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Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: The Night Tiger

 Someone on Facebook recommended The Night Tiger as a novel over Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series. I picked it up and read it over 3 days, as it is compellingly readable despite the flaws.

Set in Ipoh, Malaysia during the 1930s, the story is oriented around a series of killings, either by the fabled were-tiger, or a serial killer. Told from the perspective of Ren (a 10 year old servant boy) or Ji Lin (a young woman denied her educational rights by the patriarch of the family, as is common to women of that time or even later --- my mom was also denied the right to go to university by her father), the story provides much context for the action, including the culture of Malaysia, the food, the delectable tropical fruits (though the Durian King of Fruits is left out!), the weather, and the living conditions of both the locals and the expatriates.

The book illustrates how important having a readable style is: despite the many flaws of the book, I was still compelled to finish. The book fails on several levels. First of all, it's an unfair mystery story: there's no way for the reader to have figured out who the killers are, as plot on top of plot is layered with a key clue deliberately held back or missing before the reveal. Secondly, it also fails as the author clearly moved certain characters based on the needs of the plot like playing pieces, having them act completely out of character to who they are. For instance, one particular character having been exposited to be truly faithful to his orders and place, somehow uses a potion that he was directed to give to someone else on another person, poisoning the wrong target. Sorry, I can't buy that. Similarly, a character who's continuously volunteering at a hospital, etc. is revealed to be a villain. Again, even if she's playing the long game, the motivation seemed empty. And finally, one of the characters despite repeatedly surviving near-death experiences, throws away an opportunity to consummate the love she feels for another. Having character after character violate their nature for the sake of plot and theme did violence to my suspension of disbelief.

I can see why someone would recommend this novel over Crazy Rich Asians. But I can also see why Crazy Rich Asians has popular appeal over something like this novel (which has also sold well, despite its flaws). Mildly recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars

 The Calculating Stars won the 2018 Nebula Award for best novel.  It postulates a world in which a meteorite strikes the Atlantic Ocean in the 1950s, wiping out the entire Eastern Seaboard and creating a water vapor environment that would, after the initial cold, create a runaway greenhouse effect, forcing the planet's inhabitants to put in a crash program to colonize space.

The protagonist is Elma York, a computer with the world's equivalent of NASA (renamed NACA in the book for no apparent reason). She's brilliant, and also was a pilot during World War 2, which of course in a just world would qualify her to be a pilot. The story mostly focuses on her journey to overcoming the institutions between her and being an astronaut, while depicting the job of a computer who manages to become a TV celebrity at the same time.

The book does a good job of depicting the lives and prejudices in the 1950s, and of course, providing good characters and great antagonists (York's major antagonist stays very human, and is not a cardboard villain). The book is weakest at the science: it never explains why the water vapor wouldn't just precipitate out of the atmosphere during the cold period, which would just stop the green house effect completely.

I enjoyed the book and the obvious detail it presents, even if the scientific premise is kinda broken. The characters are reasonably rendered and not annoying to read about.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: Mother Knows Best?

 Mother Knows Best is a kindle freebie. It's a book about all the old wives tales (and occasional sailor's stories) that may or may not have some truth in fact. Each myth is labeled true or false and you get to read about why it's true or false. It's light reading and may teach you something (it taught me a few sailor's ditties I didn't know before, beyond "Red Sky at night..."). It's not nearly as good as How To, though, so keep your expectations tempered.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review: Hacking Darwin

 I checked out Hacking Darwin because the Amazon reviews were good. I'm lucky I didn't spend money on it and just checked it out from the library. The book is shallow technically, and reads like an Engadget article about the glories of genetic engineering of embryos and future ability to select for traits. There's no caveats, just an assurance that this is coming and we should have an ethical debate about what should be allowed and what's not.

I think that's unlikely --- in general, humans are no good at predicting the future, and even when the future is predictable (e.g., the climate crisis), humans tend to avoid making decisions and put it off for as long as possible. And seriously? Given how competitive parents are about kids, there's no question that we will push the boundaries as far and as quickly as we can.

Interestingly enough, the best discussion of the ethical issues and parental competitive isn't in non-fiction books like these, but rather in science fiction. Read Nancy Kress's Beggars In Spain instead. That book was published 11 years ago, and explores these issues in a deeper fashion than Hacking Darwin's author could.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Review: The Invention of Surgery

I picked up The Invention of Surgery expecting a tightly focused book about surgery, but instead, what I got was a comprehensive history of medicine as it relates to surgery. This makes sense, as you can't really do surgery without anesthesia and antibiotics, and the invention of both of those pre-requisites are just as important as the developments since then.

I bought the book as an audio book (it was on-sale), but it would have been way better as a Kindle book. I loved the chapter on William Halsted, who was a pioneering surgeon who was addicted to cocaine. Since he was on a stimulant effectively all the time, the modern medical residency program was effectively designed around the awake/crash cycle of a drug addict! But the man also invented surgical gloves and several procedures, many of which were first performed on family members.

I do have some nits about the book: he continually acknowledges the deficiencies of the American medical systems: its expense, its inequities and in many cases, the lack of even a national registry for implants, which meant that doctors who wanted to know the efficacy of an implant had to find a way to access foreign databases. But he keeps touting the American medical system as being the best in the world. The book was written pre-COVID19, and I think during this pandemic at least, that illusion has long worn through.

Nevertheless, the book was a great listen, and well worth your time. Highly recommended.

Review: HexClad Non-stick Cookware

 If you've ever visited Costco, you might have seen the Hexclad demo. There's a guy with the non-stick pots and pans and woks, and he shows how you can cook with these even with metal spatulas and it won't scratch the non-stick. If you've bought into all the hype about how bad Teflon is for you, you'll be tempted to pick up a set of these, despite their incredibly expensive prices.

Well, I'm too cheap to buy these, but my wife isn't, and when they arrived, I tried them. I have to say that these are the worst "non-stick" pans I've ever used. They require seasoning, but the seasoning doesn't last. Eggs stick and no matter how much oil you use, they will stick to the bottom. Forget butter. Even bacon sticks to the bottom.

