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Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Return to Mountain Biking

I gave up mountain biking for several years. Part of it was my move to Munich (and subsequent move back) drove me to simplify the bike load and reduce me to one single bike and one tandem.The other thing was that I really enjoyed doing road cycling a lot more: there's nothing like being able to ride out your front door and being able to roll for 4-7 hours and come back without getting into a car.

But I could feel myself getting stale. While I could still easily ride unpaved fire roads and my road bike still had more off-road miles than most mountain bikes, I had reached a plateau, not being able to pick off the more technical sections of dirt Alpine, for instance. Between that and the grin on my face from the Santa Cruz factory demo, I decided to look into getting a mountain bike.

When I first bought my MB-3 in 1994, Pardo's advice was, "Mountain Biking is the process of throwing your bike off a cliff very slowly, with you on it, so there's no point getting a bike that's too good." With that in mind, I set my budget low, and went to see what I could get. Disappointingly enough, most bikes in the sub-thousand dollar range weighed in the same as my 1993 Bridgestone MB-3. Apparently all the weight savings from aluminum frames, etc., had gone into bigger wheels, disc brakes, and suspension.

The one brand that stood out for value was Airborne Bicycles. Their $830 Seeker had components that looked to be very well thought out, and weighed in around 28 pounds (the same as my 1993 Bridgestone). I tried to buy one from the catory, but they were out of stock, and didn't expect to have any back until Spring. If I lived anywhere but California, that would be acceptable. But I live in Silicon Valley, and even in winter (maybe even especially in winter), mountain biking here is still good. In winter, sometimes the temperature drops enough that road biking is annoying, while mountain biking with its lower speeds is a good substitute.

I looked on eBay, and found a Seeker my size that was in decent condition for about $200 less than what I would have paid for new (which after tax would have been around $900), and proceeded to buy it. The bike came with the deraileur hanger bent during shipping, courtesy of Fedex ground, but it was a relatively cheap fix. As a precaution, I sent e-mail to Airborne Bicycles asking to buy a spare deraileur hanger, and they sent me a new one --- for free, despite my not being the original owner of the bike. This is customer service well beyond what I expect from a cut-rate mail order shop, so I think I can whole-heartedly recommend Airborne's bikes.

The first ride I took it was up Charcoal road (which isn't a paved road at all, but is single track for much of it).
The ride confirmed my worst fears: I was woefully out of mountain biking shape. Stuff that I used to just ride over or through with aplomb I now felt nervous about, even occasionally just giving up and walking my bike. Nevertheless, stream crossings, acing a difficult section on the trail and climbing hard put a big smile on my face. The bike was clearly capable of far more than I was capable of. What blew my mind was how fast the descents were: bigger wheels and a capable front fork suspension definitely make descending fast dirt paths a quick and satisfying experience. The disc brakes were more of a mixed bag: they always stopped me even after a stream crossing, which wasn't always the case with rim brakes, but like any other disc brakes I'd ever encountered, the rotor would warp, though not badly enough to make any annoying noises, just enough to annoy me whenever I looked at it closely. I have no idea whether it's because the bike has the lowest end hydraulic brakes available, or whether it doesn't matter what I get, those brake rotors are just going to warp no matter what.
What I'm rediscovering is that mountain biking requires much more anaerobic capacity than road biking (especially road touring) does. There are many sections where you just need a big spurt of power to get over the obstacle, but when combined with the necessary technical handling skills required I would just fall over at a critical section. As they say, "If you ain't hiking, you ain't mountain biking."
For my next ride, I decided that I'd drive to the start instead of biking over. El Corte Madera State Park is a mountain biker's haven, and I remember several technical sections that featured multiple steep drops that scared me back when I was on an MB-3. 
With some experience under me and equipment that was technically advanced by about 20 years, the technical stuff was actually comparatively easier than I remembered. What I was surprised by was that the park had been renovated in several places, and there were now trails that I didn't recognize any more. And once again, the climbs did me in, which I don't remember being that difficult when I was riding the MB-3 oh so many years ago. What's really cool about doing this in late fall/early winter is that you run into practically nobody on the trails. No trail conflict, no shouting "10 behind me", just the rustle of the leaves under your tires and perhaps the sound of your heart pounding in your ears.
One thing that I quickly realized was that what works for other mountain bikers definitely won't work for me: riding with my Geiger-rig backpack placed too much of a load on my shoulders and back for long rides, and made me feel slow and heavy. Unfortunately, water bottles tend to get their nozzles filled with mud on off-road rides (or worse, horse poo if you ride on trails shared with equestrains). I'll experiment with some capped water bottles to see how that goes.
It's going to take a while to get good at this, but whatever else I can say about it, it's definitely going to banish any staleness I'd been starting to feel on the bike.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

