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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.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a history of the eponymous character. It's pretty comprehensive, and doesn't just cover the founding and expansion of the empire, but also its decline and eventual breakup.

Here's the deal: nomadic tribes have obviously been the norm through most of human history. What's unusual is when someone manages to organize them despite the nomadic tribes' inherent instability: when kinship ties are more important than anything else, unity cannot easily be achieved. The book probably could have been organized better, but here's my summary of it:

  • Genghis Kahn managed to organize the tribes not only through fighting prowess and political maneuvers, but also by changing the organizational principles from kinship ties to as close a meritocracy as could be found in those environments. In fact, Kahn went so far to avoid nepotism that as he aged he'd realized that he'd neglected his children: 
"The fighting among his sons made him keenly aware of how much work he needed to do to preserve the empire after his death. His sons did not match up to the needs of the empire. While pursuing his great quest to unite the steppe tribes and conquer every threat around him, he had never devoted the attention he should have to his sons, and now they were all reaching middle age and were still unproven men." (Kindle Loc 2570)
 More conversations and quotes survive from this phase of Genghis Khan’s life than any other, and they show a growing concern but lessening power to control his family. After too long a neglect of their education, he tried to teach his sons everything at once, and in doing so he struggled to articulate lessons he had learned and ideas he had but had not verbalized clearly. He was accustomed to giving orders, not making explanations. (Kindle Loc 2587)
 That engendered sufficient loyalty to him personally that he effectively united all the tribes and organized them to conquer the large swathes of empire that probably wouldn't have been feasible through a purely dynastic environment.
Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth, Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs, such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes, and translators. Both the promotion of low-ranking men and the movement of them into new areas increased their dependence on and loyalty to their Mongol overlords and lessened their connection to the people ruled. (Kindle Loc 3957)

  • The fast moving nomads could out maneuver traditional armies because they didn't depend on supply chains being dragged behind them, but also because they effectively could pasture and hunt as they go. This also naturally limited the extent of their empire, but also explained their approach as they expanded: they would trample fields and burn cities so that those areas would revert to pasture, ensuring that they had a line of retreat.
  • Similarly, they were big on religious freedom, and welcomed all religions equally as long as they were willing to be subservient to the state. I did not know that the Mongolian court had Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists all present. Their debates never turned into religious wars, which was remarkable.
  • They were very willing to co-opt skills and people who would help them with administration, including clerks, translators, engineers, and so forth. Again, this was unusual, but again, the Mongols themselves only developed written language after they'd encountered other civilizations.
  • The empire was finally brought down by the bubonic plague, which broke up the connections that the far flung empire had made:

With each group cut off from the other, the interlocking system of ownership collapsed. The plague had devastated the country, demoralized the living, and, by cutting off trade and tribute, deprived the Mongol Golden Family of its primary source of support. For nearly a century, the Mongols had exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them. Even while sacrificing political unity, they had maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. (Kindle Loc 4726)
 All in all, the book definitely dispelled my understanding of what the Mongols were like, and was worth the read. Recommended.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Review: Death by Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is such a great title that even if it hadn't been written by Neil de Grasse Tyson I would have checked it out. As it was I figured it would be worth a laugh if nothing else.

The book turns out to be a collection of columns from Natural History magazine, and most of them have nothing to do with black holes. Unlike books that were written with an objective in mind, the book just divides the columns into seven different sections and then organizes them with a curated order so that they're not jarring. But unfortunately, that means that many individual "chapters" are repetitive of one another, and he never gets into anything that can't be done within a couple of thousand words. As a result, the book gets quite tiresome in places, and probably could have been a hundred pages shorter if more effort had been put into it.

The book is probably at its best when it explains science to the lay person:
Science is occasionally accused of being a closed-minded or stubborn enterprise. Often people make such accusations when they see scientists swiftly discount astrology, the paranormal, Sasquatch sightings, and other areas of human interest that routinely fail double-blind tests or that possess a dearth of reliable evidence. But don’t be offended. Scientists apply this same level of skepticism to ordinary claims in the professional research journals. The standards are identical. Look what happened when the Utah chemists B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed in a press conference to have created “cold” nuclear fusion on their laboratory table. Scientists acted swiftly and skeptically. Within days of the announcement it was clear that no one could replicate the cold fusion results that Pons and Fleischmann claimed. Their work was summarily dismissed. (Kindle Loc 4688)
The question though, is that is the lay person likely to read Natural History magazine? Anyway, some of the less relevant (non-black hole) stuff was fun to read, like when he criticized James Cameron in person for the night sky in the the movie, Titanic:
So after I whined for ten minutes on the subject, he replied, “The film, worldwide, has grossed over a billion dollars. Imagine how much more money it would have made had I gotten the night sky correct!” (Kindle Loc 4426)
Yet later on the director's crew called him and asked him to help fix the night sky for a remastered edition of the movie.

So, the book wasn't a total waste of time, just not as interesting (or as short) as it could have been. Mildly recommended. Would have been a better match for paper books, so people could look at the cover and say, "Wow, cool title!"

Monday, June 29, 2020

First Impressions: Garmin Edge 830

Last year in June, Bowen saw me, Mike, and Arturo use "GroupTrack" during our bike tour in the Shasta region. After he saw that, he asked for a GroupTrack capable bike computer. I contended that he didn't need one, but he kept persisting, so I told him there were only a few ways he could get one: give up his other birthday presents, get one of his friends to go touring with us, pay for it out of his own pocket, or ride his single bike to school every day for a year.

Well, he rode his single to school every day, rain or shine, and then in March COVID19 effectively ended the school year for him. I could have gotten him an Edge 520plus or 530, but I figured if I was going to get him something it might as well be a navigation-capable unit for backup when touring, though who knows when we'll get to do that, so the Edge 830 it was.

The main reason is that the Edge 830 was faster (which is a big deal if you want the GPS to do the navigation and routing), and also the trail forks integration, which is useful potentially for mountain biking. (Though around here, it'd be rare that I ever got lost on a mountain bike ride!)