Compared to the TFAL non-stick pans at 1/10th the price, I'd recommend that you buy those, and replace them once a year for 10 years, than to buy these. If I was the one buying these, they'd be back at Costco already. But I'm guessing that someone in the family has Stockholm syndrome from having invested so much money in them, so I'm stuck with them for a while (though I'm going to wait for a sale and buy more TFAL for my personal use eventually --- that's how frustrating the Hexclads are).

Recommended for those susceptible to marketing. (There's one born every minute!)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Review: Tomboyland

Tomboyland is Melissa Faliveno's collection of essays. I picked it up because of Amazon's Kindle First Reads program. These essays cover a gamut of topics, from gender identity to growing up in Wisconsin, and her various relationships. The writing is excellent and perhaps uniquely American, with the wide open spaces of identity and mobility at the author's feet, moving from farm country to Wisconsin to New York and back again, the constant questioning of who she is, justifying her decision not to have children with great defensiveness.

There are a few nits. For instance, it is apparently that many of her close friends were met when she played roller derby. I would have hoped for an essay/story describing the sport, as it's not quite a mainstream sport and if she'd made so many close friends that way it was clearly a big part of her identity. But nope, we get oblique references but nothing about the joys of the sport and how it is played.

The final essay in the book is Driftless, which won a notable selection in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. It's lyrical and beautifully written, and ended the book on a great note. If the rest of the book was at that level it would have been uplifted into another category.

In any case, as a view of alternative lifestyles and gender explorations and identity, the book's short enough and worth your time.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Review: Temtop M10 Air Quality Monitor

 With the fires raging near us, I broke out all the air purifiers I bought last year during Amazon Prime Day, purchased specifically for such an occasion. But even with 3 air purifiers, you can't cover an entire house, so it's important to figure out where to put them. I researched air quality monitors and eventually settled on the Temtop M10: I didn't need fancy wireless readouts. I just wanted it to display what the current air quality is.

The first sample I received was garbage. It just was stuck at 4, no matter if I could smell smoke, indoors or out. So I returned it to Amazon and got a second sample. This second sample is good, accurately rating HCHO/PM2.5, TVOC, and AQI depending on where it was in the house, whether it was cooking, and matching Purple Air and/or AirNow's readouts.

At $80, it's pretty cheap and of course is now completely sold out on Amazon. The battery lasts for 6 hours, which is enough for you to stick in your pannier/trunk bag/handlebag and go out for a ride and let you know when the air has gone bad enough for you to need to go home. Recommended.

Monday, August 31, 2020

My Covid 19 Excursion List

With COVID19's shelter in place in effect, our vacation plans were needless to say, all cancelled. Rather than sit home and mope, I decided to try to make the most out of it and explore trails and places that I'd neglected and ignored prior to the crisis. When you've got semi-frequent trips out of town (or better, out of country), you can get into a rut at home because the breaks don't make you feel stale. It goes against my instinct to publish these on my blog, since I don't really want these places to become over-crowded, but with only 300 regular readers on this blog if you're reading it you probably already know about these places.

Rocky Point: This is part of Mt Tam state park. The most famous hike, of course, is the Matt Davis/Dipsea/Steep Ravine loop. But at the Steep Ravine/Dipsea intersection, if you ignore the trail that goes to Stintson beach and keep going on the Dipsea, there's a nice trail segment that's nothing short of gorgeous. Rocky Point's campgrounds are closed, which means that the place is isolated and has gorgeous views:

Mindego Hill:  I somehow lived in the Bay Area for many years but never came here. It's a very exposed hike, and you can make it easier by using bikes to get most of the way there. Don't attempt this in the summer, but in Spring it's stunning, with lots of wildflowers and gate traversals that the kids had fun with. The views from the top are unique and clearly different from anywhere else in the Bay Area.

Berry Creek Falls: You can do this as a long hike from Big Basin HQ, but with 2 kids it's far better to drive out to the coast and ride in about 10 miles to the bike rack where you can lock your bike. During the week, it's very isolated, and very pretty. It's also mostly shaded so good for hot days.

Esteros Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore: This trail is 4 years old, relatively new, and traverses a part of Point Reyes National Seashore that look so much like Scotland, except that it doesn't rain on you. The trail ios very easy, but the last segment to sunset beach is not worth the trouble, though of course once you're there you might as well go. An easy relaxing bike ride.

Maple Creek Falls in the Forest of Nisene Marks: I made this hike much harder than it had to be. You can actually drive into the park most of the way and then it's only a 3 mile hike, but the website for the park hadn't been updated to reflect that the parking was now open, so we hiked into through the Vienna Woods entrance instead. The last half a mile to the falls is strenuous, with lots of river crossings. Of course, that just makes it more fun for the kids.

Rodeo Beach to Tennessee Beach: The Marin Headlands is overly visited, but I saw a much smaller beach with easy access from Rodeo Beach. Well, laying out the Garmin route misled me into doing it the much harder way, with a descent that required hiking sticks (which we had), and even then the kids fell a few times. Tennessee Beach is surprisingly busy. I think I should have reversed this hike.

Garrapata State Park/Sobranes Point: Unlike Point Los State Preserve or Big Sur, this park has suffiicient parking for the visitors it attracts. You can explore both the ocean side and the redwood side, but do not ignore the tide pools, which are a great source of wildlife viewing.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Review: Uncanny Valley

I came across Uncanny Valley from various reviews --- as a book about Silicon Valley, you can't avoid the reviews. Anna Wiener is a decent writer --- the prose is readable, though her affectations are annoying: for instance, she never refers to any company by name, calling Microsoft "The litiguous conglomerate in Seattle", and Google "the search engine company." If you did this for a short article it's cute. In a novel, it's annoying and an affectation, as though this was a person who knows she came to Silicon Valley for money, but wants to pretend that she's still above it all.

