk too far, and be careful on the stairs. Don’t carry heavy weights, or plan too far ahead.” But how could I not look too far ahead, when my whole “ahead” contained him? (Kindle Loc 2397)
     Was this possible? From the point of not being able to get out of bed, back to strong and in control of his limbs in just under two weeks. This shouldn’t be possible. But it was. I should have noticed that I was no longer seeing the drag in his footprints, but it hadn’t registered. “Maybe it’s because we had a rest in Weymouth. Maybe my body’s adjusted quicker, like acclimatizing to altitude.” (Kindle Loc 3197)
     At the end of the first year of such travel, they were forced to find lodging for the winter, and of course the symptoms returned. They also had thoughts such as these, when a daughter calls them for help:
    The phone rang as rain began to drop, heavy and determined. We sheltered under a rock overhang. It was Rowan, on her way to a late-summer job in Croatia but stuck in Venice. She thinks she’s missed the connecting bus. Before, when I was a parent, we’d have sent money to put her on a flight, make her safe. But now, just a helpless friend, I sheltered in a rock crevice, useless, hopeless, pointless, and talked to my daughter, stranded in a foreign country, alone. She talked and talked, panicking; the warning for a failed battery sounded . . . (Kindle Loc 1510)
    The story ends in an ambiguous note, but obviously the book has done well, so obviously Winn is no longer in poverty. I enjoyed the book: it wasn't all moaning and groaning, and the moments when Moth is mistaken for Simon Armitage by others on the trail are truly funny.

    I can recommend this book, even if you've never been on a long walk. And if you have, maybe the walk will persuade you to do the South West Coast Path.

    Thursday, August 29, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Taotronics BH052

    I carried along the Taotronics BH052 during the tour. It served not only as a bluetooth headset for answering phone calls, but also as an audio device for navigating with voice directions from Google Maps, and an emergency backup battery.

    As a bluetooth headset, the device is mediocre. I've had more than a few callers complain about voice quality and being unable to hear me. As a media device, I've definitely had better clarity even from a cheap set of ear buds that aren't wireless. On the other hand, all through our ride from Prien Am Chiemsee to Salzburg, the ear buds never ran out of battery despite staying in my ear all the time. Suffice to say that the ear buds get too uncomfortable to wear long before the battery wore out. With a Moto X4, the ear buds are a bit soft, but with a Samsung Galaxy S9+, they can be loud enough. I have no idea why that is, since all the drivers should be in the ear buds, and the phone driving the ear buds should have nothing to do with it.

    In practice, if you listen to media about an hour a day, you'll be charging the headphone's charging case once a week. In use as a backup battery, the entire case gets hot. What surprised me is that the entire case will drain while charging an external device, including the ear buds. This sort of makes sense: if you're desperate enough to use the case as a battery extender for another device (e.g. a phone), you must value it more than a bluetooth headset. After all, the bluetooth headset is useless if your phone's battery is dead!

    The fit and finish of the case leaves a bit to be desired. If you ever drop the case, the lid will pop open and drop your ear buds on the ground. The charging port requires a bit of wriggling to get a micro usb cable to slot in, and I would have preferred USB C, but at this price point (I saw ads for the device for $30 during prime day), I can't really complain.

    All in all, for the price, it's a good piece of equipment that's far more useful than say a lipstick charger would have been. There're certainly better ear buds out there, but there's nothing that will serve as many functions for a weight-limited bicycle tour (or backpacking trip), and definitely not at this price. Recommended.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2019

    Review: An Elegant Defense

    An Elegant Defense is a book about our understanding of the human immune system, and how that has affected the life of patients. I ton of the content overlapped with The Breakthrough, but since I read the book several months apart, I didn't mind as much as if I'd read them back to back.

    The history of immunology was great, granting me several perspectives I didn't know before, including how much AIDS impacted the field, and why the cocktail of drugs used to control the progress isn't considered a cure. (the drugs have a ton of side effects)

    As with The Breakthrough, there's some emphasis towards the end about how "boosting your immune" system is just crackpot marketing, and if you ever actually managed to boost your immune system, it's not necessarily a good thing --- your immune system is carefully balanced on a knife's edge between attacking pathogens and attacking your own body parts. The effects of an auto-immune disorder can be devastating.

