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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

First Impressions: Windows Surface Tablet

For unrelated reasons, my wife and I were near a Microsoft store today and we took the opportunity to drop by and check out the Windows Surface Tablets. Given my experience with Windows 8 Pro recently I expected to be underwhelmed. Instead we both came away pretty impressed.

The tablets themselves don't look anything special. The kickstands are very nice, but if that was all I wouldn't be impressed. The keyboards, however, are amazing. The thin keyboard is nice enough that you can actually touch-type on them with no errors. It's nothing like typing on a touch-screen. Even without haptic or audible feedback I could type at about half my normal speed, which is still at least 50% faster than a typical touchscreen.

Switch-over to the thicker keyboard, however, and my typing speed went up dramatically, to about 95% of the speed as the Thinkpad X201's. The Thinkpad's got 2 extra inches, so you can see why I'm impressed. This is the first tablet that I would consider as a decent laptop substitute!

While I was unimpressed by Metro on desktop, on the tablet it shines. You can treat it like any other tablet for viewing video, or whatever. But click on Microsoft Word, and the tablet UI fades and you get a windows UI. You can bring up Internet Explorer, and cut and paste to your heart's content as though you were on a laptop. You could watch youtube on half the screen while writing in the other half. A writer could actually get decent work done on this! The machine even has a microSD slot and a full USB slot as well as a display port slot, which means you can actually do laptop-y things with it, like post-process photos from a real digital camera (not the fake stuff that comes on tablets).

The big deficiencies (and these would get me to wait for the Surface Pro) are the lack of applications. Dropbox, for instance, hasn't been ported to Windows RT yet. If you wanted to use Lightroom, Photoshop, or Adobe Premiere Elements, you're out of luck, at least for the foreseeable future. However, all these issues would go away on the Pro version of the tablet, and I could see myself buying one instead of a laptop in the future.

It's never sexy to heap praise on Microsoft, but if you've got an interest in tablets, you should definitely check one out in person before ruling it out. And if Lightroom or Picasa or an equivalent got ported to Windows RT, watch out: this may well become the tablet to get for any serious photographer!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Tablet Lifestyle

Google finally sent me a replacement Nexus 7. Despite loading it up to less than 3GB available, the random write ops were still well over 100, indicating that the new machine doesn't have a faulty memory controller. Further more, the new Nexus 7 also does not have an annoying creak in the screen that the old one had, indicating that physical build quality might have improved. With these problems eliminated, I can safely recommend the Nexus 7 once again.

What have I been using the Nexus 7 for? Like many others, I use it a lot for e-mail. There's danger in that, however --- the desktop e-mail client is still far better about auto-complete. More than once, I thought I'd selected one auto-complete only to find myself sending mail to some other random person with a similar name. This has embarrassed me greatly at least once, so I'm trying to get better about checking the To field before hitting send.

With several other people in the house, I can watch movies on the N7 so I don't interrupt them. It's a fairly satisfying experience unless you try to watch video on Google Play. Even with a high speed internet connection, I still get occasional hiccups which interrupt the flow. Occasionally, the device even pops into standard definition in order to keep up. Google Music, however, streams just fine from the internet over wifi.

Skype is great on the Nexus 7. When chasing Bowen around the house, it's far better to chase him with the Nexus 7 than with the desktop or even the Thinkpad. Grandparents love the dynamic hand-held video cam that the Nexus 7 comes with. The picture quality is decent, though obviously not as nice as a real webcam.

Quora has a great app on the Nexus 7, and I find myself using it more often than I should. Other common apps that are proxies for websites are Facebook and Google+, though I find myself disliking the graphics-heavy Google+ app and opting to use Google+ on the web instead.

One thing I find though is that when I share from the Nexus 7 instead of the desktop, I write fewer comments and less insightful ones. Despite the bluetooth paring being decently easy and fast, my suspicion is that digging out the keyboard for use on the Nexus 7 is still not convenient enough.

While it's possible to write a decent amount on the Nexus 7 when you have a bluetooth keyboard paired, it's still not as comfortable as writing on my desktop, so I doubt if my desktop is in danger of being replaced. Ultimately, my suspicion is that I'm going to have to curtail my use of the Nexus 7 when not traveling so I can get more reading done. It's too addictive to browse the web instead of reading or writing.

I did find a good use of the Nexus 7 for business. I was recently renting out my studio unit, and when the tenants showed up and wanted to apply right away, instead of having them go home to verify their identity using e-renter, I handed them a tablet and the bluetooth keyboard and they could verify their identity right away. I used to use the laptop for it, but it's a pain to unplug it from the monitor (especially if my wife was using it), so it was nice to have another screen in the house to do this. I suppose I could have powered up the Playstation 3 and use the really big screen, but since the renter had to enter his social security number into the identity verification web-site, it was best to have a small screen. If I was an apartment manager with frequent turnover, I could see myself buying a Nexus 7 or other tablet just for this function.

Compared with an Apple iPad 2, the Nexus 7 felt much more portable and easy to browse say, at the breakfast table. Further more, Apple's software is questionable. For instance, if you loaded an iPad with photos sync'd through iTunes, there's no way to delete that photo from the iPad without going through iTunes. So one use of the iPad (for instance, to load up photos from a trip and have the grandparents pick the ones they wanted to keep on the iPad) is just impossible.

Now that Google's fixed my issues with my Nexus 7, I might go as far as to order another Nexus 7 for my parents so they can Skype to Bowen. They are forever breaking their Skype setup, and it'd be much harder for them to break a Nexus 7.

I still don't consider a tablet essential to my lifestyle. However, if you have to get one, I'd definitely get the Nexus 7 over the iPad.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

First Impressions: Windows 8 Pro

I'm not normally an early adopter, preferring to upgrade things after people have already eaten the beta. But Microsoft made all Windows 7 users a great offer by offering upgrades for $40.00 online, so I couldn't resist and upgraded my personal desktop to Windows 8, confident that I could deal with whatever usability snafus Microsoft could throw at me. After all, I consider EMACS a good user interface.

The purchase UI was terrible, not because it was difficult to fill out, but because Microsoft's servers were overloaded and rejected my attempts to buy the upgrade 4 times before I finally succeeded. Where's a decent monopoly when you need one?