6 Months Report: Learning the Flute

I had a couple of goals when learning to play the flute. The first was to see how hard it really was to learn an instrument. The conventional wisdom is that you should learn when you're a kid because it's much easier to learn motor skills as a kid. This is of course bollocks. For instance, there aren't any examples of anyone under 5 being able to even try to play a flute, simply because the lung power and muscles required to form an embouchure aren't there.

Now stories abound about how it takes weeks to even be able to make a sound on the flute. To my surprise, I was able to play "Mary had a Little Lamb" in under a week. It turns out that like any new motor skill, flute playing is dependent on repeated extended practice. If you put in a half an hour a day for a month, you'll get there. If you want to accelerate it, you'll need an instructor who can grade your pieces and provide you gradually more and more challenging pieces.

As an instrument, the flute is far far better than the piano. I never understood slurs because the piano doesn't really lend itself to them. A flute, however, has a clear difference between a slur and a separated note. A piano has to be played sitting down. There are clear studies showing now that sitting down is very bad for you. A flute, however, can be played standing up, walking around, or moving from sitting to standing as you see fit. I can't see forcing a little boy to play the piano as anything but sheer torture. (My perspective is that forcing anybody to do anything is a bad idea: read Producing Excellence if you want to really find out what it costs to really make it into the top leagues in classical music)

My secondary goal was to see if I could get good enough at a new instrument in half a year to be able to achieve a decent amount of fluency: I needed to be able to play any song I knew that fit within the octave range of the instrument. The flute has great range, so it turns out that I can pretty much play anything I've heard and memorized. (It's no big deal: you've probably memorized a ton of songs, from TV themes to movie soundtracks --- anything you've heard about 10-20 times is probably something you've memorized, whether you know it or not)

It turned out that this wasn't that hard. On the flute, it's a matter of being able to hit the high notes consistently (or for some people, the low notes --- turns out that for me, low notes were easy but high notes were tough). To be able to play any song well requires practice, but I can actually now compose reasonable melodies on the flute spontaneously, which indicates for me that I've reached a comfortable level with it.

So all in all, I think the only reason the meme "it's easier to learn as a child" is even mildly realistic is that while your spouse might tolerate crappy lousy playing from the child that came out of her womb, she might take offense to you butchering an song within ear reach. But for a determined adult, it's probably far easier to learn a new instrument than for the equivalent child. With that, I have even less incentive to "tiger-parent" my kid into piano.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: T-mobile Cell Spot

I've discovered that my favorite way of making and receiving phone calls is with the SBH-52. This lets me be completely hands-free, enabling me to look up the computer, write a blog post, or investigate something while being on the phone. (Yes, I still make phone calls, sometimes, it's the only way to interact with the healthcare system)

Unfortunately, part of my house is a T-mobile dead-zone. While I do have a land-line, there does not exist any device that can turn my landline into a blue-tooth compatible service (yes, I've looked, the closest is a VTech system that includes a wireless headset that you can use, but still doesn't let me connect my own bluetooth headset to it)

So when T-mobile announced that you could get a cell-spot for free, I jumped on it. The cell spot is basically a small scale T-mobile cell tower. It connects to your internet broadband via a wired ethernet connection (it also provides a pass through in case you're not one of those people with a huge switch in their equipment closets), and then uses that to provide a virtual cell tower inside your house. Using this virtual cell tower still uses your minutes, data, etc., but you effectively get 4 bars of connectivity, which is a huge step up from 0. Of course, if you lose your internet connectivity, you also lose those 4 bars, so this isn't a solution for replacing your landline, but was exactly what I needed.

Acquiring the device is relatively painless. You do have to visit a store and give them an address where the device will be installed. That's because for E911 purposes, they still need to give emergency services a location for this virtual cell tower.

