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Monday, January 18, 2021

Review: Canon Image Class MF644Cdw

 The wife and kids have been asking for a color printer for a while, and at the same time my ancient brother scanner started dying, able to only scan one-side of a double-sided piece of paper. Thanks to black Friday, the Canon Image Class MF644Cdw was under $300, and would replace both. I also considered the bigger counter-part, but those came in close to 60+ pounds, and our printing volume was not expected to exceed what the MF644Cdw could do. At 50 pounds the MF644Cdw was close to what I could lift by myself.

Other people have waxed lyrical about the unboxing experience of an Apple product (I myself have never been impressed) but the Canon MF644Cdw's unboxing is an experience to behold! Basically, you unfold the flaps and pull on them and the entire box comes off. The engineers who did this have definitely achieved something.

As expected, the 50 pound weight is a pain, and once you're done you have to peel off various seals and stickers that exist to keep the device's various accouterments from flipping open while you lift and shift the thing. Once plugged in, you use the device's touch screen to connect it to WiFi, and then you have to login using a web browser to configure it to accept scans via SAMBA (which I sent to a OneDrive sync'd folder, so that any scans would automatically get shared and uploaded to the cloud), as well as manage defaults. You can also arrange for scans to be sent via e-mail,  but thanks to improved security, I couldn't set it up or get it to work with the TLS enabled gmail SMTP server. The web menu is unintuitive and painful to use, but it's a one-time setup, and once all the defaults are setup correctly you won't ever have to do it again.

Apple devices automatically recognize the printer over the wire via airplay, while Windows devices can get a dedicated driver installed via USB or CD-drive. As usual, the windows devices are more finicky to setup, but in exchange you get toner status data and other such features.

Scanning is fast and easy, as is copying and printing. About the most annoying feature of the printing is the noise --- the fan spins up, there's a whining sound, then it prints, and after that the fans and whining continue for quite some time after the print job is finished. It's not really noticeable during a zoom call (I sit right next to the printer), but I could imagine that if print jobs were frequent I'd be looking for a closet so I didn't have to hear it.

The paper tray is small, so definitely go for the next size up if your print loads are heavy. But as an all in one device it works and works well, very much like a full-size office device. Recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Review: D&D Adventure Begins Cooperative Board Game

 So much of what I could do with Bowen was because he was a precocious reader, never being intimidated by board games that required reading or even RPGs that required multi-hundred page books to play. Boen is a different story, but so when the D&D Adventure Begins Board Game went on sale, I bought it hoping that it would work for Boen.

You have to set expectations for this correctly. First of all, it comes with no character creation rules, but several decks of cards. Not surprisingly, the decks of cards are basically flavor text, all with the same game mechanics. And then there are various bosses, also with mostly flavor text, and then the adventure deck, which actually are quite different from boss to boss, which gives each adventure scenario a different flavor.

The character levels only go up to level 2, which is just fine for a short board game. DM control passes from player to player, but requires that the DM be able to read, so when playing with Boen, Bowen and I traded DM roles. The combat encounters are fun, and death is at most temporary, with no one permanently kicked out of the game unless a TPK happens, which would require a lot of bad luck in combination with poor strategy. This is a far easier game than any of the adult D&D board games. 

By far the best thing about this board game are the role playing encounters. Some of them are really whimsical and fun and in keeping with a 5-year old's spirit. One of them asked all the players to do a silly dance and have the DM judge which one is silliest. Boen really got a kick out of this one!

We sat down to play one boss and after defeating it, the kids immediately asked to play another one. And would have proceeded to playing all 4 scenarios if I hadn't gotten bored. This one's a keeper. Recommended.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Review: Clean

 Clean was on the Smithsonian 20 best science books of the year, and it was written by a doctor who's a staff writer at The Atlantic, so I checked it out of the library. The book begins strongly, with the doctor proclaiming that he hadn't showered for years. Then he gets into the reason behind it, including a fun reading history of soap, as well as the sad lack of regulation behind personal care products:

