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Monday, October 26, 2020

Review: The Paper Magician

 The Paper Magician is available to read for free if you're a Prime member, I checked it out, and to my surprised found myself enjoying it so much I finished it in a couple of nights. For whatever reason, the book reminds me a lot of a Hayao Miyazaki movie: the protagonist is a Ceony Twill, a girl who just graduated from a school of magic, and rather than becoming a smelter as she hoped, she was assigned to work with paper.

Her mentor is a mysterious wizard, who assigns her inscrutable training tasks but has a dark past that is only alluded to. But that dark past quickly catches up with him in a couple of months, and barely trained, Ceony is caught up in trying to rescue her mentor. The plot is predictable, she overcomes her obstacles, and accomplishes her goals through pluck but not wit.

The world building is great, and the magic system is entertaining. The writing style is easily readable, and clearly aimed at a young adult audience, but suitable for anyone looking for an escape from this election madness. Recommended.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Review: Spellbreaker

 Spellbreaker is set in preindustrial London, in a mythic world where magic exists and is used by everybody, with prices set by markets. The story revolves around Elsie Camden, an orphan who learns early on that she's a spellbreaker, one who can destroy pre-existing spells. She's recruited into a secret society that sends her missions to accomplish, and is caught on one of those missions, leading to a series of events that destroys her preconceptions of what she's been doing.

The writing is transparent and easy to read, and the plot, while simple and full of holes (e.g., we are led to believe that smart as Elsie is, when she's caught and realizes that the people who caught her weren't evil, doesn't immediately start questioning all the other missions she's being sent on), is entertaining enough. I needed a light read after all the previous heavy reads, and this was the right book at the right time (and if you're an Amazon Prime subscribe, it was a free selection). I'll hunt down more of Charlie Holmberg's other novels. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Review: Physics of the Impossible

 I checked out Physics of the Impossible from the library, not noticing that it was incredibly dated. The book was written 12 years ago, but so much of experimental physics has changed that some of the book is now obsolete, such as the mention of the search for the Higgs Boson, and the attempts to confirm or deny string theory.

Nevertheless, the book takes on many topics that are fun from a science fiction fan point of view, such as teleportation (e.g., the Star Trek transporter), which are surprisingly potentially feasible, since quantum teleportation is a thing. There's a section on time travel, and force fields are also surprisingly in the feasible category.

Michio Kaku classifies these impossibilities as type 1 (we know the theory and can see a path to implementation), type 2 (we know the theory but the implementation is beyond us), and type 3 (our understanding of physics would have to change for this to work), and surprisingly only 2 categories (pre-cognition and perpetual motion machines) were classified as type 3.

Of course, that we know how to do something doesn't mean that it'd be easy or uncumbersome. Nevertheless, the book is a great read and gets in some physics for the layman as well. I could see giving this (though hopefully an updated version of the book) to a smart 10 year old who'd totally geek out on it. Recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Review: Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos

 Complexity purports to be a book about the science and math of emergence. In reality, it actually is an account of the history and founding of the Santa Fe Institute, which is not a bad thing. As with many topics in science that cross disciplinary lines, it's unusual for research in that area to be pursued without independent funding.

The book covers not just the mathematical and simulation-oriented approach that led to the understanding of complex adaptive systems, but also the politics behind it, and why the Santa Fe Institute came to be in Santa Fe, as opposed to one of the major universities that everybody knows about. In particular, the proximity to Los Alamos was important and key to attracting physicists.

This turned out to be important, because the first area of research that the Santa Fe took up was complexity in Economics. The description of how physicists reacted to the Economists' presentation was classic and well worth reading:

the physicists were nonetheless disconcerted at how seldom the economists seemed to pay attention to the empirical data that did exist. Again and again, for example, someone would ask a question like “What about noneconomic influences such as political motives in OPEC oil pricing, and mass psychology in the stock market? Have you consulted sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists, or social scientists in general?” And the economists—when they weren’t curling their lips at the thought of these lesser social sciences, which they considered horribly mushy—would come back with answers like Such noneconomic forces really aren’t important”; “They are important, but they are too hard to treat”; “They aren’t always too hard to treat, and in fact, we’re doing so in specific cases”; and “We don’t need to treat them because they’re automatically satisfied through economic effects.” And then there was this business of “rational expectations.” Arthur remembers someone asking him during his talk that first day, Isn’t economics a good deal simpler than physics?” (Kindle Loc 2855)

There's lots of stories, including one about a major researcher in the field who drove and organized workshops but didn't pay attention to getting his PhD, which culminated into a crisis.

The boring parts of the book involve the politics and fund-raising. Not to say that it's not enlightening, but the lobbying over who gets to be president of the institute (and who shouldn't be --- a well known Nobel prize winner wanted the position) isn't really relevant to the science of complexity.

