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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment

I love books that apply science to daily affairs, and Attached promised to take scientific research and apply it to romantic relationships. If it pans out, you can use this to predict how you would act with someone else with respect to romance, as well as whether you're built for loving relationships, so it's a real promising book.

The book essentially divides people into three attachment types: Anxious, Avoidant, and Secure. Apparently, this categorization came out of child attachment studies, where babies essentially display the same type of behavior. Anxious types are your typical "needy" daters. They fight to keep themselves from calling their dates or romantic partners too often, and are wont to interpret every bit of thoughtless behavior as loss of the partner. Avoidants are the non-committers: you know, the type who won't bring you to see their friends and family, or who won't commit. Secure types (whom the authors say compose of 50% of people) are the buffers who've learned not to over-react to bad behavior and place their partners first in a relationship.

One of the interesting things the authors say is that the most common relationship problem is between the Anxious and the Avoidants. Basically, the two feed each other and push buttons in each other in ways that leaves Anxious people addicted to the drama of the relationship and thereby prolonging the pain. Another thing they say is that when you're out dating, you're actually more likely to meet Anxious or Avoidants despite them being only 50% of the population, because the Secure types typically don't stay on the market very long.

A lot of the book then spends time visiting case study after case study of the relationship types, breaking down arguments, and explaining what the Secure response to each potentially explosive situation is, and how the insecure response typically backfires. This is good stuff and I wish I had it when I was a teenager. It also tells you what you already know: "That being direct and honest is always the best policy, if you want to find a partner that suits you, but to stay in a relationship, what you need to do is to trust your partner and always assume the best outcome." They also explore potential dysfunction even for secures in a relationship, and explains why many such people would stay in relationships far too long for their own good.

Where this book fails for me is that there's no explanation at all as to how people become Anxious, Secure, or Avoidant. There's a discussion of dead-ends in the research. For instance, they explored whether Secure babies became Secure adults, and there's apparently no correlation whatsoever. This is bad news, because it means we don't know how to turn someone who's Avoidant into being someone secure. In fact, the authors come right out and just say, "If you're Anxious, avoid that Avoidant types and go for someone Secure. Here's how to recognize one, and for heavens sake, that excitement you feel for the Avoidant types is an addiction you need to get over." There's also no studies as to whether a Secure can become an Avoidant, or whether transmutation between types is common.

The book's a very quick read (it looks thick, but half the pages are essentially references to the scientific literature), and easily picked up at the library, so I'd say you should just read it because the case studies are entertaining, even if you don't normally read romance novels. I'm not sure it isn't an over-simplification, and clearly the science isn't anywhere near what we see in Thinking Fast and Slow, but I can definitely recommend it.

Review: Chariot Cougar 1 Stroller/Bike Trailer/Jogger

My brothers insisted on buying a bike trailer for Bowen. When I responded that they should get me the Chariot Cougar, one of them wrote in disbelief, "This thing costs as much as the space shuttle!" To which my response was, "You insisted!"

Well, my brothers didn't just get me the trailer with the cycling kit, they also got me the jogging kit, and I then went and bought the stroller wheels and the infant sling, all of which is necessary if you're going to use the device as a stroller right away, as opposed to waiting the requisite 10 months or so before the baby gets to wear a helmet and get towed along.

If you're used to regular stollers with plastic wheels, pushing one of the high end big wheel strollers will be a different experience. The wheels are pretty much the same as bicycle wheels, sized down and with fat tires. This does two things: first of all, bigger wheels bridge bumps and holes in the surface better, giving you a smoother ride. Secondly, bigger wheels have a narrower contact patch for the same weight, which reduces rolling resistance. High precision bicycle bearings reduce the rolling resistance even further.

The stroller is huge, since it comes with a roll cage. I installed the infant sling almost immediately, and luckily in the newer models it requires almost no tools and is easy to work. The difference between the stroller wheels and the jogger wheel is that while the jogger wheel is effectively a small bicycle wheel featuring pneumatic tires, the stroller wheels are solid rubber, and there's two of them mount inboard of the frame, as opposed to being an outboard wheel. The result is a dramatically smaller turning radius, with an increased rolling resistance. I practiced folding the stroller and unfolding it, and indeed everything does fold away very nicely, but it's definitely not something you can do without reading the manual. I was pleased with the side wheels' quick release mechanism, and how well everything snapped together. For instance, when using the jogger wheel, you can mount the stroller wheels inverted in the frame, so you don't lose them or outsmart yourself and hide them somewhere where you can't find them again.
From BayArea

Given that the stroller wheels are also very low in rolling resistance, why would you want the jogger wheels? The answer: so you can push the entire device off pavement on trails. Once you go off road, the pavement isn't as smooth, and the reduced rolling resistance of having only one larger wheel versus two small wheels is noticeable. Plus, you don't really want to be jiggling your kid in there. The stroller weighs 20 pounds by itself, but because of all the effects described above, feels much lighter: on level ground, I can push it along with just one finger, just as you would expect if you were pushing a lightweight bicycle.

The cockpit of the stroller/trailer is large, and has a canopy with a mesh window (to keep out the bugs in the summer), a sunscreen which can be deployed to keep harmful UV from baby's face, and a waterproof plastic sheet to keep the rain off, in case you decide to jog with baby in the rain. I'd probably get screamed at for doing that, so I didn't test to see how waterproof it really is, but apparently there's a separate water-proofing cover for people who are hardcore enough to take their babies out in pouring rain.

Obviously, it's illegal for me to take the kid out in it as a bike trailer, so I haven't tested it that way yet, but I don't expect it to be any different than other trailers I've tested in the past.

So, is it worth the price? Well, all in, the entire set up probably cost around $600, but we're using it twice a day for most likely the next 3 years or so. It truly is versatile, fits well, and so far, is the most consistent way for me to get Bowen to sleep. In fact, if he starts crying in the trailer, what I've learned is that it means he's asking me to speed up. Running with the trailer almost immediately puts him right back to sleep!

I looked on Amazon and used items are not available, and the lone ebay seller selling one used was asking $370 and $95 shipping, which indicates that the resale value on these devices would be comparable to that of a high end bicycle: unless you abuse the hell out of it, you should be able to get half of what you paid for it after 3 years. If you factor that in, the cost is comparable to that of buying a good trailer, a good stroller, and a jogger. In case you're interested, there's also a ski kit as well as a hiking kit. I consider the hiking kit ridiculous, and am not an enthusiastic skiier, so I can't imagine using the ski kit.