European Union and Canada have been reviewing ingredients in personal care products for decades. More than 1,500 chemicals are banned or restricted from these products in the European Union, and some 800 are banned or restricted in Canada. California state lawmakers proposed a bill in 2019 that would ban the inclusion of lead, formaldehyde, mercury, asbestos, and many other potentially harmful compounds from personal care products, which, if enacted, would be the first legislation of its kind in the United States. As of this writing, the effort has not yet been successful. (kindle loc 1505)

But the detail isn't there. There's no discussion as to whether not showering or bathing will solve eczema, a common childhood ailment. No studies (double-blinded or not), just loads and loads of anecdotal evidence. We get lots of copy text about how little regulation there is for makeup and other health supplements (which you would know about if you'd even read one other non-fiction book about the topic), but the scientific evidence is sadly lacking. There is a note that Dove is a particularly ineffective soap, which is why it gets to be marketed as mild!

The book then branches out into various other aspects of the hygiene hypothesis and the rise of allergy and asthma:

 In wealthy countries around the world, people now spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors. Friends and family are not allowed to touch babies unless their hands have been scrubbed or coated in antibacterial gels. The indoor air is lacking in the wealth of bacterial particles that used to temper our immune systems. Our diet is hyperprocessed and cleaned and low in fresh fruits and vegetables—which are naturally loaded with bacteria. An average apple contains 100 million microbes. (kindle loc 1765)

But there's no real detail behind it. There's nothing about whether eating apple skin is good for you, no studies, and definitely no clinical recommendations. The entire book goes on like this, with forays into green space exposure and outdoor exercise vs indoor exercise: 

A number of studies have reported associations between green-space exposure and self-reported health, birth outcomes, and reduced morbidity. A 2018 meta-analysis found statistically significant associations between exposure to green spaces and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, incidence of type 2 diabetes, and death from cardiovascular disease. Exercising outdoors may also have health benefits you don’t get at the gym. Much work has been done in this area by Diana Bowler and colleagues in the UK, who compared the effects of exercise in “natural” and “synthetic” environments and found that a walk or run outside “may convey greater health benefits than the same activity in a synthetic environment.” (kindle loc 2004)

At least this particular instance had great relevance to me and some literature citations, but the author provides no quantification of the results, and clearly the science here is difficult to do (how do you do a double-blind study of a topic like this one?). I came away with the book vaguely dissatisfied. I cannot sincerely recommend this book.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Review: The Last of Us Part 2

 Several years ago, I reviewed The Last of Us and compared it with eating your vegetables. Not having very much experience with video games, I didn't realize that the game was basically a 3D combat game, where each level could not be traversed without killing everything in it. Yet the story was haunting, as was the music, and of course the art direction and graphics made your jaw drop.

I'm a cheap skate, so I didn't buy The Last of Us Part 2 at launch, but rather, waited until it had dropped in price to $30, and then put in a Best Buy coupon to bring it down further.  I'd played all the PS3 and PS4 naughty dog games, so I thought I knew what to expect, and I really enjoyed the sensibility that Naughty Dog brought --- the games were more like movies than they were simple shooters, alternating between walking simulators, and the art direction and cinematography were second to none.

The opening of the game made my jaw drop once again. I'd played Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, but The Last of Us Part II made me forget that I was playing a video game and not watching a live action movie more than one. While Xiaoqin had occasionally commented that some of the previous games I'd played looked like movies, none of them (not even Red Dead Redemption 2) came close when I was holding the controller. The game play is quite similar to the first game, but with my expectations set correctly by the first game, I no longer tried to get through levels without killing everything --- I knew now that you had to kill everything to get through, and that the game would actually do a reasonable job of replenishing your supplies, but if you stealth-killed a few enemies early on you had less pressure for the rest of each level.

The levels were huge. I was very pleasantly surprised towards the end that one of the levels was so large that I could go back to a previously cleared section to run away and pick up supplies to continue fighting and eventually cleared the level. That running away is an option was a good thing --- I'm not so good at video games that I can just play through them, and continually dying was not fun and broke the cinematic experience. I mostly played the game on normal, but had 2 encounters where I dropped the difficulty level to easy because the game was so atmospheric that playing in the dark hours of the morning I got more than a little bit spooked.

