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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review: Redemption Ark

Redemption Ark (dead tree edition) is Alastair Reynold's third novel in the Revelation Space universe.

This novel introduces Nevil Clavain, one of the original Conjoiners who fled the Solar System ages ago (in a back-story that's revealed in Galactic North). One of the best things about the series is that the science is impeccable. We have explorations of inertia, of relativistic interstellar combat and tactics, and an amazing amount of exposition that's not very neatly hidden amongst the conversations between the characters.

Yet the characters, I feel, are the best Reynold's has come up with yet --- they're still wooden, but at least their motivations are sensible. Even more interesting, the presence of the Inhibitors (Reynold's answer to the Fermi Paradox) is explained well, and a far more interesting answer than I expected. We do get an explanation about the hell-classed weapons that were presented but not explained as part of Revelation Space, and some of the characters from both that novel and Chasm City show up as well, though not in such a way that you'll need to read those two novels before reading this one (but those novels are recommended, so you might as well read them).

While other books in the series have been self-contained, this one does manage to end in a very bad place --- a place that leaves you wanting to flip the Kindle over to the store and click the buy button for Absolution Gap. The reviews on that novel, however, are leaving me cold, so I'll check it out of the library. Nevertheless, Redemption Ark is highly recommended --- old fashioned science fiction that doesn't leave out the science and gives you the good old tingly sense of wonder that science fiction is supposed to provide!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Australia: A Photo Journey

At last, it is done! I have processed all the pictures from the Australia Trip. I still have a few that need work --- for instance, all the panoramas need to be stitched, and I need to play with the HDR, but the bulk of the work is done. Enjoy!

Blue Mountains

Great Barrier Reef

Atherton Tablelands
Tasmanian Overland Track
Great Ocean Road
Perth and Margaret River
Ningaloo Reef
The Red Center
Australia Panoramas

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Black Mountain Summit

I'm definitely out of shape --- it took 110 minutes today to reach the summit, and just as long to get to the bottom. It was hazy but there were lots of flowers (though there're signs that they'll all be gone next week). Unfortunately, none of the flower pictures turned out, but the panorama at the top did.
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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: HP m9600t Desktop PC

After returning from Australia, I had to buy a new PC to cope with the 100GB of pictures and run Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CS4 to deal with the output from the Canon 5DMk II.

Interestingly enough, the HP m9600t went on sale the day after I returned. HP is kind enough to give Google employees a 10% discount, so for $973.59, I configured a machine with the ATI Radeon 4850 (1GB), 4GB of RAM, and a DVD writer. I did not upgrade either the hard drive or the memory, since those were much cheaper if you bought them and installed them yourself.

If you want to go over every nook and cranny of the machine, there's a more thorough review elsewhere. I'm just going to summarize my impressions of this machine.

First of all, the inside of the machine is cramped! To install memory or to install a hard drive, you have to pull the drive cage out. The first time I opened up the machine to install the hard drive, I had no problems --- following the instructions the cage came right off --- and then I discovered that in their infinite wisdom, HP had not left me even a spare SATA cable, so I had to run out and buy one. Once I had one, I discovered that I had to cut the zip tie to the power cables so that I could extract one and use it for the new drive. Not having any spare zip ties sitting around, I left the wire loose and one of them got into the fan of the video card, which created a god-awful noise until I figured that out and moved the wire out of the way and zip tied the cables.

The second time I opened up the machine it was to install memory --- and this time I just could not for the life of me get the drive cage out. Fortunately, I have slim fingers and good manual dexterity, so I worked the DIMMs down below the drive cage and plugged them in with no problems. The resulting total cost was around $1300 when all said and done (including taxes, shipping, and everything). I even got to figure out how good their tech support was --- I had an intermittent fan noise from the video card for a bit, and was surprised to get their weekend support crew, which while it seemed was staffed by high school kids, they seemed to know what they were doing.

My first impression is that the machine is quiet! It's much quieter than my Infrant NAS box, and it only makes noise when it first spins up. I'm very impressed. Secondly, it is fast. In fact, at this point, I'm completely disk-bound except for generating large panoramas in Photoshop or HDR involving 5 or 6 RAW files. What I did discover was that 4GB was insufficient for running Lightroom and Photoshop together. Photoshop wants about 3.7GB of RAM, while Lightroom wants about 700MB. That makes 6GB comfortable (until you're dealing with 5 RAW files), and 8GB just enough. Purists will want to go for 12GB to make use of the triple channel RAM, but since we're not CPU bound anyway, there's no point going for more speed --- the next step really would be getting a striped disk array to reduce the delay from reads, or solid state disks (which realistically speaking, isn't cheap enough for what is essentially an accessory to my SLR!).