    The book covers the hygiene hypothesis as well, which I haven't seen in other books:
    Dr. Lemon thinks one great way to keep your immune system in balance is to . . . eat the food you drop on the floor. Her philosophy, as she puts it, is that people need to stop oversanitizing their world so that their immune systems are introduced to lots of bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens and can react to them as millions of years of evolution have refined them to do. This philosophy is increasingly widely held. It is called the hygiene hypothesis, and the broad idea is that we are starving our immune systems of training and activity by an excessive obsessive focus on cleanliness. “I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it. Get rid of the antibacterial soap. Immunize! If a new vaccine comes out, run and get it. I immunized the living hell out of my children. And it’s okay if they eat dirt. We have animals in our homes, and they sleep with us. If your dog shits on the floor, clean it up, of course, but don’t use bleach. You should not only pick your nose, you should eat it.” Seriously? Yeah, Dr. Lemon says, why not? “Our immune system needs a job. We evolved over millions of years to have our immune systems under constant assault. Now they don’t have anything to do.” Our elegant defense has grown restless. (Kindle Loc 2780)
     The interaction between cancer and the immune system is also fascinating, with interesting discussions like:
    What she and others discovered begins to explain why things like smoking or coal mining or sunbathing are so carcinogenic. Each activity injures the tissue and damages the DNA. When the tissue is damaged, the immune system kicks in and cleanses the site and helps stimulate new tissue growth. The trouble is that when the DNA is damaged, the new cells that grow can be malignant cells, some that are made up of self but that are different enough to behave like a cancer. These cells aren’t playing by the normal rules of the body and staying within their boundaries. Add all this together and you can wind up with cancerous cells that are protected and even nurtured by the immune system. (Kinle Loc 3626)
    The weak parts of the book is all that anecdotal stuff. The characters he uses as examples of patients who are benefiting from our new understanding of immunotherapy are by and large unsympathetic and seem like the kind of person you'd want to avoid meeting if you were to run into them in real life, which means I'm left scratching my head as to why I would want to be introduced to them in a book!

    But the rest of it, while fluffily written English-major style, is mostly good. Recommended.

    Tuesday, August 27, 2019

    Review: Tesla - Inventor of the Modern

    Tesla is a biography of the well known scientist and inventor. My knowledge of the inventor prior to reading the book was limited to that of the Tesla comic.That comic did a pretty bad job of portraying Edison, and this book is way more nuanced and interesting.

    I did not know, for instance, that Edison hired Tesla as an employee. Neither Tesla nor Edison invented alternating current, but it was Tesla that came up with an AC compatible motor, which is still an elegant design in use today.

    Again, my general impression was that Tesla didn't profit by his inventions. The reality was much more nuanced. He had several royalty streams coming from his inventions, as well as offers of paid employment that were considerable. Dying without a lot of money happened because: (1) his lifestyle was lavish --- he lived in a hotel instead of owning a house, (2) he actually tore up some royalty contracts with Westinghouse upon a personal request from the man himself. The latter was particularly naive, and the author noted that if Westinghouse had retained control over his company he probably would have compensated Tesla sometime later in his life.

    Tesla was clearly afflicted by some quirks, and later in life he turned down many offers of employment that he considered "beneath him," but might have led to having immediate impact on the world.

    The escalation of Wardenclyffe’s costs from fourteen thousand dollars to four hundred fifty thousand dollars is an apt metaphor for Tesla’s grandiosity, deserved or not. It demonstrates both his total commitment to this wireless ideal as well as his lack of business sense or even of moderation when it came to money. This brilliant man—born between one day and the next, between the present and the future—usually had a foot in both this world and the world only envisioned. Yet at Wardenclyffe, Tesla veered untethered toward the future. With little anchor to reality, let alone anyone to check his impulses, the inventor lost his way. (Kindle Loc 3080)
    So once again, despite his financial struggles, Tesla walked away from substantial backing, as well as from the chance to actually develop his wireless system, in part because he couldn’t work well with others and largely because he remained tunnel-focused on rebuilding his doomed tower. The Hammonds, as good businessmen, got their revenge by submitting their own wireless patents just after Tesla’s ran out. (Kindle Loc 3493)
    In any case, this book is balanced, interesting, and worth your time. Recommended.

    Monday, August 26, 2019

    Review: The Art of Conflict Management

    The Art of Conflict Management is a 24-lecture series about conflict management. It's probably something alien to most engineers, since our approach is: "do the right thing." And the key to this book is in the title: it's about conflict management, not resolution. The lecturer points out the most conflicts are never resolved, and the idea isn't necessarily to resolve a conflict, but to management --- i.e., come up with compromises that both parties can live with.

    The approach he espouses is a multi-step approach, and one that's probably very well-suited for a corporate environment. (1) Ask for a meeting to discuss the problem (2) During the meeting, discuss the problem and brain storm solutions, listening to all sides as much as possible (3) Decide on a temporary solution (4) Schedule another meeting in the future to follow up (5) repeat! Now you know how corporate environments frequently devolve into meeting after meeting with no effective resolution or solution to the problem. Everybody must have gotten some version of this course at one point or another!

    Ok, I was being slightly facetious and sarcastic: the series is punctuated with examples (acted out by actors) that ring familiar: this includes a couple where a man is itching to move to Colorado but his wife's career is hitting the fast track and doesn't want to move, a worker who has a disability and wants to be relieved from lifting trash cans, two roommates who have to live with each other, but one wants to study and the other one wants to have a party. The lecturer explores various approaches, and sometimes the consequences are role-played out, varying effectiveness.

    The lecturer also doesn't shy away from big conflicts that have had no resolution, such as the abortion cultural wars, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, etc. There, he presents the history of certain historic resolutions, and demonstrates the approach that the famous leaders in those situations had applied. (Note that in many of those cases, the folks who led the resolution of such conflicts got assassinated, not a happy ending for the people involved!)

