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Thursday, July 22, 2021

Review: Nemo Tensor Sleeping Pad

 I sleep warm, so much so that I use a 30 year old North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag and think it's perfectly fine, despite it having lots a lot of warmth. But my wife sleeps cold, and never was comfortable on our camping trips, so when REI had a sale on the Nemo Tensor I bought one in the hopes that the R3.5 insulation (as opposed to the R1.3 on the Kylmit Static V2). When my wife couldn't go because of food poisoning, I stole the pad and used it.

The device comes with a pump sack. You attach it to the valve, and then blow into it gently and then roll it to inflate the pad. It took about 5-6 times to do so, and when you exceed the pressure the pump sack blows off the valve, preventing you from over-inflating the bag. It's nice and soft --- maybe too soft --- I got a back ache the next morning. But it's definitely warmer than the Klymit V2. There's a secondary valve that gets the pad deflated completely and to my surprise I got everything into the stuff sack without too much trouble. It's nice and light, and packs nicely, so no complaints otherwise.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Review: Camelbak Mag Chute Waterbottles

 There's an REI sale right now on the Camelbak Chute Mag Water Bottle. At the price they're being offered, it was worth getting the 12oz ones for the kids and a 32oz once for myself. These claim to keep water cold for about 24 hours, and after one use, I can't say that I can contradict the claims.

The innovative thing about these bottles is the double-cap. The lid is a wide cap, very similar in size to those found on the Nalgene bottles. These make the vessel itself easy to clean, and there's a second cap that unscrews and is captured by a clip (the "mag chute") for drinking. This second cap I discovered to my surprise, is not self-sealing. You have to screw it on tightly for it to not leak, something I discovered to my chagrin on a recent hike.

The carry handle is nice, though I wonder how practical it would be on a long hike. But I do notice people going on hikes just carrying these by the handles. For me, the handle is just a good way to clip it to my Matador Beast. I filled one with about 6 cubes of nice, poured 2 cans of soda in it, and the kids liked it so much that my bottle was empty by the middle of the hike. Because of the wide mouth, I could easily clean it after the hike. Note that the labels on these are contradictory: one of them said only the lid was dishwasher compatible, while the other said both vessel and lid are compatible. I just hand wash everything because it's so easy.

I would hesitate to use these on bicycles. By all accounts the 20oz bottles would fit on a bike, but unlike other cycling bottles, you probably couldn't use it while riding. There are many people who would stop to drink from a bottle, but I don't. (I don't even stop to eat most of the time)

At full price, there's no way I would pay for these. But at the current REI sale price ($5.73 for 12oz, $8.73 for 20oz), these are great. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Review: Garmin InReach Mini

 I will admit that in all the times I've been backcountry camping, I've never actually needed an SOS device. That's a good thing --- there's actually a limited amount of help an SOS device can have --- for instance, a bear attack is going to happen too quickly for any amount of rescue to get to you. If you fall off a cliff or drown in a river, all a search and rescue service can do for you is to fish your dead body out of the water. And besides, Arturo carries one anyway, so I can mooch off him if I ever decide I need one. And for bicycle touring in Europe, your cell phone always works, so you don't care.

It turns out that the Garmin Inreach Mini will let you text message someone as long as you have a view of the sky. It also integrates with your phone and Garmin Fenix 5X, so if you're a Garmin user you're not even going to look at anything else, even though there are cheaper units out there. This past year, we've been doing quite a bit of mountain biking, and even some backpacking, and reading Garmin's 6000th inReach rescue made me realize that even people driving sometimes use it. With the memorial day sale at $300 each, the inReach Mini (which is the only one I really wanted because of its light weight), I decided the extra 3.5oz of weight on a backpacking trip is worth it.

The device arrived completely discharged, but after about 10 minutes of charging it responded, and powered on. Arturo helped me sync it with my phone, and then the computer to get the latest firmware and sign up for the plan, which was much more complicated than I expected it to be, but tolerable. I never figured out how to set presets, but a few test text messages worked.

This past camping trip, my wife got food poisoning at the last minute, so she had to stay an extra night at the hotel while I took both kids backpacking. The device worked in Yosemite backcountry, allowing me to text her at night when camping, and for her to ask questions (which I did not answer, since any overage would cost $0.50 per text). The one place it failed was when we got to the parking lot, I texted her that we were coming, and then put the backpack in the car. After we were all packed and driving out of the park, only then did the device complain that it couldn't send the text, because even inside an open car trunk wasn't sufficient for it to get signal. This is truly an outdoor only device.

The plan is expensive, but like all insurance, you carry it hoping never to need it. And if you're going to be in a national park with friends but not necessarily hiking together, it's useful for coordinating dinners or places to meet up, so this summer we might even pay up for the more expensive plan. Recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Review: Beginners

 Beginners's subtitle makes zero reference to the most important part of the book, which is that it's actually a book about parenting. The book explores Tom Vanderbilt's urge to engage in the same activities as his daughter. So when his daughter decides to learn to play chess, he enrolls both of them in classes. When his daughter learns to swim, he embarks on vacations with her (and mommy) and engages in wild swimming.

This is such a radical move from the sights you see at all kids activities --- mommies and daddies staring into their phones or laptops doing work, while the kids participates in the learning activity, that I found it remarkable. I can think of countless examples of parents pushing their kids to learn piano and violin, etc., only to discover that the parent himself/herself has never had any urge to learn how to play music or (in the case of this book) learn how to sing!

