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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review: Airborne Seeker Mountain Bike

Now that I've ridden my Airborne Seeker enough to approach one maintenance cycle, I feel like I can write a review of the bike and do it some justice.

The bike press and some cyclists talk about "catching air". Until I rode this bike, I never actually went fast enough up a ramp to experience it. It's a sublime experience: for one moment, you're completely weightless: a nudge from your body in any direction can move the entire bike. To be able to experience it, you need to trust your bike enough to go fast down an incline that ends in a ramp. It's a great feeling, and I never felt it on my 1993 Bridgestone MB-3.

It took me a while to get there. On my first few rides on the bike, I took every corner gingerly and with concern. The wheels felt big, but having experienced a good 29er, I had faith that as I got used to the bike that feeling would go away. Indeed it did: I'm now taking corners better than I did on my 26" MTB, and tackling pretty much the same obstacles I rode before. I still get a little freaked out on technical climbs, but when I remember that the big wheels roll very well over obstacles and relax, I pretty much roll over anything I can find on the bike.

Dialing in the suspension also made a huge difference: since I'm very light, I had to use the lowest number printed on the fork, and release air from the shocks. Even with the shock locked out the suspension still bobs a little as a result, but not in an annoying way. The 2x10 drive train has made me a convert: I think the 2x10/11 drive trains should be a standard on all future bikes, road or mountain. It's the way to go.

The brakes are said to be the weakest part of the Airborne Seeker. But I'm so light that I hardly put any stress on them. They do warp and occasionally make a zing-zing sound, especially when I hammer through muddy sections or otherwise tax them. But they've been surprisingly silent most of the time: the annoying sounds go away as soon as I ease up and they have not persisted. I will never put disc brakes on any road bikes, but on the mountain bike, I can see them as being potentially more reliable than V-brakes or cantilevers, as well as being easier to maintain.

Pardo once said, "Mountain Biking is the process of throwing your bike off a cliff very slowly --- with you on it, so there's no point anything that's too good." When I went bike shopping, I settled on the Airborne Seeker because its component selection (2x10 drive train, air shocks, gearing, and 29er wheels) could not be found from any other manufacturer under $1500. I was ready to buy it new from the factory, but they were out of stock so I bought mine for $730 shipped on eBay. I now realize that buying an Airborne Seeker is not "settling" by any means. I'd have a tough time finding a better bargain, and it's way more fun to ride than I expected. Even better, when I called up Airborne asking to buy a spare derailleur hanger, they immediately asked for my address and sent me one for free! For someone who bought a bike from eBay used, I did not expect that kind of treatment. I'll give them the thumbs up for customer service any day of the week.

If you can fit one (and find one in stock --- the factory said that they'll have them in stock sometime in spring), I cannot recommend them enough. This is one heck of a great bike. I'm sure other bikes are lighter, etc., but there's nothing else in this price range that comes even close.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: Producing Excellence

If you're a parent in the middle class, you've probably read countless parenting books. Most of them are prescriptive, telling you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and why the advice works. Whether the advice is any good is up for grabs. Producing Excellence is the ultimate parenting book in reverse, beating even Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for a great list of things not to do to your kids.

The book explores the world of the violin virtuoso who's training for a career as an international soloist. Imagine a world in which:

  • Parents regularly pick the careers for their children at an early age (5 or 6 is not uncommon)
  • Subject kids to 8 hours of practice a day, eliminating their social life outside of music
  • Engage in extreme helicopter parenting, including participation in rigged competitions (every musical competition is pretty much rigged, if you believe this book), selecting music teachers, finding prestigious violins to play (getting such violins on loan takes up an intriguing 10 pages of the book), punishing international travel to get to competitions, garnering sponsorship, and eliminating general education to the point where soloists-in-training cannot conceive of (and in any case aren't prepared for) a career outside music, even in the (common) event that they cannot achieve their goals
As I read this book, I found myself highlighting passage after passage, not just because of how interesting they were, but because of how appalling the process is:
     “I do not need prodigy pupils, only gifted mothers.” —Violin teacher  (kindle loc 1113-16)
Teachers advocate minimum practice periods of an hour to an hour and a half for three- to five-year-old students; two to three hours for six year olds, four or more hours daily by the age of eight. The famous twentieth-century teacher Stolyarsky Piotr Solomonovitch “demanded that his student take the violin out of its case immediately after breakfast and put it away just before going to sleep at night. All other activities, including general education, were expected to be cut to a minimum”  (Kindle Loc. 1240-47)
 I first heard while observing an eight-year-old student taught by a renowned teacher from the Moscow Gnesina School: You know who Niccolò Paganini was? The most important virtuoso of the nineteenth century. You know why he was so famous, so great, and the best violinist of his time? People say that he offered his soul to the devil in exchange for such magical skill that [his instrument] was a magic wand! Niccolò, at your age, had already worked very hard. From the beginning of each day, his father confined his little son to a small empty room and ordered him to play violin. After one hour of work, Niccolò earned the right to breakfast. Then again, he worked until lunchtime. When the father had estimated that Niccolò played badly, he wouldn’t let him eat anything. In that manner the boy worked all day. (Kindle  Loc. 1276-80)
 In another case, the parents of a child were said to have given him slaps on the head, or pulled his ears or hair. Public revelations concerning such practices are rare, yet Ruggiero Ricci, the American violinist, is convinced that numerous child virtuosos are victims of parental pressure or abuse. According to Schwartz, “Ricci was speaking from experience. He describes his father as ‘some kind of musical maniac.’ He had all seven children playing an instrument. ‘I wanted to be pianist, but my parents got me off that jig. They bribed me with fiddles.’ On the whole, Ricci had an unhappy childhood. His father did not hesitate to put pressure on the boy”  (Kindle Loc. 1328-30)
 With testimonials like this, it is no wonder that Amy Chua abused her daughters to get them into Carnegie Hall: she was competing with other parents who were more extreme, more willing to work their kids, threaten them or even physically abuse them. With more intellectual activities like Math, Computer Science, or Physics, once you've mastered the material, all new work is fresh problem solving. Not so with motor skills like violin, piano, or practically any other musical instrument. Even after reaching the pinnacle of their professions, the violin player still needs constant daily practice to maintain excellence:
Kubelik’s biographers reported that he worked twelve hours each day before concerts; on the evening when he performed, his fingers would bleed. Heifetz described his practice as two hours each day, exercises and scales, and several hours of repertoire. (Kindle Loc. 1392-1400)
With STEM fields, achievement in the field is based on publication and citations. If you managed to prove P=NP and published a paper to that effect, no amount of bias or attempts at suppression of your work would succeed. But musical competitions are extremely subjective, with loaded juries. In fact, according to Wagner's book, most of the competitions have a "pay to win" component:
Competitors try to have a master class with at least one jury member. In the case of the observed competition, its organizer created a master class with a jury member just before the event, to allow competitors to “better prepare their performance,” as a jurist explained in his opening speech. For this master class, lessons and accommodation cost over 300 euros. Not all competitors were able to pay this, but all competition finalists had participated in this master class.  (Kindle Loc. 1822-26)
Negotiations of the jury are secret; according to testimonies, discussions are sometimes stormy. According to a teacher who participates in juries, it is always possible to “sway the vote.” Three jurists working together, he says, can control and influence competition results. “I don’t know of any competitions which aren’t backhanded. It is always possible to support or throw out someone before the finale.” An accompanist, speaking with a competitor’s parent on the first day of selections, expressed discontent: “Here, the prizes have already been distributed. It’s a pity, because I have accompanied children who have played very well.  (Kindle Loc. 1873-76)
After the competition, the parent of a losing candidate asked two jurists separately for reasons they did not select his child. Both men responded that the young violinist was very talented and a soloist career was at his fingertips, but that he should change his teacher. Both suggested the young musician would be welcome in their classes.  (Kindle 1905-9)
If you're wondering what sort of parent would put their child through this huge amount of hard work just so as to support a corrupt system where success has very little to do with actual excellence but everything to do with who you know, and the kind of backroom dealing that you would expect from 3rd world banana republic elections, you're not alone. The answer appears to be that the truth behind the classical music industry is carefully hidden from parents, students, and the general public:
Teachers carefully hide the fact that success is rare, even nearly impossible. Professors believe that the parents and their children do not need this information. Without faith in a glorious future as a globetrotting soloist playing packed halls such as the Albert, Carnegie, and Pleyel, how can the teacher motivate young students and their parents? The shadow of failure could dull the enthusiasm and provoke the demobilization of the teacher’s entourage. It is absolutely contrary to the teachers’ interest to speak about the relative proportion of successful students. And so, the teachers continue to support the notion that students’ aspirations are realistic.  (Kindle Loc. 4957-60)
 “The problem with Ivan, and with others who work with children as he does [in the soloist class], is that for every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.” Although this may be exaggerated, the ratio of success is certainly accurate, and the risks of failure are not unrealistic.  (Kindle Loc. 4962-64)
When students are asked, “Why have you chosen to became a musician?” the response is generally, “I don’t know,” or “It was always that way,” or “I only know how to play.” The lack of knowledge in any other field seems to pose an impassable obstacle. At the end of their education, after abandoning hope of becoming a soloist, the easiest solution is to find a job in the larger world of music. (Kindle Loc. 5329-36)
 The author then discloses that she herself is the mother of a son who was put into this career track before she started her research project (the book was the result of her PhD thesis on ethnology). Her poignant passage upon the realization that she had stuck her son into this low-success-rate career:
 When my position as a research worker opened the possibility for me of seeing my world from a different point of view, I developed profoundly mixed emotions. It was frightening to be more fully aware of a world where competition is strong and the market is saturated. I came to realize the stakes that participants of that world—including my son—were up against. I hadn’t seen how high those stakes were before, because I had embraced the ideology of the world. The sociologist in me was overjoyed—the mother in me panic-stricken. I tried to retreat and find ways for my son to leave this milieu and find another field of study and work. But I failed, for the bonds between him and the soloist elite were too tightly wound for his escape. (Kindle Loc. 5884-89)
 There were many times during my reading of this book where I had to stop because I was so stricken with incredulity and pain. By the time I was done with this book, I became disgusted with myself for having spent any money at all on classical music and thus indirectly contributing to the unhappiness of so many children worldwide. I'm not sure I could in good conscience ever go to a classical music performance, listen to a  classical soloist, or look on the (frequently shared) YouTube videos of "child prodigies" again with the innocence I once had. It's a shame that something as beautiful as music has been turned into a corrupt industry by greed, hunger for fame, and desire for money. What's worse is that the kids who were started on this career path were driven to it by their parents, not because they personally would have chosen the career path on their own. Furthermore, the media glorifies the exceptions who make it (we all know that Lang Lang's father was an SOB who was abusive to his son), while hiding the very human costs for the ones who don't make it.

I also can't help but wonder how rigged the science competitions are: since each submission is effectively a unique research project and it's run by a jury similar to those on music competitions, I wonder how much backroom dealing is involved. At least with the math Olympiads, everyone's given the same problem and has to solve them within the time limits.

All in all, I came away from reading this book sadder but quite a bit wiser. A few principles:

  • Any situation where there's a jury determining winners and losers is bound to be unfair. Hence running (no judges) is better than figure skating, and math is better than music. Even though many athletic events are plagued by cheating and drug using, the people involved in those are adults and chose to cheat or not cheat.
  • Where possible, choose fields where your results are sold directly to the public, rather than being sold to a narrow band of curators or taste makers. That means pop music is probably (but not much) better than classical music, and self-publishing books is probably better than the crazy system which is book publishing.
  • Any kind of democratization of taste that works by disinter-mediating the elite taste makers is a good thing. It's a good thing that people now pay more attention to Amazon's reviews than to "official" book critics like the New York Times review of books.
  • The media loves child prodigies. They will show the glories of a kid producing music, but not show the hidden costs behind that performance. And when that kid ages out of being cute, he will be dropped like a hot potato and never be mentioned again. Bear the in mind the next time you see a Youtube video of a child prodigy. Resist the temptation to turn your child into one of those. If you are still tempted, buy and read a copy of this book.
In any case, I enjoyed this book and can recommend it. It's a lot like watching a train wreck: you cringe for the people involved, but there's a perverse fascination in watching nevertheless. And if the book inoculates you against trying to turn your kids into one of those prodigies, that's well worth the (hefty) price.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Borken Spoke

After approximately 10 years and 30,000 miles, on a descent of Page Mill Road, I heard a "twang" sound and heard the sound of metal rattling. I quickly stopped my bike and saw that a spoke was loose on the front wheel. Upon fishing out the spoke, I realized that the spoke had broken where the threads were. I opened up the quick release on my caliper brakes, and rode the rest of the descent at a much slower pace than usual, being careful not to go full speed even on the flat sections.

After getting home, eating lunch, and taking a shower, I took out my spare spokes and found one that matched the correct length. I got out my truing stand, spoke wrenches, grease and tri-flow, greased everything, removed the tire and uncovered the rim tape enough to fish out the old nipple (pictured above) and installed a new nipple and spoke. My inspection of the old nipple indicates that the breakage probably occurred due to some microscopic defect in threads of the spoke, which I could not have possibly detected.

By ear (thank goodness for having perfect pitch), I tensioned up the spoke to match the others on the wheel, and then did some minor truing, upon which I discovered that my wheel was back to being as good as new!