The scenery is good, but there's nothing as spectacular as what I saw in Uncharted 4 or even in the original Last of Us. Seattle, for instance, was frequently overcast, and I never got high enough to get a grand view, though certain sunsets were pretty.

Which leaves the pacing and story. Here be spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised during the game.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Installation Review: Swytch E-bike Conversion Kit (Tour edition)

 Last year, I saw the Swytch Ebike conversion kit on Kickstarter $780 + custom fees (around $30). The reasons to get this over say, a tour capable Calfee conversion were as follows:

  • light weight - mid-drive e-bikes currently weigh over 40 pounds. The conversion kit promised to be 3kg (or 6.6 pounds) with an additional 3.3 pounds for the Tour battery pack, which would grant you a 100km range, more than sufficient for even the most rigorous western wheeler LDT ride.
  • water-proofing - Calfee's conversion was not guaranteed to be waterproof, while the swytch was guaranteed to be waterproof
Little did I know the kit would take more than a year to arrive, between pandemic and the fact that few people ordered the 100km battery pack and 650B wheels (to fit the Cheviot) so we were among the last to receive our kit.

When the kit arrived, I took it out and scratched my head, because neither the battery pack or the wheel setup looked anything like the instructions on the Swytch website. Apparently, the Tour battery pack was an older model, but it wasn't too hard to figure out. I plugged in the battery overnight to charge. Then I figured out that I had to use scissors to cut the hub protectors and zip ties so that I could pull off the nuts and washers.

The worst thing about the Swytch kit is that the axle is designed for 10mm dropouts. My guess is that the target audience is someone who wants to convert a Walmart/Target bike-like object into an e-bike.  Standard bicycle quick release dropouts are 9mm. The net result was that I had to file off 0.5mm of material on 4 sides of the flat part of the axle. Before you ask, this was indeed sanctioned by Swytch. The process took the better part of 2 hours, using a rectangular file, checking frequently for fit. When done the axle fit snugly, and I attached the washers.

After that, the rest of the kit was comparatively easy: snap over the PAS sensor onto the crank, attach the sensor, and run cables up to the battery mount. Looking at the design, I would have mounted the battery on the bottle cage, but of course, many women's bikes have room for only one bottle cage, so it's probably all for the best to have a dedicated handlebar mount, which also serves to slow down most bikes' handling, which is what you want for an e-bike. The PAS sensor secure ring looked ugly, but it stayed on when jumping a curb, so I guess it's better than it looks.

The bar mount, however, is a mess. I had to cut the rubber spacers that came with the device to get it to mount, and the nut and allen head screw came with no way to secure the nut while turning the screw --- a better design would have been a captured nut in a shaped cavity --- again, this is the sign of a kickstarter project that didn't have a good mechanical engineer onboard. I eventually fixed this by getting out a pair of needle nose pliers, and holding it securely. For one of the screws I flipped the nut and bolt positions to get more leverage to tighten it down properly. I tried scheduling a support call to get through the above issues, but their Zoom technician never showed up at the appointed time, so it's a good thing I figured out how to do this without help.

Of course, the kickstand that came with the Rivendell couldn't handle the extra weight of the battery, so I ended up ordering a new double-leg kickstand and installing that as well.

How does it ride? Surprisingly well. The power provided is substantial (250W), and the relatively light weight of the entire kit didn't change the handling of the Cheviot much. The wire sticking out of the hub is unsightly, but it's supposed to bw waterproof, and the PAS sensor is surprisingly sensitive - even a little bit of pedaling will trigger it, which is important to making the e-assist feel responsive --- I would be comfortable starting this bike on the wrong gear on a steepish hill, which I didn't expect to.

My wife complained that having the weight on the front of the bike makes descents feel scarily fast. But of course, weight is weight, whether it's on the front, center or bottom of the bike is going to make descents fast. A lower center of gravity (like on mid-drive bikes) of course is much better than having a battery cantilevered on the handlebars, but that's going to take a purpose built design.

I would be comfortable recommending this kit to anyone using a bicycle for short commutes or around-town riding, where you could opt for the lighter battery (saving 3 pounds). For longer rides on a regular basis, a purpose built e-bike would be better, but now you're looking at more than twice the price and much higher weight! Note that if you don't want to wait a year and are willing to put up with almost twice the weight, you can get a similar kit from a USA for about $900 (without handlebar mount but with a throttle in addition to the PAS sensor).

Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Post-Truth

 Mike Sojka recommended Post-Truth as a quick short read that explains the Trump era. It is indeed a quick read and covers many topics of interest to current events, tying them together in ways that I've never seen before.

The book was published in 2018, so it covers the events of the 2016 election, but predates the existence of COVID19. McIntyre points out that the era of news being supposed to be accurate is actually an anamoly:

for most of its history the news media has been partisan. Pamphlets were political. Newspapers had owners with business interests and other biases. Indeed, has this ever really changed? Yet we feel entitled to objectivity and are shocked when our news sources do not provide it. But have we been supporting this expectation of fact-based nonpartisan coverage with our dollars? Or really—before the election woke us up—even paid close attention to what was being lost? It is easy to blame technology and claim that “these days it is different.” But technology has always had a role in fake news. (Kindle Loc 1540)

 He points out that the blatant lies being told by the Republican side isn't about misinformation per se:

the goal of propaganda is to build allegiance.42 The point is not to communicate information but to get us to “pick a team.”43 To the extent that Trump is using some of the classic techniques of propaganda (stirring up emotions, denigrating critics, scapegoating, seeking division, and fabricating), Stanley warns that we may be headed down the path of authoritarian politics. The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself. When a political leader is really powerful, he or she can defy reality. This may sound incredible, but it is not the first time we have heard echoes of this even within American politics. Remember when Karl Rove dismissed critics of the George W. Bush administration as part of the “reality-based community”? Rove then followed up with the memorable (and chilling) observation that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. (Kinde Loc. 1639)

McIntyre also traces the history of how the media fell into the trap set by the conservatives, by  giving equal time on the air to both sides as though there's any legitimacy to the anti-science movement (intelligent design, anti-vax, and now public health):

it serves the interest of those who are engaging in deception to succumb to the idea of false equivalence. When we say “a pox on all your houses” we are playing right into the hands of those who would have us believe that there is no such thing as truth. (Kindle loc 1693)

He even tracks back the post-truth era to the post-modernist attack on science in the form of science wars. Now, my personal belief is that the scientists won a resounding victory in the science wars after Alan Sokal definitively showed that post-modernist criticism is intellectual garbage, but the techniques used by the post-modernists were then quickly adopted by the right wing in its approach to confusing the public about "Intelligent Design" and then later on, the Anti-Vax movement.

Is there any hope of exiting the post-Truth era back to an environment in which truth is valued and there's a shared understanding of facts? McIntyre offers some hope:

The media stopped telling “both sides of the story” about vaccines and autism once there was a measles outbreak in fourteen states in 2015. All of a sudden, the facts of Wakefield’s fraud made better copy. One could almost see the TV hosts’ anxiety over their earlier complicity. Overnight, there were no more split-screen TV debates between experts and skeptics. False equivalence no longer seemed like such a good idea once people started getting hurt. (Kindle Loc 2436)

 empirical evidence suggests that the repetition of true facts does eventually have an effect. Recall here the research of David Redlawsk et al., which we briefly discussed in chapter 3.8 In the subtitle of their paper, they ask the pertinent question, “do motivated reasoners ever get it?” They acknowledge the work of Nyhan, Reifler, and others who have shown that those in the grips of partisan bias are strongly motivated to reject evidence that is dissonant with their beliefs, sometimes even leading to a “backfire effect.” But are there any limits to this?...although misinformed beliefs can be quite stubborn, it is possible to change partisans’ minds when one “hits them between the eyes” over and over with factually correct information.11 It may not be easy to convince people with inconvenient facts, but it is apparently possible. (Kindle Loc 2452-2465)

Unfortunately, as noted above, this book was written pre-COVID.  In the light of recent news reports about how COVID19 patients deny the existence of the coronovirus right until death, I'm not nearly as optimistic as McIntyre is. But at the very least, McIntyre points out that you cannot allow a lie to persist unchallenged, and that's something we need to do more of. It seems that Randall  Munroe was right after all: