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Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Ted the Movie

Two guys are lifelong friends and roommates, but then one of them gets a girlfriend and the other is forced to move out. This sounds like a tired, cliched plot of a romantic comedy, except in Ted's case, the roommate is a talking, walking teddy bear who's been with John Bennett since he was 8. My brother told me about the movie, and the trailer made me want to see it, even though the biggest problem with movie trailers is that they essentially show the best parts of the movie, leaving you watching the movie composed of the less interesting parts.

Well, there's some of that going on, and the movie seemed loosely edited without the feel of the tight pacing required to keep you from one laugh to another. Ted, however, looks great, and moves realistically, if such is possible for an animated Teddy bear. The plot while cliched, is a lot of fun. It's a pity the dialog doesn't live up to the plot, actors, and characters --- they almost always feel forced.

For $1.99, however, I felt like I enjoyed the movie enough to recommend it. Just don't go in expecting it to be great. But hey, if you ever grew up talking to your stuffed animals, you should watch it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

First Impressons: Scion xB

My wife's BMW was starting to need costly repairs (and it certainly wasn't cheap to begin with). The choices were to keep it and keep paying for it, or buy a new car. While XiaoQin didn't want to go car shopping, when I threatened to buy another Honda Fit, she changed her mind and decided that car shopping was less crazy than having 2 of the same car. (Given how happy I've been with my Fit, I have no idea why the objection exists)

We started with the Toyota dealer. We first tried a Prius Station Wagon, but discovered that the latch placement in that car meant that the car seat had to be on one side or another. Since we only had one kid and the safest place in the car is the middle of the back seat, we decided to keep shopping. We tried the Yaris, but discovered that the trunk was so small Bowen's stroller wouldn't fit in it. The salesman had a moment of insight and introduced us to the Scion xB. I had actually tried the xB way back in 2009, but discovered that it wouldn't fit the tandem. Since I already had a Honda Fit, that was no longer a concern. The amount of room in the car was substantial, and while it wasn't the most fuel efficient car around, we would most likely drive it around with at least 3 people inside, so that was less of a concern. The car's driving position felt higher than a regular car, but doesn't feel like an SUV: it's still easy to get in and out of it, and there's relatively little ground clearance. My bicycle will still be the primary vehicle for my solo trips.

We tried the competition. The Nissan Cube was substantially smaller though more fuel efficient. For whatever reason, the rear seat felt cramped with the car seat inside. Honda had discontinued the Element, which was its vehicle in the same class. The Mazda 5 was substantially more expensive, and suffered from the same problem as the Prius Station Wagon.

Negotiating with the dealers was a problem. The Scion brand features True Pricing, which meant that all dealers would only quote me the sticker price over e-mail, rendering my usual trick of soliciting competitive bids from all dealers within 200 miles useless. We did find two dealers who would offer about $1,000 off the sticker price, and after an afternoon of shopping, went with one of them.

Having had the car for about a week, I'm actually quite impressed. The car is stable and drives well, though it feels a bit top heavy and isn't as nimble as the Fit. The built in accessories are impressive: you get blue tooth linkage with your phone, as well as a USB port for an MP3 player. The bluetooth player handles streaming stereo audio as well. Overall, as a baby mover, I think the car has a lot to be said for it: the rear windows are tinted, for instance, so are more comfortable for Bowen when the California sun is shining. The price is also pretty amazing for what you get. The biggest criticism is the fuel efficiency, but as you can imagine, almost anything Japanese beats a BMW on that front. No car is perfect, but if you have a small family I can recommend this one.

First Impressions: Republic Wireless Defy XT (Dual Band)

My 2 year old Nexus One had started getting a flakey power button, so I was going to have to buy a new phone. While I was very happy at my extremely low cost monthly cost for my pay-as-you-go T-mobile plan, I  was also somewhat jealous of XiaoQin's always-on Virgin Mobile Optimus V with the $25/month unlimited data with 300 minutes. Having relied on her phone while traveling for navigation and other such niceties, I decided that it was time to join the 21st century and look for a phone that would get me that functionality at a reasonably low cost monthly fee.