For now, my rating on this would be recommended. It's a quality product, albeit at a premium price.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

6 reasons to make cycling your New Year's Resolution

Yes, I'm talking to you there, sitting behind the screen. Here's why you should take up cycling:
  1. It's fun. Cycling on a lightweight road bike is like flying without leaving the ground. So much so that in Pat Murphy's novel, The City, Not Long After, one of the characters exclaimed this after learning to ride, and said to her friend, "Why didn't you tell me it was like flying?!" That's how you'll feel if you've not ridden a nice road bike before and try one for the first time. Mountain biking is like hiking, but at 10 miles per hour. Long mega-hikes that are only for the masochistic are now easy for you to do in 4 hours.
  2. Cycling makes you smarter. There's strong evidence (see Brain Rules or this New York Times article) that aerobic exercises increases cognitive capability. While this goes for all aerobic exercise, aerobic exercise is cycling's forte. Note that cycling at 10mph on a bike path will not grant this benefit. You actually have to go hard enough that you feel a little bit out of breath.
  3. Cycling makes you feel better. Professor Csikszentmihaly wrote a book called Flow, the psychology of optimal experience. In it he describes happiness as being completely absorbed in a task. Cycling, where you're climbing, descending, or picking your way through traffic, demands that you completely absorb yourself in it. My friend Phil Sung says it's an extremely meditative experience for him.
  4. Cycling improves your balance, since by its very nature, you have to stay on two wheels. If you regularly challenge yourself on dirt roads or by riding a mountain bike off road, you will increase your sense of balance dramatically.
  5. You can cycle until you're very very old. Aerobic activities like running have many of the same physical and mental benefits, but cycling is unique in that it's a low impact activity, so it won't wear out your joints prematurely. My bike club's full of runners and former tennis players who took up cycling because their doctors told them that they cannot pursue their former sport any more, usually due to joint damage. These folks weren't casual tennis players. They were competitive, and they used to say sentences like, "Winning a match isn't a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that!" I sat down with some of them over lunch and asked them if they had any regrets about having to take up cycling. One of them said, "Yes. My regret is not taking it up sooner." One of the middle aged members of the club once observed, "You know, the old guys in the bike club are different. They learn things quickly, they're flexible, and they're optimistic and not crotchety."
  6. Cycling is far more time efficient than almost any other sport because you can commute to work by bicycle. Tennis players can't play tennis and magically arrive at work after a tennis game. Cyclists, however, regularly get in some cycling just going to the local grocery store, or getting to work. If you're enthusiastic, you can even travel the world by bicycle and find places most non-cyclists don't know about. For instance, I recently rode a section of road today that was closed to all but cyclists and pedestrians:
    From BayArea

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First Impressions: Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver

My two year old Roku Soundbridge's wifi card failed, and it's impractical to run an ethernet cable out to where the entertainment center is, so I disconnected it (some day, I might find a practical way to run it), figuring that I would use the PS3 to stream music.

The reality, though, is that it never happened. There's something silly about having to turn on the huge ass screen just to listen to music, so when one of Amazon's lightning sales gave me the Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver at $20, I jumped on it despite the mediocre reviews about the range, sound quality, and the need to mod the product to get decent range. I figured I'd return it if it turned out to be no good, or mod it if the range was inadequate for my tiny home.

The product arrived and to my surprise, the power connection on the unit was the same as the very first version of the kindle, which meant that my gomadic system would work with it in the car, for instance. I plugged it into my system, paired it with my Nexus One, and away I went. To my surprise, the music sounded decent. Not "blow the doors off great", but on the other hand, no one had stuck a CD into the PS3 for ages, which is what it would take to get great sound. Furthermore, the Google Music UI on the phone gave me access to all the music in the cloud, with only a minimal delay for streaming.

I then tried pairing the device with XiaoQin's LG Optimus V. That device paired but did not connect. After a bit of frustration, I long-pressed the device selection on the Android screen and turned off the "Phone Audio" for the Belkin, at which point the connection went off without a hitch.

I was expecting to have to modify the device (read the Amazon Reviews for the details), but it turns out that in my tiny home, the range is just fine. What's sweet is that a bluetooth laptop, for instance, could just as easily stream to the device.

All in all, this is an incredibly cheap replacement for my Roku Soundbridge, and for $20, a more than good enough replacement for it. I still will eventually want to find a way to plug the Roku in, but for now, this works just great. Recommended.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist is a magical realism fable. While not as irritating as One Hundred Years of Solitude, it has its own rhythm and sound, and practically no plot. That last bit is not a bad thing, once you realize that it's a fable, where the entire point of the book is to tell you something you already know.

In many ways, the book is elegant. The story revolves around a Shepard who is told that he has a Personal Legend and who should pursue it. While pursuing it, he has good fortune, ill fortune, shows himself to be enterprising, meets his true love the way only characters in novels can, and pursues and discovers his dream, which somehow brings him back to where he started, but from a different place. This motif recurs in all sorts of novels, including A Wizard of Earthsea or even The Lord of the Rings. Unlike those stories, however, this one is told simply, with a light language and guilelessly, as though such stories have never been told.

I can see why this book is popular amongst people who almost never read books. It gives you the impression of depth, but without having to actually work at it. It's a quick read, so even if you end up disliking it (as I did), it's not a thorough waste of time. Nevertheless, there are many far better books that are well worth the added time. If you find yourself impressed by this book, then I submit that you are not sufficiently widely read enough, as this answer on Quora explains. For my money, the similarly length'd Very Far Away From Anywhere Else will teach you far more about the human condition than this novel, and is better written to boot. If you want something whimsy and easy to read, try Neil Gaiman's Stardust instead.

Not recommended. I'm glad I checked this ebook from the library instead of spending hard-earned money on it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

First Impressions: GoPro Helmet Hero HD

One of the daily deals site offered the GoPro Helmet Hero HD for $135, and at that price I jumped on it in the hopes that I might be able to replicate the results of my touring videos locally, without having to carry a stoker up mountains (or deal with a stoker's sway as she manhandles the camera at speed!).

At that price, the camera can double as a HD camera as well, for general use as well as if my brothers or friends want to borrow it for skiing.

The device comes with the camera, a waterproof case (with both a waterproof backing and a non-waterproof backing), several adhesive mounts for attaching it to a motor-vehicle, as well as a helmet mount. Sadly enough, the device as is does not come with a scuba unit, though a scuba case can be bought separately through eye of mine for about $100.

The camera comes with a few modes, 720p, 960p, and 1080p. The default is the 960p, which is a weird mode which produces a square picture. The reason for this is that on a bike you might look up and down often and it could be useful to get more picture of road. Having tried it once (see sample video), I'm likely to stick with 1080p.

On the helmet, the camera does weigh your head down more. I'm not sure I would want to carry it up a major mountain pass on my head, though sticking it into your saddlebag (or jersey pocket) and mounting it for the descents seems like something eminently doable. (Uphill, I have no issues with manipulating a Canon S100.

The output of the video is huge. For 1.5 hours, it'll use up 8GB, so at least a 16GB card would be recommended for any kind of extended use. The battery will run out in 2.5 hours, so getting more than 16GB would be pretty pointless unless you have a spare battery. As for the lens quality, you can see it generates a lot of flare when pointed into the sun, so I would make a note of that. This is pretty bad, because cyclists don't usually have control over the flare or not. Note that the camera is designed for what I call "point and pray". Since there's no display for the image you're getting, and the camera's mounted on your helmet, you just can't possibly know what you're shooting until you get home.

On an unsupported tour, I'm not sure I would want to have this on my head or in my saddlebag. It weighs only 213 grams (without the charger), but since it uses up video pretty quickly, you'd either have to carry a stack of SD cards, or you'd have to carry some sort of additional storage, which would be even more weight. On a supported tour, however, such as the first half of our tour of the alps, I would consider it eminently usable. I am now extremely curious to see if I can get Pardo or some other fast descender to stick it on his helmet and take it down Page Mill Road or Highway 9.

For editing the video, unlike indoor videos, where lighting frequently demands color correction (meaning you pretty much need Adobe Premiere Elements or some other such software), outdoor videos don't need much color correction, and all the editing can be done with say, Windows Live Movie Maker, which is what I used for the above sample. The output will likely be huge, but with storage essentially free on YouTube, there's no reason not to store your video there and delete it from your hard drive afterwards.

Would I recommend this? I hesitate. First of all, video editing is much tougher than photo editing. It's not clear that I want to do it, or for that matter anyone else. Secondly, I've been very happy with my compact camera photos, and I'm not sure if video would help. On the other hand, I want to attach it to some of my friends' helmets so I can see how they descend, or get their comments on my descents as well, so in that sense it's a useful tool.

