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Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Proven Guilty

Proven Guilty is book #8 in the Dresden files, and we see Jim Butcher finally starting to tie all the previous books together.  This is a good thing, because the disparate plots were all feeling like the "monster of the day".

What I do like about the book is that the character, Harry Dresden, finally seems to be more than competent and doesn't just drop his magical implements in the middle of a fight all the time. Even better, he seems capable of plotting more complex solutions than in previous novels, and no longer seems to just try to fry everything in his path.

The novel does tie up many loose ends from previous novels and bring some of them to a partial resolution, so in that sense it works on many levels. On the other hand, at an emotional level, things still seem to be fairly simplistic. That doesn't detract from the novel though: it's summer reading, and one that I can recommend.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: Modernist Cuisine at Home

Modernist Cuisine at Home is a cookbook. As such, it shouldn't be read end-to-end, but should be reviewed for the recipes it contains. However, it's more than a cookbook, since it's also an advocate for a different approach towards cooking, which is ideally suited for engineers and other folks (mostly men) who have little patience for acquiring skills associated with traditional cooking. I am just such a person, so the Modernist approach does have great appeal to me.

As far as I can see, modernist cooking has a few principles:

  • Use of modern technology. This includes pressure cookers, sous vide machines, and blow torches
  • Accurate temperature control. This could mean water baths, or simply an oven safe probe stuck into the thickest part of the meat.
  • An emphasis on time efficiency. Minimum prep time, and "fire and forget" formulas.
I, on the other hand, was looking for the following:
  • Minimum skill required, as well as prep effort. I can barely flip an egg over to make eggs over-easy. Anything more is just too much.
  • Precise prescriptions. "A dash of baking soda" means nothing to me. I'd rather hear, "10g of baking soda."
To my mind, Modernist Cuisine at Home meets a lot of this criteria. Much has been made about sous vide, but I didn't have a sous vide set up, so I first tried the other recipes that were easy:
  • Slow Baked Chicken with Onions (page 242). The first time I did this the results were amazing. The prep work is weird, using brine injectors and slicing onions thinly, but my wife (who usually hates chicken) liked it a lot so I tried again. The second time was a disaster. I had to throw it away. The inconsistency of the oven made me willing to buy a Sous Vide setup.
  • Pressure Cooked Lamb Shank (page 234). The first time I did it the results were good, but marred by my pressure cooker being not up to spec. I splurged, upgrading to a $30 Presto pressure cooker, and the second time I made it it was nothing short of incredible. The meat just peeled off the bone when I lifted the bone up, and the resulting lamb curry tasted great. In fact, the store-bought sauce did not do the meat justice.
  • Carrot Soup (page 178). Since my visits to Rosenlaui began, I've admired their soups. Since I had a pressure cooker now, I could use their recipe to see if I could emulate the creamy soups that Rosenlaui did. The resulting texture is nothing short of amazing. It's quite a bit of work, since you have to pressure cook the carrots, then blend them, and then add carrot juice. This is eliminating the final step. But the soup is incredibly smooth and generally good stuff. I liked it a lot, but Xiaoqin is in general not a fan of Western style soups, so I guess I won't be making this again.
All this convinced me that I should experiment with sous vide for a more consistent experience. It took a bit to figure out what to buy, so I'll list it here, in case you want to try it yourself:
  • Sous Vide Supreme Demi. You don't need anything bigger, so don't waste your time with the other stuff. I didn't opt for a circulating bath heater, because the resulting decor would not please my wife. If you're single and cheap, try a manual rice cooker or crockpot and the DorkFood temperature controller.
  • Iwatani Torch Burner. It burns butane cartridges you can easily get at Ranch 99. Easy on, easy off, and it doesn't look like industrial equipment.
  • Seal-a-Meal Vacuum Sealer. If all you do is short recipes you can use zip-loc bags. You can also buy a package including the Sous Vide Supreme sealer, but the difference between reviews of this unit and reviews of the Sous Vide Supreme unit is huge, so I recommend buying this one.
With this, I experimented with the following receipes:
  • Sous Vide Salmon (page 276). OMG. This is melt-in-your-mouth type salmon. I couldn't believe how good this was. Xiaoqin doesn't like cooked Salmon, but she found this acceptable. I'm going to have to try cod one of these days.
  • Sous Vide Chicken (page 244). You know how baked chicken always tastes dry? The reason the Slow Baked chicken receipe works is because you inject the chicken with enough brine so it doesn't dry out. Well, by cooking sous vide, you don't have to do that and the results are amazing. Xiaoqin doesn't usually like chicken, but she liked this one so much she complained I didn't eat enough. Bowen doesn't usually eat meat, and he ate a third of a piece of chicken thigh by himself. This blew my mind.
  • Sous Vide Prime Rib (page 194). This was relatively disappointing. Not because the result was bad, but because we'd had high hopes after the last two sous vide dishes. I didn't follow the instructions enough, and left the meat in the machine for 3+ hours instead of the recommended 50 minutes, because I read some other instructions on the internet. On the one hand, it was my loss, but on the other hand, it demonstrates the value of the book: the book's recipes so far out perform the internet, which is unusual.
  • Sous Vide Duck Confit (pages 245-246). This was the most ambitious recipe that I tried from the book. It took about 18 hours of brining the duck legs in the refrigerator, and then about 27 hours in the Sous Vide machine. But it was excellent and better than some duck confit I've had in France! If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be able to make duck confit this good, I wouldn't have believed you.
I'm not much of a foodie, and have eaten at Michelin 2-star restaurants that I considered terrible compared to say, Kabab & Curry's. I've also eaten at Google's cafetaria during the good years (2005-2007), and could taste the difference when I returned to Mountain View in 2008 after a stint in Europe. I would say that this book has revolutionized my approach and expectations for home cooking, and I cannot imagine not using the sous vide approach for meats cooked home if I can help it. I justified my purchase of my above set up based on the idea that I could easily return it to Amazon if I didn't like it. Well, I'm not going to return those machines. Furthermore, when I first heard about the 72 hour short-rib sous vide recipes, I thought, "3 days to cook dinner? That's ridiculous." I will now admit that my thoughts about the matter now are: "how could I do without my sous vide machine for 3 days?!!"

I will now pay this book the greatest compliment I can: before I return this book to the library, I will either buy my own copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home, or the entire $530 6-volume set of Modernist Cuisine. Highly recommended. If you haven't tried it out, try it. If you're local and want to try it, talk to me and we'll work something out. And if you're an engineer who hates cooking and can't do anything right in the kitchen, you need this book.

Update: My 4-month retrospective.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Dead Beat

Dead Beat is book 7 of the Dresden files. The theme villains for this novel are the necromancers, so we finally get to see zombies in action. Harry Dresden no longer seems as incompetent at the start of the novel as in other novels, as he faces off several villains who outclass him by a lot. But then he pulls off a bone stupid move in the last third of the novel.

Fortunately, not all is broken with the novel. We finally start to see him get some recognition from the other Wizards, and he even gets a regular paycheck, which eliminates some of the silliness inherent in the series: if you're any good at magic, how can you stay so darn broke all the time?

The novel does seem set up to be a blockbuster movie at some point, with undead dinosaurs, gobs of explosions, and even a spot for a pretty guest star. Butcher gets his pacing right, and while there is a spot of idiocy in Dresden's actions, the rest of it is reasonable.

As lightweight summer reading this novel works. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: Strikefleet Omega

The first time I saw Air Traffic Control, I immediately got addicted. This is one of those genre of games which are ideal for a tablet or phone: you draw lines on the screen to direct planes to their destinations. However, other line drawing games haven't been as good. Air Patriots, for instance, was just too hard and tedious.

Strikefleet Omega, however,gets the difficulty right, and is not at all tedious. The science fiction theme is that you're the commander of a fleet of battleships fighting for humanity's survival. You fly from star system to star system, warping in and then defending yourself from incursions from the enemy. Enemies come in 3 types: fighters (small planes), cruisers (larger flying saucers), and battlecruisers (giant ass ships or constructs). Correspondingly, you have 5 types of ships you can warp in to defend your flagship, 3 of which deal specifically with the different types of enemy. The 4th type is a mining ship that generates resources so you can pay for the warp ins. The last is a generic artillery unit which can be used to target small and large ships alike.

Most of the missions are fair. You'll win on the first try, just barely, and then be able to improve your performance. The game has two types of currency: alloys, and mega creds. The former are gathered by destroying large ships and scoring points, and the latter can only be attained by a flying saucer that can be shot with an artillery unit. The last 3 missions are exceedingly hard, and I found myself using mega-bombs twice. I had more than enough mega creds to do so, however, without having to spend real money on the game. I didn't do much grinding: I'd play each mission twice, and the last few missions just once each because I didn't want to blow mega creds..

I rarely get around to finishing games, on tablets or otherwise. That Strikefleet Omega got me interested enough to play it to completion speaks volumes about how well-designed and addictive it is. Recommended.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Weeride Kangaroo Childseat

It is clearly not a hidden agenda with me that I want my child to enjoy cycling, preferably from as early an age as possible. One of my fellow bike club members once confided in me that her biggest disappointment was that both her sons did not like cycling at all, so she has to ride "on the sly" as far as her family is concerned.