Nevertheless, the boring parts are easy to skip and the interesting parts are well worth reading. Recommended. (This book is available to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime customer) 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Review: Blood and Truth (PSVR)

 I got the PSVR several years ago, but until recently never got around to actually finishing a game on it. Part of it is that the medium doesn't work well for long games, and AstroBots rescue mission was just too long and hard --- we never got past the 3rd boss. When Sony had a sale on Blood and Truth over labor day week, however, I realized that The Heist by London Studios was one of the better demos on the PSVR Worlds disc. After finding out that the play time was only 5 hours I went for it.

The game puts you in the perspective of Ryan Marks, a former special forces soldier, engaged in a one man battle with a rival family that tries to take over his family's business after his father dies. The story and tropes are well worn and one-note: this is a game that relies heavily on cliches and the technology to keep you engaged.

The technology does keep you engaged: the game is immersive in ways that no other normal shooter is: the feeling of presence in cutscenes and in the on-rails shooting sections are nothing short of amazing. The ability to turn your head and point your guns at what you intend is amazing. That's not to say that the technology is perfect: I had to restart the game several times whenever the PSVR control calibration drifted, resulting in your hands pointing the wrong way. One particularly frustrating situation was that the act of sheathing your automatic weapons over your shoulders was so clumsy that I could never sheathe my weapons without firing off a few shots, one time killing myself with a rocket launcher. It is a testament to the immersion of the medium and the effectiveness of the game play that I put up with all the clumsiness in order to play.

The reload mechanism, snapping off a magazine from your bandolier and then slipping a clip into your other hand feels intuitive and perfect, as do the "bullet time" sequences that you get to trigger with a cool down. The sections where you pick locks, cut wires, or do other simple puzzles are also excellent examples of integrating haptic feedback, immersion, and interaction design together to make everything feel natural. Kudos to Sony for pulling off a AAA-style game in VR, crude resolution and all, and making it playable. If they can fix the drifting issue, the PSVR will be an engaging medium for many.


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Review: Garmin Varia UT800 Urban Edition

 My light selection from 2017 is no longer in stock on Amazon, just as the battery (which is soldered to the motherboard on the device) is giving out, and of course during the COVID19 bike boom, ensuring that pricing on bike accessories is sky high.

However, I noticed that the Garmin Varia UT800 is now down to $99 as a standard price, and it claimed compatibility with my Fenix 5X, so I ordered one. As with all lights, the most important piece is the mount, which is a strangely heavy outfront mount intended to fit on your handlebars. It worked just fine on my custom fork mount position, though the 135g light would tend to tilt down to touch the fork at the right place. Not a problem, since my Ti fork doesn't have any paint to scratch anyway.

The documentation mentioned the light had a "smart light" feature that would adjust light intensity based on your speed if you had an Edge cycling computer. Since I was using a Fenix, I tempered my expectation, and operating the light in manual mode would have worked just fine. To my surprise, the Fenix 5X does adjust the light intensity based on your speed. The cutoffs seem to be 15mph (maximum brightness), 10mph (medium brightness), and less, which would use the 200 lumen setting. At 200 lumen, it was pretty much the same as my Blitzu Gator. At 400 lumen, it was fine for flat riding, and at max brightness it was suitable for a fast descent but I wouldn't push my limits at night anyway.

What's the ideal application for this? I've had several occasions to use it on a Montebello Sunrise climb, where the approach would use the high to medium intensity, and then the climb would switch to low intensity. After the sunrise, I'd manually switch it to flashing mode, and the light would last a good 3-5 hours. It's not useful for say, riding in Houston at night, where your speed would keep it at high intensity the whole time (except for the occasional stops at the stop signs or traffic lights), or commuting, where you might want high beam on all the time to remind motorists that you're there. Ironically, for my (no longer actively run) Moonlight Mt Hamilton ride, the auto feature wouldn't be useful, since the whole point is to turn off the light while climbing so you can appreciate the moonlit landscape, and the retrogrades would demand that you turn on the light manually. Obviously you have to have bought into the Garmin ecosystem for any of this to make sense, though at the new $99 price point, it's very competitive with say, Light & Motion's lineup, but obviously not competitive against any of the Chinese brands, though I certainly wouldn't trust their claims of 800 lumens, while Garmin at the very least is reasonably competent (or at least not crooked) about labeling their light intensity.

I bought it without a return policy, that's how much I tend to trust Garmin. And I even paid full price since I needed the light for the pre-dawn rides that I'm doing. It's a rare thing for me to pay full retail, so you can take that as an endorsement from me.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Review: Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove

 For many years, I've been using the cheapest stove I could find on Amazon. The $12 specials are nothing special, but they're light and do the job. What I noticed, however, is that they're insanely bad at fuel consumption. Our overnight trip in Hetch-Hetchy(4 mountain house meals, 3 packets of oatmeal, and some apple cider and coffee) took a single canister from 210g to 130g. For a 2 night trip like I was anticipating, I'd have to carry 2 canisters. That got me to look into a more efficient system.