Ironically, the one place that the HD Hero would be most useful is actually for Scuba. The 2.5 hour battery life is just right for a 2-tank dive, and the fact that the Scuba case comes with a wrist attachment means that it won't get in the way, unlike the Canon underwater housing I've been using. Neutral buoyancy would also be a non-issue since it would be attached to you, and the case has essentially no air, unlike the Canon cases. I'll probably give it a shot and see. In the mean time, I see no reason to regret the decision at the price I got it for.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Publishing Milestone

Most people are comfortable with buying physical gifts for friends, such as books, DVDs, or phones. Most people, however, would not be comfortable digital goods for friends or family. These things seem very ephemeral, and of course, there's always the possibility of buying the wrong format, or buying them something that they can't possibly read on their latest gizmo.

Well, it seems like ebook readers have finally gotten to the point where people are buying electronic books as gifts. Today, someone bought a copy of Independent Cycle Touring as a gift for a friend. And yes, the PDF was designed to be compatible with an iPad. How did I do this without actually owning one? It turns out that iPads have a bug in their PDF readers that require me to turn on compatibility with Acrobat 4.0. I have no idea why that is, but the book is now about 400KB bigger as a result.

It's not obvious from any of my books' web-sites how to do purchase a book as a gift, but it is actually straightforward. Just attach a note to your order when you buy one for a friend noting that it's a gift and is meant to be sent to a specific e-mail address instead of to you. Since a human being handles every order at, your wishes will be followed. This is one of the advantages of an indie store---it doesn't take any coding to make a special case.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: The Magic of Reality

I do most of my reading from the library, but The Magic of Reality is one of those few books that makes me want to buy a copy. And not an electronic copy, but a hardbound paper copy. To top it off, it's a science book!

Written by Richard Dawkins and illustrated by Dave McKean, this book is gorgeous. (McKean, in case you don't know, illustrated most of the covers for The Sandman) This is a great introduction to science for liberal arts majors: there are no equations anywhere in the book, and Dawkins is a superb writer.

Every chapter starts with a few myths about how certain things came to be (like rainbows, the universe, or diseases), and then proceeds to explain how the science behind it works, how scientists came to the current understanding, and in some cases, what areas are still currently being explored. McKean's illustrations are gorgeous: I love how they are integrated completely into the layout and the text, and some times you'd be reading an explanation and the illustration would float directly behind the explanation. All the illustrations are in full color, as is every page of the text.

The topics range from atoms (unfortunately, Dawkins doesn't get into quantum mechanics) to continental drift to rainbows to evolution. This is probably an ideal book to get for a budding young scientist who can already read at a high level. Or perhaps for the science geek who loves illustrations and the deluxe treatment that the publisher has given this. Highly Recommended. I knew most of the material and still felt compelled to read through it once more just to enjoy Dawkin's writing and McKean's illustrations.

Review: Fables #16 SuperTeam

Fables is one of the comic books I have on automatic pre-order on Amazon. Rose Red in particular gave me very high hopes for quality story-telling.

Fables #16 sets us up for another story, but then turns ridiculous as we watch Fabletown, now exiled at Haven, trying to protect itself from the near certain attack by The Dark Man. This sounds great, except that the plan that got concocted up was to dress up like superheroes and form a Fables analog to "The X-Men." I'm a super-hero fan, but this was just silly.

Nonetheless, the long story arc got resolved, at least, and the resolution was a natural consequence of several other long-running plotlines, which I found to be quite neat. All in all, it wasn't as much fun as the rest of the series, but at least the plots got tied up nicely, and Willingham clearly understands how to do long range plotting and not just keep writing himself into a corner. Recommended for long-running fans of the series, and if you're not one, you should be.

Review: GoGroove Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

My beloved Samsung SBH 500 died earlier this year (from mechanical breakage --- the band connecting the two ear pieces split in half from fatigue and abuse), and I tried to make do using my trusty Sennheiser PX100, but while those headphones work well for walking, they are a disaster in the gym. The cords get caught in gym equipment, and the plug gets pulled out of my Nexus One in my rare vigorous moments and are very annoying.

Samsung no longer makes the SBH500, so I had to find something else. The GoGroove Airband looked study enough to stand up to abuse.

Unfortunately, the device is crap. It stutters, and only works when the phone is held 5 inches or closer to the headphone. That means if the phone is in your pocket it doesn't work. If the phone is in your hand, it will stutter as you swing your hand in normal walking (unless you have short arms).

This is going right back to Amazon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Harmony 600 Universal Remote

My previous remote was a Sony VL-610, now unavailable but most similar to the VLZ-620. It worked fine, integrating with every component in my setup, even the PS3 via the Nyko Bluwave. Even though I could program it to do a lot, I anticipated having non-English speakers living with me, so when the Harmony 600 came on-sale for $32 at one of the daily deals sites, I jumped on it.

The selling point of the Harmony 600 is that instead of programming individual devices and turning individual devices on and off and switching between them, you program activities (similar to macros) and then use those. This has several features. First of all, you can indicate that the volume control always goes to the receiver/amplifier, for instance, instead of the volume control on the TV or what-have-you. While the VL-610 had this capability, I frequently found it hard to set it up that way (you have to deliberately not program the volume button on the individual devices and then tell it to use the amp instead, and I always forgot not to program the volume button). Secondly, the hours spent "teaching" the VL-610 are replaced by a simple, easy-to-use web-app that downloads the IR codes into the Harmony 600, which is a snap.

This approach is really nice when it works. For instance, I can now program the Roku Soundbridge to play music with one click. One button turns off everything, eliminating the need for your guests to remember anything about what mode it's gotten into. It even knows how to switch the inputs for your TV smartly, which is more than the remote that came with the TV itself!

When does it fail? It fails when your guests get the system into some weird state. It fails on the PS3 because it doesn't really know how to turn the PS3 off, so it'll turn the TV and the amp off and leave the PS3 on. That's really unfortunate, but for the PS3 which is really blue-tooth only, I can understand that.

The big annoyance for me is that there's no UI that I can see where I can over-ride the default settings. For instance, when watching a movie, I want the menu button to bring up the options button, but whoever programmed the blue wave control didn't know about that, and I have no way to reassign keys. The same would apply to nearly every other activity --- the existence of the softkey screen seems to have prevented logitech from thinking very hard about doing proper button assignment to activities.

All in all, at the current prices of $40 for a Harmony 600 versus $20 for the VLZ-620, I'd recommend the Harmony. Your time is probably worth way more than $20, and time spent programming the VLZ-620 is no fun at all. On the other hand, at the original retail price of $120 for the 600, buy the VLZ-620. The advantages just don't justify that price.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: The Broken Kingdoms

I named The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the Book of the Year for 2011. So I picked up The Broken Kingdoms with no little nervousness. First of all, second novels are frequently subject to regression to the mean. Furthermore, after all the reveals in the first book, I didn't see how Jemisin could provide more reveals that would surprise me.

The Broken Kingdoms is told from the point of view of Oree, a blilnd woman artist and painter who discovers that she is actually living with a god, part of the aftermath of the events from the first book. Being set 10 years later, we get to see a little bit of the changes that have occurred, but the world hasn't changed as much as we might expect.