The upgrade process was fairly straightforward. Burn the downloaded .ISO to DVD, and then run the setup file directly from inside Windows 7 (if you want a fresh start, reboot and boot from DVD). The upgrade assistant does a good job of telling you what will or will not work on your upgrade, and which tools you'd have to reinstall. It even reminded me to deauthorize my iTunes account and reauthorize it when the machine refreshed.

People with SSDs will tell you that the upgrade takes all of 18 minutes. I have a hybrid SSD, which is of no help whatsoever when it comes to OS upgrade, so I started it off and had lunch and came back to find the setup screen waiting for me.

There are several nice features waiting for you in Metro. Unfortunately, I could not use most of them because I discovered that if I linked my Windows account to my Windows Live account (which is the way Microsoft intended to use it), then my mapped network drive to Windows Home Server stopped working. Doh! Fortunately, I don't really care about sharing from the new suite of Metro Apps, so I cheerfully reverted back to my local Windows setup and my mapped network drive all worked.

The strongest point of Windows has always been backwards compatibility. Even so, a few things didn't work. I ended up uninstalling ATI's Catalyst software for managing the screens. This is not a problem, because Windows actually manages all that without issues. I had a few horrifying moments when I thought that SleepyHead stopped working. I would have happily uninstalled Windows 8 Pro and reverted to Windows 7 if this was permanent. But after swapping around some display settings and turning on the Windows 7 compatibility checkbox, SleepyHead was working, perhaps even better than usual because it stopped trying to foist those annoying updates at me.

In fact, one thing that I've noticed is that my monitors now enter sleep mode and resume from sleep mode with a stability that Windows 7 never had. It could simply be that I should have uninstalled ATI's Catalyst a long time ago, rather than using it.

The coolest thing about Windows 8 Pro? The new performance monitor. Not only does it tell me what it used to tell me, it also gives me what GHz rating I'm running at, whether TurboBoost was working, and it just looked cleaner. Nice.

Windows Home Server recognized Windows 8 (despite predating it by almost a decade), and proceeded to backup my machine just fine. That's pretty nice. I do miss the old start menu, but learning to hit the Windows Key to bring up the Metro UI didn't take much. I played around with some apps on the new UI, and to be honest, I'm not sure why I'd want a tablet-style interface on my desktop. It's just too annoying to only have one thing on screen at a time. Nevertheless, if you have 2 monitors, you can designate one for the new UI, and have the other for real work. So that doesn't suck at all. Windows-PageUp and Windows-PageDown also lets you flip the Metro UI from one window to another dynamically, and it's pretty snappy. The new Mail/Calendar app are pretty worthless, since as far as I can tell, it's not faster than Thunderbird or any other mail client, and seems more limited. The news reader apps are beautiful, but again, do I really want to use my beautiful 27" screen to host one story at a time, or would I rather have my tabbed interface on Chrome and flip between multiple stories? No contest, the traditional UI won. It is nice, however, to have games running in full screen, and some of those Metro-style games are pretty fun even with a mouse. Also, it's nice to have Google Search with voice recognition, the way it works on my tablet. Google should have integrated that into Chrome ages ago, rather than waiting for Microsoft to force them into it. The Metro Kindle App is also a thnig of beauty. But again, I didn't buy a 27" monitor to use it as a book reader.

Windows 8 was touted as having high performance boot.I tested several reboots with a stop watch, and discovered to my horror and disappointment that boot speed was abysmal, 1:45s for a machine that used to take 1:00. I re-read the linked blog post and discovered that I was doing it wrong: hitting the restart button would cause a cold shutdown and cold boot. However, a standard shutdown forward by a boot would yield much faster results, 0:45s to a usable desktop, or about half the time, which is quite a bit of a performance gain. Do this a few time so the hybrid SSD would learn the OS usage pattern, and I'd expect the boot performance to be even better.

Do I recommend Windows 8? It depends. To me, it feels like the new OS is just a bit snappier on certain tasks --- flipping between applications seem just faster. IWhat I like is the new increased stability of sleep mode for me. Sleep didn't use to be so fast and reliable. I like the faster boot speed as well. I do miss the old start button UI, but I haven't found adapting to the new UI to be onerous or horribly confusing. It's a bit jarring though: you do feel like you're flipping modes.

All in all, for $40, I feel like it's a decent deal. I wouldn't pay full price for the upgrade, especially if you don't have touch on your desktop. I wouldn't go out of my way to do an upgrade (I did, but I was also curious about the new UI), but it's nothing to run away from either. I certainly don't see it as the disaster some pundits have been saying. Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tips for running a rental business

I've been running a rental business for a while now, and so has my wife. The income is very nice, the write-offs are really impressive, and unlike others you might have talked to, landlording is not nightmarish at all. It is, however, a business, and I suspect that people who run into trouble being a landlord simply are not running it like a business and try to take short cuts. So this blog post is a series of notes and tips for people who're about to start a rental business or might find themselves "accidental landlords."

Easily your best investment is the book, How to Manage Residential Property for Maximum Cash Flow and Resale Value. If you're just renting a room in a house, or a one-unit property, you might consider that most of this book irrelevant (it's targeted at multi-unit rental property managers). And you'd be WRONG. This book contains a huge number of tips that I used and saved me the money (and time) spent on the book several times over. For instance, the section on how to transition property from one renter to another has saved me a huge amount of hassle, time after time. Note that John T Reed's other books are about real estate investment. In particular, if you're thinking of buying rental property in the Bay Area, the answer is DON'T. Prices here have been driven to the point where it's difficult to get a good cap rate. The people I know who're successful at rental property tend to buy in cheaper places (outside the Bay Area), or bought into the bay area rental market decades ago. In most cases, I suspect the latter would have done even better by investing in Silicon Valley companies.

If you have a high turnover separate entrance property like a studio, your single best upgrade is a Keypad Lock.This enables you to switch between tenants by reprogramming the entry code, which saves the cost of getting a locksmith to change the keys. Even more importantly, your tenants can never lock themselves out again, so you will never get a call in the middle of the night asking you to let him or her in.