I had signed up for the Republic Wireless beta program ages ago, but never made it to the front of the queue before the beta was over and the company went live. There were lots of people complaining on-line about how obsolete the Motorola Defy XT was, but having seen how much nicer a phone with data was over a phone without, I came to the conclusion that I'd rather have a Motorola Defy XT with a $19/month unlimited data/voice/text plan than a latest model phone with a $50 (or more)plan.

When the phone arrived, I was surprised. First of all, it's a light phone. So light that for my first day of carrying around I constantly checked that it was still in my pocket because I just couldn't feel it. The 1GHz single-core processor is slow by today's standards, but it didn't feel like a downgrade from the Nexus One, and neither did the Gingerbread OS. The phone's exterior ports are all covered by rubber grommets, and the phone is IPX7 waterproof. Whether it stays that way over the course of a year is in question, since the charging port's cover will most likely be pried on and off too many times and wear out.

The biggest penalty of buying this phone instead of a later model one is the amount of on-board storage: it comes with 512MB, and after all the preloaded software, you're left with not much more than 220MB. That's not a lot, given the penchant for modern software to hook into Android's notification and therefore requiring to be installed on the on-board storage instead of being on the microSD card slot.

Call quality is reasonable: it's not as good as our Comcast voice-over-IP phone line, it's quite usable on our home wifi, and I've successfully made and received calls over random wifi hot spots. When not connected to a wifi zone, the phone falls back into the Sprint service, and it's every bit as good as the Optimus V was.

The data connection works well as well, whether on wifi or on the fall back Sprint connection. The GPS is a bit balky, and takes a while to lock on compared to the Optimus V. By far the biggest problem, which I didn't anticipate, is that the charging port is on the left side of the phone instead of the bottom. This is problem because the wide side of the phone gives you more surface area in which to get confused and become unable to locate the charging port in the dark. The smaller screen compared to the Nexus One turned out to be a non-issue.

All in all, I can recommend the phone. However, I myself am unlikely to keep it. My wife dropped her Optimus V into some water, which meant that it's now have to be retired. Buying another Virgin Mobile phone was out of the question, as Virgin refused to grandfather her $25/month plan. She decided that the Defy XT was an ugly phone, so we ended up ordering her a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 from Ting. Ting's not as cheap as Republic Wireless for a single user, but if you switched the entire family over and use the pooled data/minutes/text plan, it's actually not that bad. So depending on whether she's happy with the Galaxy Note 2, I will likely return the Republic Wireless phone and buy a Ting phone so we can all be on one shared data plan. Note that Republic Wireless has a 30-day money back plan (now extended to 30 days from January's OTA update), so trying out Republic Wireless is relatively low risk. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rest in Peace Frank Spychalski

My last photo with Frank in it, taken in July 2011 (Left to right: Phil Sung, Alan Wissenberg, Dan Vogelheim, Frank Spychalski, Me)

When I was assigned to the Munich office in 2008, Frank Spychalski was the first person to take me out for a beer and asked me to join his project. As an Asian who couldn't hold his beer, I couldn't do much drinking, but Frank overlooked that, and  I gladly joined his project and tried my best to help him as well as the rest of the Munich office. We became office-mates and good friends. When I found an apartment, Frank helped me find, buy and then organized a party to move my washing machine. When I moved out, he bought that machine off me.

Frank was an outdoors enthusiast in every sense of the word. He was a runner, a hiker (he'd done the West Highland Way twice!), and cyclist. In the office, he was always up for a quick run, and was always full of energy, frequently biking to work. Others in the office sometimes called him "super-humanly strong", but I knew that he was relentless in his pursuit of fitness. While we'd rode together a few times, we never did manage to sync up on my long trips, including the Tour of the Alps. We nevertheless became good friends and we always managed to squeeze in a quick meeting at least whenever I visited the Munich office.

I was shocked when I received e-mail from a mutual friend that Frank had gone missing. I knew Frank was very experienced and participated in many challenging hiking events. While I knew he frequently did these trips solo, he'd come through every one of his treks without a scratch, which is more than I can say for myself. I was horrified therefore, to hear that his body had been recovered from the Cascade Saddle track in Mt. Aspiring National Park. (Update: Sara Adams provides more background on what happened) (Update: the news reports provide further detail)

I'm very sorry that Frank and I never got to do a substantial trip together, and that we'll never get a chance to do so. I did not expect that I would spend Christmas this year writing his obituary. It stuns me that I will never see his quick smile, laugh at his eagerness to do so much in so little time whenever he was travelling, and hear his frequently sarcastic comments again. I lost a good friend, and the world lost a great engineer, hiker, cyclist, and backpacker. I will miss you, Frank!

Long Term Review: Continental Gatorskin Tires

For the longest time, I ran only Avocet Fasgrip tires. They're grippy, and they were cheap, especially after a dealer online blew them out for $13/pop. About 2 years ago, however, my supply of them finally ran out, which meant I had to switch to a new tire brand.

For several years, I'd steered clear of Continental Tires. Between 2003-2007 in the Western Wheelers Bicycle Club, I personally witnessed more Continental tire blowouts than blowouts of any other tire brand. Granted, Continental tires were very popular but so were Michelin tires, as well as Specialized. While these blowouts were not common, I saw them about once a year, and they usually resulted in hospitalization/air evacuation.

I'd run Michelin tires for many years, especially when they were $12/pop for the excellent Michelin Hi-Lite Comps. Unfortunately, Michelin realized that after market tires were market in which selling tires at a higher price would result in a perception of increased tire quality, so the Michelin Pro tires ran for about $50 each. On top of that, Michelin abandoned the use of carbon black in its tires in order to provide colorful tires so that the urban hipsters could match their tires to their frame color. While this is not of general concern in California, I do tour in rainy places and wanted a tire that provided maximum wet traction.

The advent of the Continental Gatorskin line led many to conclude that Continental's sidewall problems are gone. Bill McCready of Santana even endorsed the 28mm tires for tandem use! I decided to give them a try. The good news is that these tires definitely wear longer than the Avocets I was using. I put them on last year in August after returning from the 2011 Tour of the Alps. (I ran Continental Gatorskin 28mm tires for that tour, but 25mm for this long term review) They recently wore through to the cords in several places. Also, the wear was more even than on the Avocets: rather than wear a penny-sized hole in one place, they wore in slices all over the tire. The tires grip fine, and I never had an issue with wet or dry traction. Furthermore, they don't flat frequently: I don't recall getting more than one flat tire or so in my entire year of riding them. (Somewhere around 3500 miles) The subjective ride quality isn't so hot: I think the Avocets I used to run feel a bit cushier, probably because the sidewall is of a different material.

The bad news? As I was removing the old tire, I noticed that the sidewall looked a little cracked, and I had threads coming off them. Examining the rear hub, I noticed a black thread from the sidewall completely wrapped around my hub axle! The sidewalls did not look like they would last another season. Now this is for just 3500 miles of use under ideal conditions --- unlike in the past, I did not go out of my way to take these tires off road this time. It was also an unusually low mileage year for me.

Last year, I found an international supplier of Michelin Pro 3 tires at a reasonable $30/tire. I stocked up and will switch to those for the foreseeable future, even if the prices for the tires go up. In the mean time, I am sad to be unable to recommend the Continental Gatorskin tires for those who ride aggressively and don't stop riding their bikes when the pavement ends. There's just too much risk of hospitalization when the sidewalls blow. Now for a short tour of 3 weeks or so I'd be willing to run the 28s, but only if you inspect the sidewalls frequently and regularly.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Frank Spychalski MIA in New Zealand

Current Googler Frank Spychalski left for New Zealand in November and was supposed to show up at a friend's place in the last 2 weeks. His last Google+ posting was on November 26th, and neither his mother nor his Google manager has heard from him. Nobody seems to know where he is.

The police in New Zealand have been contacted and have started searching for him from Wanaka, where he last posted. A backpacker there said he mentioned wanting to go to Mt. Aspiring's French Ridge hut.

