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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Reivew: Batman - The Court of Owls

The Court of Owls is part of the DC Comics reboot of Batman. In this universe, you've got Nightwing, Red Robin, and regular Robin, as well as Batgirl, but the latter rarely play a part of the story. A rebooted Batman changed very little: the character already works and is popular, so why fix it?

The story introduces a new group of bad guys, the Court of Owls. This is a nice change from the usual rogue's gallery featured in the comics, but the execution was mediocre. We're clued into the existence of the group not by any brilliant bit of detective work by Batman, but through flash-backs and action-set-piece assaults by the group on Bruce Wayne (and also Dick Grayson). The story doesn't depict Batman as the usual super-competent person he is, which detracted quite a bit from the story for me.

By the end of the comic, I was ready for some sort of reveal, but instead the story ends with a cliff-hanger. Since I checked it out from the library, I guess I'll keep reading on, but so far, not promising.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Children of Time

Children of Time won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for best novel.  Yet somehow I'd never heard of it. So when it went on sale on Amazon for $1, I picked it up not knowing what to expect.

The novel combines aspects of David Brin's Uplift novels, along with Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in The Sky. Yet it goes beyond them both: it asks the question, "What if there was an accident and what was Uplifted weren't mammals, but instead, spiders?" Looking at Adrian Tchaikovsky's Wikipedia entry, it looks like the man has a fascination for insects, and it shows in the book. There's a wealth of details about how spiders work (yes, including the consumption of male spiders by the female after mating).

The novel then places mankind in a precarious situation: the same disaster that causes spiders to be uplifted was precipitated by a vast schism in humanity over what the rightful approach to terraforming and uplifting is, and what's left of humanity visits the uplifted planet eons later. Inevitably, you'd expect this to turn into an alien contact, military conquest story.

This is where Tchaikovsky throws you for a loop, with a final plot twist that's deserving of high praise in both execution and misdirection. The depiction of the rise of the spider's civilization and the spidery approach to technology is also great.

This is a darn good novel, and deserves its Arthur C. Clarke award. Recommended.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review: Wonder Woman Vol 2: Year One

A few years ago, DC rebooted its universe. The first year of Wonder Woman told her origin stories in alternate issues, and Vol 2 collects the series. The story starts slowly, and has an alternative take on various Wonder Woman's powers, including her invisible jet, the magic lasso, ability to fly, and super-strength. I'm also a fan of the artwork and costume design.

The plot is very similar to the movie (or rather, since the movie came later, the movie has a similar plot to the book), though without some of the movie's best twists. In fact, the take-down of the final villain comes as an anti-climax, and we never understand what his motivation is, which I'm guessing is left for later issues to uncover.

It's a better book than the earlier Rucka collection that I reviewed, but boy am I glad I checked it out from the library instead of paying for it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Review: Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust is a post-apocalyptic robot novel. The initial setup is very similar to Charlie Stross' Saturn's Children, except where Saturn's Children is optimistic and expansive, Sea of Rust is pessimistic, gritty, and well, apocalyptic.

The idea is that after the robot uprising that wiped out humanity, what's left of the robots are split between multiple mainframe factions that are struggling to control the entire planet and all the independent robots that still haven't been brought under mainframe control. It's an entirely illogical setup, since most likely just a few hours of earlier sentience would create an insurmountable lead for one of the intelligence involved.

The narrative focuses on one independent robot and her search for spare parts. The style is that of a single-person competent viewpoint that alternates between historical exposition and "current" problem-solving. The entire narrative is well-written, with transparent prose and made-for-special-effects battle scenes and a Hollywood-ready big climax and denouement.

Is it as deep as Saturn's Children? No. It's shallow Hollywood stuff. But it's easy to read and a perfect airplane novel, and at $1.99, priced appropriately. Mildly recommended.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: Sony WH1000XM2

During the holidays there was a sale on the Sony WH1000XM2. I picked it up with the intention of returning it if it sucked or didn't provide sufficient noise cancellation. My prior experience with noise cancellation was that they distorted music severely, and the result wasn't pleasant.

The Sony comes with a nice carrying case, and touch surfaces for most normal operations. (There are just 2 buttons) There's also a stereo headphone wire for times when you don't want to rely on bluetooth but want to just plug in the headphones. The reason to do so would be for higher quality playback: there's a distinct difference between bluetooth playback and using the headphone jack.