I plugged in two Dell 2407wfp monitors, and the result is I can view all the thumbnails on one monitor while doing photo manipulation in the other. The extra real-estate is very nice, and my work-flow is now relatively efficient.

Games: wow! This is the first time I've got a machine with a graphics card powerful enough to play most PC games, and I'm impressed. Now if only I had more time --- I could get some gaming in and get my photo editing done, but I guess that's going to have to wait. All this super duper compute power does come at a cost --- the machine dissipates about 127W while browsing the web, and about 206W (peaking to 220W) when crunching through photos with all 4 cores busy. Fortunately, I expect not to have to keep the machine on all the time once the initial backup to off-site storage is done.

All in all, I'm very pleased with this machine. I usually like to keep machines for 5-6 years, but had to upgrade earlier than expected this time because of digital photography. I don't expect to have to upgrade for another 5 years. I did have the usual people bugging me to get a Mac, but realistically, a quad core Mac starts at $2500, which doesn't come with the Radeon 4850 video card. I like the Mac Pro's case, but I don't like it so much that I'd be willing to pay $1300 for it. Realistically, the next time I get a PC, I'm just going to have to build it from components if I want a less cramped case with more room for drives (or better yet, hot-swappable drives). But that's 5 years away.

The Promise of Sleep

(A hat-tip to Niniane Wang for loaning me The Promise of Sleep to read)

I was diagnosed with Sleep Apnea 3 years ago, yet it wasn't until last year that I managed to adapt somewhat to it by using CPAP therapy. The Promise of Sleep is ghost-written by William Dement, the person who opened the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic, and who was the first person to document the various stages of sleep. Amongst other things, one of the big features of this book is that it mentions the names of some doctors I'd heard about and one I actually met!

The book covers very quickly the history of sleep research --- extremely valuable and told from a first-hand perspective of course. Then it jumps into our biological clock and the opponent-process model for why we feel sleepy at certain times of the day and not others, despite a large amount of sleep debt. It turns out that this leads to certain dangerous situations --- if you're a night person, you might be extremely awake at a party, but then when driving home you could doze off and crash your car and lose your life because of how this process works.

He then covers certain sleep orders that were discovered --- restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and insomnia. In particular, he recommends sleeping pills for insomnia, especially since he feels that building up a dangerous level of sleep debt is much worse than the possibility of any addiction to sleeping drugs (which are by and large quite safe nowadays).

Finally, he shows you how to apply these theories to every day life, jet-lag, napping, and the life cycle of a person's sleep (for instance, we sleep soundly and well as children, most people shift from being Owls to Larks in middle age).

I found myself enjoying the book, even the parts that I've read before, and would heartily recommend this book over Take A Nap and other shorter books. Thanks, Niniane!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The lifetime of bike parts

I broke another set of industry standard SKS mudguards yesterday, marking the second pair of SKS mudguards I've destroyed in 5 years. I'm generally sanguine about parts failing, since they do face a harsh environment, but I guess I have a few months before the next rainy season before I start thinking about getting Honjo fenders.

Over the years, I've collected through personal experience various expected life time for parts, so I'll summarize them here in order (from most frequently replaced to least frequently replaced):
  • Chains. These don't last more than about 2000 miles if you ride every day and don't keep them squeaky clean. If you keep them clean, you might get about 5000 miles out of them. The longest lasting chains are single speed chains on fully enclosed crank case bikes --- those will go about 10000 miles between replacements.

  • Tires. Depending on how heavy you are, these can range from 1000 miles (28mm tires on my tandem) to 4000 miles (23mm tires back when I was running Michelin Hilite Comps). You can double their lifetime by starting new tires on the front and then rotating them to the back when the back is worn. (That's the recommended replacement procedure!)

  • Bar-tape. These usually die every year or so.

  • Deraileur cables. These don't last much more than 2 years or about 8000 miles. The inner wire usually frays from the end if you don't cap them, or snap in the shifter if you have bar-ends or STIs. Downtube shifters will give them longer life. By contrast, deraileur housing lasts almost forever. I've only replaced one due to rupture in about 15 years of active cycling.