We did buy a trailer fairly early on, but he didn't like it. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. The trailer is much more like a car than like a bike: he's low to the ground, with limited visibility, and has to stare at daddy's rear wheels and legs. So we started shopping for a child seat. We ruled the rear carriers out of hand, because that was only a mild improvement over a trailer. I also wanted to be able to monitor Bowen, and a rear mounted seat doesn't work that well for that.

As far as front carriers are concerned, there are only 2 choices, the WeeRide, and the iBert.
We picked the WeeRide because it was cheaper, and looked easier to install, and didn't have his legs sticking out under the bars, where it might interfere with cables, etc. We tried the iBert at a Co-Motion event in the middle seat of a triplet, and in that situation, the iBert is actually better, so whether you plan to use the seat on a single or a triplet makes a difference. In any case, both are so cheap that you could reasonably buy both and not break the bank.

Since both types of seats are suitable only for flat bar bikes, I decided to just buy a cheap bike for riding with Bowen. While I paid only $250 on BikesDirect, I'm not sure I would go quite so cheap next time. The big chainring on that bike bent on the first ride, and the wheels definitely needed additional tensioning. I'm equipped to fix the latter problem, but the former is just an indication of poor quality.

The problem with the Weeride is that unless you have an unusually long top tube on the bike, your knees will interfere with the seat. I ended up setting my saddle height low as a result so I could actually mount and ride the thing with Bowen on it. This is not a big deal for very short rides, but it does mean that any ambitious I have of towing a trailer as well are gone.

The mounting scheme doesn't let you adjust the seat height after you've set up the seat without a hassle, so no, you can't just set it up and then set up your saddle.

I might sound like I'm complaining a lot, but actually, we've been using the Weeride quite a bit! Bowen loves it and has started demanding bike rides, and has taken to imitating the Weeride on his strider. He now asks to listen to Queen's Bicycle race over and over again. So in terms of getting Bowen into cycling, it's working. We'll see how it goes when he masters the Strider.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My Books Are Discounted on Amazon

Those of you who visit my books' website know that I don't believe in discounting. But Amazon believes otherwise, and for now, print copies of my book are being sold at a discount:

Independent Cycle Touring in particular is discounted by a huge amount (35%), and it works particularly well in print format, so if you've been holding off on buying it, this is the cheapest it's ever been and probably the cheapest it will ever be. If you have any interest in the topic at all, this is the best book on the topic, and of all of my books is the least likely to be outdated.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Contagious

Contagious is a viral marketing handbook. Written by a professor of marketing at the Wharton business school, it promises to tell you how to make a sticky and effective marketing campaign by breaking down why and how certain videos/articles go viral while others languish in obscurity.

The author breaks down the five common denominators (plus an enabler) into 6 principles, providing a mnemonic STEPPS to hep you remember:

  1. Social Currency: the idea is that people share things that make themselves look good. This can be achieved through gamification, making a product rare, or some other means that ensures that people will rush to acquire your product or join your service.
  2. Triggers: the idea here is to attach your product to something that's encountered frequently, or failing that, to attach your product to an action or activity where buying your product is convenient. For instance, Rebecca Black's awful song, "Friday" gets triggered every time someone searches for Friday, whether or not they're looking for that song.
  3. Emotion. try to active high arousal emotions in viewers or the audience. Awe, Excitement, Amusement (seeing something funny), Anger and Anxiety are all far more effective than Contentment or Sadness.
  4. Public: make your product advertise its presence in as conspicuous a fashion as possible. Examples include Apple's white headphones, Macbook's Apple logos which glow every time a user opens it up, and of course, the bright-yellow Livestrong wrist-band.
  5. Practical: people love sharing practical tips, either big discounts or useful advice.
  6. Stories: this is the wrapper. What successful marketing campaigns achieve is to tie some (or all) of the above components together into a story in such a way that the product or brand is integral to the story.Without this last step your story/ad campaign might go viral, but your product will not benefit.
The biggest problem with books written by marketing people is that they're great at marketing themselves. For instance, Berger doesn't tell you which combination of the 6 principles work best together. They also use examples are have faded. For instance, FourSquare never did reach the kind of mainstream adoption that it's founders looked for. There's also nothing that tells you whether any of the successful campaigns used as part of the case studies are deliberately constructed that way, or just happen to be viral by accident. If it's the latter, you might actually not be able to replicated someone else's success.