Singing, like all music education, typically becomes an “elective” after sixth grade. All music participation drops, but particularly singing. Maybe because, unlike violin or piano, parents don’t equate it with academic achievement (for the record, a study at Canada’s Royal Conservatory found that voice students had a higher average IQ than piano students). (kindle loc 1258)

The book does go into stuff Vanderbilt does that has no bearing on parenting. In one example, he learns to draw (which on reflection is something that kids do, but he doesn't compare his results with his daughter's), and in another, he learns to make a wedding ring to replace the one he lost while surfing.

If I had one nit about the book, it's that it reads like a series of magazine articles (which it probably was) than a coherent book, but I enjoyed the variety of new stuff that he gets into, and how he embraces the idea that in many cases, you aren't learning to become an expert (i.e., none of this 10,000 hour stuff), but just to get to a point of competence so you can enjoy doing it, and not to mastery. That's something I think more people could embrace, though in competitive Silicon Valley culture that seems unlikely to happen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Review: Ghost of Tsushima (PS5)

 I'm learning the professional game reviewers play games very differently from those of us with day jobs that don't involve games, so stuff that they find mediocre can turn out to be excellent. Ghost of Tsushima is one major example. The game play might not be considered anything out of the ordinary for a genre like "Assassin's Creed", but the game has many features that made it particularly playable:

  • No individual mission lasts more than about 15 minutes, making it easy to play for short amounts of time. Conversely, you also have "just one more mission"syndrome in a big way
  • There are no level gates for missions. This completely eliminated the grind. You don't have to the stuff you don't like, and you can pick and choose what you like to do.
  • Leveling up is fast and easy, and resources plentiful. You can finish the game with the majority of the map undone and still hit the level limit
  • Difficulty levels are tunable in the middle of a game or in the middle of an encounter. You never have to bang your head against the wall just because some game designer thought to punish you.
  • Not all skills are important. You can pick your favorite one to spam/reuse, upgrade everything related to it, and have fun.
  • The stories are reasonably well done, and not to repetitive.
  • The production values are high, and nothing is an eyesore. Playing on a PS5, the responsiveness and speed of loading is so great.
Somewhere at Sony, there's a PM who decides what level of features and difficulty should be in a game. Whoever that person is, they're incredibly respectful of a busy dad's time, and this consistently makes Sony's platforms and first party games great to play.  I played this to the end and am still playing to clear the map. Recommended.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Review: The Sum of Us

 The Sum of Us has a pretty non-controversial - that the world we live in is not a zero-sum world, that when we introduce benefits like Universal Healthcare, Paid Vacation for everyone, Sick Leave, not only do the poor people have better lives, even the wealth people have better lives as well!

What's challenging, of course, is that since the 1970s, that's not been the dominant narrative, and so for the past 50 years, we've been reversing course on that. Today, the USA is nowhere close to better health and equity metrics compared to any of the other developed Western Nations.

The book does a good job of tracing what happened, in a slightly less depressing recap of events told in Democracy in Chains. Many communities had public swimming pools that were denied to black people, and of course when the courts ruled that non-whites had a legal right to the pools, rather than open them up to everyone, those same communities decided to fill in the pools or sell them to a private organization that could turn it into a private swimming club. (There was one in Sunnyvale, and I never even thought about why it was a private swimming club) As a result of that, not only are there fewer public American swimming pools, the pools that are left over are a far cry from what you see in other western Democracies, in spaciousness, facilities, and of course, water-slides.

The same obviously went for public schools, which of course, always struck me as insane that were funded by local property taxes, but McGhee points out that the white communities that run the school districts kept drawing and redrawing the school districts to keep the population of the school district white and wealthy. The irony, of course, is that (again, correlation is not causation) white students who do attend a more diverse school actually do better. (Again, it could be that parents who're willing to not segregate themselves are usually highly educated and so their kids would do well in school --- but this just illustrates that desegregation wouldn't have hurt those wealthy public school districts!)

The list goes on and on, and it's pretty depressing, but the last chapter of the book discusses how there's been recent community building in Maine, helping get rid of anti-immigrant, anti-non-white attitudes, and successfully passing medicaid expansion by ballot initiative, showing that the process can be reversed.

It's a great book, though tough going because of the many depressing sections. But well worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Review: Camping Solar Shower Bag 5gallons

 I'm old enough to remember the Sunshower, which I never learned to setup properly. But with my wife balking at a 2 night camping trip, I saw the Camping Solar Shower for $9, and bought one. It's surprisingly light and comes with an economic low flow shower mode, and folds up nicely and packs into my backpack just fine.

What I discovered was that the handle hole is large enough to fit over some branches, so I didn't bother much with the flimsy string. Filling it takes more skill than you might expect: you have to keep dipping it in and out with a pumping action to fill the water bag. Bowen did that. On day 2, I got lazy and just used a running stream and only got it about half full.

As advertised, it takes about 3 hours of direct sunlight to get the water from freezing-lake cold to somewhat usable. The thermometer is misleading: it reads the temperature of the bag rather than the temperature of the water, so when it says 40C, the water is still only lukewarm inside.

To my surprise, both Bowen and Boen were much more enthusiastic about the camp shower than Xiaoqin was. They both ended up using all the warm water both nights of our backcountry trip. The shower runs for a surprisingly long time. It's well worth the weight if you're base camping, but for a point to point camping it was a bit much. I asked Bowen if he'd like to carry it next time and he said NO. But for car camping it's probably perfect. For the price, it comes recommended!