The unit is indeed super-fast. It does everything far faster than my Fenix 5X, which was already too fast for me to keep confused. It pairs to a smartphone for GroupTrack, which is as reliable as you can imagine (not very), but sometimes does do a passing job. It does require that your phone has a data plan, etc, so some of it is that I'm not spending big bucks on Bowen's data plan.

Unlike his older Edge 25 (which now goes to his brother), the Edge 830 does a fabulous job sync'ing rides up to Garmin Connect even over WiFi. The Edge 25 despite its claim to doing bluetooth sync'ing, never actually did so and I'd always had to plug it into a PC to get ride data out. It also links to power meters, which is kinda funny on a triplet.

All in all, if you had to buy a navigation-capable bike computer today, this is the one to get. It's a huge improvement over the older units, and worth the money (especially since I managed to use a 20% off coupon on it). Recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: Godox TT350P

I've been using the Ricoh GR3 on many of my adventures recently, and the lack of a fill flash on the camera started to bug me. Without a fill flash, many daylight pictures turn into a mess of shadows, which is only partially rescuable using Lightroom. Almost as importantly, the catchlights in eyes look which I love can't easily be achieved as well.

All the official Pentax flashes were too expensive and/or heavy for what I was trying to do, so I went looking for an unofficial solution. The Godox TT350P seemed to be extremely good value: it comes with a stand and a diffuser (something I've always had to buy for my Canon flashes separately), a case (which is useless), and a fully rotatable head (for bounce flash). The flash is heavy, however, about the same weight as the camera it would be attached to.

My first experience with the flash was disappointing, however, with clear flash artifacts that I wasn't happy with.  The results were inconsistent, occasionally over-exposing the photo, and occasionally looking as though the flash wasn't on. It's quite clear that Pentax/Ricoh's TTL integration isn't even close to what I was used to with Canon's, where simply dialing in a -2/3 or -1/1/3 flash exposure compensation would get you picture perfect results. However, the Lightroom "Flash" auto-correct setting did the right thing on occasion, and while the artifacts are still there if you know how to look for it, they're not completely unnatural:
And I got the catchlights back:
After using it on a few hikes and bike rides, I decided that the flash was just too big. If I'm doing a difficult trip, I'd rather use the weight budget on carrying more food, water, or the hammock. If I'm doing an easy trip, then I might as well carry the EOS M6 instead of the Ricoh GR3 and the flash. I reluctantly returned the flash.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Reread: Dune

I found myself rereading Dune, and years after my first reading of it in my teenage years, it's still and astounding novel. Things jumped out at me this time that didn't in my first reading. For instance, it's astounding how for a science fiction world how medieval the institutions in the novel are. Even the position of a planetary ecologist is via inheritance, rather than merit. All the major characters are characters born into privilege with a huge amount of attention given to eugenics, and training is only available to those of a high born class.

It's also amazing to me how much various parts of the book affected my psyche through the years, even though much of it was forgotten. I remember driving home from the hospital with Bowen and Xiaoqin, suddenly aware of how every careless driver was suddenly a threat. I didn't realize it then,  but that feeling came almost directly from the book: "They have tried to take the life of my son!" Similarly, I'd forgotten that one of the most poignant quotes from the book also featured in my memory:
"One of the most terrible moments in a boy's life," Paul said, "is when he discovers his father and mother are human beings who share a love that he can never quite taste. It's a loss, an awakening to the fact that the world is there and here and we are in it alone..." 
And of course there's more. There's the subtle teaching about ecosystems and ecology, and the inspirational long term view of terraforming a hostile environment taking 300-500 years. Of course, it's taken us far less than 50 years to start turning our own planet into a hostile environment. There's the deliberate evocation of the Arabic desert nomads, the constant impingement into our consciousness all through the book about the preciousness of water, something that Californians are only starting to become aware of.

There's so much that makes this a great book. The rest of the series degenerated somewhat from this initial grand novel, and it was definitely well worth the re-read. Recommended.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Review: Tales from Earthsea

Despite loving The Wizard of Earthsea and most of the series, I bounced off Tehanu pretty hard, so wasn't going to consider it but then read the reviews (due to an Amazon sale) and realized Tales from Earthsea was a collection of short stories, so even if I bounced off one or two of them it would be OK.

The collection of short stories vary a lot, from the founding of Roke by Medra (which unfortunately never explains how it went from a collection of men and women to becoming a school where women are excluded, to a very quiet sequence about Ged chasing down an errant wizard. (Ged barely features in it) The final story, "Dragonfly" takes place after Tehanu but you don't really need to have read Tehanu to appreciate it. The story about how Ogion held back an earthquake is finally told. The book ends with the "series bible" so to speak that Le Guin used to do her world building. It's not pleasure reading, but is short.

LeGuin's prose is beautiful and flawless, which in itself makes the book a pleasure. Recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Review: House Again Tea Infuser

In an effort to reduce caffeine (and also to break the palate monotony), I've occasionally drank tea. If you're going to use loose leaf teas, an infuser will make much less of a mess. I first tried the Finum Mesh Brewing Basket, but discovered that it was far too fragile: holes would develop in the mesh and then well, you'll have leaves in your mouth when you drink.

The House Again Tea Ball infuser turned out to be a much better choice, with a chain to wrap around the handle of the mug and a studier pocket that neither leaks nor breaks. It also comes with a handy saucer so you can take it out and reuse the tea leaves or just not have too strong/bitter a brew.

It doesn't seem to infuse any unwelcome flavors, which is all I can ask for it (other than the durability)..

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review: Panaracer GravelKing tires

Now that the local parks are open to Mountain Bikes again, we've been resuming our almost weekly cadence of mountain bike trips. My wife's Cheviot was not quite a mountain bike, having come with 33mm nifty swifty tires which aren't actually particularly swift.

I looked for wider tires and bought some Panaracer Gravel King tires. The product managers idiotically created several sizes and types of tires but gave them all the same name, so you have to be careful when you order tires what to get.