A lot of the problem is that Oree is not as strong a character as Yveine. While Yveine would barrel headlong at full tilt and was very aware, Oree was more clueless and tended to be dragged along by events rather than effect them. This happens even at the climax! That makes the book a lot less compelling than The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

As expected, there's not much more to reveal, so the plot centers around artifacts and rules already laid down by the first book. This is fine, except that Oree is so much of an outsider that she cannot explain or tell you much about the politics behind the story, so you're only told about it at the same time as she has it explained to her, which makes her feel even more passive.

Characters from the first book make reappearances, but only very minor ones. That's good: you don't need to read the first book to enjoy the second one, but the second one is not as enjoyable as the first.

The ending, however, is written exceedingly well. Everything is taken to the logical conclusion, and nothing feels forced. As a result, I don't feel like I've wasted my time reading the book, but on the other hand, this performance doesn't make me want to run out and buy all her other books, unlike the first one. As a result, I can only mildly recommend this book, and really only for fans of the first novel.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

First Impressions: Canon S100

As long time readers of this blog know, I'm an unabashed fan of the Canon S90. It is all around the best pocketable camera for the serious cyclist/photographer. It's lightweight enough to fit in the jersey pocket, while producing photos of such high quality that I used many of those photographs in Independent Cycle Touring.

I ended up skipping over the Canon S95, but when Canon launched the S100 the features made contemplating a switch compelling:
  1. Integrated GPS, so no awkward geo-coding hassles lining up the Edge 800 with the Canon.
  2. 1080p Video. With Bowen's arrival, I found myself shooting video. Some of it is even viewable.
  3. 12 Megapixels while preserving low light performance. More resolution means you can crop more and still have enough leftover for usable pictures. I've never been satisfied by the quality of digital images short of the .Canon 5D Mark II's. The S100's sensor stays the same size, so raising the number of pixels could add more noise, but Canon claimed that this wasn't so.
  4. 24mm->120mm higher zoom range. At the long end it didn't matter very much. However, the wide end is very attractive. The 24mm end of the 24-105/4L is one of my favorite focal lengths. Having it on a point and shoot makes photos coming out of it extra special.
Other sites will undoubted make a run down of the UI and thee little "feel differences." I'll just cover what's important to me. Compared to the S90, the S100 is lighter. The S90 camera, battery, and SD card weighed in at 201g, while the S100 combination weighs 194g. The charger weighs 63g compared to the S90's 67g, for a total of 11g weight savings. Not huge, but as Pardo says the typical cyclist will pay about $1 per gram of weight savings, so it's $11 worth of savings. Both camera and charger are slimmer, which is very nice when you have a full saddlebag. I went out today and shot with the camera like I would on tour. The results are very satisfying. Shooting almost directly into the sun carries almost no flare:
From BayArea
What this means is that Canon's managed to keep the lens relatively simple despite the wider zoom range. Since cyclists frequently do shoot into the sun for various reasons, this is impressive. The images have enough resolution that even cropping out 25% of the photo, the resultant image still looks decent:
From BayArea
If you stop and take a picture, you can expect the GPS to kick in within 3s and give you a reasonable geo-location attached with your photo. For example, you can cleary see GPS location data on this photo of Black Mountain Summit. The big disappointment here is that PicasaWeb doesn't respect the GPS location information, so you still get prompted to add a location. The further disappointment is that 3s means that your "on the move" pictures shot while cycling will not carry GPS data unless you turn on the GPS logger (which is a battery drain). So the days of ditching Jeff's Lightroom Plugin are not over. For hiking, rock-climbing, or other slow moving activities, however I expect the GPS encoding to be great. The 24mm lens is as wonderful as I remember. What about video? I tried some video, and 1080p is ridiculously sharp. I shot a video of my baby and you can see the pores on his face, as well as where he's molting. The only problem now is I have to actually be able to edit this stuff. We'll see how that goes. Needless to say, I'm very impressed with this camera. It comes highly recommended, and if you've been wondering as to whether to upgrade from the S90 I'd say it's a no brainer. Incidentally, the camera's a victim of the Thailand flooding, which means that 3rd party sellers on Amazon are gouging. Your best bet is to actually go to a physical store. Text 11NEWHOME to 332211 to get a Best Buy 10% off coupon. Then go to your nearest Best Buy and special order it (do not try this from the online store as they will not respect your coupon). I got mine within 3 business days this way. This sounds like a lot of hassle, but for this camera, it's worth the work.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

E-Books Sticker Shock

The Wall Street Journal today had an article about ebook sticker shock and how ebooks have now risen to the point where they're as expensive as paperbooks or even hardcovers, because while paperbooks are still sold via the old model (wholesale price to retailers who can discount the books and even use them as loss leaders to drive traffic), ebooks (as sold by the big six) are sold under the agency model, where the retailer is not allowed to set prices.

There's a general denial in the industry that this increase in prices is driving down ebook sales, even as ebook adoption increase. Think the two aren't compatible? Then you don't understand piracy, or library use. For instance, when The Snowball first came out at $9.99 on Amazon, I bought it and read it right away. My reviews on this blog drove further purchases. The Snowball is now $16. Can you imagine a 3 year old car selling for more than it did 3 years ago? Probably not, especially since a used copy of the same book has the same information and can be had for much less. Now that Steve Jobs and Thinking Fast and Slow are $15 and $13 respectively, I opted to check them out from the library instead. The unscrupulous would just download them.

The publishers would argue that ebooks are more portable, easier to carry and easier to store. But there's one huge thing wrong with them: with license terms as they are today, ebooks are impossible to resale, difficult to lend to your friends, and of course, the added cost makes no sense.

Furthermore, most books sold are not non-fiction (as the three are above). For non-fiction, most books are not fungible, not even mine. When someone on Quora asked Why are my books so expensive, my reply caused a flood of sales. Fiction, however, is more easily fungible. The next best-sellers will probably be independent phenomena, not traditional publisher-driven ones. The regular publishers are going to lose their stand as gatekeepers if they insist on pricing ebooks for the 19th century. Like the music publishers, they will become gradually more and more irrelevant.

The lesson for you if you're a fiction author? You have a window of opportunity right now where traditional publishers have provided an incredible price umbrella. Take that opportunity and ride it for as hard as you can.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

First Impressions: HP Promo ZR 2740w Monitor

XiaoQin recently decided that she wanted to try a faster machine, so I set her up with my old Dell 2407 monitor along with my X201, which is one heck of a rocking setup. One thing I didn't realize was that VGA happily drives a 24" monitor at the native resolution of 1920x1200 with no problems whatsoever, and I was very pleased to see the Lenovo automatically detect that and realize what's going on.

I thought about replacing it with another 24" monitor, but my brother found the HP Promo 27" monitor for about $682 shipped from Amazon. It's about $200 or so less than the competing Dell 2711. Reviews are pretty scarce on this monitor, but my brother found one written by TFT Central which indicated that it was ok as long as you didn't care about not having HDMI, VGA, S-Video, and making do with just the display port or the dual-link DVI cable.

Note that there are $300 27" monitors, but most of them are just 1080p TVs, not really monitors capable of 2560x1440, which is the resolution both the Dell and the HP are capable of driving at. Along with the monitor, you have to have a video card capable of driving that resolution, but fortunately my M9600t already sports not one but two dual-link DVI ports in addition to the (probably never to be used) HDMI port.

Unboxing the monitor, it wasn't immediately how much bigger the 27" monitor was until you hooked it up and put it next to the 24". Then I powered it on and saw how much brighter the HP Promo monitor was compared to the old Dell 24". After calibrating both monitors with the Eye One Display 2, I went ahead and compared them and indeed, the 24" monitor looks really drab. The extra screen real estate is really nice as well, and colors really popped. At first, I was really concerned when my video card fritzed and I had to reboot my machine, but after a while I realized that I had over-clocked my Radeon 4850, and after backing off the over-clocking the machine is now nice and stable.

