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Friday, November 30, 2018

Review: The Water Will Come - Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

The Water Will Come has a nice long bombastic title. The subject of course, is ocean levels rising and the impact it will have on coastal cities. When I first started the book I expected to hear that the project rise will be something frightening. So when the number came, I was shocked by how inconsequential it would be. The projection is that the sea level will rise by 3' by the end of the century. That's 36 inches. Now, this might have some impact on low lying areas in Florida, but I can't imagine it having any effect in the San Francisco Bay Area, where even Sunnyvale has an elevation of 125'. Indeed, the author doesn't even bother wasting time visiting San Francisco.

We get a ton of lamentation about how Miami would be in trouble, but given how the entire state of Florida keeps voting for climate deniers, it's hard for me to muster up any sympathy for any damage that happens. For instance, various cities in that state and the state itself have successfully lobbied for lower rates in flood insurance for many at-risk properties in the state, which means the rest of us will be the one footing the bill if and when the chickens come home to roost on that one. It's such a pity that there's no way to short at-risk real estate the way you can short stocks. The nice thing about science is that it works whether or not you believe in it, which means that the ability to short real estate would at least let some of us recoup some of  the losses when the socialized costs of relocating or paying for the damages in Florida eventually come.

The author does cover European efforts such as the efforts to protect Venice, Rotterdam, and other European cities where the population generally does understand the effects of climate change. Despite the wealth of these cities, the outlook doesn't look that good, but again, I can't get worked up about 3 feet (the natural sea level rise here on the West Coast of America due to the changing tides can easily be 20 feet or more!). And it seems like Venice does just fine despite being flooded most of the time.

There are a few other references to innovative architectures in Africa that can help deal with sea level house, some of which involve basically floating houses (like boat houses, an ancient technology which might come back into fashion). But again, it looks like most of the problems they have in that area are problems involving the governments of the various countries (i.e., if the police can come and confiscate your property or burn it down, there's no point putting a ton of effort into construction that's meant to last long enough to see signifcant sea level rise).

Somewhere in the book there's a mention of how during the time of the dinosaurs, sea levels were multiples of hundred feet higher. That got my attention but the author never got back to that statement and never talked about whether it was within the realm of possibility.

All in all, climate change is definitely a big problem, but I don't see sea level rise as the one that's going to be a major threat to civilization. (Yes, there will be refugees from people displaced from the coast, but even an estimate of 200 million people in a world of 11 billion people seems like it'll be a workable problem)

I don't feel like the book was entirely a waste of time, but the title of the book was definitely "click-bait", and I don't feel like I can reward that by placing a "recommended" tag on the book itself.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Alternate Mounts for the RTL-510

Shapeways has various different mounts for the RTL-510. I had 2 different applications for the 3-D printer technology, neither of which were supported by Garmin. The first was for a rack mount for the tandem/triplet/quad.
For this, I bought the Trek Madone insert. This was an oddly shaped piece. I got a matching threaded allen-bolt from the local hardware store, and then drilled out the hole so that the bolt could get in. Then I had to get the Yost Swivel Vice Clamp from Harbor Freight and used my drill bit to scrape about 3mm from the top of the center hole. The plastic would then compress sufficiently for me to get the quarter-turn mount screwed into the rack so that the head of the allen bolt was recessed. The solution was not ideal: because of the smooth circular nature of the mount, I have to get out my pliers to hold the mount steady whenever I need to unlock the light and remove it (to switch bikes or for charging), but it worked.

The other use was for touring: I wanted to be able to mount the RTL-510 on the saddlebag or whatever carrier I had when I was touring, and those tend to be cover the seat post. The Shapeways Saddlebag Clip does the job. I could use this unmodified, but again, the mount is super-stiff, so I have to use way more effort to mount and unmount this than the standard Garmin mount. Since these are 3-D printed items, my guess is that the designers simply went for stiffness so that there was no way the unit could unmount itself and fall off, but I'd much rather that Garmin provide me with a real solution, even if I have to pay more.

All in all, the RTL-510 is great technology, and I'm glad the community is supporting it so I can mostly jury-rig what I need. Maybe some day Garmin (and Shimano, etc) will wake up and realize that seat post mounts are really not good compared with seat stay mounts or rack mounts and start to support those alternate mount systems. Until then, us cyclists will just have to make do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review: The Diabetes Code

The Diabetes Code is Jason Fung's book about the root cause of diabetes and his cure, which he claims to be incredibly effective, in some cases curing people of diabetes in as little as 2 weeks.

The thesis of the book is that Diabetes is always and everywhere an Insulin phenomenon. The idea is that insulin secretion causes fat storage while lowering blood sugar. The problem with adding more insulin to this system is that it makes you fatter, increasing insulin resistance while not solving the root cause. The solution, therefore, must come in reducing fat, which initially might not decrease blood sugar levels, but in the long term should reverse diabetes.