I started with the Gravel King SK+ 1.90 tires. These have knobbies and barely clear the Cheviot frame and brakes, but made such an awful noise that my wife asked for them to be removed and replaced with the nifty swifty because she'd rather put up with poor traction on the mountain bike trail than listen to those tires.

Upon switching to the 1.75 version of those tires, all those complaints disappeared, the tires cleared the frame better, and the rolling resistance was also much better. Get these, and not the knobby versions for an all-round bike.

Review: Voler Shift Terrain Pro Short

My Pearl Izumi Elite Shorts are now starting to be ragged (after 4 years and several bike tours), and the Quest shorts are also gone. They tend to die in ways that slowly become more and more uncomfortable. Pearl Izumi, of course, has since renamed the "Elite" the Pro and their stuff is now well over the budget I typically allocate for clothing ($170/pair!!), so I was at a loss.

The scuttlebutt seems to be that the Performance Brand Ultra shorts are actually pretty good (and Eric House says they refused to die on him). Then another internet source compared them with the Voler, and I skipped over to the Voler web-site and discovered that their Shift Milano Elan Pro short at $50 was quite a bit less than the Performance branded ones.

Upon first wear, the shorts felt a bit stiff, but less than 3 miles of pedaling on the triplet and they melded into my body. Subsequent washes and wear see no degradation of performance. Obviously, touring is out of the question for the foreseeable future, and we'll see how long they last, but I'm happy enough with them that as my older shorts become unbearable (or my sons start poking holes through them), I'll replace them with these.

I was so impressed that I spent an extra $5 each when they gave me a memorial day coupon and got the Shift Terrain Pro Short. These are so amazing that I'm glad I bought 2! I'm no longer dreading the day my Pearl Izumi Elites finally bite the dust.

Highly Recommended.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Review: Tides

Tides is appropriately written by a sailor. The book taught me several things that I didn't know, even though I was taught how to sail in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a tide table consultation is required before leaving the slip --- with currents exceeding 10 knots through the golden gate, a sailboat will not make it in or out of the gate except during slack tide.

Things I didn't know:

  • A tide coming up or down a river is called a bore. The largest tidal bore in the world is in the Qiantang river in China. (The pictures are impressive)
  • I'd long assumed that tides are small in places like the Mediterranean was because of restricted flow through a funnel. This is false. The reason tidal variation is small in certain places (e.g., the Carribean) is because tides actually vary around various centers in the oceans, and the further away you are from the center, the higher the amplitude.
  • The earth itself (not just the ocean) is also affected by the same gravitational forces that creates the tides:  

If the moon can cause such a stir in the ocean, wouldn’t it also affect the solid earth? Do our bodies, made of 70 percent water, have a tide? Yes and no. The earth is as rigid as a steel ball, but it does distort under the gravitational influence of the sun and moon. High tide on the solid earth varies from half a foot to three feet and spreads over such a large distance—about ten thousand miles—that it’s not perceptible. For example, a high spring tide might raise the sidewalks and buildings of New York by a couple of inches. You could never detect this as you walk down Broadway, because everything rises and falls together over a six-hour period (unlike on the coast, where the ocean rises and falls relative to the beach). The tide’s daily squeezing and releasing of the earth has long been known to affect water wells too. A Wisconsin well, about eight hundred miles from the nearest ocean, has a two-inch tide. An inland well in France increases its flow from sixty to ninety gallons an hour during spring tides. (kindle loc 1883)
The book itself is written English-major journalism style. Sometimes I get very impatient with this style, because all sorts of "color" that might be interesting to an English major is uninteresting when I'm in a hurry to learn information. Similarly, I roll my eyes whenever he does something English-major like, for instance, visiting the British Library to examine Newton's manuscript for "Principia" and then writing things like: "The equations didn't mean anything to me." He does this several times in the book, which had me wondering why he was bothering to burn all those fossil fuels getting to those exotic destinations just to throw his hands up at a little bit of math.

All in all, the book was interesting in the concepts and for its visual imagery of some of the places he visited. It probably could have been 50 pages long if he'd just condensed all the technical information into concise, easy to understand form, but I guess that wouldn't get a publisher interested.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Review: Betrayal of Trust

I read Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague in the 1990s but in the intervening years the USA always managed to avoid a major epidemic, so I assumed that her warnings had done the right thing. Then COVID19 happened and I realized we were just lucky. Which meant that her other book about public health might be similarly prophetic, so I checked out Betrayal of Trust (electronically) from the local library.

The book goes to great pains to separate public health from medical provision. The former is about prevention, and the latter is about treatment. She chronicles several major disasters that could have been mitigated (or even prevented) by a solid public health system: a bubonic plague outbreak in India,  the Ebola epidemic in Zaire, the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases (notably TB) in the former Soviet Union and the shift away from public health in the USA due to the perception that the big causes of mortality (cardiac problems and cancer) are non-contagious and therefore public health did not have to play a role.