All in all, I'm very pleased by the monitor and will most likely be keeping it. The old monitor (as seen in the image above) is now turned to portrait mode to serve as a lightbox for Lightroom. Obviously, we'll see how it goes living with the monitor day to day, but for now, I'll give it the recommended rating. (Note that unlike 24" and below monitors, the 27" and 30" monitors haven't really drop in price for the last few years, probably because of the lack of demand, but then when I first bought the 24" monitor way back in 2004, they were also around $666 a piece --- hopefully eventually I will get to make use of that second dual-linked DVI port on the 4850)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Followup: T-mobile Pay As You Go

Earlier this year, I wrote about the T-mobile prepaid plans and how you could buy a Web Daypass for $1.50 a day unlimited data. Unfortunately, T-mobile expired the Web Daypass without telling anyone, so now we're stuck with several more expensive plans.

If you're willing to live with 2G speeds, you can pay $2/day for unlimited data, but only over the Edge network. This kinda sucks. For 3G, you now have to pay $3/day for unlimited data. If you're traveling for extended periods and need data all the time but are willing to live with 100 minutes of voice calling (no big deal, since you can always use Skype), then you can opt for the $30/month 100 minutes/unlimited data plan. These are all pre-paid plans, so no contracts.

One of the nice things about the T-mobile pay as you go plan is that if you start off with $100 of credit, that lasts for a year. If you're like me, you don't use anywhere close to 1000 minutes of calling a year (especially with Google voice where you can pick up your land-line if you're at home). What most people don't know is that all you have to do is to "refill" your T-mobile prepaid SIM for $10 any time, and you get extended for another year from the most recent refill! So if you don't call a lot and are usually in a WiFi zone, your mobile phone service could easily be $10/year. I just called T-mobile's customer service and verified that if you switch between the pay-as-you-go plan and the monthly prepaid plans you will retain your gold rewards status (which is what enables the 1 year between renewals).

Republic Wireless is currently trialing a plan for unlimited data and voice for $19/month provided you're mostly in a WiFi zone (note that you have to buy their specific phone --- this is not a bring your own phone service). This is a good price if you don't want to ever think about metering. My experience, though is that the pay-as-you-go T-mobile plans have been extremely cost effective.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Referrals: Google Plus versus Facebook versus Quora

I ran into this article where Google plus supporters claimed that all the estimates of Google plus usage are low. In other words, Google plus is far more popular than the estimated 50 million users. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of people who've logged into Google plus is incredibly high, north of 200M. Google has been pushing the notification bar and Google plus relentlessly, and integrating it into more and more products, while eliminating products (such as Google Reader) whose model don't fit into Google Plus's model.

Far more important than the sheer number of users, however, is the engagement of those users. For instance, while Buzz got pushed to nearly every Gmail user, most non-Google affiliated users told me (on Facebook, no less) that Buzz was a dead zone for them. So I used my own blog analytics to see whether Google Plus users got referred to my blog.

The number one referral (visitors who came from another sitee) to my blog came from That's Google+, right? No. It turns out to be Google Reader. The next most popular referral was Facebook, which was almost as popular. (Though Google Reader users are really engaged: they visit 4 times as many pages as Facebook readers, who presumably see the link, click to read the article, and immediately leave) The next best referral came from Quora, the question answer site. This came as a bit of a surprise. Then the dropoffs become really steep, my own Books web-site and Friendfeed, a so-called "dead" service. (As an aggregate-site of all my online activity, Friendfeed beats the heck out of all the other sites)

By the time I got to Google+ and Hacker News, I'm down to one fifth the visitors that Google Reader sends me. This is incredibly low. I doubt if Quora has 200M users, but their users are incredibly engaged, unlike Google Plus's.

Here are a few lessons I would draw from this:
  • RSS support is really important. Reader, Facebook, Quora, and Friendfeed all support RSS export or RSS import so you can track somebody's content. Google Plus insists on you manually typing in a share with no method of automation. Even Twitter supports an auto-export from my blog to my Twitter stream. While I do try to promote blog posts on Google Plus, I don't always do so, especially for book reviews.
  • Google Plus is still extremely niche. Even though I'm not active on Hacker News, for instance, it's still way better at sending me referrals than Google Plus.
  • Twitter messed up. I have no way whatsoever of tracking Twitter referrals at all. As a result, it's not surprising that I rarely find time to engage on Twitter. But, because of the automation provided for sending blog posts, etc, automatically to Twitter, it costs me nothing to twitter my blog posts, so I do it. Which goes to show that automation will make up for other poor decisions on the social network front.
  • I really miss the old Google Reader. The old Google Reader gave me 2X the engagement of the current Google Reader, according to the referral logs. It's a pity Google was willing to give up all that engagement, but I'm guessing that as usual, small fry like me don't count for very much.
In the past, I would plea for Google to integrate blogger posts automatically into my plus stream, but I'm now wary of asking Google to "integrate." Google's concept of integrating Google Reader was to destroy my Google Reader community and cutting engagement by 50%. I dread to think what Google would do if it seriously tried to integrate Blogger into Google Plus. I used to be able to trust Google to do what's right by its users, but now all I ask is for Google to leave the products I enjoy using alone.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Starting Up While Employed

Someone recently asked me for advice on working on a startup while he was still employed at a large tech company. My first response was to point him at my response on Quora. Even though I provide details on pretty much how to do this, I still don't think it's a great idea.

  • Working at a startup is tough. Doing so while trying to hold down a full time job at a large tech firm is going to slow you down a lot. Unless your idea has such a high technical barrier that you're the only person who could conceivably execute on it, someone else is very likely to get to market before you do.
  • It sends the wrong message to your potential investors and co-founders. As a co-founder, I want to see someone else dedicated enough to cut the safety net and go full time. As an investor, I'd be wondering about your commitment if you were only willing to work on it part time. Yes, nearly everyone knows that Reed Hastings did his startup while contracting for other Silicon Valley firms. But note: he was not an employee, and no one doubted his commitment to the startup because he took out a second mortgage on his home!
  • If you're working everywhere but California, which has extremely employee friendly laws and courts, then even my reply to the above question might not save you. In particular, are you so good at keeping a secret that you can avoid talking about your idea at lunch? And of course, you'd better be scrupulous about never doing any work on that company laptop or on a company paid-for internet connection. (A surprising number of people at large tech companies don't even own their own computer, and trust me, if you end up going to court and this comes up, you are losing all your intellectual property)
  • Finally, if you really are startup material, then quitting your job to do a startup and coming back to a big company if it fails will always be an option. If you're not, then what makes you think your startup will be worth all that extra time you're putting in?
As a result, despite all temptation to do otherwise, if your idea is really good, don't try to do it on the sly (say, while on sabbatical). Just be open about it and walk out and then execute like crazy.

Review: The Magician King

Despite a wonderful concept, I reviewed The Magicians last year with faint praise. I was surprised when it won the John W. Campbell award... until I read the competition, most of which was barely readable and not really worth mentioning.

I sampled The Magician King on the Kindle, and the writing was good enough that I decided to place a hold at the library for the book. I'm glad I did.