Frank is a strong and careful hiker, but if there's any time to start worrying it's now. If you've heard from him or talked to him since November 26th, please let me know. Additional information could save his life, not to mention his friends, colleagues, and family a lot of worry.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Head to Head: Sonicare versus Oral-B electric toothbrushes

I've been a Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush user for years. While I've been largely satisfied with the brushes, they had several problems. First, the brush heads are expensive. A 3-pack costs $27 after taxes, and even Costco doesn't provide a decent discount. At $9/head, they would be affordable if they lasted about 6 months like Sonicare claims they would. In practice, the heads start looking shaggy after 2 months and are beyond dead after 3. Granted, I have tough to clean teeth, and I brush my teeth after every meal, so I'm tougher on my brushes than most by about 50%. The second problem is that the brush bodies are not very reliable. The batteries die after a couple of years, and I've had brush heads die on me for no reason within a year of purchase.

My dental hygienist told me that his patients with Oral-B electric brushes seemed to come in with better cleaned teeth (not that my teeth had any problems), and the brush heads seem more robust and are at the very least cheaper. Oral-B claims a more realistic 3 months for their brush head's longevity, but their brush heads are half the price of the Sonicare ones on Amazon, and you can get a Costco family-sized pack for much less than even that.

As far as I can tell, there are no peer-reviewed studies of Oral-B versus Sonicare brush-heads on the internet, so all I can go by are my subjective experiences. Sonicare's teeth brushing experience is light driving an electric car. There's a purr in your mouth, and the brush softly moves up and down on your teeth and along your gums. The noise is there, but it's not annoying. Oral-B is like sticking a machine gun in your mouth: not only do you get a massive grinding noise, you feel the bristles scrubbing against your teeth and gumline. It's definitely a very German approach to teeth brushing --- you can feel the raw brute power in your teeth.

I tried switching back and forth for a few weeks here and there, and the conclusion I can draw is that the Sonicare experience is the deluxe pampered experience (sort of like driving a BMW or Mercedes), but the Oral-B feels cleaner. Whether that's because my gums/teeth have been brutalized or because they're actually cleaner, I'll have to wait for a dental visit to see. The reality though, is that I haven't had any cavities for a decade and a half, and don't expect any change. My conclusion, buy the Sonicare if you have sensitive teeth or don't mind spending the money, the Oral-B if you prefer the "big throaty engine" sound of say, a Harley Davidson in your mouth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bloomreach Talk

I was invited by Bloomreach to give a variation of my talk on Startup Engineering Management. The talk was held in confidence, but after the talk, they asked me a few questions so they could share the video with the rest of the world. I enjoyed giving the talk and got lots of great, challenging questions. I hope you'll enjoy the above snippet.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: The Hydrogen Sonata

Any Iain Banks book automatically gets put on hold at the library. Triply so when it's a Culture novel. The Hydrogen Sonata is the latest Banks novel, and it's a romp and a fun read, but unfortunately, feels very much like an episode of American TV series pre-Buffy: status quo is reset and there's a bit of hollowness involved.
One of the biggest problems with writing a Culture novel is that the Culture is so technologically superior to most civilizations that they encounter that its ships and technology have no equal and face practically no resistance as they go about their tasks. To counter-balance that in this novel, Banks introduces the Gzilt, a civilization older than the Culture, and that was invited but declined to join the Culture during its setup phase.
As an elder race, the Gzilt has decided to Sublime, going off into hyper-dimensions (Banks clearly read quite a bit about string theory and incorporated what he learned into the novel) and saying goodbye to the Real. But before they can do so, they're contacted by a predecessor civilization which tells them of a terrible secret.

This secret was so terrible that it sparked off fratricide within the Gzilt,  Prompting Culture ships to get involved in understanding the secret. You'll notice that at no point do I mention human/humanoid protagonists. That's because in the Culture, humanoids are relatively ineffectual compared to ships and their minds.

If you enjoyed Excession, you'll enjoy this book. There's very much a similar setup, with a group of Culture minds discussing amongst themselves what to do next, how to approach the problem, and possibly kibitz amongst each other with regards as to what the right thing to do is. The primary human protagonist is uninteresting, in that all that she's good at is getting lucky. She just gets dragged along by one event after another, and when she's finally done, she doesn't seem to do anything with what she knows.