Over the years, I've frequently encountered people who told me that I have too many spokes on my wheels, and that 32, 28, or even 16 spoke wheels are good enough. But when you have a spoke failure, having a lot of spokes on the wheel means that you can ride home safely, and when you repair the wheel everything comes together rapidly and easily. Hence I've never thought to myself: "I wished I had 4 fewer spokes on the wheels" when completing a mountain descent.

I'm forever grateful to Jobst Brandt and David "Pardo" Keppel for helping me out back when I was first building wheels. Nothing man-made can ever be perfect, but the traditional spoked bicycle wheel is still nothing short of amazing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review: Thing Explainer

After What if?, I had high hopes for Thing Explainer. This is a large format book, best read on paper: do not buy the Kindle edition, as it requires a really huge piece of paper to fit in most of the illustrations, and I can only imagine that reading it on a tablet or e-ink Kindle device would be an exercise in frustration.

The book's conceit is that Munroe would only use the 10,000 most commonly used English words to label the diagrams, which range from an examination of the Earth's Crust to a tear down of a smart phone to a Nuclear power plant. I call it a conceit because in many cases, using the proper nouns would have helped the clarity of the book, and using the simple words simply made the book more obscure. For instance, calling an engine a "fire box" is more confusing than using the word, "engine." The most ludicrous example of this came when he presents the periodic table of elements. In essence, having a label such as "Metal that Tells Us About the Early Earth" rather than Niobium doesn't help whatsoever.

As a result, the title of the book is a lie. The book can only explain the objects it claims to explain only because you, the reader, already know what it's explaining. If you tried to show this to a child, the poor kid would probably get more confused as a result of the "explanation" than if you actually used big words and answered questions patiently.

All in all, I'm glad I checked this book out of the library. There's amusement in puzzling out what each long chain of sentences in the book is talking about, and the diagrams are great, but there's no way you'd walk away from the book more enlightened than when you first picked it up.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Review: The Half-Life of Facts

I picked up The Half-Life of Facts hoping to get some insight. There's an old joke (repeated in this book) that the medical school exam questions are the same year after year, it's just that the answers are different. I expected charts and statistics, and analysis of whether the large number of researchers in various disciplines have led to an increasing churn of results, and whether that makes the rush to publish more likely to lead to false theories being promulgated.

In practice, this book did little more than touch on bits of those threads, and provided little insight. In particular, it feels like the book's full of anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and deep analysis. Worse, the author seems to have a very shallow view of technology, blithely talking about Moore's law, not realizing the lack of Dennard Scaling past the 45nm process, for instance, has brought CPU improvements down to a crawl.

I finished reading the book out of sheer bull-headedness, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: Mysteries of Modern Physics - Time

I started auditing the Great Courses Physics series on Time by Sean Carroll on a whim. Carroll is a physics professor at Caltech, and a great lecturer even for those of us who had a liberal arts education. For one thing, the topic is a great motivator: understanding the mysteries behind Time and the Arrow of Time, it turns out drives you wanting a better understanding of philosophy, psychology, neurobiology, cosmology, ideal gas laws, the second law of thermodynamics, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, relativity, and touches on high energy physics and of course string theory.

What astonished me was that Carroll successfully did this using minimal mathematics: he didn't even get around to PV=nRT, but still managed to explain the combinatorial expansion that drives the scientific understanding of entropy and what it means. I think it was Richard Feynman who said that "If you can't teach it to a smart undergraduate, then you don't really understand it," and Carroll's understanding and explanation more than passes the bar.

The mystery behind time, it turns out, isn't that it exists, but that there's a directionality to it. Since physics equations don't actually manifest an arrow of time, we're left with trying to explain it, but Carroll points out that ultimately, the question isn't "why is entropy going to go up tomorrow?", but "why was the entropy lower yesterday, and even lower the day before that", and so forth all the way until the moment of the Big Bang.

Along the way, Carroll takes us through a grand tour of modern physics, touching from gas laws, Boltzman's equation, and quantum mechanics as well as modern cosmology. It's a lot of fun. If physics had been taught with as much energy, literacy, and fun at my high school, I might have been a more interested and motivated student of the subject. And yes, he'll also address questions like: "Why am I always late?", and "Does time really start flowing faster as you get older?"