The next book to read is Every Landlord's Tax Deduction Guide.This is a big deal because certain tax deductions like rental property depreciation go into place the minute you list your apartment for rent on Craigslist. The difference between a repair and an upgrade is also huge, and you want to know the difference before you decide to replace something that isn't completely broken. You want to know all this up front.

Every Landlord's Legal Guide is also a very useful book. Not only does it cover what you can or cannot legally do (and if you're  a small time renter, a lot of the rules don't apply to you), it also comes with a bunch of forms that you can make applicants fill out. The thing is this: once people fill out a legal form, the very act of filling a form eliminates 90% of the miscreants  who think you will throw the book at them if they do something wrong.

Finally, you still need to use some form of a screening tool. I use e-renter, which does a decent job. The important part is to make sure that you're consistent so that you don't skip a step in the process. The times when I've seen landlords get into trouble is when they skip steps in order to get a tenant faster.

One final tip: if you're into optimizing the use of your assets, consider listing your property on AirBnB when you go on vacation. Silicon Valley rent and hotels are so expensive that a typical home can rent for a huge amount of money on a weekly basis, and you'll come out ahead. I've met people travelling across the country by driving and camping, and invariably what they tell me is that the most expensive part of traveling is paying rent (implied or real) in Silicon Valley.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

16 GB Nexus 7 Followup, or, How NOT to do customer service

I wrote about my problems with the Nexus 7 10 days ago. In the mean time, Google employees have tried to help me solve the problem. Some promised that the update to 4.1.2 would fix the problem, and well, after updating i, I tried it and I'm down to 43 IOPS on the write. Not the abysmal 13 it used to be, but a far cry from what it ought to be.

Google's customer service has promised an RMA. Well, after putting a hold on my credit card for $250, the replacement Nexus 7 still has not shipped. I called customer service last Friday, and they said, "the order is stuck in the "shipping" status, I'm referring you to a shipping specialist." E-mails to the specialist have yielded no results other than, "I'm looking into it for you."

Coincidentally, 2 weeks ago I had something similar happen to an Amazon order. I'd ordered some crayons, and a week later, the item was still in "Shipping" status with no change. But there's a million light years' worth of difference between Google and Amazon's customer service. While Google's doing their best to piss me off, Amazon's customer service rep said, "You know what, I've only seen this happen once before, and here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to upgrade you to one day shipping, and send off a duplicate order for you. If you end up with two of the same thing, just keep them both." Guess who's going to keep me buying from them time after time?

The same goes for Canon. Ironically, the only major corporation I've had experience with that was as arrogant as Google has been Apple. When I RMA'd my 2006 Mac Mini, they made me return the old one before shipping me a new one, leaving me without a machine for a week and a bad taste in my mouth. Google's not quite that bad, but the longer this goes on, the tougher it would be for me to forgive them.

Given the state of the iPad Mini announcement and pricing today, I'm guessing the Nexus 7 will do particularly well. But if you want a good product, do not order the 16GB one. Or if you do, be prepared for the customer service experience to be horrid.

Review: The Cove

I don't usually review movies on this blog. First of all, I have my hands full just reviewing books. Secondly, to my mind, most movies can't rise beyond the point of brainless entertainment.

Thus it is that when I'm writing this review of The Cove, I find myself in desperate straits.I want to be able to reach out from behind the screen and grab you, and make you watch this movie, (It's only $1.99 on Amazon Instant Video) but in my desire to do so I don't want to sound too earnest, too rabid, for fear that you'd be scared off.

So let me back off a bit and talk about my relationship with dolphins. I never grew up watching Flipper, nor am I particularly a dolphin fan. I've never swam with one, and probably wouldn't pay money to do so. On the other hand, I'm a sailing skipper, and on many occasions have had dolphins swim with my boat, besides my boat, or play with the bow(s) of my boat while sailing. I've also seen whales in San Francisco Bay while sailing. If the sight of these creatures in the wild leave you unmoved, you're not a candidate to see this movie.

The Cove is about dolphins. Specifically, it's about the whaling community of Taiji, in Japan. Every September, Taiji engages in a slaughter of dolphins, killing over 2,000 animals. This movie is about the slaughter of the dolphins, the method by which they have been slaughtered, and the politics behind the International Whaling Commission which permits the slaughter to still happen.

I'm not much of an animal activist: I've killed animals for others to eat in my time, and if I had to kill animals in order to eat meat I wouldn't have any trouble doing so. But dolphins are on top of the food chain, which means that they accumulate more mercury in their bodies than just about any other kind of marine animal you could eat. The results of the dolphin slaughter is for no good reason at all: a lot of the meat produced gets distributed throughout Japan and sold as whale meat (which isn't a lie --- dolphins are pretty much whales). Taiji men and women have 5 times as much mercury found in their hair as other Japanese. These folks aren't just destroying intelligent mammals, they're also poisoning themselves and their fellow citizens (and children) as a result.

But why do they do so? It turns out that part of the catch is also to produce captive dolphins for the various Seaquariums around the world. That's right. If you've ever visited SeaWorld, or taken your kids to one, you're part of the problem. While dolphin meat is not highly desired (see above), captive dolphins generate $150,000 each in revenue for the town of Taiji, and the slaughter of the remaining dolphins is just a by product.

The film follows a group of activists led by Ric O'barry, who used to be a dolphin trainer for the above mentioned TV series. He describes his change from animal trainer to activist, and all sorts of high technology comes into play for capturing the footage in this movie, which obviously the Japanese officials tried very hard to prevent from coming into existence. Underwater cameras, cameras disguised as rocks, blimps, night vision cameras, and a team of skin divers come into play. It's technically impressive and there's not a little bit of suspense as they play cat and mouse with the authorities.

This movie won the academy award in 2009 for best documentary. It deserves it. I'm not the emotional type (and as mentioned, am fond of eating animals) and the movie touched everything about me that made want to go out and join the activists. Highly recommended. Watch it, and you may never be able to visit Seaworld again. But if you watch only one movie this year, watch this one. Please.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Sandal Hunt of 2012

I don't buy shoes until I've completely worn out previous pairs. Some people think "wearing out shoes" means that they start to look worn. Not me. I prefer to wear them out until the soles are absolutely gone. I've had a pair of boots where I wore out the outer sole and the steel shank fell out while walking in the office.