    You can argue that this stuff is obvious and you needn't listen to 24 hours of lecturing on it. On the other hand, whenever I think about how many conflict resolution failures I've had, it can't hurt to listen to common sense one more time, right?

    Friday, August 23, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Arkel Drylite Panniers

    Cycling bags are a compromise. For my trips on my single bike, I avoid panniers as much as possible, preferring saddlebags or bike-packing bags to keep the bike as light as possible and without drawing the weight penalty of carrying a rack on top of it.

    For this year's tour, I knew Xiaoqin's rental bike would have a rack. With a bike weighing in at 50 pounds, there's no point skimping on weight, and you might as well have panniers. On the other hand, Xiaoqin doesn't ride her bike every day, and certainly wasn't about to go practicing on fire roads the way I regularly do, so I couldn't overload the bike enough to cause handling problems.

    Arkel Dry-Lite Panniers are billed as the lightest waterproof panniers ever made. Xiaoqin went for the red color, which actually made them tough to find, as nobody seems to stock them in that color. The panniers are light and fold up really nicely. I didn't weigh them as an e-bike was going to carry them, not me. The tops are the usual dry-bag roller tops, where you fold them over 3 times before you clip them to prevent water intrusion, and there are no compartments inside.

    The mounting system is unusual: instead of hooks on the top, the panniers grab onto each other using an intersecting set of velcro: a layer of hooks sandwiched between two loops. The result is that the panniers can go on and off the rack as a pair. Once you figure out the system this is a very fast and easy on-and-off system, though god help you if you get the velcro system mixed up. At the bottom is a hook attached to a bungee cord that helps you stabilize the panniers horizontally. These do a good job but we didn't figure that out until the second week of the tour, and the panniers still never fell off, because the rental bike's rack had a spring-loaded mechanisms that held the panniers down securely anyway.

    The capacity is mediocre: Xiaoqin carried her own clothing, some of Boen's clothing, and Boen's PS Vita. Everything else (including bike tools, backpacking towel, Bowen's clothing, my clothing, most of Boen's clothing, raingear, etc) went in my venerable Robert Beckman panniers, which are much more substantial, but of course weighed more and were way more bulky.

    For single bike touring, I think the Revelate Designs bags at 517 are lighter (these are spec'd at 540g) and eliminate the need for a rack. These are mostly good only if you're renting a bike that has a rack that you're not going to take off. They are lighter than the traditional English saddlebags (a Carradice low saddle longflap comes in at 904g), but only have similar capacity.  Keep in mind that a typical bike rack weighs north of 600g, so even though these panniers are lighter than a traditional Carradice, after you add in the weight of a rack you're no longer better off. From that point of view the new Revelate Designs bags are substantially better and I'd recommend them over these.

    Thursday, August 22, 2019

    Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

    After reading The Weather Detective, I had to read The Hidden Life of Trees, which many have praised as being a better book. It's definitely a fascinating one, about how trees can communicate to each other:
    The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there. (Pg. 7)
     I loved the chapter on "street kids", on why the isolated trees in cities, suburbs, and even various preserves and parks don't do well, which is because they're not actually part of a forest, and therefore not part of a community. He explains why trees that grow naturally in a forest are longer lived than the "street kids": the reason is that for trees to be long lived, they need to grow slowly, and straight up. A tree in an open area would grow in all directions quickly, but that would lead to a short life.

    There are lots of little secrets for your garden:
     These secret reserves can be activated at any time, and depending on the tree species, they contain a selection of defensive compounds produced by the tree. These so-called phytoncides have antibiotic properties, and there has been some impressive research done on them. A biologist from Leningrad, Boris Tokin, described them like this back in 1956: if you add a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles to a drop of water that contains protozoa, in less than a second, the protozoa are dead. In the same paper, Tokin writes that the air in young pine forests is almost germfree, thanks to the phytoncides released by the needles.56 In essence, then, trees disinfect their surroundings. But that isn’t all. Walnuts have compounds in their leaves that deal so effectively with insects that garden lovers are often advised to put a bench under a canopy of walnuts if they want a comfortable place to relax in the garden, because this is where they will have the least chance of being bitten by mosquitoes. The phytoncides in conifers are particularly pungent, and they are the origin of that heady forest scent that is especially intense on hot summer days. (Pg. 156)
     There's also lessons in forestry, on how to get back those old growth forests. Unfortunately, the time scales involve are truly immense, on the order of 500 years:
    if the conifers that have now fallen into disfavor were to be removed, the future old-growth forest would develop a bit more quickly. But once you understand that the first generation of trees is going to grow too quickly anyway and, therefore, is not going to get very old—and that the stable social structure of the forest is not going to be laid down until much later—then you can take a more relaxed view. The plantation trees growing in the mix will depart in less than a hundred years because they will grow above the tops of the deciduous trees and stand unprotected in the path of storms that will ruthlessly uproot them. These first gaps will be vanquished by the second generation of deciduous trees, which can now grow up protected by the leafy canopy formed by their parents. Even if these parents themselves don’t grow very old, they will still grow old enough to give their children a slow start. Once these youngsters reach the age of retirement, the future old-growth forest will have achieved equilibrium, and from then on, it will hardly change at all. It takes five hundred years from the time a national park is established to get to this point. Had large areas of an old deciduous forest that had seen only modest commercial use been put under protection, it would take only two hundred years to reach this stage. However, because all over Germany the forests chosen for protection are forests that are far from their natural state, you have to allow a little more time (from the trees’ point of view) and a particularly intense restructuring phase for the first few decades. There’s a common misconception about the appearance of old-growth forests in Europe (pg. 237)
     In any case, the book is well written, easy to read, conversational, and education. How often do you get that great combination all put together? Recommended.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2019