The book describes the author as she got tired of "paying her dues" at a East Coast publishing company working with letters, and takes a flying leap into an ebook startup, gets laid of and then goes on to an analytics company in San Francisco before joining Github. Getting paid $30,000 a year in New York and then moving up to $100,000 a year (remember, she does not have a STEM background) ought to be a life changing experience that someone is grateful for, but not for Weiner, who turns up her nose at Silicon Valley every chance she gets.

As I read the book, I realized that I was getting an education in "White Privilege." She spent about 4 years in San Francisco, makes sweeping statements about the startup ecosystem (and tech in general), generalizes about all the men and technologists as being all cookie-cutter icons of privilege and self-aggrandization, gets a boyfriend whose startup gets bought by Google, and at no point did she ever mention meeting, sitting down, or talking to the immigrants who came to Silicon Valley to make a life for themselves and their family. That's one heck of a bubble to put yourself into, despite living in one of the most diverse places on the planet.

That utter blindness and unawareness (or perhaps meeting people who actually appreciate the opportunities that Silicon Valley gives them would ruin both her self-image and the thesis of her book) runs so much through the book. I've met many immigrants in the valley, including my wife, and they all have great stories and interesting lives and perspectives, but it would take someone with more curiosity and less privilege to sit down and listen to such people. Heck, if she'd taken some time to listen to the people behind the counter in the corporate cafeterias she'd frequented she would have heard even more stories that would have enlivened her book as well.

But that's what makes this book so educational for me. It'd never occur to me that someone could triple their income in 4 years (not including the stock options), and then claim that they were above it all. But there you go. The book is an exercise in white privilege, and as an immigrant it helped me understand it more. The Santa Clara County Library has 17 copies available in ebook format, so you'll have no problem reading it without having to pay for the privilege behind it.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review: Takeya Cold Brew Ice Coffee Maker

I tried StarBucks cold brew once and wasn't impressed. It felt like an excuse to serve you watered down coffee by dumping lots of ice in coffee. But with the summer heat, I decided that it was a good idea to try making it myself just in case it actually was good.

The Takeya pitcher looked good, and reviewed as easy to clean, and didn't break the bank. The filter is huge, and takes up a huge amount of coffee. You then fill the carafe with water and then shove it in your refrigerator for 24 hours, remove the filter, dump the grounds, and then you have concentrated coffee to dilute with ice and/or milk for the next few days.

The instructions said to swirl the pitcher occasionally while it is steeping. The nice thing about this design is that because it fits in the door of the refrigerator, you don't even have to do that. Over a 24 hour period, people will open and close the refrigerator door often enough to do the swirling for you.

The filter is a pain to clean, mostly because the bottom of it is solid plastic, rather than filter, so you cannot backflush it to clear the filter. The taste is great: even Xiaoqin, who usually dislikes coffee, enjoyed drinking it. The hard part is metering yourself so that you're not consuming too much coffee, because it's so drinkable.

And then I tried cold brew with Vanilla ice cream. It has to be tasted to be believed. The cold brew gives the Vanilla a caramel flavor that's quite unbelievable. I introduced the decaf'd version to my kids and they wanted nothing else for an entire week.

Recommended. And be prepared for your coffee consumption to go up dramatically after a purchase.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Review: Achtung Baby

Ever since Pam Druckerman wrote Bringing up Bebe, there's been an increasing number of books discussing how parenting happens in other cultures, and how everyone other than the Americans are doing it right. Achtung Baby is about Sara Zaske's 6 year stay in Germany and how it influenced her approach to child rearing.

I've lived in Munich for 9 months, but that didn't make an expert in German parenting. Though seeing how well organized and regimented the society is (wow, they practice lane discipline on escalators... the pedestrians actually stay out of the bike path!), you could imagine a very strict upbringing, similar to Japan's. (See Queen's Classroom for a stinging critique of the Japanese education system)

Zaske does a good job disabusing me of it, at least, for early childhood education, where her kid attended a Montessori, child-direct, play-oriented elementary school, with lots of recess, relatively good food, and a lot of outdoor-driven activities and play.

Now obviously there are a lot of things Germany does better than the US (6 weeks of vacation a year, a non-broken healthcare system, free childcare for all, free college, etc), and it's not hard to feel as though Zaske was over-reacting when she gushes about it. Um.. we've known about this for years. What's amazing is that American voters have consistently voted against those benefits, to the detriment of their society.