What's most disappointing, then, is that there's no process detailed on how to achieve the results you want, and nor are effective ways for you to measure the success of a viral marketing campaign described and mentioned.

While this book was worth reading (it's very short and a quick read), I wonder how many people can actually effectively use this book.

Mildly recommended.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: Nickel Plated

Nickel Plated comes from the Amazon Encore Imprint of books. Judging by the quality (and price) of the book, traditional dead tree publishers have a lot to fear from Amazon Encore, if this is the type of author they've been passing on and this is the type of book that's the future of independent publishing.

Nickel is an all-round fixer. He charges people who can afford it $100/day to fix their problems. People can't afford it get the job done for free. Obviously, this can't possibly pay the bills, so he runs a business on the side selling weed that he grows in his backyard. Sounds like a typical action-hero thriller? Oh yeah, Nickel is 12 years old.

Not only is he a 12 year old, he's the one that you wished you were when you were 12. He lives alone, pays his own bills, run his own life, never has to go to school, and beats up bullies who tries to bully him. He's almost too perfect. The main plot around the novel starts when Nickel is approached by Arrow, whose sister has gone missing and whose dad becomes the prime suspect for the disappearance. Nickel investigates, while his life is complicated by a mom who is worried about her son's night life, his drug business, and the general problem of being 12 years old trying to get by.

The plot and story sounds outrageous, and it is, but Davis makes it all work, and work well. Nickel pretty much has to either take a cab or ride his bike everywhere, and he does. He talks about how he has to go grocery shopping and treat every trip as though he's running errands for his parents, and how to construct fake Facebook identities. He points out that in the modern suburban environment, most people don't even notice their neighbors, so never see that there's no one home next door but there's a 12 year old living there.

I hate to say it, but this is a novel that definitely demands a sequel, simply because the character is so compelling and has a great backstory that I would love to learn more about, and I will look for more books by Aric Davis in the future. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: The First 20 Minutes

The First 20 Minutes is a book about exercise physiology. It's been a number of very good years for exercise physiology since more and more research has been published about mind-body connection, and there's any number of fads and myths, which this book does a great job of debunking.

For instance, take barefoot running. It's been touted as the solution for everything related to running injuries, but it turns out that for instance, the natural walking position even when barefoot is heel striking first, not stepping on the balls of your feet. Interestingly enough, there's research showing that barefoot running doesn't solve all running injuries, and in fact may create different injuries, so choice of running footwear or lack thereof is largely a matter of personal taste.

The section on stretching is well known --- hopefully by now everyone knows that stretching before exercising is actually bad for you. What's oddly interesting is that she found research showing that most athletes overdo the warm up, wearing themselves out before the actual event.

Reynolds does a good job describing the difference between fitness and health, and points out that 20 minutes of exercise a day is all you really need to maintain health. But if you want to change your body shape, then you have to do quite a bit more (an hour a day). Worse, exercise isn't a great way to lose weight, unless you do a lot of it. She notes that vigorous intense workouts exceeding 800 calories burned do indeed give you an "afterburn", where your appetite gets depressed and your metabolic rate increases even post workout. Unfortunately, life's not fair. Apparently, this does not happen to women.

Ever wondered why women sweat less than men? This book has the answer. There's also sections on why more repetition at a lower weight is the preferred method for strength training now, and how exercise affects your brain (old hat to folks who've read Brain Rules), and how exercise affects your DNA at a deep level, provided you start early enough (in your 20s). There's also how exercise affects kids as well as older people (hint: it's good to start early, while the baby is in mom's womb!). All in all, the book is comprehensive, even more so than Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights.

I do have a few complaints about the book. First, Reynolds doesn't like cycling, so she gives cycling short shrift --- there's very little tips for cyclists that are useful, and she quotes an old study showing that 60rpm is more efficient metabolically than 90rpm. Anyone who does any amount of cycling knows that metabolic efficiency is unimportant in cycling --- cyclists are already the most efficient land animal on the planet. It's about endurance, and it's far easier to push a light weight for a long time than to push a heavier weight for the same amount of time.

With those criticisms aside, though, this is a great book and worth reading. Recommended!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Review: Ghost Spin

I was all set to buy Ghost Spin, after enjoying Moriarty's previous books Spin State and Spin Control, but the Amazon reviews put me off, so I waited for the library copy. I shouldn't have waited, because the reviews are wrong and Ghost Spin is one of the best novels I've read all year.

It picks up after Spin State and Spin Control, but is a far more ambitious novel. The themes in this novel include the nature of identity (Are you your memories? Are you still you, if you can be replicated multiple times but the different versions of you have different experiences?), the nature of love and consciousness, as well as how we would treat AIs if emergent AIs truly did exist.