    Review: Salt - A World History

    I read Salt while touring across Bavaria, and it was a surprisingly appropriate read! The book covers the history of Salt's importance, of how roman soldiers used to get paid in salt, and the history of various forms of salt existed throughout human history and the role of salt in preserving food.
    It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration. The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter noted by Herodotus and subsequently by many other Europeans. In the gold-producing regions of West Africa, a pile of gold would be set out, and a salt merchant would counter with a pile of salt, each side altering their piles until an agreement was reached. No words were exchanged during this process, which might take days. The salt merchants often arrived at night to adjust their piles and leave unseen. They were extremely secretive, not wanting to reveal the location of their deposits. From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold. But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight. (Kindle Loc 650)
    The Italian mainland was originally much farther away from the islands that are now the city of Venice. The area between these islands and the peninsula of Comacchio was called the Seven Seas. “To sail the seven seas” meant simply sailing the Seven Seas—accomplishing the daunting task of navigating past the sandbars of those treacherous twenty-five miles. About A.D. 600, Venetians started using landfill to extend the mainland closer to the islands of modern-day Venice. The Seven Seas became a landmass with a port named Chioggia. Below it, in a now much-narrowed lagoon, was Comacchio, overlooking the delta of the Po. Ravenna, formerly a port, became an inland city, and nearby Cervia became its port. (Kindle loc 1070)
     Another example: I didn't know that Ketchup came from Indonesia:
    Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. The names of several other Indonesian sauces also include the word kecap, pronounced KETCHUP, which means a base of dark, thick soy sauce. Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas...The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle loc 2344)
     It covers MSG, the history of salted fish, and the modern use of "natural salt", which ironically has more dirt and doesn't have iodine, which is actually an important mineral that many do not get enough of:
    The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle Loc 5437)
    There's a lot more in this big book, including coverage of the salt mines in Salzburg (the name means "salt city!"), and how much of lower Bavaria was important because of the presence of the salt mines. It even put the mining exhibit and the salt mine visits that we made during the tour into perspective. The book can be a bit repetitive and a bit of a chore at times to read, but I was very happy to have read it when I read it.


    Tuesday, August 20, 2019

    Review: Exhalation

    Exhalation is the latest collection of Ted Chiang stories. If you're a fan of Ted Chiang, you probably didn't need to know more, and you'd just click through, buy or checkout the book from the library, and read it. Unlike other writers, nearly every Chiang story is a gem.

    Outstanding stories in this collection include: "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", "Omphalos", "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom." I thought the title story "Exhalation" was good, but not as outstanding as the others, but it was nevertheless far better than most stories you'll find anywhere else. I also enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," but thought the story went on far longer than it needed to to make his point.

    The remaining two stories "What's Expected of Us", and "Prisms" were far less interesting, but nevertheless do not detract from the book. You can pay full price for this book without any qualms.


    Monday, August 19, 2019

    Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

    I'm an environmental pessimist. That doesn't mean I don't do everything I can to avoid increasing my carbon footprint --- I ride my bike everywhere instead of driving when I can, and I do try to avoid flights. (I almost never fly to weddings, for instance, or do weekend trips) I've told friends that I don't expect humans to be around in 200 years, because as a species we seem to be hell-bent on destroying the environment that we live in.

    The Uninhabitable Earth makes me look like an optimist. To my surprise, I learned a lot more about the global climate crisis than I already knew:
    more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. (Kindle Loc 75)
    Think about what this means. You can't blame your ancestors, or the WW2 generation for the climate disasters that are facing the earth every year from now on. It's the responsibility of this generation and of course, the generational cohorts just before us (the silent, the boomers, gen x, and the millennial are all in it together). It means that when Bowen and Boen are entering college and remember that back when they were 7 and 4 it was still possible to do a summer bike tour in temperatures under 100F, they can (and probably should) blame us for doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions.