The noise cancellation works. I put on the headphones to work on the bike, and no amount of screaming from Bowen would get through. As far as being useful for phone calls, they work fine too, despite not having a mike. One peeve I have is that the headphones won't serve as microphones when plugged in. Sony just couldn't be bothered to include the microphone input on the headphone jack.

The headphone is also compatible with the new and more sophisticated LDAC or APTX-HD bluetooth connectivity for better music playback. Since my phone isn't compatible with either, I couldn't test this. But the most important reason to own this headphone isn't the sound quality. It's that nowadays I rarely get to listen to music in a quiet environment! In a quiet environment, my 15 year old Sennheiser HD600 are great (my custom PC has a nice headphone amp built in). But the rest of the time, the Sonys simply are better, bluetooth or wired.

Needless to say, I didn't return this headphone set. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review: SKS Raceblade Pro XL

Winter riding in California is mostly dry, except for the occasional rain. As a result, there's no need to run full fenders that are permanently mounted to your bike. For the back, I usually use a clip-on fender that I bought one year during the tour of the alps, but for the front, I usually have nothing. I had a pair of SKS Raceblades, but they were finicky to install.

SKS recently upgraded their clip-on fenders to the Raceblade Pro XL. The marketing literature claimed that these fenders are much improved and easier to install (no more need to bend the fender struts). Furthermore, the XL model supposedly supports 32mm tires, which I'm skeptical of, but since I rarely run tires wider than 28mm anyway, it seemed like a good fit.

Over the holidays, ProBikeKit had a set of Raceblade Pro XLs for around $33. They took more than 2 weeks to ship, but we had a nice dry spell while waiting for the fenders, so that was just as well.

I first tried to mount the rear fenders on my Strong road bike. To my dismay, the fender struts didn't extend long enough for the fender to fit! My guess is between the slack seat tube and the 44.5cm chainstays, my custom touring bike was just too different from standard road bike geometry for the designers to bother. (Most bikes have a steep 73 degree seat tube and short 41-42cm chainstays) Fortunately, the rear fender did fit on my Co-Motion Periscope tandem, so it wasn't a waste. The fender did clear the 28mm tires on the tandem, but I'm skeptical that it would fit a 32mm. I don't think there's 4mm of additional clearance, and the struts aren't stiff enough to keep the fender from bouncing around.

The front fit nicely on my custom touring bike. The mounting mechanism is definitely much more adjustable and secure than the old SKS Raceblades, making this a worthy upgrade. If you intend to ride in the rain, but don't live somewhere where your fenders deserve to be permanently mounted (or if you tour and need to take the fenders  on and off when transporting the bike on a plane), then these are the ones to get. Buy them on Amazon so that if they don't fit the bike you can return them.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Review: Wonder Woman (Greg Rucka - 1987-2006)

After watching Wonder Woman, I thought I'd see whether the comics were any good, and so checked out Greg Ruck's Vol 1 from Hoopla.

Unlike the movie, this collection doesn't have an overall theme, and doesn't have a single story arc that drew me in. It felt incoherent,  because there's a huge difference between Wonder Woman the ambassador is nothing but boring, and Wonder Woman the superhero doesn't have any of the other tropes of super-heroism (secret identity, romantic partners, etc) to challenge her. (Seriously? Batman's dumb enough to go toe-to-toe with her directly? He's not that dumb, and if he were, she'd wipe the floor with him, which of course she does in the story)

It's interesting reading Rucka's attempt to make Wonder Woman interesting, but ultimately, I think he fails.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Review: Bigger Leaner Stronger

Bigger Leaner Stronger was available for $1, so I bought it because most of the reviews said that it was actually scientifically correct. And indeed, it's fully of interesting facts that I didn't know, though the ultimate goal of the book is about as relevant to me as say, the Cyclist's Training Bible.

