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Friday, December 29, 2017

Reread: Watership Down

I remember reading Watership Down as a teenager. I remembered that it was about rabbits or bunnies, but not much else. Despite Bowen's love of bunnies, when I went to the library, the book was so thick and intimidating that I didn't even bother checking it out to read to him. I tried the movie version, but 5 minutes into it Bowen was bored.

Eva Silverstein's a much better parent than I am, so on Bowen's birthday, she bought me the Kindle version of the book, which forced me to read it to Bowen. Bowen, being Bowen, is making me read a chapter of the book to him nearly every night, which indicates that the story is at least interesting to me. We're about 70% into the book, but I couldn't help it one night and just plowed all the way to the end, so even if Bowen hasn't finished the book, I have.

I can see now why the book didn't leave a deep impression on me. Much like Lord of the Rings, it's full of digressions, side-trips, and irrelevancies all merged into the narrative. The side stories do serve a purpose, granting the world of the bunnies a deeper folklore and worldview with history all of its own, but also distracted me from the main storyline, making me impatient to skip over them and go on to the "what happens next?" It also turns out that the plot of the novel is based on the mythology of the founding of Rome, which has no resonances for me, since I didn't have a classical background. The chapter start quotations are also clearly targeted for an adult audience, going over Bowen's head. But I read them all to Bowen anyway!

Each of the bunnies have a distinct personality, and according to Richard Adams came from research he did by reading non-fiction books. The rules he set when writing the novel was that the rabbits would never do something that was physically impossible for real bunnies to actually do, even though the behavior of many of the bunnies in the book are quite unnatural for bunnies.

I have a hard time recommending this book. I think the story itself is OK, but the structure and pace don't make for easy reading to a 6 year old, and there are many places that are a slog. Nevertheless, Bowen is loving the book. I'm dreading that when I get to the end he'll make me start all over! Clearly I'm not made out of the stuff that Jo Walton is.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: Critical Business Skills for Success

I checked out Critical Business Skills for Success from the library. Until January 10th, Audible has a deal where you pay $5/month for 3 months for an Audible subscription. If you sign up for this deal, this audio course should be one of the audible books you use your credits on. I plan on doing so, despite having listened to the entire 30 hour course. It is that good.

Have you ever wondered about how to read a balance sheet? Income statement? Wondered why people make a big deal out of free cash flow? Curious about how an accountant could have figured out that Enron was running a big fraudulent operation through forensic accounting? The tools needed for you to do so are in this course. What if you're an engineer and always wondered what a marketing person is supposed to be doing with his time? Is marketing just about creating and placing ads? The answers are here. What is a business strategy? How should investment decisions be made? How do you get the best out of your reports? There's a sequence of lectures here about this as well.

As an investor, I frequently hear people discuss investments without an understanding of what finance is, and how to use it to analyze a business. Just that alone would be worth the price of this audio course. Throw in the rest of it (the weakest part of the lecture series are the ones about HR --- everything else is pure gold), and this lecture series is worth every minute of your time.

Highly recommended for everyone. Go buy it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: Varmilo VA87M Wired Keyboard

Writers and programmers spend all their time in front of a keyboard. In fact, most of our output is directly driven by the keyboard, rather than the mouse/pen that artists typically depend on. I'd gotten  by on Logitech keyboards in recent years, mostly because my wife had complained about how noisy my previous mechanical keyboards are. But in recent years, there's been new keyboards with Cherry Brown Mx switches that are quieter while retaining the brilliant mechanical feel that I loved so much in the old IBM keyboards.

The Varmilo VA87M is one of them. I completely screwed up when I order this. Massdrop occasionally has VB87M Bluetooth Keyboards available for sale, but I checked the price against the VA87M on Amazon, and decided that Amazon was a better deal, completely neglecting to realize that the one on Amazon was the wired model, rather than the Bluetooth model. Since you can get Cherry Brown mechanical keyboards for much less than the Amazon price, I probably wouldn't have bought the keyboard otherwise.

Once I got the keyboard, however, I changed my mind. First of all, a bluetooth keyboard would have issues interrupting the computer during startup to get into the BIOS menu, for instance. Also, switching between computers (e.g., when I wanted to switch between my desktop and laptop) would have required repairing the keyboard, which is much more painful than unplugging a USB cable and plugging it to a different machine.