    And it's not just about driving. It's also about food wastage and construction:
    Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue. (Kindle Loc 551)
    Americans waste a quarter of their food, which means that the carbon footprint of the average meal is a third larger than it has to be. That need not continue. (Kindle Loc 556)
    Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation. It did not have to be that way. (Kindle Loc 557)
    If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be? Almost as a prophylactic against climate guilt, as the news from science has grown bleaker, Western liberals have comforted themselves by contorting their own consumption patterns into performances of moral or environmental purity—less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights. But the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. (Kindle Loc 567)
    These problems are all problems of scale, and it's not enough to do it one person at a time. You have to scale up the solutions. Think about that last paragraph above: the Europeans live well, in many ways better than Americans, with fewer health problems, more income mobility, etc. There's no reason Americans have to live their current lifestyle, but the courage to make that change will be hard to come by: humans don't measure their material progress against absolutes, but against what their neighbors and their friends' lifestyle is. That's why wives compare their husbands' incomes against each other, and people in the office gasp when I tell them that I don't currently own a car and have no desire to change that state. And that's why I'm a climate pessimist: our concern for survival pales against our greed and envy. Consider the millions of people who smoke despite knowing that it's likely to cause a painful death. That's the state of humanity today.

    n the modern age, at least, there is also the related tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us. This is how renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth. This is a kind of Frankenstein problem, and relates to widespread fears of artificial intelligence: we are more intimidated by the monsters we create than those we inherit. (Kindle Loc 2434)
    At the same time, that this has all happened in one lifetime is also cause for hope: that means it's possible to try to stop it to happening in one lifetime as well, and that we (and definitely our children) will live long enough to face the consequences of our (in)action means that maybe a few more catastrophes will change people's mind. I'm realistic enough to not expect it to happen (I've watched more than one human organization deliberately adopt policies antithetical to their existence)

    In any case, I hope I can convince you to read this book. If the book causes you to change your lifestyle and vote to end our current suicide pact with each other, it would have been well worth your time. Recommended.

    Friday, August 16, 2019

    A Man for All Markets

    A Man for All Markets is Ed Thorp's autobiography. It's a great book about how Thorp went from being a mathematician to being the first person to systematize and develop a system for beating blackjack, and then created the modern hedge fund. It's filled with great anecdotes:
    We had been told that slide rules would be allowed for the first time this year but that they weren’t necessary. As an afterthought I brought along a ten-cent toy slide rule—all I felt I could afford—thinking I could always do a quick rough check of my calculations if I had any extra time. As I worked through the test I knew every answer. But then the last section of the test was distributed. This part of the exam required many more calculations than I could do by hand in the time allowed. My cheap tiny slide rule was worthless. Out came the full-sized well-machined slide rules all around me. Surprise! Slide rules were not merely optional—they were necessary for anyone who wanted to win. There was no credit given for showing the correct method, only credit for a numerical answer, to a specified level of “slide rule accuracy.” I was sickened by the realization I would likely not place high enough to get the scholarship I needed and unhappy with myself for not preparing by purchasing a hard-to-afford top-of-the-line slide rule. It seemed so unfair to convert a test about chemistry into one about slide rule arithmetic. Be that as it may, I set to calculating by hand as quickly as I could. In the end, I was only able to complete 873 of the entire exam’s 1,000 points’ worth of questions, so this was the most I could possibly score. I knew the top winner typically got 925 to 935, so I had no chance at first place. When my father picked me up I was forcing myself not to cry and could barely talk. In class Mr. Stump could see that I was chastened and obviously had done badly. We didn’t talk about it. I wrote the episode off to my own naïveté. But I did go out and buy the best slide rule I could afford. A couple of weeks after the test, Mr. Stump called me aside to tell me the results. My score was 869 points out of the 873 points I had answered. First place was far ahead at about 930, but second and third place were just a few points ahead of my fourth-place finish. With a good slide rule I could have been first. (Kindle Loc 716)
     And once again, Thorp emphasizes how important public universities like UC Berkeley is to the poor and under-privileged:
    The scoring pattern of the chemistry exam was repeated, only this time I was first with 931 points. The second-place winner was fifty or sixty points behind. Surpassing the smug and privileged, I had first pick of the scholarships that were offered, wavering between Caltech and UC–Berkeley. Caltech, my first choice, offered full tuition, but I did not have an extra $2,000 per year for the dormitories and expenses. Pasadena was expensive and I knew of no place nearby within my budget. I simply couldn’t afford Caltech. My UC–Berkeley scholarship, the largest they then gave, was for $300 a year. Tuition, which was $70 a year, was covered separately for me by a scholarship for children of World War I veterans. Berkeley also had low-cost room and board just off campus. Cheaper yet was the Student Cooperative Housing Association, with room and board for $35 per month and four hours of work a week. When I picked Berkeley, I consoled myself with the hope that at least there would be plenty of girls and my social life might bloom. (Kindle Loc 831)
    My kindle highlights page from the book is chock full of great stories:
     Most people I’ve met haven’t thought through the comparative values to them of time, money, and health. Think of the single worker who spends two hours commuting forty miles from hot and smoggy Riverside, California, to a $25-an-hour job in balmy Newport Beach. If the worker moves from his $1,200-a-month apartment in Riverside to a comparable $2,500-a-month apartment in Newport Beach, his rent increases by $1,300 a month but he avoids forty hours of commuting. If his time is worth $25 per hour he would save $1,000 ($25 × 40) each month. Add to that the cost of driving his car an extra sixteen hundred miles. If his economical car costs him 50 cents a mile or $800 a month to operate, living in Newport Beach and saving forty hours’ driving time each month makes him $500 better off ($1,000 + $800 − $1,300). In effect he earned just $12.50 per hour during his commute. Does our worker figure this out? I suspect he does not, because the extra $1,300 a month in rent he would pay in Newport Beach is a clearly visible cost that is painfully and regularly inflicted, whereas the cost of his car is less evident and can be put out of mind. (Kindle Loc 4724)
     What's amazing to me is that Thorp, unlike many of his cohorts who made tons of money at Wall Street, decided to fold up his company (which had been brought down not by poor investments, but by poor ethical decisions on the part of one of his partners):
    Vivian and I would make the most of the one thing we could never have enough of—time together. Success on Wall Street was getting the most money. Success for us was having the best life. (Kindle Loc 3647)
    Clearly, this is a man who's thought through everything, and made good decisions at every step of the way. I hope to get Bowen to read this book one day, because I think that not only does it explain why it's great to be good at math and thinking, but also that many of the most important decisions aren't just about probability and money, but about choosing the right people to partner with.