  • Brake pads. These are entirely dependent on weather conditions. On fair-weather bikes, you can run the same pads in California for a decade or more! For commute bikes, I replace them every 4 years or so, but if I was living in Germany or Seattle, I'd have to replace them every year. Heck, mountain biking in Seattle, I had to replace the brake pads every other ride!
  • Chainrings. These last about 15000 miles in optimum conditions (tandem timing rings, which don't have any cross-chaining during their life), or 10000 miles in on a normal bike.

  • Bottom bracket. Phil Wood sealed BBs are supposedly good for about 20000 miles. I once rode one for 40000 miles, but apparently you couldn't turn the spindle by hand after that if you removed the cranks. After last year's stint in Germany and France, though, I ended up with a BB that wasn't smooth after only 8000 miles. So much for 20000 miles...

  • Cassettes. These go every 30,000 miles or so. If you don't replace your chain often, you can expect them to go earlier. The strange thing is that if you do replace your chain often, the failure mode isn't that they wear down --- the failure mode is that you break teeth in the sprockets! Very weird.

  • Brooks saddles. On my singles, these have gone as much as 12 years. But on the tandem, they don't last more than about 5 years or so. That's because you don't stand up enough on a tandem so the leather gets soaked every hot ride.

  • Seat posts. To be honest, I've never had to replace one in 15 years of riding, except for the carbon seatpost after only 3 years, which has scared me off carbon seatposts for a long time.

  • Cantilever brakes. These have proven extremely unreliable for me. I've gone through 3 sets on about 8 years of active mountain biking, and they fall apart in weird ways, most of it having to do with the springs inside popping out. I don't think they should be spec'd on bikes.

  • Deraileurs. The front ones don't seem to be good for more than about 5 years or so --- at least, until recently, that's how frequently I've been replacing them. Recent stuff seems to be getting better, so now I don't know. Rear deraileurs are good for about 60000 miles, with a pulley replacement every 20000 miles or so. I used to be able to say that I've never worn one out, until I sold a bike to Lea that she claimed had a worn out deraileur. In my defense, I never noticed a problem when I was riding the bike, but then I wasn't running 10-speed either, which has much closer tolerances than the 7 or 8-speed stuff I was running. According to an old-timer in my bike club, you used to have to replace rear deraileurs every 20,000 miles or so, until Shimano came along and started actually engineering the part!

  • Cranks. Now we're getting into stuff I've never broken. My 17 year old bike still has a good crank. Now if you're big and strong you might expect to break one every 10 years or so, but the real answer is if you're that big and strong you should be examining your bike every year with an eye to seeing cracks in frames and stuff.

  • Frames. For me at least, these don't go bad unless you get run-over by a car (and unfortunately, that's happened).

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Review: Chasm City

Chasm City (kindle edition) is Alastair Reynolds' second novel set in the Revelation Space universe. This is a standalone novel designed to be read in any order within the series. However and it would still make sense to have a good understanding of the Universe before proceeding so I still recommend reading his collection of short stories Galactic North. The novel centers around use former soldier known as Tanner Mirabel. We start off with a cinematic action sequence with Mirabel stalking someone for revenge, but ends up fighting for his survival.

Despite the title of the book, the novel is as much about Sky's Edge as it is about Yellowstone, the star system in which Chasm City exists. Through a series of dream sequences, we learn about Sky's Edge's founder, Sky Haussman, who turns out to be a thoroughly despicable character. Despite the misdirection, we figure out what the connection is between Mirabel and Haussman is by the middle of the novel, but the novel has us firmly in its grip by then and the urge to read on is compelling. What's more, Reynolds has yet another surprise up his sleeve, and while that one is tougher to figure out, it's not too hard for the reader to put two and two together.

The universe is realized very finely, and we learn about the origins of the Melding Plague, as well as the backstory behind Chasm City. The result is a deeper view into Reynolds' universe. At the end of the novel there's a little bit of redemption, and a hint as to what's coming in future novels.

Recommended for a plot that's interesting and fair (in that it's possible to unravel the mystery before the reveal), and a reasonable exposition. As usual, the characters are shallow and not that interesting in themselves, but that's a common fault for science fiction writers, who love their ideas more than they love their characters.