Early on, Garrett points out that the big gains in life expectancy in the West were achieved long before antibiotics and other miracles:
Vital statistics data from England, Wales, and Sweden show that in 1700 the average male in those countries lived just twenty-seven to thirty years. By 1971 male life expectancy reached seventy-five years. More than half that improvement occurred before 1900; even the bulk of the twentieth-century increases in life expectancy were due to conditions that existed prior to 1936. In all, 86 percent of the increased life expectancy was due to decreases in infectious diseases.15 And the bulk of the decline in infectious disease deaths occurred prior to the age of antibiotics. In the United Kingdom, for example, tuberculosis deaths dropped from nearly 4,000 per million people to 500 per million between 1838 and 1949, when antibiotic treatment was introduced. That’s an 87 percent decline. Between 1949 and 1969 the TB death rate fell only another forty million cases to 460 cases per million, or 9 percent. (kindle loc 281)
During the Ebola epidemic, she notes that the requests for materials are very similar to what we're seeing during the COVID19 outbreak:
“Send respirator masks, latex gloves, protective gowns, disinfectant, hospital linens and plastic mattress covers, plastic aprons, basic cleaning supplies and cleansers, water pumps and filters, galoshes, tents …” It was not the high-tech equipment popularized in science fiction movies that would halt Ebola’s spread, Kiersteins knew. What Kikwit needed were the basics: soap, gear, and safe water. (pg 67)
She charts the rise of public health in New York City, which pioneered the initial systems that reduced the incidence of epidemic disease in the city despite the opposition of many to vaccines. But because circumstances were so dire, the public health department was authorized to use force. The trust in the public health system reached a high during the Polio epidemic:
In the fall of 1953 more than eighty thousand six-to-eight-year-old New York City schoolchildren rolled up their sleeves for shots of either Salk’s vaccine or a placebo. In 1954 and ‘55 tens of thousands of children nationwide enlisted as Polio Pioneers to serve as willing guinea pigs for the vaccine.185 And though every aspect of the Salk vaccine effort was mired in politics, ethical debates, and production and distribution snafus, there were never shortages of schoolchildren lining up for polio shots. The fear of polio was far greater than any parental concerns about the experimental nature of the vaccine.(pg. 315)
We can see the decline of public health occurred decades ago, during the shift in the late 1960s and 1970s:
Instead of emphasizing collective health and disease prevention, the path now would lead to further medicalization and individualization. Sadly, the data would later show that America was thereby exiting the period of her greatest health improvement since the Biggs era. Between 1968, when LBJ’s programs were in full swing, and 1975, when budget cuts had whittled such programs to the bone, the overall U.S. annual death rate had dropped 14 percent.323 Every health indicator had shown remarkable improvement. Cardiovascular deaths: down by 23 percent. Infant mortality: dropped 38 percent. Maternal mortality: plummeted an astounding 71 percent. That was the legacy of an aggressive war on poverty and expansion of health services for the poor. It occurred in a period that was denounced by the AMA and American Hospital Association as “regulated,” a code word meaning “very bad” or even “socialistic” in the New Right circles of rising political superstar California governor Ronald Reagan. (pg. 349)
The question is whether the USA still has the capacity to rebuild a robust public health system even after the obvious need for it. Garrett points out in a final chapter that a strong public health system is quite possibly the best protection against bioterrorism or genetically engineered bioweapon attacks. Unfortunately, she doesn't provide much hope as to whether such a system is politically feasible: the book was published in 2011, and there's no sign that in the intervening years much has been done.

Nevertheless, for a great discussion of the issues and lots of stuff I didn't know before, this is a great book. Recommended.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Review: Usagi Yojimbo - Yokai

Usagi Yojimbo - Yokai was an amazon giveaway. I haven't ever read any of the series before. The story revolves around Miyamoto Usagi, a dual-sword wielding samurai who apparently wanders about doing good deeds. He encounters a woman who has lost her daughter and agrees to help.

All is not what it seems, however, and soon he's embroiled in a supernatural battle and meets an old friend. The art is pretty, fully painted, but nothing that strikes me as being awesome. The story is kinda meh, but Boen was happy enough to have me read it to him. Typically, giveaways are intended to get you to look for more books by the same author/artist to read, but this left me cold.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Crush Vol 1

Crush Vol 1 was an Amazon giveaway. Lots have been written about how werewolves are a metaphor for a woman's menstrual period, so it's inevitable that some comic will take the metaphor and make it literal in a story.

The story revolves around Elizabeth, who turns into Crush whenever she bleeds, which includes that time of the month. Crush, is an amoral monster, who only barely resembles Elizabeth, but somehow she and her friends are convinced that the monster would never do something like kill. There's an unresolved long-running plot involving some other monster that's similar to crush and seeks her out, but it's never really explained in this volume, and doesn't seem special enough for me to want to pursue it.

The art is nothing special. It's clear that the artist wants to evoke Matt Wagner's Mage, but neither the story nor the art can quite live up to that!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Review: Scary Godmother

Scary Godmother was a kindle giveaway, and somehow Boen asked me to read it to him over several nights. Each story is self-contained, but it helps to read everything in order since  characters carry over from one story to the next. The art is cute. The text is simple and easy for kids to understand, and the plotline mostly targeted for little kids.

There's no explanation for any of the "scary" characters in the book, and how they live or come about. Your kid's expected to know all the myths (i.e., what's a vampire, etc). It's fun entertainment but I can probably count any number of other books that are worth your time.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review: Plastics - A Toxic Love Story

Plastics is much less technical than I would have liked. It doesn't cover in great detail how plastics were invented, nor does it discuss, for instance, how the details of recycling plastics work. It does spend some time discussing the effects of plastics on your health, but again, without a lot of detail. What it does point out that I didn't know about, was the lack of regulation over chemicals and safety:
while twenty thousand chemicals have been introduced since 1976, the EPA has been able to require intensive reviews for only two hundred, and it has used its authority to restrict only five. The hurdles are so high, the agency could not even successfully ban asbestos, an undisputed carcinogen.