The device comes with a power supply, a device, and a GPS antenna and wire. The idea is that if you move the device to a new address/location, you can install the GPS wire and that'll provide T-mobile with the new location for E911 purposes. I have no intention of moving the device, so I didn't bother connecting the GPS wire. Note that if you do move the device to a new address, you'll get pings and all sorts of reminders about E911, and in the worst case, if you don't respond (all you have to do is to reply to the text message), the device will be disabled after a week.

Once installed the device takes about 2-3 hours to get ready. I don't know what it's doing during this period, but it certainly did show a lot of blinking lights. Once done, I had 4 bars of connectivity. My phone calls now never get dropped, and I can use my cell phone at home to my hearts' content.

If you're a T-mobile customer, and have spotty coverage at your house, there's no reason not to get this device. You pay T-mobile a $25 deposit, and in exchange you get 4 bars whenever you're at home. Highly recommended!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away is a novel along the lines of The Silence of The Lambs. The story revolves around Zoe, who'd escaped from a serial killer once, but was not believed by the police or her friends. When the serial killer resurfaces in the Bay Area, she inserts herself into the investigations and thus puts herself once again in danger.

The best thing about the book is the characterization. Zoe is a survivor, and suffers from PTSD. As a result of her earlier encounter, she's dropped out of her graduate program, and now views the world in a particularly cynical as well as self-destructive fashion. This characterization is both realistic and believable.

The portrayal of the serial killer is also good, depicted as in Mindhunter, including his mindset as well as the observation that serial killers get better at it if they're allowed to get away with it for too long.

The weakness is that the police always make the wrong decision. Whether it's not to take Zoe seriously in the first place, or to leave her unguarded after the serial killer has already made an attempt to get her, to arriving at a suspect without backup, this seems unbelievable to me, but perhaps it's established in serial killer literature.

In any case, it's a good read, not too long, and written in a readable style that makes a nice movie in your head, especially the climax. An ideal airplane novel. Recommended.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: Her Story (PC)

I try not to play games on the PC: it's difficult to play because I get distracted by e-mail and other work. The high resolution and close seating position of the PC means that even though I have a relatively powerful PC, it can't quite drive the display at high enough resolutions that I get a satisfying experience without spending more money on graphics cards, which I'm not prepared to do.

Her Story, however, is an exception. First of all, it's a game completely driven by the keyboard. That means that the PS4 (or any other console) would be a poor experience. Secondly, it's deliberately shot in low definition video, so doesn't depend on high resolution for an experience. Finally, it's short: I finished it in a matter of a couple of hours, and it's fun enough for me to recommend.

The game sits you down before a 1995 era police database/computer. By typing search terms into the computer, you get access to video clips of various police interviews with a woman who starts off by coming in to report her missing husband. You then use search terms to follow threads of investigation to figure out what happened.

The story and investigative process is actually interesting: sometimes your query terms exceed the number of results that can be displayed on screen, and the game restricts you to only 5. So you end up refining the search terms in order to uncover more of the story. Your thoughts about the investigations start changing as you come up with and then discard various hypothesis and follow through. My one criticism is that I didn't think the actress was actually very good: some of her mannerisms were a little forced.

I was wondering how I was going to figure out whether I was done with the game (i.e., I was running out of things to discover), when the game figured that out and hit me with an IM which told me about who was sitting in front of the computer. After the credits roll, you're given a key with which to unlock more search results, which led me to go back through my search history to find pieces which I had missed, and also gave me a nice history of my investigation and thought process.

Her Story is priced at $5.99 on Steam. I picked it up for $3.84 during a sale, and at that price, it's at least as good as any movie rental I've made over the past years. Recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review:Terms of Use

Terms of Use is a thriller about social networks. It's written by a Silicon Valley journalist, which means that it makes use of several references that are entertaining and fun. For instance, the name of the dominant social network in the novel is Circles, which in real life, of course, is the massive failure which made Google+ so hard to use, even for computer scientists and other power users.

The story involves one of the lead engineers in Circles. When his good friend is executed, and he's framed for it, he starts unraveling a plot involving socialbots, social networks, cat-fishing, and China rare earth minerals. It's a fun read, and entertaining. It makes several statements about the role of social networks in our lives, but not in a heavy-handed or obnoxious fashion.

I could see this as an entertaining and fun movie, and it's written in a fun style. A good airplane read. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Sandman Overture

Sandman Overture is the prequel to Sandman, and takes place just before Preludes & Nocturnes. The story involves a potentially universe ending event which draws all aspects of Morpheus to go on a quest to save the universe. Along the way, we meet just a few members of the Endless, but also reveals the origins of the Endless.