With that in mind, my shoes from the 2006 Coast to Coast walk completely fell apart, leaving me with no shoes. The running shoe replacement was fairly easy: walk into a New Balance store and I left with the M730. They're light and fit really well, no problems.

Sandals are a bigger problem. Teva sandals were ruled out. They leave the toes exposed, but mostly have quality control issues: you'll never wear out the sole of a Teva because the velcro straps die first. I also had a pair of Tevas where the sole separated completely from the bottom of the shoe. They definitely didn't get so much wear that I felt that sort of failure mode was justified.

My wife loved her Keens, so I first tried a pair of Keen Turia Sandals. Ouch. I found out why they were on closeout: the heel strap on the Turia are so high that they cut into my Talus. These were the most painful shoes I'd ever experienced so I immediately returned them.

REI had a pair of Teva Churniums on closeout, and they looked a lot like the Keens, but but they were narrower. One size was too narrow, but the next half-size up was too loose lengthwise. So that was a disappointment. I finally gave up but my wife reminded me that her Keens were really good. I looked at her Keen Venice H2's, and discovered that unlike the Turias, the heel strap was low enough not to cut into the Talus.

I found a pair of Keen Newport H2s, and indeed, they fit perfectly. I'm always annoyed at how hard it is to find shoes. These aren't perfect. They work great without socks but feel just a bit cramped with socks. I can't seem to find them half a size larger, so I can only speculate what it'll be like if they were half a size bigger. In the mean time, however, these work very well, and in California, it never gets so cold that I need socks with these anyway. Recommended.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: The Last Lecture

I first saw The Last Lecture 4 years ago, and it touched and moved me in a way that no TedTalk ever did. It's nice to know that in an age of short-attention spans, the traditional lecture is still an art form that can be appreciated by many. If you haven't seen the video, you should do so now (this blog post can wait). It's highly recommended and well worth an hour of your time.
I didn't read the book The Last Lecture because I felt that the lecture had already been done so well that the book might not have anything to add. Yesterday (and it seems today), Amazon had a sale on the book at $1.99, so I picked it up hoping that 4 years would be enough distance that I could read the book and not find it to be a repeated experience.

To my delight, the book's not really a reprise of the lecture. The lecture's got some of the same information, but the book takes us through Professor Pausch's life, including his courtship with his wife, which he (quite rightly) left out of the lecture. What does come through is Pausch's love of life and willingness to grasp it for all that it's worth:
I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there's no other way to play it.
Too often in our lives we have people telling us that we should buckle down to do serious work, or that the things that we really want to do is not as important as the things people are willing to pay us money to do. With his authority as a man dying of cancer and a professor of computer science at a preeminent university, Professor Pausch gives us (and just as importantly, his children) this precious gift.

There are no empty words in this book, and very little repetition. It can be finished in a couple of hours, and was very much worth my time reading. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Bikes Direct Cafe Sprint

People usually ask me to recommend bikes for beginners. The reality is, I haven't bought a beginner's bike for years, so I'm rarely the right person to ask. What I did notice, however, was how nice Phil's Mercier Galaxy was: for $400, it was a steel framed touring bike that could survive multiple tour of the alps. The design and manufacturing specifications indicated a rigor that you couldn't see in many multi-thousand dollar bikes.

That gave me the confidence to order a Cafe Sprint when XiaoQin told me she wanted her own single, lightweight road bike.The bike showed up and was easy to assemble with allen wrenches, elbow grease, and a pedal wrench (which I used to install SPD pedals instead of the included toe-clips and straps) I kept the bike entirely stock and added a Sigma 1609 bike computer. The adjustable stem and quick release seat meant that I could dial in the fit and reach of the bike exactly the way XiaoQin needed it without having to resort to buying new stems and swapping handlebars.

Here's the thing: the bike is lighter than my custom-built titanium bike! Sure, it's a smaller frame, and it's probably not nearly as sturdy. If I were to put 10,000 miles on this bike, something would break, and it wouldn't be repairable in the field. But for a $500 bike, the lightness and ease of use is nothing short of amazing. I didn't expect very many miles to be on the bike since I bought it in August, but between XiaoQin and her two parents (who steal the bike every so often to run errands or go on pleasure rides), it's had 300+ miles on it! I've had to make derailleur adjustments (indexed shifters will go out of adjustment in 300 miles, but the ease of use for beginners is worth it) and fix a flat, but nothing else has needed work!

I'm very impressed by this bike and can highly recommend it for beginners or even experienced riders looking for a cheap, effective, nice riding bike. That it costs $500 and ships for free is a huge plus.

By the way, I would not recommend going any cheaper. Inspired by this ride I bought a cheaper version to tote my child around and it's just too cheap. The chainrings bent before I even put substantial mileage on it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Long Term Review: ResMed S9

My first impressions of the ResMed S9 were nothing short of impressive. I felt better in the morning, and the numbers from the charts are nothing short of amazing. My AHI dropped from an average of 1.28 to about 0.45, with occasional dips down to 0. That's right, 0 apnea/hypopnea events. This never happened with the system one. I was surprised by the huge difference, and so I had a conversation with my doctor about it. Her response:
I checked w the sleep clinic doctors. 
While u think it may be quieter or lighter, it should not make any difference in clinical response in terms of treatment w the exception of FP. Both resmed and respironics are equal in terms of efficacy.
So I collected more data. After a month,  you don't even need the detailed numbers to see that the ResMed S9 performs better. Just look at the above chart. The red-circled portion is the ResMed S9 transition, and it's very obvious that it's just doing way better than the Respironics System One was doing.

Now, it's very possible that the numbers recorded on the ResMed S9 are "doctor'd" somehow, and that the ResMed records hypopnea events differently or on a different basis, hence the numbers are skewed. But the fact that I was sleeping better and sleeping longer couldn't be ignored. (I had also switched partially to the Nasal Pillow mask over the full face mask --- let me know if you want a separate review of that) I did a bit of searching to find out why the ResMed could be better for me. It turns out, that the ResMed runs a very different algorithm from the Respironics on this forum post:
The S9 algorithm tends to respond to events by rapidly increasing pressure and then, once it is happy with the shape of the wave flow, it immediately starts to slowly decrease the pressure back down. And it will keep decreasing the pressure until the machine detects snoring, flow limitations, OAs, or Hs. If more events occur, the machine once again will rapidly increase the pressure. This gives the S9's pressure curve a characteristic "wave" appearance where the fronts of the waves are steep and the back sides of the waves are much more gently sloped.