Once plugged in, the keyboard has a great light action feel while retaining the tactile feedback that only a mechanical keyboard can give. I also like it that the tops of the keys are blank, so over time they won't fade. From a distance, it looks like the entire keyboard is blank, and my wife asked how I could type without seeing the keys on the keyboard (which I could always do because I'm a touch typist, but my wife never noticed before). There are a few annoyances in the keyboard, largely to do with setup --- the keyboard can be setup to disable the Windows key, for instance, but doing so takes an arcane combination of keypresses that I somehow enabled by accident. The lighting is a worthless feature --- I don't know why anyone uses it. The keyboard is not noticeably loud enough to bother my wife, which is a big plus.

All in all, there are cheaper mechanical keyboards out there, but none so small (this one eliminates the number keypad). The wireless version of this probably isn't as good when it comes to response time and the convenience. I do wish that Logitech would make a Unifying mechanical keyboard around this size, but their PMs probably don't listen to people like me, so in the mean time, this is probably your best choice.


Friday, December 22, 2017

First Impressions: Garmin Index Smartscale

The most dangerous aspect of the human mind is its ability to deceive itself. I discovered that when I was done with my weight loss program: all through the years when I was gaining weight, I rationalized that this was a good thing. Even when I shot way past my goal. It took my doctor and a nutritionist to tell me that what I was doing was just plain wrong.

The thing about weight is that it fluctuates naturally, depending on your state of hydration, what time of day it is, and whether you just recently ate. That makes it easy for you to rationalize it. Even if you have the discipline to write down your weight every time you weigh yourself, it's easy to lie to yourself and say: "Oh, that was because I just drank a ton of water." A smart scale is the way around this: it's always at home, and you can always make yourself weigh in say, before your daily shower. Over time, the trendline and graphs will keep you from lying to yourself about your weight gain. (Or if you're not gaining weight, you'll stop being neurotic about the weight fluctuations on every weigh in!)

For better or worse, I'm part of the Garmin ecosystem, as opposed to the Apple or Fitbit ecosystems. The reason is fairly basic: Garmin is for athletes, the other devices are for people who want to be "fit." (i.e., they'll never do a bike ride for more than 4-5 hours and still expect their devices to still be powered on). That meant that the Garmin Index Smart Scale is the device that will provide weight data to all your devices. This makes the calorie counter more accurate (again, not significant unless you gain or lose a lot of that).

Set against that is a bunch of lackluster reviews, including from DC Rainmaker. (By the way, if you want the short summary of his reviews, just checkout the statement where he says he returns the review unit. If he says he'll run out and buy it from a retail store, then it's good, otherwise, it means that he doesn't care for it)

I didn't fully understand the lackluster reviews until I received the unit. Basically, if you're a single person using the scale, it's great. You sync it to your Garmin Connect app on your phone, answer basic questions about yourself (height, approximate weight, etc so that the BMI calculations are correct), and you're done. If you're setting it up for a family, however, it's counter-intuitive in multiple ways that are designed to drive you nuts. Your family members cannot add the device to their Garmin Connect themselves. What they must do is to connect their account to yours (an obscure, unituitive process that requires them to search for your Garmin Connect handle, and then request to be your friend, and then you have to accept), and then YOU have to invite them to use the Smartscale, after which THEY have to accept the invitation, and then go on to answer the questions.

Fortunately, I have access to everyone's smartphone, so I went ahead and created accounts for everyone and went through that rigmarole. After that the scale is like magic. In fact, when my wife stepped on for the first time and she saw her initials she said, "Hey wait, how did it know it's me?!!" The scale is fast, just a couple of seconds and it'll give you all the details like BMI, body fat percentage, amount of your weight is water weight, how much muscle mass you have, and how much bone mass you have. It then updates your Garmin Connect account wirelessly, and you're done. No hassle.

The other big issue is of course, how durable/reliable the device was. I bought the refurbished version from Amazon (and it looks brand new) with a credit card that extends the manufacturer's warranty by a year just to be safe. But now that I've gone through the setup, I think I understand how people can fail to set it up for a family and rather than deal with the hassle of figuring out all the vagaries, would rather just return it to Amazon. Oh yeah, if you buy refurbished, the first thing to do after installing the batteries is to hold down the factory reset button for 5 seconds.

