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Monday, August 31, 2015

Teton/Yellowstone RV Trip Day 4: Fireside Resort to Flagg Ranch Headwaters Campground

The day looked clear, so I ditched all my existing plans and decided to take the family up to Jackson's mountain top ski resort, since the gondola ride would probably result in views. I tried to persuade Kevin to join us, but he had his heart set on going to Yellowstone's Old Faithful. I told him that the attraction was over-rated and that driving from Jackson there would likely result in a traffic jam, but he'd locked on target as they say.
The gondola ride was only 10 minutes long, but the views at the top were pretty good, though marred by a persistent low cloud that usually hid the valley below us from view. Nevertheless, we walked around marveling at the sights. We were prepared for the cold, but not for the wind, which was quite strong.

We descended the Gondola, and were told that our tickets were good for the chair-lifts as well. The chair lifts granted us a slightly lower but no less fun view, and then we had to go. I'd visited the ski resort thinking that I could just drive into the national park and visit Jenny Lake on the way to Flagg Ranch. However, that entry into the park was closed to RVs, and so we had to go all the way back to Jackson and then drive North from there. This delayed us and made a visit to Jenny Lake unfeasible for the day, but I decided to instead visit every sight along that entry.
The entry was filled with all the famous overlooks of the Tetons, from the Snake River overlook to Schumacher Landing Road, as well as the Oxbow bend. We took our time and stopped at every viewpoint to take photos, ending up in Colter Bay just before 4:00pm for the kids ranger program.

From there, we drove up to Flagg Ranch, where the campground office helpfully told me that the park actually had a shuttle service between Flagg Ranch and Jackson, with multiple stops in between at various attractions. Not only was the pick up convenient, but it was also free for campers at Flagg Ranch!

I took a look at the schedule and realized that we could use it to visit Jenny Lake the next morning, at the expense of having to get up pretty early to take advantage of the shuttle. This was not an issue for us, since we were good at getting up early at this point, so we resolved to leave the motorhome parked at Flagg Ranch the next day.

Kevin showed up with his RV, and told me that as predicted, he faced heavy traffic and found Old Faithful over-rated. I told him about the free shuttle service and tried to convince him to stay at Flagg Ranch and join us, but he had his heart set on Colter Bay the next day, and was determined to show up there early to get a first-come-first-serve camping spot.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Foundation's Triumph

Foundation's Triumph is written by David Brin, which was the main reason I picked up the book despite being underwhelmed by Foundation and Chaos.

The book details Hari Seldon's last adventure, where on a whim, he leaves Trantor on a hunt to figure out why the soils of the various planets of the galaxy are clustered the way they are. As a result of this adventure, Seldon discovers the robotic forebears of the human pioneers who settled the galaxy, and sets off a struggle between various factions of robots, representatives of the Chaos world Klinta, and of course, Seldon's own conflicting feelings about his Foundation and Second Foundation.

The net result is a bit of a mash. You do get a nice complex plot with lots of moving parts, but a shortage of new ideas which is what David Brin's famous for. There's a sense that Brin's far too constrained by having to work within Asimov's universe, as well as the issues of writing a prequel: there's too much already known about the future, and not enough freedom to introduce new concepts.

Ultimately, a disappointing read.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Teton/Yellowstone RV Trip: Day 3: Rafting on the Snake River

The rafting trip was broken into 2 parts: the scenic tour in the early morning, where everyone was allowed to go, and the late morning white water trip, where Bowen was excluded and my father elected to stay behind to watch him.

The morning trip was indeed a slow float down the river, where everyone stayed dry. Our river guide, a 27-year old woman from the East Coast, was formerly a pre-med before deciding that it wasn't for her and came to Jackson to lead an outdoor life as well as retrain for education.

We spotted 10 bald eagles, multiple ducks, and Bowen got a chance to row with the guide. I expected a struggle to keep him off the white water trip, but it turned out that an early explanation had stuck, so he agreed to stick around the rafting office and take care of Grandpa.

The white water trip was at most a class 3, since it was summer and the water was low. It was fairly tame by white water standards, but it was a lot more active than the earlier trip, and we got wet quite often.
There was even a section where you could jump off the boat and swim, and the weather being warm enough to do so this time, quite a few folk took the river guide's offer.

After that, we visited the Pearl Street Market to buy lunch, and then were driven back to the Fireside resort. We spent the rest of the evening doing laundry.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Teton/Yellowstone RV Trip Day 2: Bear Lake State Park to Fireside Resort

We got up early the next day to make the remaining drive to Jackson, Wyoming, where I'd pre-booked a site at the Fireside resort for 2 days. I'd gotten to realize early on that a 32' RV was hard to get a space for, and so had booked about the first 9 days of the trip.After that, I figured I'd be competent to fly by the seat of my pants.