The System One algorithm is slower to respond to events and is slower to start decreasing the pressure back down once it is happy with your breathing. The System One also uses a "hunt-and-peck" algorithm for determining the optimal pressure: About every ten minutes or so, the System One will increase the pressure by 2cm over something like a two minute period while checking for improvements in the wave flow pattern. If improvements are found, the baseline pressure is reset to the pressure that gave the optimal wave flow. If no improvements are found, the pressure is then dropped back to the baseline setting over the course of a minute or so. And the machine waits for about 5-6 more minutes before starting the new hunt-and-peck cycle. To decrease the pressure, the System One does a reverse "hunt-and-peck": It temporarily decreases the pressure slightly looking for any deterioration in the shape of the wave flow. If it sees any deterioration, no matter how minor, it bumps the pressure back up to the current setting. But if no deterioration is seen, then the baseline pressure setting is reset at the lower level. And the machine then waits for about 5-6 minutes before testing whether the pressure can be decreased again. The "hunt-and-peck" algorithm used on the Respironics machines gives the pressure curve a characteristic saw tooth appearance.
It's quite clear from looking at my graphs what's been happening. Basically, my apnea pattern comes in clusters. My family has an incredibly unpredictable snoring pattern, which is one reason why it's hard for others to get used to our snoring. Because of this clustering effect, the S9's algorithm stamps out the apnea/hypopnea events right away with a sudden ramp in pressure, and then the back off is very comfortable. The System One's slower response allows for more apnea/hypopnea events, which leads to worse sleep for me.

I pointed my doctor to this web-page and her response:
Thanks for this. It is v helpful as it explains why the S9 gives people the burst of aerophagia. I think the S9 are really better for floppy airways. I do think PR is better for the patient with bad allergies as the S9's quick response can - the rush of air can trigger nasal congestion.
 I think I am going to take the recommendation of the lady then that they should try both machines lying down. That's a good idea.
So what's the takeaway? Well, if you have a snoring pattern like mine, or what my doctor calls "floppy airways", then you want the ResMed S9. Otherwise, you want  the Respironics System One with its built in hysteresis. The way to tell is to try both machines if you can get a chance to do so. Otherwise, basically every time you switch machines, you should try the other brand once just to see whether it works for you. I used to think the machines were all alike, and now I realize that's not so. Medicine is extremely personalized. My doctor focused on and prescribed the Respironics because her patients usually also came with bad allergies. My allergies are largely controlled, and so her experience did not apply to me. Caveat Patient!

I've also tested the S9 DC Power Converter Plug for one night of camping (works great), and acquired the lighter power supply. In any case, that the machine is quieter just by itself is a huge win for both me and my wife. Highly Recommended.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

I will admit that I never read Winnie-the-Pooh as a child.I was also never exposed to any of the super-disneyfied merchandising and such. As a teenager, I did read The Tao of Pooh and enjoyed it, but of course, missed all the context that the book actually referred to. So I ended up buying a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh to read to Bowen.

The physical quality of the book is impeccable, with a beautiful slipcase and large font, and of course the original illustrations. What's also great is that the book uses the original British spelling, rather than being Americanized. Of course, you should avoid any of the Disney merchandising featuring the characters, or any of the abridged or follow-on commercial works. While I might not say that the latter is child abuse, what little of it that I've seen has no literary value and is complete junk. Unfortunately, the book's not quite designed to withstand a one-year-old's pounding, and I've already had to scotch tape the spine back to the book. Fortunately, there's no danger of the book ever going out of print and if Bowen ever wants a pristine copy we can easily buy another copy.

The book is a classic for good reason. Evidently, A. A. Milne spent a lot of time telling stories to his child involving all his stuffed animals. Each of the characters that are represented by a stuffed animal has a different personality, and they all interact in ways that reflect their characters. The story also frequently breaks the fourth wall, as the characters all know that they don't change much, and frequently commit the kind of errors a child would make with say, spelling. Despite growing up without exposure to A. A. Milne's original work, I grew up also talking to my stuffed animals (my brother, by the way, also recommends the movie, Ted for those who grew up talking to stuffed animals, and I can't wait to see it on DVD/Blu-Ray), and the way the animals talk to each other (and Christopher Robin) in the book seem universal (as in, even a boy from Singapore would have his stuffed animals talk the same way).

The illustrations are beautiful and whimsical. The poems and songs are silly and not very entertaining, but nevertheless make for fun reading out loud. While by the time I got around to the end of the book (it took us about a month for me to finish reading the entire book to him), I was quite saturated with the stories, the big strength of the book is that the adult never gets bored with the repetition (there isn't much), and there's always the next fun pun to look forward to.

Ok, so Amazon claims that the book is for 3 and up, but what the heck --- for a one year old with a dad who's bored with reading the same old Boynton to his baby every day, this book was just the break needed. Recommended.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Long Term Review: Honda Fit

It's been almost 3 years since I last wrote about my Honda Fit. Recent events have reminded me that I need to come back and write a review of this car, especially since my life has changed quite a bit.

I originally bought the car as a bicycle carrier. It serves that function exceptionally well. Even now, I have not bothered installing a hitch rack on it as I've always been able to carry all the bike I need inside the car. This is huge, given how small the car is. The car's been exceptionally easy to park --- I've found parking places for it where a bigger car would not have fit. The true testimonial for how much fun the car is to drive came when I exchanged homes with a French couple during the summer. They had the option of either driving the Honda Fit or my wife's BMW, but they chose to drive the Fit all the time, even for the long drives to Yosemite, when the BMW might have been more comfortable.