The plot is somewhat straightforward, with the side-trips and occasional encounters thrown in for fans of the main Sandman narrative, but you can tell the distractions for what they are: distractions from the major plot.

What I don't like about the book is that the earlier work had established Morpheus as being much less human in the past than the events in the main narrative, and this book tries to walk that back, and not altogether too convincingly for me. While the story is OK, I wouldn't consider this a "must-read" the way the rest of the Sandman series is. I'm glad I checked it out of the library instead of paying for it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review: The Addictive Brain

The Addictive Brain is an audio course about how addiction works, how it affects the brain chemistry (and why addiction occurs) and (to a lesser extent) how addicts can break their dependency. I picked it up as a "daily deal" for $2, and it was a good deal.

The lecturer, Professor Polk, speaks at a slow pace, so I sped up the course by accelerating his speech to 1.25 times normal. I can tell you there were several professors at the Cal I wish I could have done that to! Nevertheless, the material is great. He goes into the neurochemistry of the brain in order to give you an idea of how the brain works, and then walks you through each drug to analyze which receptors the drug binds to in the brain, and how and why it has the effect it does. As he does so, he frequently provides a history of the drug as used in human society, as well as the process by which it became isolated, refined, used, and then (almost invariably) abused.

The drugs covered are:
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamine (and meta-Amphetamine)
  • Marijuana
  • Morphine (& Opiates)
  • Gambling, Porn, and Video Games
Of course, the last 3 aren't drugs, but of course, can also be abused and result in addiction. I'm surprised TV watching and internet addiction isn't on the list, as I'm sure you and I can think of people who exhibit withdrawal symptoms when either of those aren't available.

Fundamentally, addiction is an unintended consequence of our brain's ability to learn. You can call it a bug or a security hole if you like. Addictive substances (and behaviors) create a feedback loop which makes use of the dopamine feedback loop to trigger "this was better than expected!" learning. This leads to an unconstrained craving simultaneous with a reduction of the inhibition circuits in the brain. Each drug potentially triggers this in a different way, but your vulnerability to addiction is also highly genetic.

Each section also discusses ways for the addict to break his or her addiction. It's by no means easy and the success rate is dismaying low (none of the drugs appear to have a surefire way to achieve better than 40% quit rates!), but Professor Polk speaks with compassion about how the process works.

All in all, I learned quite a bit in this audio course, and can recommend it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: Zero World

I picked up Zero World from the library because of some good reviews from a magazine I read. It's a purported science fiction thriller, but I was disappointed.

The setup was intriguing enough: Peter Caswell is an assassin who works on such secret projects that he has an Integrity Assurance implant. The implant would effectively wipe his memory after a certain time, which forces him to complete his mission within a time limit while ensuring that his employers could keep the secrets secret.

When he's tasked with killing everyone aboard a ship that went to salvage a long lost research vessel, his employer activates his IA implant and tells him to pursue the last remaining member of the crew and kill her, under a strict time limit. He follows her into a wormhole which takes him to another planet that looks just like Earth.

What follows is a lot like the first Jason Bourne movie: he meets up with a local agent and they go on the run after a botched assassination attempt. The action is non-stop, but the world's barely sketched out and it feels like the author's deliberately doling out reveals at a slow pace to keep you dangling just a fair bit. And indeed, it appears the novel is a setup for a sequel.

The characters aren't very well developed, and don't change very much. Ultimately, it's an action movie turned into a novel, but not so well executed (unlike say, Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels) that I'd bother reading any more books in the series.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: The Game

If you're a frequent reader of Dilbert's Blog, you're familiar with Scott Adams' moist robot hypothesis. Basically, the theory is that we're all robots that can be programmed with external stimuli, and led to do things that our rational minds wouldn't let us do.

The Game is a book about taking this hypothesis to the next level, and applying and developing methods for men to meet, amaze, and bed women in a short amount of time. Well, that's what the advertising copy would have you believe. In reality, the book is about the community (known as the PUA community, or the Pick-Up-Artists) that not only builds (probably more than one) internet forum exchanging such techniques, as well as running workshops to train men in these techniques.