The reason for staying here two nights was because I'd signed us up for a rafting trip the next day. We'd arrived early enough to be able to take the bus into town and walk around, so we did so. We then had an early night so we could wake up in time for the pickup from the rafting company the next day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tetons/Yellowstone RV Trip Day 1: Salt Lake City to Bear Lake State Park

In early April, we thought it might be a good idea to take the family to the Tetons and Yellowstone for some RV camping. Because of the number of people involved, I thought that an RV might be practical. I've never tried it before, but given my experience with relatively large sailing catamarans, I didn't think that maneuvering an RV would be especially difficult.

Because of the number of people involved, I was forced to reserve a fairly large motorhome. I ended up picking a class B Sunseeker 3170 from Utah RV Rentals.

Because of a few last minute change of plans (driven entirely by external circumstances beyond our control), neither Boen nor Xiaoqin could come, so my parents were recruited to come along instead.

On August 3rd, we flew a 6:15am direct flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City, where upon landing the representatives from Utah RV Rentals met us, tossed everything into an open-top pick up truck, squeezed all 6 of us into the cab, and drove us to pick up the RV. You might think me insane for deliberately picking an absurdly early hour, but my reason for doing so came from my experience with sailboat charters: I expected the check-out to take 2 hours, and then wanted another couple of hours for provisioning, and then to gingerly make my way to Bear Lake State Park, where I had a fully hooked up connection.

The check-out doesn't take nearly as long for an RV: you're presumed to know how to drive a car. The systems aren't nearly as complicated, and RV rental companies seem to be really casual about teaching you how to operate systems. For instance, on a sailboat, the propane is usually cut off whenever you're sailing, but on an RV it's apparently OK to turn on the propane while driving!

We left the RV rental place around 11:00, made our way to a Costco, and then proceeded to eat lunch before buying about 10 days worth of consumables. The RV handled pretty nicely, much closer to a boat than a car, but much less bulky and more maneuverable than any sailboat I've had to drive. What caused us to drive slowly, however, was an unusual storm, which made visibility poor and traffic on I-15 slow an uncharacteristically slow 45mph. We did leave before rush hour traffic, so we were able to get onto the smaller roads past Ogden fairly early.

If you use Google Maps to visit Bear Lake State Park, it'll take you to the wrong one. What you want is the Rendezvous Beach campground. We got there at around 5:00pm, proceeded to set up camp and dinner, when Kevin arrived. The kids got to play, and we got to walk around in the park, which wasn't particularly pretty, but it was only a temporary stop.

As expected, Bowen loved RV camping, and after playing was happy to sleep in the same space as me above the cab of the RV. He kicked around all night, however.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: Isaac Newton

I have fond memories of James Gleick's excellent biography of Richard Feynman, so I checked out Isaac Newton from the library hoping for similar excellence. To my surprise, it wasn't nearly as good, though upon reflection, I shouldn't have been so surprised.

With Richard Feynman, many of his colleagues were still alive when Gleick wrote his book, and so we were able to get personal, up close stories about Feynman. Feynman also left behind tons of media from books to lectures to actual videos (such as from his famous exposition about the O-ring problem in the Challenger disaster).

By contrast, Newton was secretive, frequently writing his notes in cryptography, and separated from the modern age by 300 years: enough time for even his undeciphered writing to be cryptic and full of spelling that seems ancient by the standards of modern English. He never married and had no children, and so left behind few who could explain his personal mannerisms in an informal setting or know what he was really like.

Given these limitations then, Gleick does a reasonable job for the layman, explaining certain myths (such as the Newtonian conception of gravity) but at the same time not really providing sufficient context for important inventions such as Calculus and differential equations. The overall picture that emerges is complex, and Gleick does a good job of explaining to the reader that as the bridge between pre-modern pre-scientific Europe, Newton wasn't just the first scientist and mathematician, but also the last alchemist who also poisoned himself in the quest to turn lead into gold.

My criticism of the book is that Gleick doesn't really provide sufficient context for Newton's contemporaries. We get some tantalizing glimpses of Charles Boyle, and of course there's Leibniz, but none other than Leibniz are given serious treatment, so we don't really see the context in which Newton worked.

I recommend this book despite the faults, because of the limitations Gleick had to work with. Newton was (and arguably still is) an incredibly important figure in modern scientific enterprise, and it's a worthwhile read to see the origins of insights that came from the great man, as well as getting a (admittedly very limited) glimpse of the context in which he worked.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: Foundation and Chaos

Foundation and Chaos is the second book in the post-Asimov Foundation trilogy. I missed it when it came out in 1998, and decided to skip the first novel because it was generally panned by reviewers.

The novel is interesting making references to Asimov's universe that I've long since forgotten, but also drawing the importance of robots, for instance, in the evolution of human kind to the logical conclusion. It's fun and a little bit creaky, but still entertaining.