The big one is that all German kids are essentially free-range kids. Now I expected to hear stories about how the author had to get over her American-inculcated fear of trusting their kids to walk themselves to school, but what was cool about the book was when she interviewed a German mother who confessed that she hated her kids taking the subway 4 stops to visit their grandparents, but that she did it anyway, because it was important for the kids to learn independence and help themselves. This is what cultural support grants you --- the ability to look ahead and realize that you're hurting your kids by over-protecting them!
once Sophia entered first grade I was expected to teach her how to walk or bike there all by herself, even without me trailing a block behind. Before the first day, we received a pamphlet in the mail with a host of information about starting school. It also included a request that parents not drive their children to school. They should start learning the way on foot so that eventually they could go by themselves. (Kindle Loc 1909)
 Berlin primary schools have a specific curriculum for “traffic and mobility education.” Near the end of her first year, Sophia spent time learning traffic signs and rules of the road. Her teacher also took the entire class out for a walking tour of the neighborhood, showing them firsthand how the traffic moved, what the signs meant, and how to use crosswalks, or zebrastreifen (“zebra stripes”), as they’re called in Germany. The parents back this up by walking and biking the route to school with their children for several months to an entire year before letting their kids try it on their own. (Kindle Loc 1965)
 Are German parents more ready to let kids be free range because the country was safer? Zaske points out that total crime in Europe is actually higher than in the US:
Total crime in Europe, and in Germany, is actually still higher than it is in the United States—in all categories except murder. That’s one scary category. Buonanno and his colleagues say one likely explanation is the prevalence of guns in American society and “the fact that many types of crime in the United States tend to be committed with the use of guns and that’s very different from many European countries. (Kindle Loc 1982)
 It’s not like Germany has no guns. In fact, it has the fourth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, but prospective gun owners have to pass many steps before they can purchase a weapon, including a criminal background check and a test of their knowledge of the weapon. If they are younger than twenty-five, they have to take a psychological exam. These measures seem to make a big difference. In the United States, there were 10.14 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, according to In Germany, the rate was 1.01. If we truly want to make our country safer for children, we don’t need to lock kids indoors; we should enact gun-safety measures similar to those in Germany. (Kindle Loc. 1986)
Of course, the US has been a total failure in terms of firearms safety.  Zaske confirms my opinion that European playgrounds are generally far better than American ones. I'd guessed that it was because of lawsuits, but the exact story is provided by Zaske:
Overprotection has definitely sucked the life out of most American playgrounds. In recent decades, the equipment has become extremely tame in the name of safety—and a fear of lawsuits, which journalist Hanna Rosin detailed well in a 2014 article for The Atlantic called “The Overprotected Kid.” Rosin describes the lawsuit mania that started in the late 1970s with a prime example: In 1978, a toddler named Frank Nelson fell through a gap between a tornado slide and the railing, and landed on his head on the hard asphalt below—because that was what covered the ground of most playgrounds in those days. Tragically, the fall caused permanent brain damage. His parents sued the Chicago Park District and two companies involved in manufacturing and installing the slide—and won. This and similar suits caused a sweeping change in playgrounds across the country. (Kindle Loc 2280)
 Even with all these safety measures, the number of playground accidents in the United States is still high. In 1980, the rate of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, both public ones and home equipment, was one visit per 1,452 Americans, according to what Rosin calculates using statistics from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. In 2012, even after all that plastic and soft padding, the injury rate stood at one per 1,156 Americans. (Kindle Loc 2291)
the rate of injury in the European Union is a bit lower, even though many countries tend to have riskier playground equipment and parents don’t monitor their children as closely. An estimated 119,000 children per year in the entire EU required emergency medical treatment due to injuries related to playground equipment, according to a study by EuroSafe. That’s about one for every 4,235 EU residents (based on the EU population in 2012, the last year of the EuroSafe study). (Kindle Loc 2294)
Yup. Despite deliberately making our playgrounds more idiot-proof, the "dangerous" European playgrounds are actually safer!

 I found myself highlighting section after section of the book. Does the American school system do anything better? I was surprised to discover late in the book, after she moved back to California, that Zaske's 4th grader had to catch up on Math compared to her classmates. (Zaske was sanguine about it --- she reported that after a hellish year of doing nothing but homework and school, her daughter was completely caught up) It turned out that her daughter in the German public Montessori school had self-directed herself out of most of her own math education! I've met many excellent German engineers and I can assure you that their math education is not deficient, so I assume that Zaske's kid's experience was unusual, but it does indicate that it's not as much of a fire and forget system as say, most Asian school systems. (Though most Asian school systems also assume that the parents engage in a massive program of after-school tutoring!)

Another downside she mentioned is that the German school system streams kids into vocational vs academic tracks as early as 5th grade. That's much too early in my opinion, but again, the American system of catering to the lowest common denominator (which Zaske defends strongly!) doesn't seem like the optimal choice either.

The book closes with a plea for parents to push harder to change American society:
If we want to make things better for our children, we need to start making things better for ourselves, for parents. We need to push for better policies: universal preschool, subsidized child care, school policies that allow more play in school and don’t allow school work to creep into family time. Even more than that, we need to push our politicians and employers for benefits that Germans, and frankly the rest of the developed world, take as rights: paid parental leave, work hours that don’t extend into evenings and weekends, and a guaranteed amount of sick and vacation days. We simply need more time to be families. (Kndle Loc 3381)
In the backdrop of an election year in which I'm just hoping the American voter can look up long enough to realize that there's a world of difference between presidential candidates, that make this books hugely optimistic.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this book. Recommended.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Review: Sex and Vanity

By now, you know what to expect from a Kevin Kwan novel: lots of footnotes, attention to the details of the lives of the ultra-wealthy, and a breezy writing style with a shallow, predictable plot.

Sex and Vanity tries to be a regency romance for the modern day. It follows a predictable plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy win girls. The characters are cookie-cutter and 2-dimensional. Its sole redeeming feature (and one that has Amazon reviewers slamming the book) is its subversiveness. Kwan has made the male lead a Chinese guy from Hong Kong who'd gone to school at Berkeley. In the normal world, that'll make him a member of the privileged class, but of course he might as well have come straight from the poor house in a Kevin Kwan novel. The female lead is a half-Asian woman --- the type who wouldn't give a non-white guy the time of day. To even posit that such a male lead would win the female lead is of course, the ultimate subversion of the norm in the USA.

The world of the hoity-toity wealthy New Yorkers isn't as exotic as those from Singapore, but of course, the same snootiness and privilege applies. It's also quite clear the novel was written well before COVID19, or Kwan would have gotten way more mileage out of private jets than he did in the novel. This book is unlikely to be made into a movie (see paragraph above), but as light reading it's worth your time, and it's fun to indulge in a bit of subversive fantasy once in a while, even if the author is someone as mainstream popular as Kevin Kwan.

Mildly recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Review: Topeak Smart Guage D2

I've been making do with the gauge on various pumps in the house for ages, and relying on feel to decide how high to pump up the tires. Mountain biking with kids, however, requires much more tuning of tire pressure than for adults: kids can ride tires with as little as 15psi, and I always wondered if the gauges on the pump were accurate. So I bought a Topeak SmartGauge D2.

It's not a particularly cheap one, but it is fairly well regarded, and has a nice switch that flips between presta or schraeder modes. It also uses a CR2032 battery, which ties in nicely with all the other CR2032 driven Garmin sensors in use on various bikes.

The device seems much better for schraeder than presta valves. The valve will leak more than a little if you're not spot on when using it on a presta vale. The ergonomics otherwise is great: the unit will beep when it's done, and there's a bleed valve so you can bleed down the pressure.