    Thursday, August 15, 2019

    Review: Stiff

    Stiff is Mary Roach's book about what happens to Human Cadavers. If you've read her other books, you'll discover that this one is much like the others: lots of pithy quotations, such as this discussion about the most ecologically pure thing to do with a body:
    I used to think the traditional navy burial at sea sounded nice; I pictured the sun on the ocean, the infinite expanse of blue, the nowhereness of it. Then one day I had a conversation with Phillip Backman, during which he mentioned that one of the cleanest, quickest, and most ecologically pure things to do with a body would be to put it in a big tide-pool full of Dungeness crabs, which apparently enjoy eating people as much as people enjoy eating crabs. “It’ll do the thing in a couple of days,” he said. “It’s all recycled, and it’s all clean and taken care of.” My affinity for burial at sea—not to mention crabmeat—was suddenly, dramatically diminished. (Kindle Loc 3292)
    That's not to say that the book doesn't cover lots of different topics. Cadavers get used everywhere from crash testing to firearm effectiveness to improving footwear for bomb clearing squads. Many of these applications sound interesting, but as you can imagine,  it takes all her skill as a writer to make a giant ass book about them, because most of the applications are obvious. By the time I was done with the book I was quite bored.

    Wednesday, August 14, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Google Pay

    At home, NFC payments are at most a minor convenience. The local safeway takes it, but Costco doesn't, and the gas stations and USPS definitely don't. At any given store, there's at most a 30% chance that NFC payments will be accepted, and they are never accepted at any restaurant.

    During this year's trip, I switched my Google Pay to a no foreign transaction fee credit card, and to my surprise nearly all stores and restaurants accepted Google Pay. (The lone exception that I remember was the Deutsche Bahn train station) This is a huge advantage for someone with a US credit card in Europe. If you pay with a regular credit card in Europe, even one with an NFC chip built in, the cashier will sigh, look at you in exasperation, dig around for a pen, print out the receipt and have you sign it.

    With Google Pay and an NFC receptor, however, your fingerprint authenticates you, and your transaction is like with a chip-and-pin credit card in Europe, except you don't even have to enter a pin. Everybody's happy, and you're no longer holding up the line at the supermarket checkout stand.

    No, most hotels won't take NFC payments (I don't know why hotels are an exception), and some places demand cash, but I eventually programmed my wife's phone with Google Pay and she even got out of the habit of bringing a wallet to the store. Even if you don't normally use Google Pay, if you visit Europe, it's worth the effort of setting it up.


    Tuesday, August 13, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Continental GP 5000 700x32 tires

    Just as I was packing the bike for the Mt Shasta trip, I noticed that the Fairweather by Traveler tire on the rear had wear indicators that were barely visible. The tire had just been rotated from front to rear a month ago, and had seen only 4-5 major rides, so I knew it was unlikely to survive a tour. It was too late to do anything about it for Shasta, but I went and order the Continental GP5000 700x32 tires in time for the Tour Across Bavaria. At $40 per tire including shipping, these tires were the most expensive tires I'd run in modern times. However, I remember never actually managing to wear down a Continental Gatorskin down to the threads, so I figured even their racing tire would be fine.

    The picture above are from the front and rear after 372 miles of touring. The rear is significantly worn compared to the front (unsurprising --- the total weight on the bike was in excess of 300 pounds), but could easily get another 400 miles in. The tires handled both gravel and pavement well, and never flatted during the entire trip. At 271g per tire, these tires came in below the manufacturer's spec of 295g, and lighter than the Fairweather tires as well as the Michelin Pro Endurance 700x28 tires!

    These will remain my new "go to" tires for the triplet. In fact, I'm looking at switching all my bikes over to various widths of these tires in the future. They might wear a little faster (though again, the triplet is an extreme use case) but have behaved far better than my previous experience with Continental tires. Recommended.

    Monday, August 12, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Polar OH1+

    I  brought the Polar OH1+ on this tour half expecting not to use it. But boy I was wrong. In fact, the worst thing I can say about the Polar OH1+ is that it's too comfortable. There have been days on tour when I would put it on in the morning and forget that I'm wearing it and therefore forgot to turn it on until the bike ride had already started! This is phenomenal, and never happened with the chest strap. The device doesn't have great battery life, but it always survived the day. I find myself using it much more than the traditional chest strap. Highly recommended.

    Friday, August 09, 2019

    Post Tour Review: Pixel 3A XL

    For mother's day this year, I got Xiaoqin the Pixel 3A XL to upgrade her from the (still wonderful) Moto Z Play. Several items drove the upgrade:
    1. Much better camera. The debate for the trip we had was whether to pick up a Ricoh GR 3 or to upgrade her phone. The idea was that the phone would be used all the time, while a compact camera might not be gotten out except for special occasions like bicycle tours.
    2. More primary storage. I was concerned about the 64GB storage without additional add on SDcards, but I audited her Moto Z Play and discovered she wasn't using more than 64GB in total anyway. And having a simplified storage with less management was better. To augment the storage for movies while off-line, you can get a USB C flash drive to load it up with content. Unfortunately, this absolutely will not work if you're depending on streaming apps such as Google Movies or Amazon Prime video --- those insist on using your internal storage. And clearly, unless you intend to keep that USB C drive plugged in all the time, it's not going to work for music, either.
    3.  Improved processor, larger screen, and more RAM. In 2019, I'm discovering that 3GB of RAM just doesn't cut it any more.
    The Moto Z Play wasn't waterproof, so that wasn't an issue, and it had a headphone jack as well, so both those issues were a push.

    Let's start with the camera. In many situations, the camera provided great pictures:
    This picture clearly benefited from the in-camera HDR processing, and the clarity and detail were obvious. I was very pleased by it. By the way, I tried RAW mode and couldn't get similar effects in lightroom from a RAW file, so my conclusion is that RAW mode is a waste of time on the Pixel 3a XL.
    Some times, however, you get a pixelated mess, with no idea what happened and how to correct it. It wasn't predictable to me why certain pictures were fundamentally unusable. This didn't happen often, but it was glaring when it did. The Canon G7X II, by contrast always performed consistently, though for best results you needed to tweak the output in lightroom. When my G7X II died during the trip, the Pixel 3a XL became our primary camera. My Moto X4, by contrast, had horrible latency (5s to turn on the camera), and never showed any moments of brilliance.

    The phone was always fast and never ran out of battery: despite my wife using Google Maps and turning on voice as her primary navigation (she turned up her nose at the Wahoo ELEMNT and never bothered to learn how to use it), it always survived to get to the hotel. While my Moto X4 would turn off Google Maps whenever I tried to take a picture, her phone never did that. The phone wasn't waterproof, but when we got caught in a thunderstorm all that needed to happen was that the phone went into a zipper in a waterproof rain jacket, and never came out again until after rain was over.

    The phone is also light, much lighter than my Moto X4. Some people actually consider this a negative, but a cyclist who weighs every gram will not complain about reducing weight.

    I'm usually vocal about my disdain for Google phones by being a poor imitation of an iPhone (no SD card expansion, no headphone jack, expensive storage options, all point to someone at Google HQ suffering from Apple Envy), but the Pixel 3a XL by bringing back the headphone jack and providing a lower entry price (we paid $479 but got a $100 gift card during the B&H promotion), I can actually recommend the Pixel 3a XL. If prices drop sufficiently I might be tempted to replace my Moto X4 with one.

    Thursday, August 08, 2019

    Tour Across Bavaria: Thoughts

    One big thought that crossed my mind in April and before the trip was "How young is too young to go touring?" Now I've heard of people who've taken their toddlers on a bicycle tour in a trailer, but Bowen had raised such a ruckus in a day ride in the bike trailer that we never even tried. Bowen did so well on his first bicycle tour that I thought that if he'd been tall enough at age 4 he would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Boen at age 4 was physically tall enough to ride on the back of the triplet without the kid-back stoker kit. During the Spring tour, he didn't fall asleep even once on the triplet, so I thought he was ready.

    Well, on this trip during several occasions, he fell asleep in the afternoon. On the ride into Salzburg, he did so twice! That last time I thought I was going to have a heart attack during that last kilometer. In retrospect, I should have just eaten the weight penalty and brought the stoker kit and seat belt and secure Boen in the middle seat. On the other hand, we were already having trouble getting up some of those hills, so I'm not sure the tour would have gone well with extra weight.