So yes, watch the series, or forget the video and just listen to it as you drive/hike/run errands. If you've been exposed to the material before, it'll be a great refresher, but if not, I can assure you that the presentation is much lighter and less intimidating than say, Lisa Randall's book. Recommended!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider (PC)

2013's Tomb Raider Reboot was a great game, and while I was a little disappointed that the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider wouldn't come to the PS4 until later this year, I wasn't in a hurry to play this game, and am never in the habit of paying full freight for games anyway. Well, I won a giveaway for a free game code for the Windows version, so I guess this review's coming out a year or so early.

Abstraction kills performance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in cross platform video games. My desktop PC, even though it was built in 2009, should in theory run circles around the PS4 and the XBox one. The CPU is a quad core i7 with hyperthreading, clocked at a GHz more than what's in either of those consoles. The GPU is a Radeon 7870, clocked at over 1GHz, a 25% increase in clock speed over what's in the PS4, which in turn has 50% more stream processors than the XBox One. By all rights, my desktop PC should be running any game with better graphics and faster response time than any of the consoles.

In practice, running Rise of Tomb Raider on the above machine required me to turn the resolution down to 960p and turn off several features that are turned on by default on the XBox One. Whenever I run a CPU/GPU monitor on the machine, it showed that the GPU is fully utilized, while the CPU basically pegs one core while the rest of the cores are idle. But because that core is being turbo-boosted, my machine's fans are fully spun up whenever the game is running, even during the cut scenes. In effect, my machine sucks down more power (about 300W) while producing a lower quality image than the XBox One. To get a better experience, I'd have to spend at least $300 on a graphics card, which would cost more than buying an XBox One. On top of that, when you're done with a game on the PC there's no way to resell the game to someone else, so while my PS4 games occasionally have a negative cost attached (i.e., I resell the game for more than I paid for it), there's zero chance of that happening on a PC game. I can definitely see why despite predictions of doom for dedicated game consoles, they're still selling very well.

During my review of The Witcher 3, I speculated that the SSD on my desktop PC would result in reduced loading time. Rise of the Tomb Raider put paid to that speculation: game startup times were north of 45s (the same as the Witcher 3 on the PS4), and that load time was repeated every time I used fast travel. A reload due to a death was fast, however, which made me happy but I don't think the XBox One would have been any slower.

OK, enough about the mechanics of PCs vs consoles. What about the game? If you enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, the sequel is more of it. As an action adventure game, it's a lot of fun, borrowing mechanics from RPGs, open world games, as well as the 3D platforming and linear sequences found in the Uncharted series. The game's McGuffin, a search for the fountain of youth is a bit too much of a cliche, but the story itself is not bad: we get a romp through various beautiful scenes (though the impact of that scenery was muted for me by a 960p resolution on a 27" monitor that's 12 inches from my eyes), lots of shooting, some stealth (though my Lara Croft never stealthed through anything when she could shoot through it), and of course, environmental puzzle pieces that are a hallmark of the series.

Just like with the Batman games, we get various equipment made available to us over time during the game, and with each upgrade, more parts of the environment become accessible, along with more goodies. Lara Croft herself has a skill tree where you can upgrade her during play, and customize her moves. If you actively seek out some side missions and pick certain correct skills early (some of the skills gives you bonus experience points throughout the game, so if you grab them early you level up very quickly), which makes the game much easier. (In fact, it's so much easier that this is one of the few games I played on normal and never felt like switching the difficulty level down)

Despite the entire experience being more polished (and also bigger: the game's 20 hours instead of 13, there are 9 tombs instead of 7, etc., etc.), I felt like the game didn't quite live up to its potential. Most of that is due to the writing: the Tomb Raider reboot made you feel sympathy for Lara in a way the sequel doesn't. While a lot of the game's emotional impact would have been very strong if you were attached to Lara's family, the game's writers didn't spend any expository time (or player-directed game time) to making the player understand the relationships and what they meant to Lara. As a result, you never connect to the secondary characters the way Joel and Ellie connect in The Last of Us, or even Nathan Drake and Sullivan or Elena connect in Uncharted. Similarly, despite the huge amounts of CPU/GPU available to Square Enix, they chose to make most of the experience focus on Lara Croft exploring, hunting, or fighting by herself, instead of having a companion character help out. The net result is that the game's missing the magic touch that Uncharted or even The Witcher 3 provides.

I don't want to give you the impression that the game's unenjoyable: it is, and in a direct way that The Last of Us isn't. It's just that it had the potential to be more, and I feel like Crystal Dynamic's team always took the conservative choice instead of the ambitious choice with every aspect of the game design, which ultimately hurt the game.

Nevertheless, it's a AAA blockbuster type experience that never overstays its welcome. It's recommended, but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy special hardware so you could play it earlier.