I discovered of course, that my floor pump (a $20 Bontrager purchased in 2008 when I was in Munich) over-reads pressure, and when it reads 90 psi, the D2 reads 75. That's good to know --- it means I have extra headroom on tire pressure on the triplet, which will become necessary as the kids grow heavier.

It turned out that I also really didn't need the gauge. When I used it on my kids' bikes, it read 14psi! So my thumb was already well-calibrated to what my kids needed, even if my gauge wasn't. But that's also worth knowing --- if I'd been off, I wanted to know, and given that my thumb is accurate, I also now have the confidence to do without a gauge most of the time as well.


Thursday, August 06, 2020

Review: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is a parenting book about different cultures approach certain areas of parenting. It's an intriguing idea but the author unfortunately has neither the expertise nor the depth of approach that makes her statements credible.

In particular the book opens with a statement about how Argentinians take their babies to social outings even when they're late hours. Since her husband and her were living in Argentina at the time, they did the same. She never correlates that type of socialization with her kid with the fact that her kid doesn't have good sleep habits and doesn't sleep through the night. That ruined her credibility with me.

Later on, she covers all sorts of different areas, such as the approach to food, child, socialization, academics, and chores and work. These are all explored shallowly and only within the context of the culture she explores, so there are no scientific interventionist studies, no random control groups, just interviews with experts and a few titbits with some references to follow up.

Compared with other parenting books that explore different cultures in more depth like Bringing up Bebe or World Class, this book is lackluster, shallow, and way too focused on the author's first-world travails and opinions. Not recommended.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Review: Snow, Glass Apples

Snow, Glass, Apples is a Neil Gaiman's re-interpretation of the snow white fairy tale. Gorgeously illustrated by Colleen Doran, it's a dark retelling of who snow white is, who her mother the queen actually was, and of course, who the prince is.

There's no deep elaboration of the 7 dwarves, and as a retelling it's got several plot holes that can only be explained by the word, "Magic."

This is not a book for pre-teen kids, but a great story for adults. Recommended.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: The Road

I finally tried reading The Road again, this time keeping in mind that it was one of the inspirations for The Last of Us. It's a surprisingly short novel, but once I thought about the purpose of the novel it made sense that it had to be short.

The entire novel is written as a series of vignettes. Every sentence is short, and each vignette is meant to contribute to a specific mood. The setting is the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe that's apparently irredeemable,  and the plot, such as it were, revolves around a father and son traveling south in search of... something.

Much has been written about the relationship between father and son in this novel, but for me, it all rings false. The conversations I've had with my own children have never shied away from difficult truths or attempts to maintain the innocence of the children, and I cannot imagine behaving the way the father in the novel does to his children.

The reaction of society in this post-apocalyptic world is also uniquely American. There's a strong sense of "every man for himself" and the assumption that everyone you meet is evil, which of course turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other cultures novels depict teamwork and strong attempts to rebuild society and civilization. I definitely much prefer David Brin's The Postman over McCarthy's vision. Go read that one instead!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: Lock Laces

I'm not one of those people who believes in shoe laces. I gave up on them several years ago when I switched to shoes that didn't need them, and I've never met a pair of shoe laces that weren't more trouble than they're worth. The problem is, many kids shoes (especially the nice waterproof ones from Columbia) come with shoe laces.

I was about to return a particularly nice pair when I decided to search and see if there were ways to retrofit them. Indeed, Amazon carries Lock Laces: these are elastic laces that you lace onto a shoe, then you run a toggle lock through them, cut off the excess, and then clip off the ends so they don't fray. For a nice fit, you'd fit your kids' feet in the shoe and lace it up nice and snug before cutting off the excess.

It's very rare that I like a product so much that I'll go immediately buy 2 more. But that's what happened with these: I'm going to upgrade Boen's cycling shoes and Bowen's Columbia Waterproofs with these.

Highly recommended!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: Swearing is Good For You

Swearing is Good For You is Emma Byrne's debut book about the research and science behind swearing. It turns out that Byrne is actually a computer scientist and has no special knowledge of linguistics or etymology. Her approach to this book is therefore that of a "survey study" approach, where she reads a ton of related papers in the field and then regurgitates them at you. The topics are grouped in a few obvious fashions: medical (tourette's), workplace, social, and foreign languages. Each topic is covered in shallow fashion, with references to the actual research and study, but Byrne herself has not really contributed anything substantial in this field.

If you're looking for a survey book as a jumping off point to deeper study, this might be OK. As it is I came away from the book feeling very meh.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review: The Algebra of Happiness

I read The Four and found it enjoyable enough to consider other Scott Galloway books. He's irreverent and fun, so I tried The Algebra of Happiness.

Written in much the same style, and also with no academic rigor, Galloway reflects on life, success, happiness, and kids. Here's the closest thing to real insight you're going to get out of the book:
The mortgage tax deduction is one of the costliest taxbreaks in America. Another? Lower taxation on capital gains, versus ordinary income. These are both positioned as “American”: homeownership and investing. They are simply transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Who owns homes and stocks? Wealthy old people. Who rents and doesn’t have assets that qualify for capital gains treatment? The young and the poor. (Kindle Loc 1175)
The rest of the book (mostly short, one page chapters that look like they were ripped out of a blog post)  is mostly anecdotes, little stories, with maybe at most a pithy moral attached to the story. For instance, I've often noted that I find outdoors people who've overcome challenges in nature more real in some way than people who've conquered the corporate world mostly because you can't fool nature or politic against it. Galloway's equivalent insight turns it into a block-headed truism about propagation of species:
WE HAVE friends, a couple, who lost an extended family member to ALS. Soon after, they took stock of their blessings and asked each other, “What could we do to better seize the moments that are our life?” The husband is an adventurer and proposed that, with their three kids, they circumnavigate the globe in a high-tech catamaran. This would be insane if they weren’t both uber-competent people whom others trust with their lives and livelihoods (she’s a doc, he’s a CEO). Even so, cruising around on the open ocean supported by two giant boogie boards feels a tad crazy. They did a test run, a week at sea, which I followed closely on Instagram. The night watches, rough seas, engine trouble . . . all of it. I didn’t get it. This seemed more like punishment than taking life by the horns. And then, in one image, it became clear. The husband’s joy was evident, even in 2D. To be with his family, applying their skills, strength, and wits to embrace and conquer nature made him glow. No filter. Partners who can take what they’ve built together and throw the full force of that at each other’s happiness are likely the root of our prosperity as a species. The most rewarding things in life aren’t accoutrements or our technological progress (Cartier or Boeing) but things that have been baked into us over millions of years to augment the species. (Kindle loc 997)
I'd take a hard pass on this book, unless you want the equivalent of brainless TV entertainment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: Hikenture Sleeping Bag Stuff Sack