    Now, the big factor was Boen himself, who enjoyed the trip enough that whenever he was asked if he wanted to stop he never wanted to go home. (Bowen went through something similar from age 3-4, where he never wanted to go home) To the extent that he enjoyed the trip, I felt like he belonged on tour. Bowen as usual enjoyed bicycle touring. 8 days after we returned home, he said to me: "Did you know that none of my friends have done backcountry camping? Or bicycle touring? You must be the best dad ever!" The flood of emotions that rise up in you to have your 7 year old say that (whom just 2 months ago was writing "I hate daddy" on notepad paper to leave on my pillow!) is indescribable. Over the cause of discussing parenting, I've frequently had people not believe me when I told them about the trips I'd taken with Bowen (and now Boen). Frequently, other parents would assert that there's no way their kids could stay put on a bike for even as much as an hour. Yet whenever I managed to get that same kid on the triplet or tandem, I would discover that the kid was just as engaged in cycling as Bowen and Boen were, despite their parents' assertion otherwise. This leads me to believe that the real barrier to enthusiastic cyclists touring with kids isn't the kids --- it's the huge amount of work the parents do have to put in to make the tour work: from acquiring a tandem to putting in the time to learn enough bike handling skills to handle the big bike, it's something that most parents wouldn't be willing to do, so it's just easier to blame the kids for not being able to do it. I'm now much more willing to dismiss parents' complaints about their kids asking for screen time as a result: on the tandem, no kid has ever asked for screen time. Outdoor cycling time with parents is so much better and more stimulating for them. It's the parents that aren't willing to do it, not the kids.

    What I was unprepared for was how much Bowen regressed  in behavior when traveling with his brother. The same kid that climbed Stelvio, the Sella Rondo, Hahntennejoch, and Albula pass without complaint would moan and groan when asked to walk a couple of blocks. He would turn around and mess with his brother, and the two of them would continually shake or manhandle the bike. And of course, there's the continual monitoring of both brothers for privileges one would get but the other wouldn't. Thus, having 2 kids along isn't twice the work of one, it's 4 times the work, since instead of having a 7 year old and a 4 year old, you're getting two 4 year olds!

    Despite all this, the biggest challenge wasn't the physical challenge of riding the bike. I always had plenty of gas left in the tank, and at no point couldn't have ridden another 20 miles at the end of the day. With 2 kids, you always have to have something in reserve because after you're done with laundry you still have to entertain the kids, either by taking them swimming, taking them out to ice cream, or walking them around town. (As you can surmise, the kids were never exhausted, either) And of course, with a bike this long, any physical exhaustion was limited to core body strength and flexibility from fighting the kids' shaking the bike, not aerobic capacity or leg strength.

    I wouldn't bother buying cycling gloves for kids riding on the back of a tandem. My wife reported that their time on the bike was spent mostly with hands off the handlebars, except on descents, which were of course in short supply on this trip.

    Overall, I was surprised by how challenging the Bodensee-Konigsee bike route was. I'd pigeon-holed designated bike routes as being flat and unchallenging (the Rhine river bike path in Switzerland is a prime example), but this one is definitely worth doing. If you're in decent shape on a single bike it probably wouldn't take a week, but obviously anything done on a triplet would take far longer.

    This was Xiaoqin's first bike tour of any length. The e-bike was a good idea --- I don't think she could have made the trip without electric assist, and the rental bike was of surprisingly high quality and reasonably cost effective ($560/19 = $30 a day, about half the price of renting a car, but without toll fees, parking fees or fuel costs, which would have been substantial). I kept her bike as lightly loaded as possible, but she too had to learn that on a steep hill you cannot stop, or it'll be impossible to get started again: the assist isn't enough to start on anything steep or on dirt. Other than the fiasco at the start of not actually  having a decent reservation, I would rent the same bike again --- it was useful for running errands, which would have been much more challenging with the triplet.

    One of the biggest burdens of the trip was the heat wave. There are few places with AC in Europe (and we were lucky to have found one of them), and my favorite solution (climbing to about 6000' in elevation) was denied to us since we weren't anywhere close to the mountains and even if we were we probably could not have done that much climbing. Staying near lakes was good, but not nearly as good as it being higher in altitude would have been.

    I think a much more enjoyable trip would have been that rather than having both kids on a bike at once, would be to take turns having the kids on the back of the tandem, and switching them out at intervals of a week or so, maybe swapping out with mommy who might prefer a different type of trip. You might think that a mini van follow vehicle would work, but my spring break trip proved that when given a choice, the kids would just take the lazy way out and ride in the mini van, so that's not a good idea either.

    During an overhaul done before the trip, I opted to use single-speed chains for the timing chains rather than 8-speed chains. This was a mistake: the chains interfered with each other in the middle timing ring if anything was even slightly off (which happened after the train ride to Zurich). You can use single-speed chains in tandem mode or as one of the two timing chains but not both. Upon my return to the USA I replaced the front with an 8-speed timing chain and the problems went away.

    All in all, I'm happy we did the trip, but the expense, effort, and the challenges might cause me to experiment with some different configurations of the two. And a lot of it is driven by how much less I like Bowen when he's with his brother and reverting to being 4 years old, rather than anything else. None of the parenting books I've ever read have described this phenomenon, and I have no clue as to how to overcome it, whether it's a desirable behavioral phenomenon or whether it's harmful and should be minimized.