The true brilliance of the Honda Fit only became realized after I had a child. The first time I went to install a car seat into the Fit I was amazed. After 2002, LATCH systems were required for all new cars sold in the USA. But the way the LATCH system is implemented varies wildly between car manufacturers. Honda has easily the best LATCH system I have seen yet! Near the bottom of the rear passenger seats are slots that a LATCH-compatible tether can be plugged into and attached. This car seat then plugs in and goes. No fuss, just a strap  is tensioned and the seat is anchor'd solidly. You would think that this would be the standard for cars, but XiaoQin's BMW's LATCH hooks were non-existent or inaccessible, and I had to resort to the seat-belt system instead. The same went for my brother's Mazda 3. Arturo tells me that the Subaru's LATCH system is similarly good compared with the Honda's. The general consensus seem to be that the German car manufacturers are horrible offenders, with the American car manufacturers similarly bad (our rented minivan in Hawaii did not have LATCH connectors either).

Bowen is getting close to outgrowing his 22 pound Chicco car-seat, so I went and installed the Evenflo Triumph today. What amazed me was that in forward facing position (which we're not going to use yet), the Evenflo has a third tether which would go up to the ceiling of the car for additional stability. Well, I looked for it, and sure enough there it was sitting in the middle of the rear waiting for the day Bowen needs it. Color me impressed.

Now, if you're going to have two kids, chances are, the Fit might not be sufficient (though perhaps a trailer would actually alleviate most of your cargo needs concern, so there's no need to buy a bigger car). But seriously, I didn't consider having kids when I bought the car, and the fact that the car accommodated all these changes in my life with aplomb is impressive. The BMW simply doesn't compare. And as far as price performance is concerned, the Honda just kills nearly everything else.

In any case, I've been very impressed so far by the economy, the reliability, and the incredibly well designed interior of the Honda Fit. If something happened to my Honda tomorrow I'd run out and buy another one. Highly Recommended.

Review: The Guardian of All Things

The Guardian of All Things purports to be a book about the story of memory. That tickles so many geek flash-points in me that I placed the book on hold right away at the library. The first half of the book is exciting: we get an overview of how memory shaped humanity, of how early writing evolved from scratches in the sand to more permanent forms like clay tablets, and then papyrus. Then we cover parchment, scribing/copying of books and finally paper.

Unfortunately, it feels as though by the time the author gets around to discussing paper he's lost interest in the topic. We never do get a good overview of how paper evolved. By the time we arrive at the modern era, the narrative is now rushing at a breakneck pace. We get hints of intriguing stories. For instance, Al Shugart founded Seagate in order to take advantage of the anticipated demand in hard disk drives sized for personal computers. But what people did not know was that Shugart had formerly founded another company which got bought by Xerox.  That company, Shugart Associates, invented the 5.25" floppy disk, which was designed to be just a bit too big to fit in a shirt pocket, since they believed that carrying a disk that way would likely damage it.

While these little intriguing details were dropped in here and there, entire pieces of computer history was dropped. For instance, there's no mention of DAT tapes. The cassette audio tape was given barely a mention, and the entire history of film (silent and audio) was squeezed into two pages. Instead, we get a final chapter full of speculation (admitted good speculation --- for instance, Malone is appropriately skeptical of Ray Kurzweil's Singularity) which doesn't even begin to touch on the way Google and Facebook use storage nowadays. There's another intriguing side story about how a Carrington Event might actually wipe out a large amount of electronic storage. There's no substantiation about this event, and it doesn't seem very likely, but this sort of side-mention reduces Malone's credibility.

In other words, you might want to read this book, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it, but treat it like summer reading and don't take anything you read seriously, or at least, without triple checking the references.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Overview: Video Editing Software

One of the strange things that happen to you as a parent is that you suddenly end up shooting lots of videos. Lots and lots of video. Gigabytes worth. Most of the time, this is not a big deal. For instance, if you shoot a short segment of your baby playing around, you can just post it on Facebook or YouTube, and you'd be done. Most of the time, you don't even bother editing the video, attaching a sound-track, or stitching multiple videos together.

That changes when you hit certain milestones, like Bowen's upcoming birthday. While you could just slap together everything you had over the past year together, chances are, you don't really want to put together all the videos and just say "done." You want to pick out certain highlights, maybe add some interstitials or captions, maybe even attach a soundtrack. If some of your shots were done in less than ideal conditions, you might want to go for contrast adjustment or color correction. If your footage was shot randomly in different formats, you would need to reconcile all those formats and output either to DVD, Blu-Ray, or MPEG format. Since I refuse to buy Apple products as long as I have a choice about it, this overview covers only Windows PC products.

For basic videos like this one of Mike Samuel riding in Downieville, the simplest option is the free Windows Live Movie Maker.The user interface is very intuitive, attaching a sound-track is easy, and you can easily caption, edit, and output to YouTube or WMV format. (Which I usually then transcode to MP4 using Handbrake) If you do most of your shooting outdoors with no color-correction needed, then this is all you will ever need and you'll be happy. I've yet to run into a clip that Windows Live Movie Maker can't handle, and I have not run into any length or capacity limitations. The software also makes full use of my quad core machine, and is parsimonious in its memory use.

When do you need more? The big one for me was color correction. If you shoot in fluorescent lighting or tungsten lighting, then just as with stills, the footage will look orange or green. Another possibility is if you shoot with formats unsupported by Windows Live Movie Maker (unlikely) or if you want multi-track audio (e.g., 1 voice track, one music track, and 1 narration track).

My brother had a copy of Adobe Premiere Pro lying around as shelfware, so I tried that first. Professional level software is great if you have professional needs. But if you're a parent pressed for time, the interface is just too much. I ended up running away from it in horror.

A friend of mine's an Adobe employee, so I got a copy of Adobe Premiere Elements 10 instead for about $25. This is the version of Premiere with "training wheels." By default, you get "Scene Mode", which basically lets you drag and drop clips into a timeline, rearrange them, add an audio track, add in title screens and then go. If you decide that's too basic, you can flip it into Timeline mode, and now you have an advanced UI to go with more advanced needs.