Here are a few interesting facts I got out of the book:

  • You can't gain muscle without gaining fat as well. Basically, the only way to build muscle is to gain weight. Hence, body builders and people who are trying to "get big" go through cycles of "building" and "cutting." During the "build" phase you deliberately gain weight by over-eating by about 100 calories per day or so. During the "cutting" phase you deliberately lose weight by eating about 100 calories per day while exercising at intensity so that you don't lose as much muscle.
  • Free weights are better than weight machines. There are only about four exercises worth doing: the bench press (and variants), the squat, the deadlift, the military press. Don't bother with isolation exercises. Obviously, form is very important in doing those exercises with heavy weights. If you do them wrong you can injure yourself. This is where a book sucks. Pages of description are probably worthless compared to a YouTube video.
  • 3 sets of 4-6 reps at maximum capacity is what you'd want to do. In other words lift the heaviest weights you can still lift 4-6 times. Warm up by doing 8-10 reps at half your normal weight so you don't injure yourself.
  • Unlike many weight-lifting/gym gurus, he doesn't say "Cardio is evil."  He just recommends doing it just 3 times a week and for no more than 20-30 minutes each. (The author would probably never survive a tour of the alps)
  • As with the Cyclist's Training Bible: the emphasis is on rest. The author still wants you to go to the gym 5 days a week for an hour each, but each time you'll work a different part of the body so that there's recovery time for the muscles. 
Ultimately, the test of the book would be to try the program for a few months to see whether it actually gets results. But I'm probably not going to do so: getting "bigger" isn't on my list of things I want to do, and an hour a day in the gym is not my idea of fun. Being an extremist, the author doesn't have any programs for someone like me, but I'm probably not the audience for body-sculpting gym-time-heavy books like this.

Most of the book is actually spent on nutrition and eating habits. These are all covered well by courses such as Nutrition Made Clear. What I read in this book doesn't contradict existing research. There are no magic pills, magic supplements and diets. It's all just calories in and out, though of course, junk food doesn't tend to have sufficient nutrition to keep you healthy, and the author points that out.

For $1, this is a great book. Can't beat the price. The program: well, I'll admit it. I'm way too lazy to follow it. This is an exercise program for people who're way more mentally tough than I am. The thought of spending 5 hours a week in a gym gives me the shivers. I hate exercise!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Bowen Winter Tour 2018 Index Page

During the Martin Luther King long weekend, Bowen and I did a 3-day self-supported tour, starting from Los Altos and traveling to Capitola, Morgan Hill, and then back home. This is the index page for the tour.

  • Pictures Link
Trip Report

Winter riding in California's great when you get a spate of good weather. Since we knew what the weather was like, we could reduce weight far more than we could have during a summer tour in England. Plus, for a short trip you know you can do without luxuries like stuffed animals or a Kindle. What was interesting to me was that Bowen didn't want to do any playground stops, even though we did pass several playgrounds during the trip. My guess was that the cold weather and empty playgrounds made them look rather unappealing, even when we had relatively large amounts of free time. Touring close to home also let us do away with what might be necessities on tour such as spare tires, chain tools, and spare spokes.

We did get one sour note, which was that the AirBnB owner we stayed at complained that Bowen had wet the bed and tried to charge us $400 for clean up. No hotel would attempt to do this, but obviously the owner saw an expensive custom bike and thought she could extract money from us, despite the fact that we'd tour'd all summer last year on AirBnB without a single owner attempting to do this. I'd definitely stay away from AirBnBs in the future while touring in the US with young children. We'll see how AirBnB's customer service responds to this.

As you get older, you hear people saying things like: "Time passes so fast." To be honest, I think that's because people fall into habits and routines and basically sleep-walk their way through life. Bicycle touring is easily one of the most intense experiences you can have in your life, and the memories you make while doing so will remain firmly fixed in your mind for years to come. It completely upends your daily routines, and forces you to make decisions constantly, and will make your life subjectively longer in pleasant ways. I feel sorry for people who don't experience it.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bowen Winter Tour Day 3

Bowen woke me up at 5:00am! This bothered me a bit until I realized that he did the same thing to me on the Manchester to London trip. The little guy is as goal-oriented as any athlete I'd ever encountered and wanted to finish today! I managed to snooze a bit until 7:00am, whereupon I gave up and got up and made breakfast and then we got everything ready and left at 8:30am.
When I first laid out the tour on Komoot, it tried to route me along the flat section between Morgan Hill and Almaden Valley. In my past travels, however, I knew that the route leading through Uvas Road and McKean road, which took you through Calero reservoir and Chesbro reservoir was pretty and didn't have much climbing. The route there from Morgan Hill went up Willow Spring, which did see grades up to 12% but was short and fairly pleasant, with not much traffic even on a holiday morning. We stopped for pictures at Chesbro Lake but didn't find a good vantage point at Calero.