The JetBoil has a good reputation, despite it's expense, but the integrated mug/cozy promised a much reduced fuel consumption rate. Arturo told me that it would be 5g of fuel per boil, instead of what I was getting. It would also most likely not leak very much when attaching or detaching from the fuel canister, which would provide more weight savings.

At sea level, the Jetboil does indeed do a boil at 100s or less. What most reviewers won't tell you is that the max fill line is actually 2 cups (473ml), which is just right for a single packet of mountain house freeze dried food, so for a family of 4, you're actually going to activate the stove once per person. At 10000', it would actually take almost 3 minutes per boil, and the boil indicator (the sides of the cozy change colors and rise as it approaches boiling) is also excellent for saving fuel: when you're using filtered water, you don't need a full boil for apple cider, hot chocolate, or coffee. We also saved more fuel by realizing that our Costco packets were smaller than the Mountain Houses I used to buy, so we didn't fill to the 2 cup limit after our first couple of meals turned out soggy.

The fuel canister stabilizer/stand is a mess. I used it a couple of times and after that decided not to bother with it any more. It was a bear to get the canister to fit in it. Everything (canister, burner) fits into the cozy, while there's a cap to protect the heat exchanger at the bottom) The piezo lighter was much more reliable than my $12 special, but the cap for the heat exchanger also has room for a box of matches as a backup (which I would always have anyway!).

Because our trip was aborted, we didn't do as much cooking as I thought we would need to, so over conserved. Over our 2 days, we did 7 mountain house meals (lunch - 2, dinner - 4, breakfast - 1), 3 packets of oatmeal + coffee (2 cups), 2 rounds of apple cider (2 cups each). When I returned home and weighed the canister it came up to 164g (and started at 215g). That's an impressively efficient fuel consumption by any standards, and way better than my cheapo stove. The weight of the entire setup is 388g (rather than the claimed 371), but if I were you I'd ditch the lousy stabilizer/stand and save 24g. That's significantly lighter than my cheap amazon stove (112g) and Snowpeak Ti pot (279g) special, not counting the fuel savings.


Thursday, October 01, 2020

20 Lakes Basin/Hummingbird Lake Trip

 The labor day forecast was for 100 degree+ weather in the Bay Area and bad air quality. Arturo had suggested Leavitt Meadows, but a look at the forecast indicated that it would still be over 90F at 8000'. The 20 Lakes Basin was at 10000' and would have a reasonable temperature of 78 degrees, and even better, had no wilderness permit quota, so I made a reservation, called the ranger, passed the quiz, printed out the permits, and on Friday afternoon drove the whole family out to Mono lake where we stayed at a motel with trepidation.

On Saturday, we drove up 120 (having failed to get the Yosemite entrance permit we had to approach from the East), drove off the Saddlebag Lake turn off, and onto the dirt road. Once there, we parked at the edge of the pavement, packed up our backpacks and walked in.

A key feature making this trip possible was that Saddlebag Lake had a water taxi that could take your family (and packs --- yes they charge per pack as well) round trip for about $60. That saves 2 miles of hiking at 10000', a huge savings because everyone else complained about it being hard to breathe, despite having already spent the night before at 6000'.

With 2 days of food, we made it up to Hummingbird Lake, and were elated when 2 hikers coming the other way told us that they'd camped out there the night before and there was no one there. We used their established site and had lunch. It was warm, so warm that both kids put on their wet suits and played in the water and I braved a swim. Unfortunately, while setting up the Stephenson Warmlite, I heard a "crack" sound, and discovered that one of the poles had slit into the other and mushroomed. I managed to get the tent up anyway, but it was clear that I wouldn't be taking down the tent and setting it up again on this trip elsewhere. Once it was down it would be impossible to put it up again without doing serious damage to the tent --- it wasn't even clear that I could take it down without doing further damage.

The altitude made them lethargic, and it was all I can do at 2:00pm to persuade them to walk over to the next lake over, Z Lake. There was a huge amount of whining and stopping to rest the entire way, which was not even a mile long for a hike.

Not 5 minutes after we arrived at the lake, a plume of smoke (that we now know to be from the Shaver Lake fire) came in and we started to smell bad stuff in the air. The plume of smoke was obvious and it had to be a new fire.
The hike back from Z lake to Hummingbird Lake was easy, being downhill the whole way, so I heard zero complaints. We had an early dinner and turned in, as the temperature dropped with the sun's obscuration.

My plan to do the 20 Lakes Basin loop was shattered the next morning when everyone from Xiaoqin to the normally intrepid Bowen asked to go home. We'd woken up to ashes on the tent, though it was clear from the views of the moon and the stars that the smoke was actually mostly gone. I thought it would be been fine to stay but I was over-ruled.

Reluctantly, I packed up all the equipment, took a few final pictures, including one of a Coyote that met us just as we were departing Hummingbird lake. After we hiked back to the water taxi dock.I took one final hike to see Greenstone Lake while the others sat down and waited.

The water taxi arrived and picked us up and 2 other backpackers who were abandoning their trip for the same reason. Our trip was over. What a bust!