If you've read with this so far, you now have all the information to take advantage of the certified refurbished prices on the scale on Amazon. It really is a decent device, just silly expensive for what it does, but if you're like me, Garmin has their hooks in you nice and deep and no other Smart Scale will integrate with the ecosystem anyway, so you might as well just buy it. At least, if you're the type of person who's capable of lying to themselves about weight gain (and my history has proved that I am!), a Smart Scale is probably a good idea.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

First Impressions: Playstation Gold Wireless Headset

I had returned the Playstation Platinum headset because for $120, it just didn't offer great bang for the buck. But when the Gold headset went on sale around $60, I picked one up because it's nice to have a wireless headset. (Note that you can plug your headphones into the Dualshock 4 on the PS4, but you're not going to get the nice virtual surround sound) Evidently, lots of people liked the deal too, since Amazon's now out of stock on the headset.

Just like the Platinum headset, you get a dongle which you plug into the PS4 (but is also compatible with the PS3 and your PC/laptop/desktop as well!) and then you turn on the headset and now you get virtual surround sound. It's not as nice as the magic Sony put into their VR headset, which granted really amazing localization, but when turned on, it does make even the movies on Horizon Zero Dawn sound better, so I see no reason to turn it off. The battery lasts about the same as the Dualshock 4. There are people who complain about that, but I don't get that much time in front of the PS4, so I don't.

For the price, you get nice sound (though nothing like the Sony X1000XM2, but that doesn't give you surround sound, nor does it pair wirelessly with your PS4). I returned the Platinum because it wasn't good enough value, but I'm not going to return the Gold headset.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: Runaways Vol 4-6

After I read the first run of Runaways, I picked up from the library, volumes 4-6: True Believers, Escape to New York, and Parental Guidance. Because the artists were changed dramatically between volumes, there's no consistent art style.

The biggest problem with the series is that since the group had accomplished their original goals (preventing their parents from destroying the world in the previous collection), the new story arcs aren't nearly as fresh or compelling. There's some intra-group rivalry/jealousy/romance, but none handled as maturely as you might like. The leader is (for a change) a half-asian woman, but the art style is such that you can't really tell if she's Asian.

The Escape to New York has a great segment when the Runaways meet Spiderman, who's cooler in this comic than in practically any other comics where he teams up with other heroes. Finally, in the 6th volume Vaughan decides to go for the comic book cliche of resurrecting an old villain. I guess this is where the book jumped the shark. Tom Galloway says the book stays good until Joss Whedon takes over, so I'll keep reading for a bit.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

First Impressions: Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle

For a limited time, you can get the Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle for $334.89. My brother got me one as a late birthday present. This is the bundle to get, because unlike other SKUs, it includes the second generation VR headset, which features HDR passthrough for the day when I get a HDR-capable TV. The move controllers are also improved over the ones I got for the PS3, since they take a microUSB charging port instead of the older mini USB model. It also comes with a camera.

When I built my PC this summer, my initial thinking was that I'd eventually get a VR capable GPU and then run VR through the PC. This didn't pan out, because the cryptomining craze has driven GPU prices beyond what I'm willing to pay. Furthermore, recent announcements (such as for the Fallout 4 VR) now specify that the minimum system requirements are such that you'll need at least a GTX 1070 to run them, with the GTX 1080 as the recommended requirement. The price of such video cards is such that you can buy a PS4, and the PSVR for almost the price of just the GPU alone. And of course, things being the way they are, the requirements will keep ratcheting up. By contrast, the PS4 is a stable platform and content released for it will not require better hardware until the PS5 shows up.

I bought a few games in addition to Skyrim, so I'd have an interesting collection of content to play. All of them cost around $10 or so during the black friday season. And the nice thing about buying discs is that you can resell them if the content isn't what you want. I picked up VR Worlds and Eagle Flight. My Playstation Plus subscription also gave me RIGs and Rush of Blood.

VR Worlds was surprisingly fun, with London Heist being the centerpiece. I think I finally realized how my reaction to a VR goggle was different when I started dodging bullets and flinching. I wonder if that goes away with exposure, but definitely felt different from watching a video. Rush of Blood was surprisingly hard, but also gave me a great sensation of actually being in a roller coaster. While the graphics are definitely dialed back from what the PS4 is capable of when displaying on a regular TV, it's definitely "good enough" for presence.