In Europe, the burden of proof is on safety rather than danger. European regulators “act on the principle of preventing harm before it happens, even in the face of scientific uncertainty.” Guided by that precautionary principle, Europeans began limiting DEHP and other phthalates while American regulators continued debating the risks. (The EU, for instance, barred the use of DEHP in children’s toys in 1999, nine years before the U.S. Congress passed similar legislation.) A new directive known as REACH (for Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), adopted in 2007, requires testing of both newly introduced chemicals and those already in use, with the burden on manufacturers to demonstrate that they can be used safely. The agency charged with implementing REACH targeted DEHP as one of the first fifteen “substances of very high concern” to be regulated. (Pg. 106-107)
By the time we get to the Pacific Garbage patches (there are actually several garbage patches, distributed all over the world's oceans), we start to get a surprisingly balanced view of things:
The lighter, like every other piece of plastic debris they hauled up in their nets, was coated with a fine slime of microbes, including bacteria and phytoplankton—organisms that are essential to the health of the ocean. To his surprise, Karl found that the plants attached to such plastic objects are copious producers of oxygen, churning out even more from their polymer platforms than is normally produced in open ocean. The finding suggests that, at some level, the multitude of plastic debris may be “improving the efficiency of the ocean to harvest and scavenge nutrients and produce food and oxygen,” (Pg. 134)
The author (and the scientist quoted above) stopped short of saying that plastics in the ocean is a good thing, but as with many things it's not immediately obvious that plastics are an unmitigated evil. For instance, in comparison to paper bags, plastics actually have a lower carbon footprint: they're lighter and therefore the cost of shipping is much lower, and paper itself has issues:
Life-cycle analyses—studies that analyze a product’s cradle-to-grave environmental impact—have consistently found that, compared to paper bags, plastic bags take significantly less energy and water to produce, require less energy to transport, and emit half as many greenhouse gases in their production. Author Tom Robbins called the paper bag “the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature,” but that’s true only if you ignore the tree-felling, chemical-pulping, intensive-bleaching, water-sucking industrial production that goes into making that natural, potato-skin feel of a brown paper bag. (Pg. 158)
The book also disabused me of the idea that landfills are about decomposition. They're not. They're truly about waste disposal, and the goal is for landfills not to decompose, as that would add to their carbon footprint. The author's passion clearly lies with the environmental activism movement, and it's clear from her coverage of it, where she points out how quickly lip service the plastics industry fades once the spotlight on them disappears, and why the structure of the industry is such that it's difficult to get consistent action from them without government regulation:
The only players with significant financial resources to invest in recycling are the resin producers, the major oil and chemical companies, he said. But their top priority is “to make and sell virgin plastics.” As long as oil and gas prices are reasonably stable, there’s no financial incentive for the Dows, DuPonts, and ExxonMobils to get into the recycling business. Nor do they want to alienate the beverage companies that buy their raw plastics to make bottles. Meanwhile, the companies that make plastic products—which might be expected to have an interest in using recycled materials—are too fragmented a constituency to put together an all-out campaign for more recycling, said Rappaport. “The guy making trash bags has nothing to do with the guy making bottles. He’s got nothing to do with the guy making toys. It’s so fractured that nobody can get enough critical mass and money together” to put into developing the recycling infrastructure. (pg. 192)
Her visit to China's recycling center was also enlightening. Once again, the recycling happens there easily because the workers are getting paid $200 a month, which explains why plastic recycling doesn't happen on the coasts of the US --- China can outbid any US-based recycling center, and shipping from the US to China is incredibly cheap because container ships would be going back to China empty otherwise.

I started out the book rather negative, but by the end of the book realized that I learned a lot more than I expected. Recommended.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Rejuvenating old phones

Boen clamored for a phone since his big brother had my old Moto X4, so I dug up Xiaoqin's old Moto X Pure, which had a battery that wouldn't last 30 minutes. I looked at the iFixit site and discovered that it had relatively little glue, which was probably all gone because the screen had already been replaced once, so orderer the ZURUN 3400mAh replacement on Amazon. The replacement was fairly easy, though like an idiot I had 3 screws left over after the procedure which would affect the longevity of the product.

Similarly, Xiaoqin dropped her Pixel 3aXL and broke the screen. That phone was less than a year old, so it was worth sending out the phone for repair despite Google asking for $150. During the COVID19 crisis my wife and I didn't even consider going into the walk-in shop, despite their "essential" status. That would have probably saved some money.

By far the easiest repair, however, was the the Moto Z Play Xiaoqin's mom was using (also a pass down). That one started having battery problems as well, and I dreaded having to open up the case. Then I realized that the Moto Z series of phones have a mod pack ability that we never used, and now was the time to use it. Ordering a Moto Z Battery mod from eBay, when the mod arrived I removed the phone from the protective case, slapped on the mod, and handed it back. Everyone was surprised by how quickly the repair was done, and I was surprised that it worked. Of course, compared to the $16 the Moto X Pure repair cost, the Moto Z Play mod cost $50, but not having any screws left over must count for something!

In normal times you could just go down to BestBuy and have their technicians replace a battery for $50. Though for waterproof phones there's a big question as to whether the phone would stay waterproof after the operation, usually by the time the phone requires that level of maintenance you're no longer as worried about damage, and the phone was fully depreciated anyway! The rest of society might believe in throwing away old stuff, but I firmly believe that it's better for the environment if we keep using what we have for as long as possible.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories

In this 80 page comic, Neil Gaiman re-unites with Mark Buckingham to provide adult-oriented stories. The framing story is a pub, with dark stories that perhaps no longer seem so dark in the light of the very real crisis brought about by a pub in Ischgl. I read through the book in one night, and the stories had a mildly haunting quality, but nothing that's particularly outstanding. It wasn't a waste of time, but I'm not going to put a "recommended" tag on it.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Despite not liking his novels and his latest collection of short stories, I'd already had The Paper Menagerie on hold (in ebook form) at the library, and ended up reading it without high expectations. I have no regrets. Not only are most of the stories in this collection of higher quality, the entire collection as a whole explained to me why I found his other work uncompelling.

Ken Liu's best form is that of a short story. In a short story, he's capable of creating a coherent plot, sketching out characters that come to life, and even evoking emotions that elude him in long form. "The Literomancer", "Good Hunting", "The Paper Menagerie", "The Regular", "The Paper Menagerie", "All The Waves" are all award-worthy reads that are put together so well that I was astounded: not only are the subject topics germain (Liu kindly puts together a set of references in this collection for each story, so you can follow along his research), the characters are excellent and the cultural references uniquely his. Liu not only puts references to Chinese myths and history in his stories, but is also happy to explicate and work on Japanese history as well. "The Literomancer" in particular is happy to explain the intricacies of Chinese characters in a way that (to me at least) is not only familiar, but insightful.

The volume's longer form novellas demonstrate why his more recent work hasn't been appealing: his last story, admittedly inspired by one of Ted Chiang's stories, is bloated,  and overstays its welcome, with next to no character development, and despite the extensive bibliography, doesn't offer any new insight.