The novel starts with Catherine Li's AI husband, Cohen, committing suicide deliberately. His remains are (in accordance with AI traditions) are immediately auctioned off. As his widow, Catherine sets off immediately to try to recover and reconstruct her husband, but the path to doing so is filled with obstacles and she ends up scatter-casting herself through human space as well.

What makes the novel work for a computer scientist is the references scattered throughout the novel that are accurate and interesting. Moriarty clearly does her homework: references to Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Lewis Carroll are all well made and taken within context. Her extrapolation on how an emergent AI would work, and how an AI could die or evolve is fascinating and interesting. For instance, something that no other AI-oriented novels ever cover is the fact that if your memory is perfect, and you were unable to truly forget, wouldn't that drive you crazy? Her characters are also worthy of being cared about, even though some of them do do despicable things. One of the main characters in the book (Captain Llewellyn) ends up having to share his brain/body with an AI, and the exploration of the themes emerge most thoroughly with the conversations he has with himself.

Where the novel fails is in plotting. I really liked the book for the first 20 minutes after putting it down, but then realized that the plot didn't make a lot of sense in retrospect. For Cohen to commit suicide doesn't make sense to me, even at the end of the novel. The big reveals in the novel, however, are very fair --- you get plenty of foreshadowing and all the clues needed to put together the reveal yourself.

This novel is not an action-packed one, especially in comparison with Spin State. A lot of the book just composes of conversations characters have between themselves or even with themselves. And the novel does have the one obvious failure. But the writing, the milieu, and the thorough exploration of fascinating AI themes are more than enough to let me overlook the failure. If you're a computer scientist who enjoys fiction this could very much be the perfect novel for you. If not, then be prepared to get a massive info dump and not quite enough context to understand fully what's going on.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Garrett was kind enough to get me an autographed copy of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, so I could skip the queue at the library and get to reading Gaiman's latest.

The novel starts out autobiographically, and one could be almost forgiven for thinking that Gaiman has decided to move away from his usual genre. (In his blog, Gaiman states that he started the novel slow so that younger readers wouldn't persist and read a book meant for adults) We get some insight about how someone who's going to be an author grows up, and there's a good description of the house Gaiman grew up in, as well as his room.

Then one day, a paying houseguest commits suicide at a neighbor's, leading the protagonist (who's unnamed through the entire novel) to meet the Hempstocks, who live on a farm at the end of the road. The Hempstocks, however, are not just farmers, and we are quickly introduced to Lettie, her mom Ginnie, and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock. In a bit of a head fake here, I thought Gaiman was going to reuse the tropes of the three Fates, but instead, the Hempstocks are quite a bit different.

Our protagonist gets taken away on an adventure, but in the tradition of such stories, he fails to obey all the rules exactly, and brings home a hitch-hiker, which proceeds to wreck havoc with his life and his family. The correspondence with Coraline is clear here. The Hempstocks come to the rescue, but the results teaches our young narrator the meaning of sacrifice, as well as the nature of story and the purpose of life.

In many ways, I feel like Gaiman is reusing the same themes from his previous books. Each part of the story draws from so many traditions that the entire novel feels inevitable. The prologue and epilogue, however, nicely frames the story and gives us more than the usual fairy tale. I recommend this book, though not as highly as say, Stardust.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Review: Lance Armstrong's War

I picked up Lance Armstrong's War from the library on a whim, since it's Tour de France season, and I figured it would be amusing to see how things looked a few years ago.

Written by Daniel Coyle, who was a writer/editor for Outside magazine, this book tries very hard to introduce non-cyclists to the world of the pro peloton. What's interesting in the aftermath of history, of course, is how much this book reads like a fan-boy account of Armstrong. The author moved to Girona, works in his rivals, team-mates, mechanics, and others into the story, and then largely takes Armstrong's side against the accusations of doping. This is American journalism at its worse --- the author even gives up all pretense of independence by submitting drafts of the book to Armstrong and his publicity team

 In retrospect, David Walsh's criticism of Armstrong's connections to doping has been largely vindicated by history. However, as an unintentionally funny read (as well as an indictment of American-style OMG/Engadget journalism), this is a book worth picking up at the library. (The book has also now been bargain-binned by Amazon, for good reason) It's not recommended if you're going to read the book unironically, though!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Negotiation Consultancy Back In Operation

While I was working for Quark Games, I stopped accepting clients for my private services. (There would have been something wrong with working somewhere while negotiating on behalf of engineers) As of last week, however, I am no longer associated with Quark Games, so I am now reopening my service. It's good to be back!