Eagle Flight was surprisingly disappointing. I felt less like flying than like operating a remote drone. That's because the UI is in conflict with the game design. The UI wants you to turn your head, but the idiot game designers at Ubisoft decided that the game would be more fun if the challenges required you to make tight turns. Because to do so would hurt your neck, they encourage you to tilt your head instead of turning your head to make turns, which is unnatural and difficult to train yourself to do, and results in you not feeling like you're a bird in the sky.

Rush of Blood was fun, but too intense to play in more than short bursts. Skyrim looks like an ultra-long RPG and will take me a while to get around to doing.

I also found the page on the best free apps on PSVR. Both my wife and Bowen enjoyed Invasion (also viewable as a youtube video), the Spiderman: Homecoming experience, and Alumette. What's very apparent with these VR videos is that if something comes within reach, human beings wearing VR goggles will want to try to touch it. Which means that the best true VR experiences are games using the move controllers, not VR videos. There's also apparently a ton of VR videos on YouTube, so lots of free content.

The PSVR social screen is also great. You can have a conversation with the VR user and comment on what they're seeing, since what they're seeing is also projected to the TV, etc. (And as a parent you can monitor your little kid's VR use, not that Bowen's allowed very much of it)

Regardless, the device, while expensive, seems to have a lot of content that's available fairly cheaply, and is surprisingly comfortable to wear and use. If you already have a PS4, picking this up is far cheaper than even buying the cheapest GPU + VR headset available for the PC platform. Clearly this is the way to go, until GPU supply catches up with the apparent infinite demand generated by cryptomining.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Runaways: The Complete Collection

The only reason I own a tablet is to read comic books on it. For everything else, my phone or my Kindle is a far better device. One of the best apps on the tablet is Hoopla, which lets you check out comics from the library (limited to 3 a month) and read them. The UI is just as good as the Kindle/Comixology app, and  you can't beat the price.

Runaways: The Complete Collection (which you can checkout as 3 books from Hoopla) is a comic set in the Marvel Universe. In it, a bunch of teens discover that their parents are evil. Not just the evil you regularly expect parents to do, but real-life supervillains intent on destroying the world. The teens discover that their heritage means that they have powers (what a shock), and then set out to right the wrongs their parents intent to wreak upon the world.

The art is transparent, nothing fancy. The characters a good, if a little stereotyped (though the plot twists are pretty great, and not as predictable as I expected), and like a good dungeon master, the story provides a good explanation of why the other superheroes in the Marvel universe aren't taking care of this.

Even better, the book completes an entire arc, rather than dragging on and on without resolving the teens' relationships with their parents. But the whole thing was so well done that I went ahead and started placing holds on the paper copies of the following books in the series from the library. That makes this one of the few good comics I've read in recent  years. Recommended.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Review: Uncharted - The Lost Legacy

The Uncharted series of video games are pretty much movies with a choose-your-own-action-sequence game mechanic. Uncharted: The Last Legacy doesn't deviate from the series' charter, and was originally conceived as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, but turned into a game.

As with Uncharted 4, the graphics and art direction is gorgeous. The run time is about 10 hours, but features perfect pacing, switching from traversal to exploration to the usual gun fights, feels like  a much shorter game, which is a very good sign. You're never tired from overuse of any of the game mechanics, and no, Nathan Drake never shows up as part of the game.

The story is basically that of a buddy movie, with female protagonists instead of male ones. Yes, the game passes the Bechdel test. The plot is rather thin, with a MacGuffin, the usual action set pieces (which are fun to watch and play), and a large open-world-style exploration area. The puzzles are usually no challenge, but even if they were, the game detects your level of frustration and lets you skip those.

Lots of game critics complain about game length being short. I don't. A short game length means that I'll actually get to play the game to the end. That's a feature, not a bug. As such, this game comes highly recommended as one of the few games I actually finished this year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: Sky Force Anniversary (PS3,PS4,PS Vita)

We got Sky Force Anniversary as part of the PS Plus subscription. It ticked all the nostalgia boxes that I had growing up playing vertical shoot them ups. You have an upgradeable ship with parts you can buy, and lots of things to shoot at.

The repeated play model requires that you replay levels to earn medals and make progress, and by the time I was done I was pretty sick of the game, but the game itself was well done, and I was surprised to learn that it started as a  smartphone game as there was no onerous in-app purchasing, loot  boxes, etc.