Ultimately, though, the terrible secret isn't very terrible, and in fact, you get a foreshadowing of what the secret was the entire time, and the fact that status quo is more or less retained at the end of the novel despite the reveal makes the entire novel feel empty.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes. It's a fun read, even though the ending was a let down. However, if you've never read a Culture novel before, I'd recommend that you read Use of Weapons instead. That's one novel that's great throughout and doesn't feel like a let down at the end.

Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Review: Ergo Depot Adjustable Height Standing Desk

Earlier this year, I read an article about how sitting is bad for your health, especially women's health. I told my wife about this and she said, "I'd like to try a standing desk." You can actually buy mechanically adjustable height desks, but seriously, if you want to be able to adjust the height frequently, what you want is for it to be entirely motorized. That way, there's no "oh, I won't stand up because it's too painful to adjust the height of my desk" excuse.

Motorized desks vary greatly in price, but I found the ErgoDepot one to be the cheapest of them all. Most people assume that low price = low quality, but the reviews on Ergo Depot were incredible, so I took a risk and ordered one. The first desk arrived with the box torn open and with parts missing, so I rejected the shipment and made the shipper take it back to Ergo Depot. Ergo Depot kindly sent me another one. This one arrived relatively quickly.

The desk assembly was fairly straightforward: screw the base together, and then use a power drill to screw the base permanently to the table surface. It is essential to use a full power drill here. A cheapo drill won't cut it. Then wire together the power adapter to the controller, plug into a power socket, and away you go! There's one minor quirk in the control system, which is that you have to hold down both rocker switches to get the table to go up or down. I have no idea why it's not just one rocker switch instead of two. The desk is fairly sturdy: it is rated for 154 pounds, which means that any monitor (or two) you buy nowadays will fit in the weight range. However, the desk does come with all sorts of warnings saying that if you move it you must lift it by the base, not by the table surface.

There are two entry ports so you can run wires for power, etc to the connectors. They work quite well. The surface itself is pretty great, but the test is in the usability. Xiaoqin loves the desk. She uses it nearly every day, and has come home from work early because her sit-down desk at work made her uncomfortable and she longed for her stand-up desk at home. You can't get a better testimonial than that. I've used it as well and the easy adjust-ability makes it very nice when we switch between users.

What are the flaws? First of all, it seems designed for laptops, not desktops. There's no space under the desk for a desktop tower to reside. Of course, if you don't plan to move the desk, that doesn't matter, just place the desktop on the floor. But given that the desk has wheels, it just seemed like an oversight not to have some provisioning for desktop towers.

If the above sounds like a minor nit-pik, it is. This is a great desk at a great price. Recommended.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Long Term Review: Schlage Keypad Locks

It's been 3 years and a little bit since I installed the Schlage Keypad Locks in the house, and sure enough, the battery on the front door has gone out, which reminded me both to change it and that I needed to write a followup review.

Changing the batteries turned out to be fairly straightforward. You unscrew the back, and the cover pops off. The battery is located in a bracket, and is a standard 9V battery which are fairly cheap to get from Amazon. When removing the cover, make a note of the orientation and make sure that you have the handle in the correct orientation when replacing. Otherwise it just won't go back in. Obviously, I use the front door of the house a lot more than the back door, so the battery for the back door is still going strong.

As for the product, I like it so much that I replaced the rental unit's lock with a Schlage unit, my parent's house also now sports one, and my wife's house also has them. I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially if you own rental property --- no more re-keying your unit between tenants, and even better, your tenant will never call you up in the middle of the night after they've locked themselves out, because they can't. It's also great if you're in the habit of exchanging your home with someone else on HomeExchange, or renting out your home on AirBnB. You set up a code, give them to your exchangees or renters, and delete the code when you get back. You can also set up specific codes for house-cleaners, etc and other trusted personnel and delete those if you ever switch providers.

Home ownership is in general a pain, but being able to replace the standard keyed locks with one of these is definitely a bright spot. Highly recommended.