I'd somehow lost my stuff sack for the North Face Blue Kazoo, so I looked for a stuff sack to replace it. The Hikenture came up on my Amazon search results, and was a fairly reasonable price so I bought the 20L bag. I probably could have done with the 14L bag, as it turned out that I could stuff both the Blue Kazoo and the REI 0 degree down bag into it! With just the blue Kazoo, I can cinch down the straps until there's no more room, and the bag feels suitably compressed. I could probably put more stuff in it as well. Easy to use, well made, and not an absurd price. Recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Review: Knizia's Lord of the Rings Board Game

With shelter in place, I had the kids at home nearly all the time. I started working through some of the board games I'd bought to play with adults, and came upon Reina Knizia's original Lord of the Rings board game. It was a cooperative game, so the 2 kids were unlikely to kill each other over who won.

The game itself is very abstract, with very light theming. You get a bunch of tiles, you draw them, handle the event, play your 2 cards, and then play moves on. There's a large amount of cooperation and sacrifice, but many events are randomly out of your control. With adults I don't recall playing it more than a few times.

But boy, the kids took to it. Not only did Bowen and Boen got into it, they broke open my unwatched Extended Edition movie trilogy and watched all of them. Then Bowen got out his Kindle and started reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings simultaneously in tandem.

With that kind of response, I can recommend this game, but upon doing a search on Amazon realize that it's now out of print and good condition versions of the game fetch a pretty penny! (Mine are not in good condition, so I'm blase about the kids abusing it, but I will tell them that the board game is out of print and cannot be bought any more!)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Review: The Masked Rider

I started listening to The Masked Rider before the COVID19 shelter in place orders, and after that got so distracted by various items that I forgot to listen to the audio book, so my memory of the book is kinda disjointed.

The book describes a guided tour Neil Peart took long before the events of Ghost Rider, organized by  David Mozer. I'm not a huge fan of guided/organized bike tours, but for a trip in Africa I would make an exception, but with Peart's trip report, I can certainly see why I've avoided those trips. The small group dynamics is painful, with annoying clashes of personality and disparate riding abilities, which would tax the patience of a saint.

Peart's personality in this book is completely different than that of Ghost Rider --- it's at times larconic, sarcastic, and even unsympathetic and racist in certain moments, describing the culture of most Africans as people who aspire to and want the nice material things in life that North Americans have (Peart is Canadian) but unwilling to do the work (e.g., practicing drumming) to achieve them. There are repeated encounters with locals where Peart repeats this statement.

The days of the tours are described well, but it's also clear that an adventure tour in Africa isn't for the faint of heart. The days are warm and hot (they do take the pains to start early) and the sleeping conditions could make life tough on top of the challenges of the bike tours. The encounters with local officials are a massive pain, and even exiting the country via the airport was fraught with bureaucracy and officials asking for their palms to be greased. I didn't get much of a sense that there was a lot of the joy of cycling to be found anywhere in Africa, or at least Cameroon. I remember my bike tour in South Africa being OK but not something I'd be in a hurry to repeat, especially with kids towing along

If I ever consider doing a tour of Africa by bike, I'll probably make myself listen to this book again just to remind myself what a dumb (and expensive) idea that would be. It would save me a lot of money. Recommended!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review: Katadyn BeFree water filter

My last filter was a Katadyn Virustat, but the product is out of stock and replacement filters are also similarly impossible to find. The replacement is the Katadyn BeFree, which does away with the virus elimination stage of the previous device, but in exchange gives you a collapsible bottle and a filter that does not need to be replaced monthly. Just dry it out between trips, and it should be good for 1000 liters.

The bottle is indeed very light at 63g. The instructions must be read carefully, as there are a few counter intuitive ways where you might break it: for instance, you cannot run the filter under a tap horizontally, as it might destroy it! Similarly, when squeezing water through the bottle, take care not to squeeze the plastic filter as well. And of course, it won't kill viruses, but it does impart a somewhat sweet taste to the water.  In typical Swiss fashion, the bottle nozzle comes with a cap so you can't easily contaminate it. You can drink directly from the bottle, but there's no way to carry the bottle easily (except by hand), so the intention is that you use it to filter water into other containers that you then drink from.

Other than the virus thing, everything about this filter is better than the previous models I was using. Water flows freely, the bottle is much lighter and the collapsible feature is very nice. With this weight, you can carry 2 in case you break one, but if you read the instructions carefully there's no reason you would break one unless the water you're filtering is very badly soiled. This thing deserves the rave reviews and the $40 MSRP.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Review: Amazon Commercial Vinyl Tape

When you have a triplet with 2 kids, what tends to happen is that any weakness in the bar tape will get picked apart until the tape unravels. The solution, of course, is to get electrical tape and tape it up again. In the past, I've always bought the big 3M rolls (around $5/pop at the local hardware store), used it a few times, and then lost it again. During COVID19, I couldn't find the tape again, so went to buy some on Amazon.

I've had pretty good luck with Amazon Basics stuff in the past, and this time saw that Amazon has a different "Commercial" brand that makes tape. It even comes in many different colors, none of which is black.