First of all, the worst part of The Magicians was the teenage whining and angst. The Magician King does away with that. While Quentin (one of the two protagonists) is still more than a little clueless and frequently seems to be just someone dragged from one event to another without any reflection, the plot this time is far more interesting and focuses on the nature of magic itself, and why it exists in this milieu. And the second protagonist is Julia, whom we didn't much of in the first book except at the end. She's not clueless or whiny, and her story runs through the second strand of narrative in the novel.

Julia's a much more interesting character than Quentin, and we get to see the darker side of magic through her. There's more than a few streaks of meta-thinking in the novel, especially as the characters start thinking about fantasy quests in the abstract: "We don't need a map. Quests are all about attitude."

Finally, when the big reveal happens and we see what the point of all this questing is, we're also done with the quest. Unfortunately, at this point, Grossman decides that he's done with being innovative, and delivers us a standard fantasy, complete with a fantastical ending which ends up being cliched. This does not detract from the journey, which is a lot of fun.

Nevertheless, the book is overall an enjoyable read (more so than his previous novel), and while it's not on the scale of Stephen Donaldson's work, as a short easy read I would recommend it as an airplane novel or brain candy.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: Republic, Lost

I came across Republic Lost by watching the video:

To tell the truth, the video wasn't very good. Lessig presents a complex argument and some solutions, and those are best done in book form, so I checked out the book from the library. This is an important book if you're an American citizen.

Lessig argues what many of us who've watched the political process for the last 20 years know: Congress is broken. Not just broken when it's owned by Republicans or Democrats, but broken no matter who controls the house and/or the senate. The problem is that of money, and he traces the history of how it's happened: campaign financing has turned campaigning into a full time job, because of the amounts of money required. While bribery is outright illegal, a lot of the result is that Washington D.C. has become a gift economy, where "gifts" buy attention as well as time.

Lessig points out other places where Congress has become corrupted by money, and then details several potential solutions, none of which seems very probable to me (seriously? A constitutional convention? It's more likely that a morally upright billionaire could ride in and save the day). However, this book was written before the Occupy Wall Street movement, and if he can persuade the movement (as well as most of the American people) that this is at the root of the problem, there's a real chance we might have real elections and an ability to actually affect outcome so that we can have a government of the people for the people and by the people again.

The big problem with Lessig's book is that he's not a historian. There have been previous times when the Republic has become as corrupted, for instance, during the Gilded age. It took an extraordinary man (FDR) and a world war to get us out of it, but it would have been interesting to see an analysis of how it happened and how.

In any event, I think the book's way more interesting than the presentation, and deserves every voter's attention. While you might find the book a slog, especially if you start reading the book already convinced that Congress is corrupt, you'll still find something new every chapter. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review: Thinking Fast and Slow

In recent years, there's been a spate of non-conventional economics books, two of which are Freaknonics and Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality. After all this, you might think hey, I'm over-saturated with books, I don't have time for another one, and you'd be wrong.

First of all, Thinking Fast and Slow was written by Dan Kahneman, whom with Amos Tversky started the entire field of behavioral economics, so you're hearing this from the guy whose shoulders everyone else is standing on. Secondly, the book is packed. I have nothing against Levitt or Ariely, but every 4 pages of this book would correspond to entire chapters of one of their books. This is a book packed densely with information. For instance, the chapter on Intuition vs Formula would alleviate the need for you to read any of John Gottman's books if you took it seriously (he has a very simple formula for determining of your marriage will last, and the minute you see it you'll realize that it works and works well). And that's not even the point of the entire chapter, it's just something that Kahneman threw off while discussing other, more involved topics. The last third of this book, for instance, would alleviate the need for you to read Thaler's Nudge. Not that Thaler's book is not good, but Kahneman is so much better a writer and gets his points across with such economy of prose and ease that he gets done in 100 pages what lesser writers would take an entire book to do. Many books that cover an area with such detail would be dry and difficult to read, but Kahneman's book is fantastic, filled with humor (including some sight gags that will have you giggling with delight when you see them) and examples (frequently the experiments that created the results) that will let the point stick to your head.

The range and breadth of this book is tremendous, yet every topic is covered well and (clearly) by the person who pioneered the field. All I can say is, don't waste your time reading anything by the other writers in this field, just read this book and be done with it! I don't usually consider buying books after reading them since usually most books deserve only one read, but I will likely buy this book the next time I want to reference an idea in it. Highly recommended

As an aside, if you have a choice, buy the Kindle version of the book. The hardcover is poorly designed, and will not stay flat no matter what you do (yes, even if you cracked the spine of the book!).

After you've read the book, if you want more of Kahneman, his Multimedia Page has tons of lectures, talks, etc.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2012 Book Reviews



    Review: The Good School

    I came to The Good School as a foreigner who's never been through the american K-12 system. I read an excerpt about how class sizes didn't matter as much as you think they do, and nodded to myself. I personally grew up with class sizes of around 40 students to 1 teacher.

    The first thing that made me realize that this was a high quality book was that the research results were impressive and surprising. For instance, right out of the first chapter on academic pre-schools: Researchers showed that the academic approach created students with more emotional problems, had more acts of teen misconduct, and lower academic aspirations than kids who attended a playful learning program. She tend goes on to detail Tools of the Mind, which was described in Nurture Shock.

    One of the things that stands out to a non-American is that the American educational system is bat-shit insane. For instance, tests in Singapore are graduated, which means that you start with easy questions and move on to tougher and tougher questions that require deeper and richer understanding of the material. Well, that's not how Americans do it. The standardized tests are designed so that 40-60% of kids will get it right, in a statistically defensible pattern. WTF! That makes no sense! As a result, questions that nearly everyone will get right are banned, as are questions that nearly everyone cannot answer, since those add no value to the test. I remember my SATs, and they were somewhat graduated, but frequently had a lot of repetitively similar questions, and this explains why.

    The section on class sizes is interesting, as I never understood why Americans obsessed about it given my experience in Singapore. Then I realized that students are not sorted in the American system! In Singapore, each year's report cards would be used to stream students into classes with other students of similar ability. As a result, the teachers have the relatively easy job of teaching students who are all more or less at the same level. In America, students are all clumped together and then the teacher is expected to be able to give the laggards or the brilliant ones individual attention. It wouldn't be a surprise to you that that doesn't work.

    They cover two big topics: reading and math. Apparently, learning to read English is so well understood that experts agree that there's only one way to teach it: Phonics. But in their survey of school literature, apparently most schools do not teach reading that way, which means that many students fail. Teaching how to read English is much easier than teaching how to read Chinese, so you can imagine my jaw dropping when I read that.

    Math, of course, is something Americans are famously bad at compared to the rest of the world. There are two big differences between Americans and the rest of the world. Elementary school teachers in America come from low performers: while the rest of the world gets its teachers from the upper 30% of the class, many American elementary school teachers say things like: "I don't like Math." Secondly, unlike Asians, Americans don't believe that Math is something that can be worked on and believe that you either have a talent for math or not. What results is that the math curriculum is set politically rather than by experts, and as a result, America's math textbooks are confusing and badly written.

    The surprising antidote turns out to be Singapore Math, the math studies system I grew up with. I'm surprised that the system isn't just imported wholesale into the US given how much more effective it is than what's in place right now. Apparently, there are school districts that have switched over to it, but it's apparently not something people are pushing for. (By the way, Singapore Math gets you Calculus by the time you hit grade 10, and you're doing simultaneous differential equations by grade 12)

    All in all, this book is an eye opener if you grew up outside the American school system. I used to think that Americans are badly educated because the culture here doesn't prize academics but prefers to worship Britney Spears and sports stars instead. Now I know it's not just the culture, but also the system which seems to be put together by people pushing political agendas rather than try to teach kids. If you're used to Asian educational systems, you need to read this book to get an idea of how American schools are different (and probably much worse) than what you grew up with. Recommended.