The game has cross-save, meaning you can pick it up on the PS4, PS Vita, or PS3, and save games automatically carry over from system to system, which is a great feature and was ultimately what made it possible for us to finish the game on long plane flights, etc. It also has couch co-op, which makes many levels that are too hard for a single player a lot easier. Too few games have all these features.


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Impressions: EOS M5 and EF 50mm/1.8 STM

I wasn't actively looking to replace our EOS M3. But Canon was blowing out refurbished EOS M5s that included an adapter and several accessories (including a body jacket and several straps) for just over $600, as well as a 50mm/1.8 STM for $85, so I picked up the camera as a birthday gift for my wife, selling the old EOS M3 and my old 50mm/1.8 II on eBay for about $350 or so after fees, making it a relatively cheap upgrade. Since the battery is compatible with the older M3,

The big draw is the electronic viewfinder, which is a great tool for when it's too bright to use the LCD screen. The latency is high enough that it's noticeably not as good as an optical viewfinder in DSLRs, but hey, that's why this thing is tiny and the DSLRs are huge.

The autofocus is significantly quicker than the M3, though not so good that there aren't missed shots, and the occasional hunting in low light conditions. Together with the 50mm/1.8 STM, however, this thing takes amazing portraits very beautiful background blurring:
In fact, my wife likes it so much that most of the time she shoots with just the 50mm/1.8 STM, ignoring the 22mm/2 and the 11-22mm zoom. In practice, we'll probably travel with just the 22mm/2 and the 50mm/1.8 and only bring the zooms when we're not constrained by weight.
For landscapes, the camera's not too shabby either, and works well even when backlit. My only wish is for Canon to integrate GPS in the camera (today that has to be done using a smartphone app and the camera's bluetooth connection, but I can't remember to do that).

I wouldn't pay the near $1000 retail price asked by Canon, but for the price we paid (especially since we had all the existing Canon kit, and the upgrade was painless by selling on eBay), it was a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, December 04, 2017

2017 Puerto Vallarta

We visited Puerto Vallarta over thanksgiving break.

This was Bowen's first chance to try his new Snorkel Mask and adjustable fins in open water. We got him a snorkel mask because he'd forgotten how to use a regular snorkel, and had bitten off the bite valve on the snorkel he had anyway, which meant that I'd have to buy a new device anyway. Snorkel masks are useless for diving since you can't equalize (can't pinch the nose through that hard plastic), but realistically, he wasn't going to dive deep enough to do that anyway. Unfortunately, the snorkeling wasn't actually all that great: compared to the Carribean, the water is murky, though there's plenty of wildlife, the cold water meant that Bowen got cold in about 15 minutes, and so missed the sightings of the giant manta rays that I got while diving.
We tried ziplining at the Los Veranos Zipline tour. Bowen liked it so much that we did it twice, once on Xiaoqin's birthday.

There were beautiful sunsets and lots of great food, but Boen got an unwanted souvenir: while sliding down the waterslide at a hotel he cut his chin on a decorative fake rock, so he ended up getting 2 stitches on his chin. But he's still able to eat ice cream and doesn't seem too distressed.
We spent lots of time in the swimming pool, and there, Bowen finally learned to duck dive in a swim suit! All in all, nice but not better than a sailing trip in the Carribean or cycling tour anywhere, but you knew I'd say that. I probably wouldn't repeat.

Friday, December 01, 2017

2018 Book Reviews

Books of the Year 2018 have been picked!

Graphic Novels

Review: A Mind at Play - How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

A Mind at Play is a biography of Claude Shannon. When I was an intern at Bellcore, his name was often spoken of in reverence, as the person who invented and developed information theory, which the book does a good job of explaining as well as it does the life of Claude Shannon.

The thesis of the book, which is that Shannon uniquely approached the development and engineering of technology as "fun" rather than work, however, doesn't seem to hold. What I got out of the book was that Shannon was cultivated and mentored by various established scientists (including Vannevar Bush), who appreciated his talent. The "fun" part was that Shannon pursued various other hobbies (including juggling and uni-cycling) rather than just the work he was famous for.

It is true that Shannon has long been neglected compared to other luminaries of his age. This book goes a long way towards correcting that. As such it is recommended reading.