Nevertheless, even if you've read many of the stories in this volume, to read it in context and to explore his extensive makes revisiting them in this book well worth your time. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Review: ANCOOL 5X Replacement Watchband for Fenix 5X

It was inevitable: while I'm nowhere near as hard on equipment as Bowen is, my Fenix 5X is still a daily wear device. 18 months after buying it and wearing it nearly continuously, I broke one of the eyelets on the wrist-band. And of course, it's the eyelet I use most often!

Garmin wants $50 for an OEM wrist-band, which is a bit rich. I've had mixed results from 3rd party vendors for things like cables, but I figured silicone is silicone, and it doesn't matter where it comes from. The ANCOOL band comes with a 12 month warranty, so I picked one up despite certain reviews claiming that it wasn't as comfortable as the OEM band.

Those reviews are wrong. The band is just as comfortable, and the easy-on-easy off nature of the band meant it was easy to swap back and forth. Recommended.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Review: The Making of a Manager

To a large extent, we are all products of our history and experiences. I spent my career at startups, so when I wrote Startup Engineering Management, I wrote a lot about the hiring process end to end. Julie Zhou, however, spent her entire career at Facebook, so for her, "working hard on recruiting" meant finding more time to interview.

The Making of a Manager is a good management book for people in precisely Julie Zhou's shoes: working at a hypergrowth environment after the growth has started, and with a ton of mentorship available and lots of money. The effect is that most of her advice revolves around the interpersonal sociology (what others would call politics):
if nothing my report said could convince me to change my mind, it’s insincere to act as if she had had a say. What if she responds, “Actually, I do have the time for it”? Or if she brings up a slew of other reasons why she’s the best candidate? I’d only be scrambling to give her another excuse, which would make her feel unheard. (Kindle loc 1333)
And her book also perfectly illustrates how low the expectations we have in industry for management positions:
at the point in which your team becomes four or five people, you should have a plan for how to scale back your individual contributor responsibilities so that you can be the best manager for your people. (Kindle loc 596)
Our standards for management are so low that we think that the management span of attention is at most 4-5. Compared to the great managers I know, who've successfully managed as many as a hundred people without intermediaries, most companies' approach to management guarantees that Zhou's perception is correct: if you do not give sufficient management training and set low expectations, that's precisely what you get.

Another interesting thing about Zhou's book is that Facebook was famously good about promoting from inside. So she assumes that's how everyone else operates and doesn't consider that other possibilities exist.

I don't want to put down this book. It's worth reading for the many practicalities of operating inside Facebook. It's incomplete, as opposed to a deeper understanding of how organizations should be constructed and operated, and doesn't provide those organizational principles. But if you're a Facebook employee newly promoted into management (and want to do the minimum so you can manage your 4-5 people) I bet this is an essential book and thereby is recommended.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Review: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories is Ken Liu's giant collection of short stories. The stories run the gamut, from the title story (a fantasy set in the tradition of the Chinese martial arts stories), to a series of related short stories about a post-singularity, uploaded human digital world. Many stories explore contemporary technology trends though given the current state of the world, we're seeing how over-optimistic some of those projections are.

Liu cannot compared with his contemporary Ted Chiang --- some of stories (e.g., the ones about crypto currency) clearly do not age well and were probably written in a hurry. One of the stories in the book is actually an excerpt from one of his novels, which I thought was cheating, but obviously intended to sell his novel series, which was sort of lackluster.

But by and large, the stories were decent and made for a good break. Mildly recommended.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: The Spindle and the Sleeper

The Spindle and the Sleeper is another one of Neil Gaiman's young-adult/kids books in tandem with a talented illustrator. This is a mash-up of two well known fairy tales (the spoilers are in the title!) though unfortunately it only features 3 dwarves rather than seven.

The language isn't as lyrical as in say, Instructions or The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and the illustrations aren't nearly as beautiful as those in say, Stardust, which also had a better story. The best I could say of the book is that it's rather short (64 pages, and designed for fast reading especially since the many illustrations take up the full page).

Is this the first Neil Gaiman book where I couldn't put a recommended tag on it? yes it is. Good thing I paid $1 for it, but I really should have checked it out of the library, except that the library's closed because of COVID19.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Tactical Canvas Webbing Belt

I somehow managed to replace my all time favorite Eagle Creek money belt.  In between my previous purchase and this time,l I discovered that the price went up to a stunning $17! Too rich for me. I searched for a regular plastic/nylon belt on Amazon, and found a generic, made-in-China, tactical canvas belt.

The tactical part probably means it's black and if you taped it with electrical tape it might become quiet. For me, I just wanted to make sure that it worked. I cut it to the correct size, and then used a lighter to seal off the ends so they don't fray. At $5 a belt you're willing to do that. It works, and I won't make a fuss about it.

Recommended at the price.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Review: Aickar 1200A Car Jump Starter

Some devices are bought mostly as insurance, hoping you'll never need them. The Aickar 1200A is one of them. I already owned the Powerstation PX-3 Jumpstarter/Air Compressor, but it's a bit big to keep in the car all the time, so I bought the Aickar when it was on sale for $45 or so.

A couple of days ago, someone who shall not be named left the car lights on all night, and in the morning the battery was dead. I immediately took out the PX-3 Jumpstarter, but the 6-year old battery  wasn't sufficient to turn the motor. I feared for the worst, but the Aickar, despite having not been charged for at least 6 months, got the car started right away!

I'll still keep the PX-3 Jumpstarter because the tire inflator is too useful, and I'd recommend the Aickar 1200A too, but looking at the Amazon page it looks like it's been discontinued. That's the nature of these devices. I'd look for another similar device by a reputable company on sale and jump (sic) on it.