    Monday, November 28, 2011

    2011 Books of the Year

    This year, I read 53 books, of which 4 were Hugo nominees that weren't really novels but novellas. Unlike previous years, however, the standout book this year isn't non-fiction. I did ponder giving Presimetrics a nod for the book of the year, but instead, the book of the year really should be The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. To me, it reinvents fantasy boldly, and does all of the intended themes justice. For a first time author this is nothing short of outstanding, and I'm going to read her other books as well.

    Strangely enough, this was not a good year for novels. The only other two notable novels were The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Surface Detail. Both were fun, but neither earth-shaking.

    Non-fiction, however, had a lot of great books to choose from, though Presimetrics really stood out. The Box, The Victorian Internet, The Party: The Secret World of China, and Peopleware will delight the geeks amongst the readers of this blog. Finally, I also went on a baby book binge (for the obvious reasons), but the reality is, most baby books are horribly written, and the only one that I would recommend is still Brain Rules For Baby. I have no idea why baby books are so badly written. I'd imagine that moms are so busy that books for them would have to be well-edited and tightly written, but that's definitely not the case.

    Finally, graphic novels have been relatively disappointing, though once again, Fables comes recommended. If you haven't already started reading it, I urge you to do so.

    Sunday, November 27, 2011

    Review: I'm Feeling Lucky

    I never encountered Doug Edwards in person at Google, so when I'm Feeling Lucky hit the shelves, I took my time getting to it, since I was familiar with many of the details behind the story.

    Well, I finally checked out the book from the local library, and I'm glad I did. First of all, it's cool to see names and people you're familiar with. For instance, upon request, Edwards provided a pseudonym for a well-known engineer, "Claus." Well, as a Googler, it would take you all of 10 pages to figure out who "Claus" was, so what's anonymous for others isn't anonymous for you. Secondly, as a Googler, some mysteries are solved through stories from the old days. For instance, if you've always wondered why a certain executive is hated, this book explains why that person wasn't just hated by his/her reports, but also by other functional teams. It even explained to me why a certain engineer, despite his critical role in the company (and was one of the first ten employees) was denied refresher options and essentially told to leave. If you're a current or ex-googler, this sort of gossip is fun and explains certain behavior that has roots somewhere in the murky past and which makes no sense today and (in many case) didn't even make sense back when I joined in 2003.

    This is primarily a book written from a marketing person point of view. Furthermore, it's written by Google's brand manager. You're not going to find the sort of nitty gritty technical details that would please someone whose life was devoted to Hacker News, for instance. On the other hand, the business milestones are documented in great detail: the AOL deal, the Yahoo deal, and the various Overture deals. Unfortunately, you're not going to get a lot of strategic insight: Edwards wasn't privy to those, and a 20 minute conversation with PengToh would do you a lot more good than reading this book if you wanted those.

    Nevertheless, Edwards does provide some insight into the engineering organization. For instance, Google is famous about not providing positive feedback inside the engineering organization. I've met retired ex-Googlers worth multiple tens of millions in net-worth who still seem emotionally scarred by the experience of doing amazing stuff that never got any recognition. What I didn't realize at that time was that this is part of Google's engineering DNA, buried deep inside its founders and early employees. If you hire former Google engineers, read this book, and you won't be as surprised as some Facebook managers who told me, "I thought I was getting a good engineer, but I wasn't prepared for how political Google engineers got as a result of their never received proper recognition inside Google and having to fight for any sort of recognition as a result." That makes the book well worth reading for this insight alone, not just in case you happen to hire Google engineers, but to also ensure that your engineering culture doesn't end up like that, because while obviously it didn't hurt Google, there was no need to do this to otherwise valuable people.

    All in all, I think this book is well worth reading, and definitely worth paying the Kindle price for. If you're affiliated with Google at all, I would encourage you to read this book. If you've got even a modicum of curiosity about Google, this book is so well-written that you will not feel like you've wasted your time. Recommended.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Review: Facebook Groups

    Some companies just never get good press, no matter what they do right. For instance, in 2006, I switched from Mac OS X (Tiger) back to Windows XP mainly because Tiger did not remember my password, so every time I connected to my NAS I would have to retype it. Windows did so with no trouble at all. Ironically, the very next release of Mac OS fixed the problem, but by then I had already reformatted the hard drive and had no desire to go back. That same machine is still happily running XP over at my parents'.

    Similarly, Facebook's in that purgatory today. No matter what they do right, very few people say good things about them. Well, recently, Facebook Groups fit our needs in a way that nothing else really does. Not wanting to turn my blog/delicious shares/picasaweb album into a free for all kiddie posts, I wanted a way for XiaoQin and I to share the pictures/videos with our friends. Google groups didn't cut it, since it doesn't really integrate with Picasa. (Does anyone use Google groups any more?) Google Plus doesn't let two people share the same circles (circle sharing only shares circles at one point in time), nor does it let two people administer one circle.

    Facebook Groups, however, lets you create a group, provide admin privileges to as many users as you like, and then share photos/videos all to the same group. All the usual Facebook commenting happens there, and users get a friendly notification whenever new content shows up in the group, but you don't get your feed spammed with each new post/photo/video. This is clearly the right thing to do. There are a few glitches. The first big glitch is that the Facebook Android App doesn't know about groups, so if you take a photo with your Android phone, you have no way of uploading to any Facebook group! If I was the kind of person who shot photos on the phone instead of on a real camera, I'd be very pissed, but as it is, it's not much of an annoyance. The second glitch is that you have to have a Facebook account to participate. That's not a big deal --- even my mom has a Facebook account nowadays, while she's always had trouble with following me on Picasa. To be honest, that was the biggest feature: the Grandma has no trouble using Facebook.

    After using this set up for a few weeks, I'm pretty impressed. First of all, I had no idea there were that many people interested in my baby pictures. And there's enough feedback that I'll keep posting to the group. I used to think that Google Wave would address such needs, but having seen what Facebook Groups is doing, I'd say that it's definitely doing a better job than Wave would have. Recommended.
    (Disclosure: I own both Facebook and Google stock)

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Review: The Cold Commands

    After reading The Steel Remains, I read that author Richard Morgan intended the story and the universe he created to show how you wouldn't want to live in the typical fantasy universe. One of the big schticks in The Steel Remains was that the major protagonist, Ringil "Gil" Eskiath was gay, and indulged in as much debauchery as he could get away with. Lacking that surprise, The Cold Commands reads as a much more pedestrian work.

    The Cold Commands can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. I barely remember the plot of the previous novel, so it's nice to see a trilogy that allows you to jump in in the middle without feeling like you're missing much. Even the protagonists are all re-introduced, and since what they start out doing has very little to do with how the previous novel ended, there's no context lost.

    The plot runs in three separate strands, coming together only very late in the novel. Morgan takes the opportunity to do more world building, and it really is made clear that the setting is only a sort of fantasy: these is a science fiction world as well, with some of the various races involved in the big story-line being aliens.

    Unfortunately, there's no real character development, and not even a lot of blood and guts. Other critics make a big deal out of an early-scene rape scene, which shows how nasty one of the protagonists actually is, but Morgan even took the sting out of that one --- it certainly doesn't have the shock impact that Lord Foul's Bane had, for instance.