The protagonist of the trilogy is clearly Hari Seldon, who of course is the prophet/leader depicted in the original Foundation trilogy. As a prequel, the novel grants us relatively little insight into what psycho-history is, what the parameters are, and of course, depends too much on the rise of psycho-history as the brilliant work of one man, while we know that most scientific work usually depends on not just theoreticians and mathematicians, but also experimentalists. Yet the rise of psycho-history (as depicted in these novels) appears to depend entirely upon mathematics without any empirical evidence, which seems really far-fetched, to say the least. I raise this as a criticism because the authors of this second trilogy are all writers with real scientific credentials, as Asimov was.

In any case, the plot revolves around the rise of telepaths (called mentallics in the novel) who can influence other people or even groups of humans. Readers of the original series would know that this plays a critical part in the second foundation. It's an interesting romp, but ultimately fails to compare to the scope and grandeur of the originals.

Nevertheless, it made me want to go back and read the original series again, which can't be a bad thing.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: Armada

Armada is Ernest Cline's love letter to the 1980s media, including video games and movies.His first novel, Ready Player One was also from the same mold, so if you read that novel and wished for more, well, here it is.

Treading the same waters is a dangerous game, but Cline pulls it off. The plot is a remix of The Last Starfighter, where video games are used as a testing ground to train and recruit fighter pilots (and mech warriors) for a secretly planned war against an alien invasion. Except this is updated to modern times, where it's a MMO shared world shooter.

The twist that Cline adds is that all the obvious plot-holes of The Last Starfighter are covered. Cline covers all these issues in a fun and straightforward way, with the protagonist constantly questioning the underlying premise he's presented with. The net result is that you never feel like you're being taken for a fool, while Cline still gets to throw in all the fun and important action hijinks that's a crowd-pleaser.

Nevertheless, the entire novel still feels like a re-tread. If Ready Player One satisfied your 80s nostalgia, there's no need to read this book. It's fun, but it does feel a bit too obviously an attempt to repeat the prior success without adding a whole lot.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Review: Fables #22 - Farewell

"This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper." T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is as good a description as any of the last Fables graphic novel, titled "Farewell."

In many ways, Fables was a victim of its own success: with a video game, several spin-off comic book titles, and a run spanning well over a decade, there came a point where the story wore out its welcome.

In recent issues, Willingham managed to kill Bigby Wolf, one of the fan favorites. Of course, death in the world of the fables isn't necessarily permanent, and he comes back, albeit in changed form. I don't know when Willingham decided to end the series, but in many ways the ending feels rushed: not only does Wolf's resolution feels rushed and hurried without any real explanation (or at least, an explanation that can carry weight in the milieu of the Fables), the final epic battle is also averted with far too much common sense, but without a sense of a dramatic reveal that characterized the best of the series.

It's interesting to see Willingham even acknowledge (through one of the characters) that in many ways, Fables should have ended with issue #100, with the defeat of the adversary. In many ways, the 50 or so issues after that climatic event felt like treading water. Though there are a few gems, (Fables #18: Cubs in Toyland in particular evoked such strong memories of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman that I checked the credits page to make sure it wasn't a Gaiman story) the worst of the series felt like the author was drunk on success and too rich to care any more.

In any case, this final volume is a celebration, with lots of little stories celebrating some of the characters in the series. It's unfortunate, however, that in many cases, the characters were not fleshed out enough for me to care (or in some cases remember) about them. Nevertheless, Willingham's to be commended for not pulling a Robert Jordon and dying before finishing his epic, a rare trait in these days of multi-volume epics that are abusive of readers (graphic and prose) otherwise.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Review: Call of Duty - Advanced Warfare (PS4)

In my many years away from computer games, I'd somehow missed the rise of the Call of Duty series. A victim of Amazon's "Prime Day", I dutifully bought a copy of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare when it appeared to be really cheap. The series has a reputation for having short single-player campaigns, but at half-price, I figured I could resell the disk if I didn't enjoy the multiplayer. (I expect not to play the multi-player game as I'd probably get slaughtered, and as someone who frequently gets interrupted in the middle of a game, I'd probably annoy all the other players by having to bail in the middle of a session)

I will say that I'm impressed. Much like Killzone 3, it's a surprisingly fun and linear first person shooter. But the difficulty setting (especially at "easy") is such that even I could play it through. What's particularly fun is that much as you could imagine it would be, you don't have to kill every enemy while progressing through a level to proceed. The game will proceed anyway if you simply charge forward. In the case of several of the set pieces, the game runs as though it were a Disneyland ride, rolling along at a breakneck pace while you do your best to nail as many enemies as possible, dodge obstacles, or simply keep up.