Thursday, April 09, 2020

Long Term Review: Woom 5 Off

My relationship with the Woom 5 off got off to a rocky start, with major problems that were the manufacturer's fault (wrong pedals), difficult to swap wheels, and a front wheel that never got on correct (due to my inexperience). I've also never had a good experience with hydraulic brakes --- the ones on my Airborne Seeker for instance, would never stop squeaking or making noise, even fresh from a bike shop after a tuneup.

But after a rainy winter Bowen picked up mountain biking again, and he's significantly become more confident and sure-footed on the Woom 5. Steepish descents no longer bother him, and he's attempting flourishes on his bike that he never did before. The brakes aren't squealing at all, and even the rear wheel is beginning to be easier to swap. When I tried working on his old Woom 4 (which his brother is riding), I was immediately amazed by how much worse the brakes were and how much harder they were to work on.

I guess hydraulic disc brakes do have a good use case --- on kids bikes, where nobody sells bikes with caliper brakes, and where the kids weigh so little there's zero chance of them warping the discs and creating noise. There's a $180 premium between the Woom 5 and the Woom 5 off, but it's worth it not to have to deal with V-brakes.


Monday, April 06, 2020

Review: Remington Virtually Indestructible Grooming Kit

I shouldn't have been surprised that one of the items hard to find during the "shelter-at-home" orders turned out to be hair clippers. Amazon was all out of them, with delivery slated for the end of April. Fortunately, I found the Remington Virtually Indestructible Grooming Kit on Walmart, with a week delivery lag, and as of this writing you can still get them.

I got them and then realized that I didn't actually how to do a haircut or even mount the combs onto the clippers. I watched a youtube video, and proceeded to do my kids.
They didn't seem traumatized, and then I did myself (with Xiaoqin helping trim the parts I couldn't see, because I was too dumb to install a mirror outside). It's surprisingly easy to use, and at $25, one use would pay for itself. I might never want to pay for a haircut again!

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Review: 6 Impossible Things

I picked up Six Impossible Things from the library since I was running out of audio books. This is one of the rare physics books you can read as an audio book, since most of time there's no oway it would work: equations and Feynman diagrams just won't work in audio format.

Rather than covering all the details about Quantum mechanics, the book explores 6 different interpretations of the fundamental equations: the Cophenhagen interpretation, the pilot wave/de Broglie wave interpreattion, the Many Worlds interpretation, quantum decoherence, the transactional interpretation. He concludes that they all yield the same results, so you can just choose which one you'd like to use.

It's short, mostly enjoyable, but unfortunately all too easily to forget. Still, it covered certain interpretations I'd never heard of before! Recommended.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Review: Word on the Street

I checked out Word on the Street and the first few chapters rehashed material that were already covered in his previous books, about language change, though in greater detail, especially the part about Shakespeare's language vs modern English. It's very clear that McWhorter is passionate about that topic and it's great.

Then the second half of the book covered Black English in far greater detail than I'd seen in any of his other books. A key point that he makes is that Black English doesn't have African roots, but instead came from the language of the indentured servants and other poor white immigrants from parts of the UK: Irish, Scottish, etc. It's a very compelling argument and very well done.

At the end of the book I realized that it was written during the Ebonics debate. Apparently, during that era, McWhorter was the  only Black linguistics expert willing to come right out and say that you shouldn't teach Black English in schools. His reasoning is that in every country such as Germany, Switzerland and Finland, kids come into the schoolroom speaking a local dialect that's as far apart from say, High German, as Black English vs Standard English. The school room, however, provides the immersion and standard English or High German training that's needed to succeed in society. Therefore, anything that reduces immersion time in standard English is necessarily a loss for the kids coming into the school room. He proposes instead, that the teachers are given training in Black English so that they understand that kids in lower grades who speak Black English are not speaking in a degraded form of English, but rather in an English dialect. Again, a very strong argument.

In any case, I wish I'd had this book around to read back when the Ebonics debate was going on, but better late than never. Recommended.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Review: RockBros MTB pedals

I've been teaching my kids to mountain bike, and unfortunately that involves a lot more hiking and pushing than riding.
On any given ride with the kids, my walk to ride ratio might be as high as 3:1 (push 1st kid up, walk back, push 2nd kid up, walk back, now pick up my bike and ride). SPD shoes aren't really any good for that much walking, so I decided to switch to the Rock Bros platform pedals for riding with the kids.

With a dab of grease, the pedals went in as easily as any other pedals I've ever used, which is good --- cheap they might be but at least the threads are precision cut. The riding on them are much worse than SPD shoes with SPD pedals, but much better than running shoes on SPDs, though not by as much as I'd hoped. The pedals come with gripper screws on them to provide some grip, but in reality, for someone used to spinning, these pedals are worthless for anything other than mashing down on. And when it comes to bunny hop, I can hop even less on these than I can on SPDs, which says a lot!

They're fine for what I'm doing, but I'm afraid that anything technical and I'm going to wish I had SPDs. Grant swears up and down that they don't affect efficiency, but I beg to differ. I certainly wouldn't want these for road riding.

But they're brightly colored and very visible. Can't complain, especially for the price. If you're looking for platform pedals, get these.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Review: Yowamushi Pedal Vols 8-12

There's a saying that all bike racers take the same amount of time to tell the same story, whether their race is a 3 week stage race or a 3 minute pursuit on the track. Given that Wataru Watanabe is taking in excess of 8 volumes to tell the story of a 3 day stage race, I'd say he should have taken on a 21 day race instead, as there's an excessive amount of padding in volumes 8-12 of Yowamushi Pedal.

Some of it is the nature of anthology comic books: each week these weekly anthologies devote only a small number of pages to each story (as little as 10-15 pages). As a result, the artist spends a couple of pages providing a synopsis of the story to remind the reader who just started reading or who might have missed a couple of issues.

Even so, by the end of volume 12 we still haven't gotten to the end of the stage race. As with the previous volumes, there's very little racing strategy. The protagonists and antagonists frequently ride side by side like idiots. Sure, these are teen bicycle racers but all it takes is one smart team to take advantage by drafting another team and the game ought to be over.