$4.30 buys you a pack of 10, in 5 different colors. You can see from the pictures that the amount of tape in each roll is much less than that of a 3M roll, but thinking about it, this is actually much more useful as a result: each roll is significantly lighter, so you can bring it while touring. (In general, I always travel with some tape in case hotel rooms have blinking lights on TVs that can't be turned off, in addition to the fix-it situations with handlebar tape and the light) The different colors mean that you can use a color coding scheme if you need to tape together wires, etc. And the total amount of tape is probably more than a $5 roll of 3M black tape. And of course, having 10 rolls means that you're more likely to be able to find the tape and not spend $5 every time you have a taping job. Amazon's product managers are the few PMs I have respect for --- they seem to actually make stuff that I need, as opposed to stuff that's fashionable for other people (I don't care that black doesn't match my handlebar tape on one side vs the other)


Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: MSR Freelite 3 person tent

I bought the MSR Freelite 3 person tent from REI during a sale for about half the MSRP. At 3 pounds 7 ounces it was on a per person basis even lighter than my tried and tested Stephenson Warmlite 2R.  The material felt so light that I bought the custom footprint (also on sale), which at 7 ounces is still very light on a per person basis. Boen wasn't quite ready to go backcountry camping until this year, however, so we didn't try it until recently, though I'd set it up once on the lawn just to make sure it came with all the pieces.

Set up in the field was tricky. Putting together the tent pole (singular, just one) was a snap, as all the shock-corded pieces came together crisply and satisfyingly. But the tent is asymetrical and after you lay it down you still have to remember to swing the T piece and put the tent up. The tent is not free-standing, so you cannot pitch it on say, granite: it requires a minimum of 6 stakes to set up properly --- preferably more as the rainfly has guylines that will need to be tensioned when rain or high winds are expected.

Our first trip was in surprisingly cold weather, and we woke up dry but there was condensation on the fly. Our camping companion's tent had the same problem though, so I'd just chalk that up to the conditions. On our second trip, the tent stayed dry all night and all morning. To be honest, if you're camping in California, it's quite possible to not encounter rain for the lifetime of the tent, and UV will probably destroy the rain fly after 10 years.

Taking down the tent is much easier than putting it up, the only problem being that the stakes that come with the tent, being red, are very difficult to see if you make the mistake of leaving them on the ground and just unhooking the loops from the stakes to take down the tent first. Solution? Pull the stakes first before dealing with the rest of the tent.

I wouldn't pay MSRP for this tent, but at 50% off? It's a steal and comes recommended.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Review: Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up is Steve Martin's memoir of his time as a comedian and why he gave up stand up comedy. Contrary to my expectation, it wasn't a very funny book. What does come through is how much his relationship with his father affected his life:
MY FATHER, GLENN VERNON MARTIN, died in 1997 at age eighty-three, and afterward his friends told me how much they had loved him. They told me how enjoyable he was, how outgoing he was, how funny and caring he was. I was surprised by these descriptions, because the number of funny or caring words that had passed between my father and me was few. He had evidently saved his vibrant personality for use outside the family. (Page 19)
The story of how he went from performing as a demonstrator at the Disneyland Magic Shop to becoming a full time stand up comedian is low key and interesting: I've never actually seen him live (or even recorded), though I don't remember him being particularly funny in the movies where I saw him.

What was fascinating was his decision to quit at the peak of his success:
 Though the audiences continued to grow, I experienced a concomitant depression caused by exhaustion, isolation, and creative ennui. As I was too famous to go outdoors without a discomforting hoopla, my romantic interludes ceased because I no longer had normal access to civilized life. The hour and a half I spent performing was still fun, but there were no band members, no others onstage, and after the show, I took a solitary ride back to the hotel, where I was speedily escorted by security across the lobby. A key went in a door, and boom: the blunt interior of a hotel room. Nowhere to look but inward. I’m sure there were a hundred solutions. I could have invited friends to join me on the road, or asked a feel-good guru to shake my shoulders and say, “Perk up, you idiot,” but I was too exhausted to communicate, and it seemed like a near-coma was the best way to spend the day. This was, as the cliché goes, the loneliest period of my life. I was caught and I could not quit, because this multi-zeroed income might last only a moment. I couldn’t imagine abandoning something I had worked so hard to craft. I knew about the flash in the pan, I had seen it happen to others, and I worried about it happening to me. In the middle of all this, I saw that the only way I could go, at best, was sideways. I wasn’t singing songs that you hum forever; I was doing comedy, which is as ephemeral as the daily newspaper. Onstage I was no longer the funniest I ever was; my shelf life was expiring. (Pg. 183)
So that's why comedians frequently are depressed --- the nature f the job seems counter-productive to having a good social life. Towards the end he of the book he realized he'd stopped doing comedy:
 I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn’t. I still thought I was doing comedy. During this time, I asked a woman to dinner, and she accepted. After the salad course, she started talking about her boyfriend. “You have a boyfriend?” I asked, puzzled. “Yes, I do.” “Does he know you’re out with me?” I asked. “Yes, he does.” “And what does he think of that?” “He thinks it’s great!” I was now famous, and the normal rules of social interaction no longer applied. (Pg. 185)
The book is filled with interesting insights --- and yes, he does eventually reconcile with his parents. Worth the short reading time. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Yosemite/Hetch Hetchy Ranchiera Falls

Yosemite just re-opened with massive numbers of restrictions, including reservations required for day-entry, which meant that for the first time in ages, I would consider a visit in the summer. The drive-in permits are first come first serve, but I had my eyes on the wilderness permits, which are available only by lottery.

I submitted 2 applications, one starting on the 3rd (which was a holiday), and one starting on the 4th. For each one, I listed Cathedral Lakes and Sunrise Lakes as my first two choices, and Ranchiera Falls as my second. My application for the 3rd was denied, but my application for the 4th came through for Ranchiera Falls in Hetch Hetchy, a place I had never explored in Yosemite National Park. I hurriedly made arrangements to borrow a bear canister, acquire backpacking equipment for Xiaoqin, and reservations for a hotel on the 3rd, since she didn't want to stay at the Backpackers Campground the night before.