And just as with the Uncharted series or Killzone, you're never alone: you always have an NPC to guide you. This serves two purposes: in many cases, the NPC's there to tell you where you go. Secondly, the NPC serves as a marker, following you in case of assault, and even occasionally giving you a chance to assist. Unlike certain other games, the NPCs never nag at you, and only occasionally give you orders.

The story is thin, an excuseveneer to have fun. But boy, not having played one of these before, they're incredibly fun. Each segment of the single player campaign is unique, with set pieces that are never repeated in others. Whether it's night vision goggles, mute charges, or some new high tech warfare gadget, you're never given a chance to get sick and tired of the "oh wow" high tech special effects. The price of this of course, is player agency: you get one chance to drive the giant robot, one chance to drive a tank, one chance to drive the hoverbike, but you will never find one to hop on and use where the game designers have not placed it front and center (and an unavoidable part of the story). Nevertheless, when you do get the chance, you'll get a grin on your face and enjoy the heck out of it, because the entire set-piece is designed around the capabilities of your new toy. If this is part of the formula of the Call of Duty series, I can see why people line up for a chance to throw $60 every year to take part in the franchise: it's a heck of a lot more fun than most movies.

Technically, the game's a masterpiece as well. There's slight stuttering in scenes where you're in close quarters with your comrades, but never in combat. Once you're in combat, the game runs (on my PS4 at least) at a full 60fps, and looks gorgeous. The cut-scenes look like they're from a high-budget Hollywood action movie, and the in-game graphics aren't a lot worse. The set pieces have a few annoying QTEs, but no worse than any of the Uncharted games.

I will admit that I bought Wolfenstein: The New Order at half the price I paid for this, but even on the easiest difficulty level I'd get stuck. By contrast, Call of Duty was compellingly playable, had a much lighter story, and I never cared that I didn't find a single piece of Intel that was supposedly scattered throughout the levels of the single-player game: I got too engrossed and caught up in the situation presented, and never gave a thought to rooting around for hidden rewards when I could be off in another fire-fight with my squad-mates.

That speaks volumes as to how playable and how much fun the latest Call of Duty installment is. Wolfenstein, by the way, got much better reviews (and is a dedicated single player game to boot), but I suspect you'd have to be much more jaded (and competent) a FPS player than I am to pass up Call of Duty over the Wolfenstein series.


Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Review: Tippi - My Book of Africa

I bought Tippi: My Book of Africa for the photos. Tippi's parents, both photographers who worked in Africa for a period, took the opportunity to shoot photographs of her playing in the wilderness, with animals, and with natives.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Bowen's suddenly decided that he was interested in Africa. While the BBC series (impressively shot and presented) was fun for him, the Tippi's book was much more fascinating for him: for one thing, it was written by a 10 year old, and the photographs (many of which were staged or set in reserves with tame animals) more intimate. So I've been asked to read the book over and over again for him.

The book's voice seems very authentic. Life, philosophy, racism, and fear are all talked about from a ten year old's point of view and consciousness. There would be wild sweeping pronouncements followed by "I don't know." It's very rambling, and frequently repetitive. But Bowen can't get enough of it and so I'm forced to read it over and over again.

Because of the photographs, it's not an ideal bed-time read. You really should have good lighting to see the photos properly. On the other hand, as an authentic voice and as exposure to your child as an example of, "Yes, you can write a book too." It's pretty ideal.


Monday, August 03, 2015

Review: The Fox Effect

By now, it's not a controversy that viewing Fox news will actually have a detrimental effect on your knowledge. But there was a time when this wasn't common knowledge, and people had to take Fox News seriously instead of being the propaganda machine that they are.

The Fox Effect is an effective documentary book about that period of time. It covers the founding of Fox News, its rise in its media, and its strategy towards coverage:

  1. One or more Fox hosts will launch a series of lies.
  2. Fox will provide wall-to-wall repeated coverage, with the Fox hosts repeating each other.
  3. Fox will then attack other media outlets for not covering "the controversy".
  4. This would lead to political ramifications, either from people being fired by administrations afraid of controversy, or someone losing an election.
The book is very effective, though very painful for me to read. The series of lies propagated by Fox and the blatant leverage of their platform as a campaign platform for the GOP was of course played out in 2010, almost killing the Affordable Care Act, and not relenting on it.

Furthermore, it's clear that the authors of the book bent over backwards to try be as sympathetic to Rupert Murdoch as possible, often repeating his statements about how regretful he was about the damage Fox has done, while at the same time noting that Murdoch not only endorsed Fox strategy in many cases, but also gave money to the causes it actively campaigned for on its behest.

The book ends on a hopeful note that today's media now recognizes Fox's M.O., and that Fox's attempt to go after the authors' organization did not bear fruit because Media Matters itself saw it coming and managed to stop the process before it got to step 4.

In any case, a worthwhile, if depressing read. Recommended.