The best part of these books is that every so often the author/artist would take 4 pages out to describe a mountain bike race, or the various courses in Japan that the cyclists in the comics ride up, or even the bike parks that can be found in Japan. That makes the volumes not a total waste of time but is hardly sufficient to redeem the comics in the eyes of this cycling enthusiast.

Not recommended.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Covid19 Cycling

We have a "shelter in place" order here in the Bay Area, which means that you should stay at home and only depart your home for essential trips such as groceries, medicine, with one explicit carve out for exercise, whether it's cycling, hiking, or running. (I'm sure skateboarding, rollerblading, and scootering for fun are OK as well) All gyms are closed, as well as swimming pools.

Taking my kids out on the triplet, I've seen a lot of people who have obviously only been cycling in the gym: they might have shiny new bikes, but they're weaving all over the road, and many have no experience in hilly terrain (which is the best riding in the Bay Area). This is the worst possible time to have a cycling crash, as the ERs are overloaded and visiting the hospital might expose you to the disease.

I can't do much about COVID19 as an individual, but since Independent Cycle Touring contains a lot of instructions for someone who has to fix their own bike and discusses how to avoid crashes, and I'm guessing no one's about to plan a tour right now anyway, I can give it away just in case it helps someone.

You can get your free copy by clicking on this link and using COVID19 as a coupon code to checkout. The code will expire April 5th.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Review: How will you measure your life?

I picked up How Will You Measure Your Life expecting the usual business school professor memoir of self-congratulation and lots of business anecdotes. I was surprised to discover that it was a parenting book! Yes, there are business anecdotes and semi-case studies, but the majority of the book is about prioritization, namely how not to neglect the long term important stuff even though it's the short term stuff that provides positive feedback and reinforcement. For instance, I've definitely got friends who fit into this description:
For those of my classmates who inadvertently invested in lives of hollow unhappiness, I can’t help but believe that their troubles stemmed from incorrectly allocating resources. To a person, they were well-intended; they wanted to provide for their families and offer their children the best possible opportunities in life. But they somehow spent their resources on paths and byways that dead-ended in places that they had not imagined. They prioritized things that gave them immediate returns—such as a promotion, a raise, or a bonus—rather than the things that require long-term work, the things that you won’t see a return on for decades, like raising good children. And when those immediate returns were delivered, they used them to finance a high-flying lifestyle for themselves and their families: better cars, better houses, and better vacations. The problem is, lifestyle demands can quickly lock in place the personal resource allocation process. “I can’t devote less time to my job because I won’t get that promotion—and I need that promotion …” (Kindle Loc 880)
 And of course, I'm always surprised by the number of people who like to outsource important parenting functions:
One of the most common versions of this mistake that high-potential young professionals make is believing that investments in life can be sequenced. The logic is, for example, “I can invest in my career during the early years when our children are small and parenting isn’t as critical. When our children are a bit older and begin to be interested in things that adults are interested in, then I can lift my foot off my career accelerator. That’s when I’ll focus on my family.” Guess what. By that time the game is already over. An investment in a child needs to have been made long before then, to provide him with the tools he needs to survive life’s challenges—even earlier than you might realize. (Kindle loc 1101)
 There's wonderful insight even into why what we do never seem to satisfy our spouses:
We project what we want and assume that it’s also what our spouse wants. Scott probably wished he had helping hands to get through his tough day at work, so that’s what he offered Barbara when he got home. It’s so easy to mean well but get it wrong. A husband may be convinced that he is the selfless one, and also convinced that his wife is being self-centered because she doesn’t even notice everything he is giving her—and vice versa. This is exactly the interaction between the customers and the marketers of so many companies, too. Yes, we can do all kinds of things for our spouse, but if we are not focused on the jobs she most needs doing, we will reap frustration and confusion in our search for happiness in that relationship. (Kindle loc 1364)
 Much of the book's notes go from child development to self-esteem development, and discusses how certain business case studies (such as Dell outsourcing production of components and eventually the whole machine to Asus until Dell could no longer compete) apply to the raising of children.
in outsourcing much of the work that formerly filled our homes, we have created a void in our children’s lives that often gets filled with activities in which we are not involved. And as a result, when our children are ready to learn, it is often people whom we do not know or respect who are going to be there...if your children gain their priorities and values from other people … whose children are they? Yes, they are still your children—but you see what I’m getting at. The risk is not that every moment spent with another adult will be indelibly transferring inferior values. Nor is this about making the argument that you need to protect your children from the “big bad world”—that you must spend every waking moment with them. You shouldn’t. Balance is important, and there are valuable lessons your children will gain from facing the challenges that life will throw at them on their own. Rather, the point is that even if you’re doing it with the best of intentions, if you find yourself heading down a path of outsourcing more and more of your role as a parent, you will lose more and more of the precious opportunities to help your kids develop their values—which may be the most important capability of all. (Kindle Loc 1646-1654)
 The book encourages you to let your children fail and suffer the consequences early, rather than setting them up to become fragile successful kids by overcompensating for them:
The braver decision for parents may be to give that child a more difficult, but also more valuable, course in life. Allow the child to see the consequences of neglecting an important assignment. Either he will have to stay up late on his own to pull it off, or he will see what happens when he fails to complete it. And yes, that child might get a bad grade. That might be even more painful for the parent to witness than the child. But that child will likely not feel good about what he allowed to happen, which is the first lesson in the course on taking responsibility for yourself...Our default instincts are so often just to support our children in a difficult moment. But if our children don’t face difficult challenges, and sometimes fail along the way, they will not build the resilience they will need throughout their lives. People who hit their first significant career roadblock after years of nonstop achievement often fall apart. (Kindle loc 1855)
There's even a great section about hiring executives, describing a common mistake among startups, which is to hire managers who've successfully run big company organizations with lots of support, rather than hiring managers who've built organizations handson from a small base, even if the resulting organization wasn't as large as the more conventional manager.

I enjoyed the book, highlighting section after section, and thinking about the strong parenting advice in this book. Recommended.