Don't ask me whether these techniques work. Neil Strauss says they do, and it's entirely feasible that they do, though apparently by the end of his run, the PUA community had so rampaged through the LA community that he lived in that most women had already been approached by those techniques and were therefore immune to further activities by PUAs. (I found that really amusing!) Strauss however, tried this technique on Britney Spears, and apparently it works even on celebrities.

Since most of the book is about the politics and social interaction within the community itself, it reads like a journalistic account of the lifestyle behind the PUAs. It's full of neurotic people, which naturally makes much interaction really tedious, making you wonder why he puts up with them. Since Strauss was a journalist for the Rolling Stone, it also meant he got massive exposure to artists/musicians going through crazy times. (Courtney Love appears frequently in the book)

There were several little gems in the book that made such great reading that I highlighted them:
The reason I was here—the reason Sweater and Extramask were also here—was that our parents and our friends had failed us. They had never given us the tools we needed to become fully effective social beings. (Kindle Loc 420-421)
 The problem with being a pickup artist is that there are concepts like sincerity, genuineness, trust, and connection that are important to women. And all the techniques that are so effective in beginning a relationship violate every principle necessary to maintaining one. (Kindle Loc. 4387-89)
 A side effect of sarging is that it can lowers one’s opinion of the opposite sex. You see too much betrayal, lying, and infidelity. If a woman has been married three years or more, you come to learn that she’s usually easier to sleep with than a single woman. If a woman has a boyfriend, you learn that you have a better chance of fucking her the night you meet her than getting her to return a phone call later. Women, you eventually realize, are just as bad as men—they’re just better at hiding it. (Kindle Loc. 6258-62)
 I picked up the book on a $0.99 Kindle deal on Black Friday. It's definitely provided great entertainment for that. Recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Immune

I reviewed The Second Ship as an example of a Saturday morning cartoon. Immune is no different. While the characters do develop a little, and the situation gets a little bit more complex, the story clips along at a regular pace, but as with the previous novel, it's fairly simplistic. You can almost see the gears of the plot driving characters along, with each new plot twist followed almost as rapidly by its resolution.

It's a decent beach read, but I wouldn't recommend it for anything more serious. Set your expectations accordingly.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

First Impressions, Motorola Moto E LTE (2015)

I have to say that over the last year or so, Android has finally redeemed itself in my eyes, and the reason for that mostly has to do with Motorola. The Moto G has been an unmitigated top level experience for me so far, so when I found $10 Moto E LTE (Verizon) being blown out by Best Buy during Black Friday, I picked up one.

In previous years, you would have been hard pressed to recommend an Android phone for anything under $200. In fact, for my parents, I'd moved them to Lumia phones for that reason: it seemed that for anything with under 2GB of RAM, Android was really sluggish, and had miserable battery life. The Motorola Moto E with 1GB of RAM didn't seem like it would be any better, but for $10 I could have a spare phone.

I'm a T-mobile user, so the first thing I did was to follow the instructions to convert the phone to GSM mode. These instructions involved turning the phone into a developer machine, and then using adb to set the wireless radios to talk to the GSM network instead. The penalty is that if you ever switch SIMs (or even pull the SIM out and reboot), the device will revert back into Verizon mode, so this isn't a phone you could expect to travel to various countries and buy local SIM cards with: you'd have to go through the unlock sequence every time you inserted a new SIM card into the device, so unless you're also bringing a laptop with adb installed and are willing to go through it every time you switch SIMs, you're better off buying a truly unlocked phone.

Part of the reason Android performance on lower end devices is now acceptable is because hardware has gotten faster. The Moto E LTE has a Snapdragon 410 SoC, which is clocked just 200MHz slower than the one in the Moto G 2015. That 15% disadvantage in clock speed is noticeable, but it's the 1GB of RAM that's really what makes the phone feel less than instantly responsive to your touch. Apps startup just that bit slower, though once started, the apps feel just as fast as on the Moto G. Note, however, that app startup is something you do frequently on Android phones: you click on a link in Gmail, for instance, and startup a web browser. You'd click the share button on the web browser, and then bring up Facebook or Google+ to post. So the performance penalty for task switching really hurts if you're a power user.

The camera is decent for taking pictures of receipts and in good light. But without even a flash to help, it's pretty much something you're not going to use and be delighted with. The 4.5" screen feels like a throwback to 5 years ago: coming from the Moto G, you wonder how anyone ever thought 4.7" was a decently sized phone, let alone 4.5". The smaller screen does help with the performance, though: with fewer pixels to push, the device is acceptably fast most of the time.