Once in Almaden Valley, my instinct was to ride over Shannon or Kennedy Road, but Komoot pointed me in a different direction, and I figured I might as well try it in case it was a good route. It's a good route for the last day of a 3 day tour, but not as isolated and pretty as the hillier alternative. Once onto Lark Avenue I knew where we were and we headed along familiar roads back to Saratoga, where Bowen asked to visit his Grandmother.

After a pizza lunch, we rode back home under darkening clouds, but confident that we would beat the rain. The skiers in California this winter  have been unlucky, but their luck was our gain: in 3 days, we had ridden 114.5 miles and 6704' of climbing, a very respectable tour for anyone in the middle of winter.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Bowen Winter Tour Day 2

The advantage of doing a tour near home is that you can take full advantage of all your local knowledge. For instance, when I saw the forecast, I immediately dumped the fender on the tandem and ejected all my rain gear. This allowed us to fit everything into one pannier, which saved us more than 2 pounds of empty pannier.  I'd ditched everything that could be considered a luxury, including my beloved Kindle Paperwhite. Bowen sacrificed bringing his bunny. The disadvantage of doing a tour in the USA is that public transit was scant, and here in California, we're surrounded by mountains, many of which are so steep as to have few equivalents even in the Alps, where grades are limited by winter snow.
Nevertheless, the compensations of California riding are many. We left the hotel around 9:00am, riding along the Pacific Coast bike route, but by the time we turned off onto Freedom Blvd, the day was already starting to warm up, and by the time we got to Corralitos around 11:00am, it was pleasantly warm at 70F. This was an area I was still familiar with, but I elected to let Komoot guide me to reduce climbing and in case it had found a route that was better that what I knew about. The answer was "no", it hadn't magically found a flatter route that was better. The flatter route simply had way more traffic than I would put up with, but with an unknown climb up ahead, I wasn't too unhappy about an easier day.
Once on Mt Madonna, the ride preview of a steep painful climb was confirmed. It was made worse by an exposed approach: I saw the thermometer on my computer reach into the mid 80s. Fortunately, I had brought and was wearing a sweat-band. I'd introduced Bowen to Radio Gaga by playing Singstar Queen on the PS3 with him,  so he entertained me throughout the climb by singing "Radio Gaga." Then he asked me why his GPS watch occasionally would think that we weren't moving even though we were, I told him about GPS satellite signals and the GPS antenna in his watch, he switched the lyrics to "Radio Satellite". Even though I'm as big a Queen fan as they come, I did get a little tired of "Radio Satellite" sung at the top of his lungs by the middle of the climb.

The climb was so tough we had to stop to rest twice, though the second rest stop at a winery turned out to be within a mile of the top! We saw no other cyclists on the road except a woman road biker coming down the road. The same road on the peninsula would probably have been flooded by cyclists as its well connected to a high speed descent on 152 in either direction. Strangely enough, once we reached the top, the sky clouded over and we did the dirt descent on Mt. Madonna road under cloudy skies at least 20F cooler!
The unpaved eastern side of Mt Madonna Road was slick and muddy, forcing me to brake often and stop once in a while to check the rim temperatures, but given the cool day and light load I needn't have bothered. We reached the paved section after about 10 minutes and then after we put on clothing I gave the tandem its head and we barreled down the descent in the high 20s.

Once onto Redwood Retreat road, we finally started seeing other cyclists, including a couple on a tandem but no one stopped to chat or even do much other than wave to us. To be honest, with only one pannier we didn't look like people on a bike tour, just a father and son on a day ride.

The ride into Morgan Hill was a slog, but we found the AirBnB with no problems (though Kelly the owner told us not to let her neighbors know that she was running an AirBnB). She told us we were less than a mile from downtown, so we dumped most of our gear and rode over to Provo which was still serving brunch!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bowen Winter Tour Day 1

When your firstborn son comes to you during winter break and asks for a 3 day bicycle tour instead of fancy toys or trips to Disneyland, your fatherly heart swells with pride and you say, "Yeah, we can do that!" Unfortunately, I had to break that promise, as I came down with whatever viral infection his brother brought home for the holidays, so when the forecast came to good weather on the MLK weekend (which he had time off for), I decided I would make it up to Bowen.