The Wilderness Permit actually lets you enter the park the day before your stay. We drove from home to the park entrance, getting there around 11:30am, but then discovered that the line at the park entrance was more than a mile long. What happened was that they're indeed checking everyone's permit against both a computer database and a photo ID before you're even allowed to buy your entrance permit.
Once in the park, the experience was wonderful compared to previous visits. Vistas like the tunnel view and Bridal Veil falls had plenty of parking, though attractions close to park lodging like the Yosemite falls were still full of people.
We stayed in the park until late and then stayed at the Yosemite West Gate Lodge, buying awful take out from the diner next door. After so long in shelter-in-place order, it felt strange to see a restaurant with indoor seating, so we opted to eat in our hotel room, after the requisite 20 minute airing out of the place.

The next morning, we woke up early put everything in the trunk, and then drove out to Hetch Hetchy. The drive through the National Forest was pretty, and one location was so stunning I had to stop for a few pictures.

I expected to be one of the first people waiting at the Hetch Hetchy entrance when it opened at 8am, but there was already a line there with 5-6 cars ahead of us. When the gate opened we all drove through but there was still a 10 minute wait, with the rangers checking on our permits even though we already had our paid for entry-permit hung on our windshield. The number of wilderness permits handed out hasn't changed despite the situation, and the backpackers parking lot was full so we had to use the overflow parking area.
Knowing what I know now, I should have just driven my family down to the dam, unloaded the backpacks, and then driven the loop back to drop off excess food at the bear lockers before hiking back down myself. It would have saved about half a mile of extra walking with packs on, which everyone complained about., Even I felt the load, since I was carrying 3 sleeping bags, 2 tents (my plan to use the hammock for camping was derailed because REI's expedited shipping option for the mosquito netting for my ENO doublenest didn't live up to its promise --- one of many reasons why I feel punished every time I buy from anyone not Amazon), Boen's sleeping pad, clothing for both kids including wet suits, and all the other sundries including the hammock and straps, which Bowen had volunteered to carry but whined so much about that I took it off him by the time we got to the dam.

Despite starting by 9:30am, the day was already warm when we crossed the tunnel onto the trail proper. I'd started everyone on relatively little water, reasoning that the waterfall was only 2.5 miles away. There were patches of shade where we could rest, but the wide exposed areas had the best views and we all ran out by the time we got to the waterfall. I dug out the BeFree water filter out of my backpack and filled everyone's bottles and brought my camelbak bladder up to 2 liters for good measure. A woman came up and asked if I felt safe drinking the water straight out of the falls: apparently the BeFree looked so much like a water bottle that she didn't notice the filter.

Past the waterfall, the climbing started, taking us over the ridgelines that characterized the area. The view of the dam started retreating behind us until it disappeared completely. The number of hikers had also dropped by a lot. When the elevation started dropping I thought we were close and was heartened by the sound of running water but it turned out to be Tiltill Creek, about a mile but some elevation away from Rancheria Falls. The trail passed through a heavily burned section, which added insult to injury as our shade was taken away from us during the hottest time of the day.
By the time we got to the view of the Rachiera Creek apron, we'd all run out of water again, but fortunately the campground was shaded. A lot of spots were taken so we had no choice but to take one within sight of the main trail. With shade, the pressing need for water was not as urgent so I setup the hammock, pitched the tents, inflated most of the pads, and then we got everything ready to go visit the river, which was full of backpackers soaking to stay cool.

It was cold as a Sierra creek could be, but with wet suits the kids could stay in there far longer than I could, and I started setting up for dinner. Once the kids saw me setup they suddenly became hungry, and we ate all the backpacking dinners I brought with us, my favorite flavor being Sweet and Sour Pork, which is sadly now out of stock and available only at exorbitant prices.

After dinner, Bowen went for another swim while Boen couldn't wait to play with the tent and went back, but when he came back and saw Bowen in the river again he insisted on joining Bowen, and what could I do but put on my swim suit and join them!
It was surprisingly late by the time we went back to the tents but now the mosquitoes were out in force, so we completely our evening setup, with the sight of bear poop on the trail making me super paranoid about putting the bear canister far away from the tents, and went to bed. Despite opening the fly on the tent to the maximum extent it still felt warm and I tossed and turned a bit before dozing off with my CPAP machine running off the battery. (I'd thought about leaving it behind and saving the 1100g, but then realized that after I was done with the trip I'd have to drive for 4 hours to get home and decided it wasn't worth the risk)

I woke up at 6:00am the next morning seeing mosquitoes gathered on the mosquito netting on the tent, justifying my decision to bring 2 tents. We ate a quick breakfast, and quickly tore everything down as fast as I could for an 8:15am start. Despite that start we still felt warm in the burnt area, but once back in the shade it felt nice, and we could feel a nice headwind blowing towards us cooling us off. It had taken us 6 hours of walking to get to Ranchiera Falls the day before, but we were going at a far faster pace today with the slightly cooler temperatures and the mostly downhill walk. I slipped on a rock and skinned my knee, but it was a minor wound and I'd luckily brought a first aid kit with antibiotic cream.

At the falls again we still had sufficient water, and so pushed on, getting back to the tunnel at noon. Being smarter than the day before, I left the backpacks, wife and kids at the dam in the shade of a tree and walked back unladened to the car to drive down and pick everyone up.
Strangely enough, the mileage yesterday was more than the mileage today, and my guess was that spending a lot of time resting in the shade causes GPS jitter that grants you more miles for the same distance.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd stay overnight at Hetch Hetchy at the backpackers camp so I could get an earlier start, and also drive everyone else to start at the dam to avoid the extra half a mile of pack hiking. I would also avoid giving Boen the Camelbak --- he'd done so well with it on the previous trip, but this time I ended up carrying it awkwardly. Nevertheless, as a 5 year old he's now already done tougher hiking trips than his brother ever did at ages 6 or 7. This was a challenging trip because of environmental conditions, and there really aren't any easier hikes in the Hetch Hetchy area, so we probably won't revisit until the kids are older.