For $10, the phone is definitely a deal. It's more than acceptable, and better than any of the cheap Lumias from past years. For the full retail price of $120, I'd say the Windows Phones start looking better. Fortunately, you'd never have to pay that: the Amazon street price of the phone is around $35, and at that price, I'm think that Windows Phones aren't ever going to be taking market share from Android. The Moto E LTE is a phone that does everything that the higher end devices do acceptably, and with the full range of apps that the windows phones cannot match. I'm now convinced that even supposedly "thin" skins such as found on the Sony Xperia phones suck a ton of CPU/GPU power away from UI responsiveness, and that's to be avoided if at all possible, and if you manage to do so, phone hardware is now powerful enough that the Windows phones no longer have an advantage.


I have to say, if Motorola had been smart enough to make the Moto X Pure waterproof, it would now be in the running for an upgrade: that's how impressive the Moto G has been. Seriously, I have no idea why most of the flagship phones aren't waterproof. It seems like such a basic feature if even a $180 phone can achieve it!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Review: Brain Maker

Brain Maker is purportedly a book about your gut microbes, and how your intestinal flora can contribute to the health of your brain. I use the word purportedly because Dr. Perlmutter exhibits several red-flags that set off my "flim-flam" alert.

First of all, the book spends the first chapter talking like a snake oil salesman. All sorts of promises and exotic claims are made, most of which seem overly aggressive for a topic for which research is in its infancy.

As a matter of fact, a close read of the book reveals that Dr. Perlmutter's claims are indeed excessive. For instance, he cites his own patients' clinical history, but these are all one-offs, and he's careful not to claim that this works in all cases, or even to provide a semblance of success rates for his treatments. In particular, he tells patients to go to Europe to do FMT (fecal microbiotatransplant) operations, because it's still regulated as being too experimental in the US to perform as clinical practice.

In nearly every case, for every published research study he refers to, the study is small (under 30 people), and has not been replicated in a large scale trial. In some cases, his optimism might be merited, but if you're a scientist, one small scale study is hardly sufficient to recommend to lay people as clinical practice!

In the cases where the results are clear, they're also widely known and accepted, such as reference to studies that show that coffee is good for you.

Now it's clear that there's a lot of promising research on our microbiomes, but unfortunately, this book appears to be a quick attempt to cash in, rather than a thoughtful survey of upcoming research. Hence, it is not worth your time.

Monday, December 07, 2015

First Impressions: EOS M3

A few years ago, Peng-Toh and I were talking about mirrorless cameras. At that time, I'd spent some time with the EPL-1. The EPL-1 did a good job of pretending to be a good camera: shutter speeds were fast, and previewed images looked sharp and beautiful. But once you imported the images into Lightroom, the results were ugly: you quickly discovered that most of the time, the focus was off, and while the images were sometimes usable, they were never ones you were proud to share. Even photos from point and shoots such as the S90 were better. The consensus between Peng-Toh and I was that Canon would enter the mirrorless market, and do it right.

Canon did enter the mirrorless market a few years ago, in the form of the EOS M, but it did everything wrong. Apparently, auto-focus was awful, so much so that I didn't even consider the camera. Peng-Toh did buy one, but he was disappointed. The one thing that Canon did right, apparently, was that the image quality was superb, but that was apparently insufficient to overcome all the other flaws.

Canon had an EOS M3 sale during the holidays (and it's still running today).  At $430, it's not cheap (though in the same ballpark as say, the Sony A6000), but online reviews indicated that Canon had solved the autofocus issues with the camera. The photo community seems to think that Canon isn't serious about mirrorless, and to some extent they're right: there are only 4 dedicated EFM lenses, and the M3 doesn't sport any high end features such as in-body image-stabilization, and Canon doesn't have any full frame mirrorless cameras like Sony.

Pit against that, however, is that for any long lens work, you might as well stick the full frame EF lenses on the camera. Sure, the lens is huge compared to the camera, and you could have shaved a couple of hundred grams off the lens if you weren't carrying so much glass, but when you have a long lens that weight difference is really lost in the noise. Furthermore, those full frame mirrorless Sony cameras are very expensive, and when you come down to the same price level of the EOS M3, you get cameras like the Sony A6000. Even a cursory glance at the sample images comparing the EOS M3 to the A6000 using the kit lens easily reveals that the combination of a Canon lens and the EOS M3 utterly destroys the Sony equivalent as far as image quality. And if you're knowledgeable, you won't be shooting with the kit lens!