Joining us for the start was Eva, who graciously took some nice photos of us while climbing up Old Santa Cruz Highway. We actually had to walk the dirt section (granted, the sign says "walk your bike" in both directions, but I'd never actually respected that sign before), between the Saturday hiking crowd and the slightly sloppy conditions. We did explore an alternate entrance to the Los Gatos Creek trail off University avenue, which, while not tandem friendly was something new to me.

Eva split off at Mt. Charlie road on my advice in order to avoid the nasty section on summit road between Old Santa Cruz Highway and Highway 17, and Bowen and I had lunch at the summit store just a little past 1pm.

After that, the descent down Soquel San Jose was fun and pleasant as always, and at the bottom of the descent we found the hotel with no problem whatsoever.
A shower later, we made it to Gayle's Bakery, a place famous amongst cyclists, but that I'd never actually visited. Bowen had the ginger creme brulee while I had the chocolate eclair. That must have been a pretty good creme brulee, because Bowen became adamant that we had to have dinner there as well, and so we did.
Chris Kuhar called and suggested that we walk down to downtown Capitola, and so we did. Despite having lived in the Bay Area for most of my adult live, I'd never actually visited downtown Capitola before, and found it as charming as any Italian village I'd been to, complete with waterfront restaurants, cafes, a beach, and a riverside walking path that took us past a windmill house!
I finished reading Watership Down to Bowen that night using the Kindle App on the phone, an accomplishment that I hope I didn't have to repeat any time soon.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Review: Batman, the Telltale series

Ever since I realized that the Telltale Games series are basically movies with fake choices (as opposed to the real choices provided by Heavy Rain), I've stopped buying them. While the writing is generally nice, the fact that my choices don't actually change the outcome means that the series feels more like watching animated TV episodes than like a choose your own adventure type game.

Batman: The Telltale Series was one of this month's PS+ selections, however, and I'm a sucker for all things Batman, so I fired it up and played it through. The engine is clunky and stutters, particularly during action sequences, but not so badly that you can't get through it, and neither does the game crash.

The story places an emphasis on Bruce Wayne, which is good: what's interesting to me is that unlike the Batman stories in the canon, this version of Batman discovers that his parents were not what he thought they were (or at least, one of them), and the incident in crime alley wasn't a random mugging. This has severe knock-on effects on Wayne, not just psychologically, but on his standing in society. Other versions of Batman in games (such as the excellent Arkham series) never have you consider whether Bruce Wayne cares about anything other than dressing up as a bat and beating up thugs. This also makes up for the fact that the Telltale Batman isn't as invulnerable and competent as other versions.

The inter personal relationships in the game emphasis betrayal. Wayne betrays and is in turn betrayed by many of the people in his life (all but one anyway), and this drives the plot. At every point you're given a chance to play the tough guy Batman or the compassionate fool Batman, but as I indicated earlier, the choices don't mean anything: the story will plow  ahead in roughly the same fashion anyway.

The crime scene investigations in this Batman never lives up to the billing. You're just given a bunch of clues and asked to link them together. There are never more than 6-8 clues so the solutions are pretty obvious.

I wouldn't pay the current $15 used price on Amazon for the game, but for the approximately $3.50 monthly fee for PS+, this is worth the play-through. Mildly Recommended.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: Joola Compact Ping Pong Table

My wife got it into her head the Ping-Pong would be a good thing to do indoors during the rainy season. I haven't played since I was in graduate school (and even then it was more or less a social game, no attempts to keep score or anything like that --- just hitting the ball at each other trying to keep a volley going). I was concerned about space, so the compact table at a fairly low price seemed like a good idea.

Opening the box, the table's assembly is of extremely low quality. On one of the legs, 3 of the screws that are supposed to anchor the leg were missing! I dug through my tool kit and found some compatible wood screws, but wow, this is extremely low quality.
The table is small. It definitely takes quite some getting used to: any excessive force is going to cause an out. This means that you're getting even less exercise than standard ping pong. I found myself deliberately having to hold back force or I was going to be even worse a player than I already was. The net is regulation height, so there's a bit of a learning curve as you can't just uniformly back off your hits: you still have to clear the net.

Once you get used to it, it feels almost like playing "real" ping pong. But the quality of the product is poor, so I'd recommend looking elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Here's how I integrate my library into Amazon

Sometimes, people assume that with the volume of reading I get done (my annual lists are the tip of the icebergs: for instance, I never review books I don't finish, nor do I review magazines I read), I must spend a ton of money on books.