    All in all, while the book satisfied any desire I had for more Richard Morgan, it's definitely not him at his best. I still refer people to Altered Carbon instead. If that doesn't make you a Richard Morgan fan, for heavens sake, don't bother with The Cold Commands.

    Saturday, November 12, 2011

    Review: Motorola Baby Monitor 3.5

    For my birthday this year, my brothers gave me a Baby Monitor. I was real skeptical when this showed up on my door step. $240 and it doesn't export to the internet? What use is it?

    Well, we've been using it for a week now, and so far, it's been surprisingly good. The best feature is that it's really easy to set up. Plug in the camera, plug in the screen, turn on the screen (the camera never turns off), and instant picture time. The microphone on the camera picks up sound really easily, and you can turn up the speakers on the screen if you want to hear every toss and turn. Yes, it's that sensitive. The battery life on the screen is pretty lousy: it advertises 3 hours, but in reality if you keep the screen on (that's the point of the monitor --- I can hear the baby crying from all over the house), you won't get much more than 2 hours. The screen turns itself off after a couple of minutes to save battery, but if you keep the screen plugged in, then it'll stay on.

    What was surprising to me was that the entire setup is easy enough that grandma and granddad just picked it up and immediately knew how to pan the camera, turn up the sound, etc. You can also talk back to the baby if you like, but that feature rarely gets used, and frequently we forget it's there even when it'd be useful to have an intercom system to the baby's crib. The picture quality is good enough that granddad would be fascinated by it throughout dinner. Night vision mode automatically turns on and it provides a nice black and white picture that still looks pretty good. There's a USB port that supposedly lets you export to some sort of computer, but no accessories can be found to use it.

    The biggest problem so far for me is that the system doesn't seem designed to mount say on the side of a crib. There are no suction cups or obvious places to tie the camera to velcro, for instance, making jury rigging mounts much harder than expected for something that you would want to mount out of the way once the baby gets big enough to explore the entire crib.

    From what I read of other reviews of baby monitors, it seems like the combination of reliability (both the screen and the camera's been dropped multiple times with no sign of damage) and ease of use is hard to find. Therefore, despite my initial impressions I have to recommend this monitor.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    Tips for Surviving Childbirth

    These are a few notes that I hope are helpful for those dads-to-be who plan to be involved with the childbirth process. There are plenty of resources focused on moms-to-be, and to be honest, moms have the much tougher job, but there are a few things that dads can do, mostly because they'll actually not be exhausted from 24 hours of labor (plus possibly a c section).

    The biggest tip I got and was very grateful for was to stay flexible. Yes, you can write up a birth plan. Yes, you can say "I support breast feeding and my wife is into it 100%." But when your wife comes out of the delivery room pumped full of anesthetics and is too exhausted to breast feed, it is absolutely not a crime to feed baby from a bottle. You can generally tell the kid's hungry if you're holding him and he's arcing his neck and head going for your breasts. That's a pretty good sign of desperation and hunger, especially if he just came off from mom's breasts, for instance. (Incidentally, one dad told me he got a bottle of formula into the baby while mom was sleeping just so that everyone could sleep)

    The second tip I have is to make sure you have a camera handy. That means that if you're toting a super-duper SLR, make sure you also have a point and shoot. Here's why: if there's an emergency c section, and you have to put scrubs on, then that SLR probably isn't going into the operating room with you, but the point and shoot can and should. That means that all your batteries should also be charged prior to the big day.

    Keep an eye on both the health of the baby and mom! Baby needs to be watched for signs of hydration. One of XiaoQin's friends left the hospital with a dehydrated child because she listened to the "breast-only" nazis and they told her that baby doesn't need that much food for the first few days. Well, the problem is that if you don't feed baby anything, he's not getting food or water. In my case, XiaoQin complained of an itching feeling near her c section wound. When a nurse and doctor checked her, it turned out to be an infection that required a couple of weeks of pretty strong anti-biotics, and regular draining and cleansing. Yes, it was gross.

    Expect to be the person changing diapers for at least the first 24 hours. Mom will be out of it (and if she has any energy it should be spent resting/sleeping, breast feeding and feeding herself). Track all activities like pooping, feeding, urine, etc. That'll be very useful for giving you an idea of what's normal and what's not in the future. Pummel visiting doctors with questions, and feel free to ask for help with all basic issues like breast feeding, swaddling, etc. Most folks at the hospital have done everything tons of times, and now's your chance to learn all the little time saving tips.

    If you can, have other people come in and help. We had 3 grandparents visiting and 2 helping. This let me run out to get food, catch up with sleep, and other things. If you don't have other family around, pay someone to take care of mom and baby for at least 4 hours every day so you have time to sleep and eat.

    Finally, don't panic. Everyone keeps telling you how much work the initial experience is. It's a lot of work, but it's not worse than digging trenches in the army.

    Review: Steve Jobs

    When I read that Walter Issacson was asked by Steve Jobs to write an authorized biography of his life, I assumed that it was to be a sycophantic white-washing of everything Jobs did. But excerpts from the book led me to believe that Jobs did not ask for control over the content, and that the book would cover all aspects of him, not just his crowning achievements. I checked the book out from the library and found myself consumed by it.

    Much of the story has already been told. For instance, Wozniak's book was written mostly because Jobs had taken so much credit for Apple, leading many to believe that Jobs had a key role in inventing the earlier Apples. Sure enough, Issacson covers that portion, including several folks explaining how Jobs tends to take credit for other people's ideas without apology.

    The first third of the book covers Job's early life, his adoption, and his college days. There's a section about how he picked up his charismatic approach to talking to people from another college student, but taking it one step further. This is good because many assumed the Jobs' ability to charm was innate.

    The second third of the book covers the early Apple years. It is here that Issacson seems to show a lot of Stockholm syndrome. At times the book reads like an apology for Jobs as Issacson points out all the things Jobs did that created the company. This was a bit distracting because most of those things were something anyone with a business background could have done, but without screwing his partners, his friends, and in general pissing off everyone around him. The section ends with Wozniak explaining that while he still considered Jobs a friend, he questioned his integrity. If you know anything about Wozniak, you'd know that's probably the worst thing he could say about somebody, but Issacson lets that go without comment.

    The final part of the book covers the wilderness years and his triumphant return to Apple. I once said that I'm not qualified to write a book about politics, but if you want to know how to do corporate politics well, here's a great tutorial on the topic, though most people probably wouldn't have enough of a Narcissistic personality disorder in order to pull it off. Issacson points out all the obsessive attention to detail that Jobs brought to the table, along with Jonathan Ives. While I'd heard about these details (mostly from Apple fans), this book covers all the details closely, and is worth reading for that section alone. While I have respect for all the work that goes into making these details, as a user I've frequently found that Jobs' approach frequently eschews function over form. For instance, laptop batteries are subject to abuse by most consumers (myself included), and it's not unusual for laptop batteries to die within a couple of years of purchase. Designing a laptop with a non-user removable battery for the sake of aesthetics seems lame to me. Obviously, the market for Apple machines doesn't agree with my evaluation of aesthetics versus functionality, but I'm also one of the people who gets asked to fixed such things. To his credit Issacson does mention this particular problem in his book.

    The last section was obviously rushed into print, and reads a lot like a bunch of notes all strung together without any attempt to weave a narrative around it. Nevertheless, the lack of polish allows us insight into a man who transformed the industry in many ways, and despite my immense dislike of Apple products, gave me insight into why he did what he did. Despite the rush to print, the book's extremely readable, and easy to plow through.

    Recommended even if you dislike Apple products. If you like Apple products, you probably bought this book before reading my review.