With that in mind, I took the plunge and got the EOS M3 for my wife on her birthday. Along with the body, I purchased the EF-M 22/f2 and the EOS M mount adapter. We also bought and returned the EFM 18-55mm zoom. The zoom was surprisingly nice, but it had a strange color cast that I didn't find appealing.

When building a new system, my philosophy is where possible build it around primes that provide roughly a doubling of focal length. So paired with the EFM-22, I got out my ancient EF 50mm/1.8. The two lenses yield a full-frame equivalent of a 35mm lens and an 80mm lens, which nicely covers the "normal" range, with the 80mm providing a great portrait lens. The 50mm together with the EF mount weigh just 80g more than the zoom, but provide a 1.8 maximum aperture which lets you isolate a subject in its surroundings. If Canon had made a wide angle prime EF-M lens, I would have bought it as well, since that's what's missing.
When the camera arrived, I was impressed by how small it was, especially with the 22mm prime attached. It was tiny, just a bit bigger than the Sony RX100. But what blew me away was that my wife tried the camera, and then declared that she wasn't going to shoot with just her phone again. The biggest feature for her was the NFC wireless transmittal of photos from the camera to her smartphone. She'd always hated having to use lightroom to extract photos from a camera: by contrast, photos that go into her smartphone are immediately available for sharing and posting onto social networks. And the quality difference was obvious: this clearly is a DSLR in a point and shoot body.

The nice thing about the EOS M3 if you're already a Canon user is that all your existing accessories work with it. My flashes and my collection of EF lenses were immediately compatible. When you put that together with high quality primes, it blew away anything produced by anyone who owns a crappy 18-200mm zoom instead of a decent lens. To put it all together, we went to a physical store and picked up a Think Tank Mirroless Mover 25i (after trying a bunch of other bags). It fit a flash, a mini tripod, the charger, and various other accouterments for serious shooting. In practice, Xiaoqin mostly carried it around with just the 22mm/f2 attached. With a 24MP image output, even severe cropping still grants usable photo quality.

In practice, the camera produces superlative images. Low light performance is impressive:
The biggest flaw in the camera is that shot-to-shot times are slow in one-shot mode, and the 50mm tends to hunt a bit. (An upgrade to the latest and greatest 50mm STM would probably solve this problem) But by far the biggest benefit is that the camera's much likely to be traveled with than my ancient EOS 5D2. That alone made my wife decide to keep the camera instead of sending it back to Amazon.

Since I'm not the primary user of this camera, don't expect any long term reviews from me. But if you're a Canon user looking for a travel setup (especially if you're a landscape person who needs a camera for backcountry camping or cycling), I won't hesitate to recommend this to you. The image quality is superb, it's small and light (it's smaller than even the G series of point and shoots), and a landscape shooter won't have any issues whatsoever with the shot-to-shot times. Canon might not have "done it right" yet, but for someone who's got 2 kids and would like to travel with a serious camera that's nevertheless still light enough to bring on a trip, the M3 is an great alternative to the DSLR and produces far better photos than even the Sony RX100.


Saturday, December 05, 2015

Friday, December 04, 2015

Review: The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project may be described as "Sheldon Cooper decides to get a wife." Written from the perspective of geneticist Don Tillman, the novel depicts a typical nerd/socially awkward unaware person's attempt to optimize the process of acquiring a wife. Hilarity ensues.

If this description doesn't get you to pick up the book, consider this: it's very well written, and sympathetically provides a viewpoint of someone with Asperger's that at once arouses sympathy for him, while simultaneously showcasing the strengths of people who uniquely possess the ability to ultra-focus on just one thing (possibly to the detriment of all else).

For instance, in one of the scenes of the book, he's told to become a bar-tender to make cocktails. Overnight, he essentially memorizes an entire book of cocktail recipes while practicing the skills to actually mix them. The protagonist is as a result extremely likeable, and is probably someone you'd enjoy meeting in real life.

I was going to write that this book is recommended reading for those of you who're married to a geek/engineer/technologist/scientist without being one. But it's so much fun that I couldn't possibly restrict it to such a small subset of humanity. It's highly recommended to everyone who breathes. Don't wait for the movie, go read it!