The tool is obtuse. For instance, to do color correction tool, you first select the "Effects" button, and then select "Auto Color", and click Apply. There's no preview, so you have no idea what you did until you hit the "Render" button to see the impact of your selection. "Render", of course, is the equivalent of "compile". It's time consuming, chewing up nearly all your CPU for minutes if not hours at a time, and then giving you a chance to see that you screwed up your settings only to try all over again. There's a three-way color corrector tool as well. Unfortunately, if you're color-blind like me, you have to use that tool with your wife standing behind you checking to make sure you didn't screw up too badly with the tool. This is not a tool for the faint of heart, but it gets the job done.

The worst part about Adobe Premiere Elements is that it is SLOW. By this, I don't just mean the frustrating "render" times. The interface is laggy, at times taking forever to respond to your mouse clicks or dragging the slider bars around as you edit your video. I have no idea what it is the software is doing underneath the covers. The only thing I could think of is that the geniuses at Adobe decided to use Ruby to write the UI and then implemented it in the most naive way possible. The software doesn't crash often, but it does crash often enough that I'm grateful for the frequency Premiere Elements "auto-saves" for you.

The most challenging part of the video editing process is selecting the clips and getting it into the Premiere Elements for you to use. You might think that since Lightroom and Premiere Elements were both Adobe tools, there'd be a simple drag-and-drop interface between Lightroom and Premiere Elements so that stuff that's flagged in Lightroom can easily be selected for use in a video. Well, you'd be wrong. There's no integration at all between the two pieces of software, which means that I'm forever clicking "Show in Explorer" in Lightroom, and then manually dragging the file into Premiere Elements. This is the kind of stuff that makes me wish that Microsoft would get into the video editing/photo editing business just so Adobe has some competition in this area.

If editing videos taxes your patience, rendering it will push your hardware setup to the limits. I have a i7-920 processor with 10GB of RAM installed. Pushing the "Export" button will make my PC go away for 2-3 hours at a time in order to render a 1 hour video. With the CPU monitor running, I could easily see that all 4 cores were in full use --- the CPU fan runs at full speed and nearly everything else on the PC slows to a crawl. I'm the kind of person who's never tempted to buy faster hardware as long as my existing computer runs, and the long render times caused me to start browsing around to see if faster hardware would reduce my pain for this once a year event. (Turns out the answer is "no": I bought my PC in 2009, and in 3 years, PC CPUs have increased in speed by only 2X --- not nearly enough to justify the upgrade. When 8 core CPUs become cheap enough for consumer use, I might revisit)

Despite all this, I'm sticking with Premiere Elements 10 for my big video projects. That's because the learning curve is so steep that once you've gotten comfortable with the software, it's not even worth considering say, upgrading to Elements 11 without a compelling feature (such as say, software image stabilization) that would make it worth paying that learning curve price all over again. Such is the state of video editing today. In any case, Intel has said for years that in-home photo editing would be a compelling reason for consumers to upgrade CPUs, and I disagree. The state of software is such that I don't see the typical user doing this, ever. It's just too hard.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Long Term Review: Nexus 7

Well, 3 weeks isn't a very long time to write a long term review of the Nexus 7 unless, unfortunately, your device was a complete and utter dud and disaster.

Here's what happened: after I used the device a bit, it started getting sluggish. I wondered why everyone else was raving about the device. While a factory reset would get it fast again, I really did not enjoy having to reinstall the device every single time. A search for "Nexus 7 slow" didn't return many results, but a search for "Nexus 7 sluggish" granted me a Forum entry, which in turn led to this PSA.

Fundamentally, the 16GB variant of the Nexus 7 ships with defective eMMC packages. That means that if you load up the 16GB variant until there's less than 3GB of storage left, the machine grinds to a quick and sudden halt. Let me describe how slow it is: I could barely factory reset the device because it would not recognize my drawing the unlock pattern in order to do so. I had to reboot the device, and during the window in which the device was still (relatively) responsive, reset the device.

Some people reported that a factory reset sped up the device. Not so for me. I ran Androbench after a reset, and it reported a random write speed of 139 IOPs. (A standard N7 should be capable of 7000+ IOPs)

I called Google support and asked to return the device so my brother could get his money back (it was a birthday gift). Turned out I was 6 days too late. I also could not get the 8GB variant of the device instead, which does not suffer from this problem. The customer rep assured me that this was a rare problem, but given the amount of traffic on the internet about this issue, and a verification with a friend of mine who bought the 16GB Nexus 7 also had the same problem. I'm willing to bet that it's not a rare problem, but just a problem that's so subtle that many customers just live with it, not knowing that the product isn't supposed to be this sucky.

You might wonder why Googlers don't have this problem. It turns out that most Googlers have only the 8GB version of the device, and the folks I spoke to said they mostly used theirs to check e-mail. This is the same reason why Apple didn't find out they had a maps problem --- they didn't actually have any power users on their dogfood list.

I understand that there will be screwups, I understand that no product can be perfect. However, Google's customer service clearly doesn't reflect the reality of the situation, which is the 16GB Nexus 7 is a dud and a defective product from the get-go, and never should have shipped. I am therefore rescinding my "recommended" tag on the Nexus 7 review.

If you want a tablet and need more the 8GB of storage, get a Kindle Fire or an iPad instead. (Frequent readers of this blog are aware of how much it hurts me to recommend an Apple product over an Android product) Google (and Asus) should be ashamed of themselves for foisting off such garbage onto the world.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Brief Children's Book Reviews

I've been reading to Bowen since very early in his life. As Brain Rules For Baby indicates, it almost doesn't matter what you read to baby --- you can even just read the phone book to him and it'd have the same impact. However, it makes a big difference to the person who has to read the book --- Bowen might not mind reading the same book over and over again, but I mind! I wouldn't say that Bowen hasn't exhibited any taste in books --- in fact, he seems to enjoy chewing on quite a few of them.