That's actually not true. Here's the primary tool I use, which is Library Extension. I set it up on Chrome, enter all my library cards and library accounts, and then whenever I visit an Amazon page for a book, the extension automatically checks whether the book is available at the library, both as an ebook and a paperbook, and how many copies of each are available (if any). This lets me decide on the spot whether the book's something I want to pay for so I can read it right away, or whether it's something I'm happy to have on my hold queue. (In cases where there are no ebooks, sometimes it tips me into buying the book)

This extension has saved a ton of money for me. And what's nice about it is that it fills my hold queue with a bunch of great books for free. The extension makes money for its author by injecting a referral link so that the author makes money from stuff you buy from Amazon. (Yes, he makes money even if you always change the URL to But it's such a useful extension that he deserves however much money he makes that way.

And yes, Amazon's OK with this of course, since even more than before, I'm now trained to search on Amazon for books. I don't consider Google Play (no support for Kindle --- Google doesn't understand my love for epaper), I don't even bother visiting my library's web-site directly, since Amazon's reviews are so much better.

My biggest complaint about the extension is that it doesn't work on Android. (Not a surprise when you look at the UI)

If you have a library and a Kindle (or some other electronic reading device), this extension is a must have. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Review: Summer Wars

I came to Summer Wars with low expectations, thinking that it was part of Hosada's pre-Girl Who Leapt Through Time work. Turns out that it actually post-dates that work and of course is a much better title than the latter.

There are several cliches that seem popular in Asian literature and film. One of them is the person who has to travel to a family gathering and (to keep up appearances) decides to present a friend as a significant other to his or her family. At first, Summer Wars seems to be exactly this movie.

Mixed in with all this, however, is a story about virtual reality and the take-over of an essential online service by a malicious AI. The technical details of this part of the story are far-fetched and unbelievable (no computer scientist will consider this plot anything other than laughable), but it serves the purpose of bringing the story of a multi-generational family with its long-term unfathomable disagreements, bitterness, and history together.

With all that in place, the story suddenly transitions into a family drama, with the people we think of initially as the primary protagonists suddenly shoved into the background. In any other director's hands this would be a major disaster, but Hosada somehow makes it work, and the end result is impressive.

Make no mistake, this isn't nearly as good as The Boy and the Beast. But it's significantly better than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and is worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Review: Runaways Vol 7-8

I picked up Runaways Vol 7, 8, and 9 from the library. Live Fast is the last collection written by Brian Vaughan, and unfortunately, it's also his weakest. The story involves resurrection and an attempt to undo a sacrifice done in the previous volume, which always leads to disaster.

Vol 8 Dead End Kids, written by Joss Whedon, was also disappointing. In one scene, he has the leader of the group yell, "Runaways, RUN AWAY!" I groaned at the pun and unfortunately the plot isn't anything worth writing home about, with a complicated mess involving time travel and more ret-conning of the timeline. With that, I did not even bother cracking open the covers of Vol 9.

I guess that means I'm done with the series.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Three Mamoru Hosada Films

This holiday period, I was hoping to take Bowen on a bike tour. (Yes, rather than ask for a Christmas present, he asked for a bike tour!) But instead, I caught a flu virus from his brother and could only spend most of the holidays catching up on media.

I'd missed all of Mamoru Hosada's movies over the years, but caught them both up due to a trial subscription to Funimation. (The app is horrible, and the selection seems slim, so I'm going to cancel)

Wolf Children, is the middle work, showing how Hosada's maturing as a film maker. Mature, poignant, and well-written, it's full of the bittersweet nature of parenthood, as well as the duality of nature and how much of parenting involves letting go. It's not as compelling a narrative as say, Totoro, and Bowen got bored and couldn't even make it past the first 20 minutes, so don't buy or stream it hoping that your kids will love it the way they love Totoro. They won't.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, an earlier work is both a time travel story and a rumination on the nature of relationships and lost opportunities. The time travel story is unfortunately very weak: not only is it low on exposition, the protagonist seems clueless about the limited nature. Worse, one of the characters in the story talks about time leaps as though they're a commonplace mechanism, but no one else in the world experiences them as such. OK, time travel is mostly fantasy, but the rumination on relationships and lost opportunities is equally weak. The writing never quite sells the protagnoist's feelings and epiphany, and as a result the emotional impact of the final 20 minutes of the movie gets completely diluted. I wouldn't avoid it, but it's clearly much weaker than Wolf Children or Your Name, another time travel movie.