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review: Phishing for Phools

I'm a big fan of Robert J. Shiller, even before he won his Nobel. Phishing for Phools is his book (in collaboration with George Akerlof) about cheating in the capitalistic market economy.

Akerlof & Shiller point out that the traditional market economy treatise goes something like this: in a market economy, producers are incentivized to produce better goods in competition, innovating and therefore improving the general good of mankind. This isn't a complete story, however. The problem is, the producers are also incentivized to prey on every weakness you have, from your desire for sugary drinks, to your inability to plan ahead for busy times, whereupon you're hit by "surge pricing." The net result is that far from the idealized view of markets where improvements are driven by technical advances, we have markets where phishing is the common order of the day.

The authors provide about 6 chapters worth of examples, from politics to pharmaceuticals, from finance to tobacco. They point out that the recent "market fundamentalism" pushers are creating an economy with such weak regulation that pretty much any weakness or lack of sophistication on the part of consumers (or even existing regulatory agencies) will be taken advantage of.  By the time you're done with this book, I'm sure you can think of several other examples which the authors did not list.

If all voters read this book, we might end up living in a better world. But of course, that's not going to be true. However, even as an individual you have an incentive to read this book: once you get into the mindset of phishing as the normal operational mode of a market economy, you'll be much less subject to phishing yourself.

As such, for self-defense purposes if nothing else, this book comes highly recommended. Go find a copy and read it!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Review: Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

If you've had a good Western style education, you've probably had a great inoculation to the usual insane myths that go around. For instance, you probably understand that vaccine have a positive ROI even for the individual. You probably know that it's viruses that cause the common cold, not physically getting cold. (In fact, staying indoors is much more likely cause you to catch the common cold than going outside to exercise)

What surprised me, however, when I checked out Medical Myths from the library was that despite all that, I still harbored a number of myths that Professor Novella managed to debunk. For instance, like most people, I thought that acupuncture was a uniquely Chinese tradition. It's not, and Dr. Novella provides a succinct and thorough history and evolution of acupuncture. In addition, I always thought that regular nasal irrigation was at worst harmless. It turns out that it's not harmless, and can in fact cause a sinus infection. However, nasal irrigation while you're infected with a cold and have congestion is a good idea.

Furthermore, the lectures contains lots of information about sham supplements, some of which aren't even conformant to the philosophies they espouse. For instance, Zircam happily advertises itself as a homeopathic medicine. It turns out that it contains zinc, which is well known to help with colds. However, that doesn't mean it's safe: it turns out that the amount of active ingredient in this "homeopathic" medicine is so high that it could potentially cause deafness in certain people. Ouch.

The series of lectures is filled with lots of information like this, and Professor Novella is an excellent lecturer, never boring. You'll learn about all sorts of myths (as well as bad TV depiction of medical phenomena), and wonder to yourself, "How can anyone believe that?" Then you'll get hit with a zinger like one of the factoids I described above. It's great humbie pie and very much worth reading.

This series of audio lectures has mixed reviews on Amazon, but mostly from people who have an axe to grind (i.e., anti-vaccination people, etc). If the quality of your work is to be judged by the kind of enemies you make, I'd say that Professor Novella has a lot to be proud of.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Review: Saga Volume 1

My call for comic book recommendations came up with but one response: Saga. So I picked up Saga Volume 1 at the library after a brief sample online demonstrated that I still preferred reading comics on paper.

A lot of the pros behind why you should read this book is covered by an io9 article. My response to that is that while the art is enjoyable, it's not really up to the standards that graced the better issues of Sandman or John Totleben's Miracleman.

My biggest beef about the book is that it seems as though written by new parents. Yes, we get it that you just got kids recently. But the writing seems to blow everything out of proportion, which I guess might be accepted for a pre-teen comics, but the book is clearly not for pre-teens.

The story is OK, but with none of the internal logic that made every big reveal in Fables an epiphany. The IO9 article compares the book to Star Wars. Unfortunately, if you're an adult, the Star Wars story isn't terribly fresh, and to be honest doesn't hold up. I'm now dreading the inevitable re-watch with my son as a result.

The verdict: it wasn't a waste of time, but I'm not rushing out to buy my own copies after returning this to the library. I probably would check out new volumes from the library as they come out, however.

Mildly recommended.