Here's a summary of the books I've been reading to him:

  • Thieves and Kings. This is a great comic book series interspersed with text and pictures. In his early days, Bowen didn't have color vision, so black and white comics were fascinating to him. Recommended.
  • The Princess Bride. I got through about 75% of this before he decided that books without pictures were lame.
  • Astro City, Vol 1-3.The colorful pictures were great. But the paper quality definitely would not withstand a 6 month old's chewing, so I abandoned these in the middle of volume 3.
  • But Not The Hippopotamus. One of his first board books. After about 20 readings, I have the darn thing memorized. Thanks a lot, Scarlet. Recommended.
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Another gift from Scarlet. He's thoroughly fascinated by the holes in the book. Recommended.
  • Boynton's Greatest Hits: Volume II. After the introduction to Boynton, I went and bought a few of the boxed sets. They're nice and short and easy to read. But also too easily memorized. I'm pretty bored of them, but it took about 30-50 readings of each before I got bored, which is good. He loves turning the pages of the board books because he can do so easily. Recommended.
  • Big Box of Boynton. I didn't think this set was as good as the above. The best of the lot was Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs! I guess there's no boy who isn't fascinated by Dinosaurs.
  • Big Blue Book of Beginner Books. These didn't survive 3 readings before I got bored. The pages aren't as flippable as a board book. I wouldn't get another one of these until he starts reading by himself.
I've left out many books that either he or I didn't enjoy. The more substantial books will get a separate review later.

And no, I won't add these to my 2012 Reviews list. I don't want to artificially inflate that list with books that Bowen's reading.

Review: Kill Decision

Dan Suarez's Daemon was a great thriller. His follow up, Freedom, was a little lack-luster, and Kill Decision's starting to make me think that his first novel was a fluke.

The novel revolves around autonomous drones. Unmanned Air Vehicles are already a significant part of war today, in some ways reducing combat to something of a remote control video game. The idea then is to forget about the human part of the equation but go for full autonomy, including enough intelligence on the part of the machine to plan and launch an assault. Take that a bit further and you end up with the Terminator series of movies.

In this particular case, the model is that of an aggressive killer ant colony. To reify the point for the readers, the novel revolves around Linda McKinney, a professor who studies weaver ants, which are the most aggressive ant species on the planet. She's constructed a computational model of ant behavior, and posted it as part of research.

A series of events lead to her research being captured and then turned into practical, deadly use. On McKinney's side are some special forces type.

Suffice to say, we get action, romance, and lots of bullets shot in a Hollywood-style action movie, which you might enjoy if you could turn off your brain.

However, the premise is just too unbelievable. First, there aren't any safeguards for turning the resultant weapons on and off. Secondly, you would have to build a lot of such drones, and they would have to carry a lot of supplies on them since you couldn't actually get close enough to refuel them! Finally, if you were going to do this,  you would build your own swarm intelligence system, not model it after something in nature.
The characters are wooden and cliched, and don't get much development during the course of the novel. While the book might be entertaining as light summer reading, I feel that it's a disappointment after reading Daemon or even Freedom. Go (re)read those instead.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Wealthfront Update

I've recommended Wealthfront in the past on this blog, yet I've not been a customer of them until relatively recently. In part, this is because I have legacy portfolio problems: it would cost me a lot in taxes to unwind my portfolio and move it around, so unless the numbers are compelling, I have no reason to do it. The other thing is, as I mentioned in the above blog post, that you can always use Wealthfront's tool and then mirror your own portfolio after that.

Well, while having a discussion with Andy and the Wealthfront team, we had a discussion about tax-loss harvesting. Disclosure: Some of the features to be discussed came out of our discussion, so I'm naturally biased towards the product.

Here's the deal: most of us do naive, year-end-based tax-loss harvesting. In other words, at the end of the year, we check our balances, and if we see losses, we harvest them and then buy equivalent securities, or just sit in cash for the wash-sale period (31 days) and then buy back the original securities. According to Wealthfront's back-testing, this kind of tax-loss harvesting nets an additional 50 basis points (0.5%).

You can take a more sophisticated approach to this. For instance, Parametric Portfolio Management advocates a strategy where you build an approximate index and then tax-loss harvest individual securities. The biggest problem with that approach is if you eventually end up with no more tax losses to harvest, you're stuck with 500 or so securities in a separately managed account, and you'd find yourself wondering "what the heck do I do now?!" As far as I can tell, that's why few Googlers went with Parametric's approach.

Wealthfront's approach is much less headache inducing. The idea is that instead of just naively tax-loss harvest at the end of the year, you can tax-loss harvest at any time, as long as the cost of taking the losses is lower than the volatility of the asset in question. Now, once you do that, you have to take into account what happens if new money gets added to the account (not a problem), and when to switch back. Wealthfront's back-testing indicates that over the last decade (which has been very volatile), this would have netted an additional 100 basis point (1%) in performance a year!

Before you dismiss this as tiny, think about it this way. If your portfolio averaged 10% gain a year, an additional 1% is a performance improvement of 10%! (It's very hard to get 10% a year, by the way --- most realistic numbers are in the 6-8% range, making an incremental 1% huge) By the way, if your financial adviser has you in actively managed funds, then it's tough for him to do tax loss harvesting for you because it'd be hard to get equivalent funds to trade into. Historically, Wealthfront's approach of continuous tax-loss harvesting was only applied to separately managed accounts.

This new feature makes Wealthfront a compelling option for managing money. The additional 50 basis points gained from continuous tax-loss harvesting more than compensates for Wealthfront's 25 basis point management fee. And of course, if you're the kind of person who doesn't even do the naive tax-loss harvesting the number's even better. Even more importantly, these numbers are derived using existing, historically low tax rates. If tax rates go up in the future, Wealthfront's win will be even bigger. And of course, anyone who's been in the financial markets over the last 10 years knows that we've seen signs of increasing volatility: 2 asset bubbles and at least one Minsky moment. This sort of situation make automated rebalancing and tax-lost harvesting ideal. Wealthfront will give you statements at tax reporting time so that you don't have a reporting nightmare on April 15th. I suggested that they give you reports timed for the IRS estimated tax payment deadlines as well.

After I saw Wealthfront's presentation, I went home and opened a Wealthfront account. I do not foresee moving all my assets there because of the above-described reasons, but I can see myself moving liquid assets there over time. I've endorsed Wealthfront in the past, but this time, I'm actually putting (some of) my money where my mouth is. (Disclosure: Wealthfront waived management fees on my account because my previous product endorsement gave them many new customers --- this fee waiver predated the tax loss harvesting feature, and did not move me to sign up as a customer until I saw the tax loss harvesting presentation)