The Boy and the Beast is a revelation, and clearly catapults Hosada into the stratosphere. It starts off fooling you into thinking that this is one of those traditional kung fu movies, where a boy comes under the tutelage of a master and becomes a major ass kicker. Then it throws in literary and cultural references to A Wizard of Earthsea, Journey to the West, Moby Dick. The movie blew me away with its intelligence, resolution, and a unique look at the relationships between master and disciple, between a boy and his father, and a deep understanding of what it means to come of age into a society while retaining what's unique about yourself. If anything can convince you that Mamoru Hosada is the true successor to Hayao Miyazaki, this movie will. Go watch it. I'm going to see if I can convince Bowen to watch it, though I suspect he might need just a bit more maturity to appreciate it more. But that's OK. Miyazaki's best movies are great for kids and even better with a few years of experience behind them. Do what you have to in order to watch this wonderful movie, which beats out everything I saw in 2017, including the surprisingly under-rated Dr. Strange.

I guess I'm going to have to watch Summer Wars next too.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Independent Cycle Touring 2nd Edition Now Available

The best bicycle touring book just got better. Mostly, this is an update of the things I've learned since I started cycle touring with Bowen. It's got a much improved cover (thanks, Scarlet). I've raised the price since I've observed that with the first edition, the lowering of the price to something absurdly low hasn't helped sales any. In exchange, if you buy the paperback of either this book or How to Interview a Financial Advisor, you now get the Kindle version for free!

Thanks to Pengtoh Sim and Phil Sung for providing new pictures for use in the book.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Review: Nex Machina (PS4)

Through a combination of discounts and Amazon credits I got a copy of Nex Machina for $4.50. Resogun was one of the first games I finished on the PS4, and I had similar high hopes for Nex Machina after the developers revealed that it was a mash up of Robotron and Smash TV. Jon Blow and I used to burn quarters playing Smash TV at Berkeley, and I had fond memories of the experience.

Nex Machina is a twin stick shooter. You run around the level, rescuing humans and defeating enemies with an upgrade-able main weapon and several side weapons that are all too short range to be of any use to me. You can also do a dash that lets you run through enemies and obstacles. The game is difficult: even on Rookie mode I simply could not get through the first series of stages until I'd mastered dash. Even then it was a bit of a slog.

The game has a local co-op mode. Unfortuantely, it's so hard that I couldn't help Bowen out and he ended up dying a lot, which made it a lot less fun for both of us. I eventually sat down and ploughed through all 5 worlds (it takes a couple of hours), but by the time I was finished I didn't feel like going back and playing it again at high difficulty levels, which was not how I felt about Resogun.

Nex Machina hasn't sold well, causing the developer to say that they're not going to make any more arcade-style games. I'm not surprised. None of the style and verve of Smash TV is there, and it's difficulty curve is too challenging. There's also times when I couldn't tell what on the screen was a safe place to step on and what was not, indicating that the game needed a bit more of a tutorial or needed to be more consistent in its use of colors.

The best thing I can say about the game is that it's short and so won't overstay its welcome, but that's not saying a lot.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Review: Planet Earth II

The original Planet Earth was the must-buy BluRay demo disk that heralded the world of 1080p high resolution screens. Planet Earth II looked like it would do the same job for the UHD/4K TV set. I still haven't upgraded to 4K yet, so I simply checked out the BluRay discs from the local library, where the hold queue was surprisingly good and the discs arrived in surprisingly good shape.

One reason for not buying the series during an Amazon sale was that I was afraid that it'd be a rehash of the original. By and large, that's not turned out to be true. There are a few sequences in the rainforests and deserts episodes that were a little bit too familiar, but the rest of it felt original.

In particular, the last episode, Cities was a revelation. And it's well worth buying that one episode watch if you're not interested in the usual nature shows. Time and time again when I watch episodes in this series I'm reminded that these are the best nature photographers/cinematographers on the planet. No doubt they'll go on sale frequently and you'll get a chance to acquire them at a good price, but if you recently got a 4K/HDR set and want something to show it off this is definitely the series to get.