Fung's proposal for curing and reversing diabetes is the intermittent fasting diet: once (or twice, or three times) a week, don't eat for 24-36 hours, drinking only water (or other no-calorie drinks, but he recommends avoiding artificial sweeteners as well, though for no documented reasons). The idea is that within the first 8-12 hours your body will deplete the glycogen stores and then be forced to burn fat. Now this isn't a crackpot diet: Dr. Fung insists that you avoid carbohydrates in your diet even when you're not fasting. This isn't a license to eat chocolate and drink fruit juice on the days when you're not fasting.

Fung contends that diet and exercise by itself doesn't work. (Strangely enough, it seems to work for me!) Basically, nobody in the general population can keep up an exercise program, despite well-known studies that note that being unfit is even worse than being diabetic! If that's you, then Fung's intermittent fasting program (in either the 24 or 36 hour form) is something well worth trying.

All through the book are scattered case studies of people who've cured themselves of diabetes. I'll note that all of them conform to the Western model: fat, out of shape, diabetic. None of them conform to the Asian model, where normal BMIs can still lead to diabetes! This is expected, as Dr. Fung works in Toronto, where there's presumably a shortage of Asians that he can reach in his practice. I would love to see Dr. Fung practice on people who do exercise, have normal BMIs, and aren't already diabetic.

All in all, the book makes a convincing argument, but I'm not a medical doctor. In any case, given the prevalence of intermittent fasting in traditional cultures, if you're diabetic, intermittent fasting probably can't do much harm and might be worth discussing with your doctor.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Review: Rich People Problems

Rich People Problems is Kevin Kwan's most recent book starring the characters from Crazy Rich Asians. As with the previous novels, it is a short and breezy read, but you should read the previous books in the series to have some context, as many characters get carried over from the previous books.

The story is that Nick's grandmother suffers a cinematic heart attack: a heart attack that's fatal, yet leaves sufficient time for all the relatives that might stand in line to inherit a great fortune to fly in and start the various political and emotional shenanigans to try to increase their share.

Of course there are twist and turns and the side plot about Astrid Leong and Charlie Wu. On a more serious notes, there are references to the second World War and the Japanese occupation of Singapore. As with prior novels, every chapter ends with a series of footnotes that are just as fun to read as the novel itself.

I probably should have saved the novel for a flight, but I didn't. It would have made an ideal airplane novel. Recommended.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Event Report: Levi Gran Fondo 2018

In recent years, I've given up on doing centuries and other organized rides. Not only have prices gone up from a manageable $20-$30/entry to $60-70/entry, having to bundle the kids into the car and move the bike has much less appeal to me than going on a club ride and riding with people we know.

This year, however, the Levi Gran Fondo was free for the kids (and for anyone under 24). That made the price palatable, since that meant Bowen and Boen were free. The Gran Fondo is nice because the roads were closed for the first 2 hours, and you got a police escort. I also figured that the mass start event would be a good experience for Bowen, since regular club centuries aren't mass start events.
We drove up the day before, stayed overnight at an overpriced hotel, and got up bright and early to park the car and ride to the start. The official start time was at 8:00am, but with 3000+ cyclists, it took us 10 minutes to stride through the traffic jam to get to the point where we could ride. Even then, there were way too many times when we had to slow/brake in order to avoid shaking looking cyclists.

At the first rest stop, John McDowell and Davis caught up with us. After that rest stop, the route split up and now the roads were open, but there were still CHP officers at every intersection controlling traffic, which made for a great experience. The coast was clear and gorgeous, as expected in early October.

At the second rest stop John and Davis caught up with us and we decided to ride together. John had rented the tandem from the bicycle outfitter, and they had setup the bike wrong. Davis' left pedal had been placed into the shortest slot in the crank shorteners, but his right was on the next to longest slot, which meant that he couldn't reach the pedals at the bottom of the stroke. It was too late to do much, as much pedal cranks which were part of the S&S wrench wouldn't do much for removing pedals that had been put on by a bike shop, so they had to climb Coleman Valley road this way. Davis got so frustrated at times that he would put his right foot on the top tube.
But we didn't have to stop or walk on the climb, and we passed a few adults who'd had to walk, so I thought we did pretty well. At the top of the climb, a SAG wagon showed up and John and Davis stopped to fix the pedals while Bowen and I rode on to the last rest stop. We took a short break there and rode to the finish slowly, having been worn out by our efforts. On the final run to the finish on the bike path, Bowen said, "Dad, does your butt hurt? Mine does." I told him to stand up to unload his butt, and that took care of the problem long enough for us to reach the finish, where Xiaoqin told us that Boen had ridden the entire 10 miles of the family route on his own!
After eating a late lunch and getting ice cream, we piled everyone back into the rental van for the ride home. All in all, it was a good ride, but I think I'd still rather do Coleman Valley road as part of the Western Wheeler 2-day camping trip!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: Why You Are Who You Are

Why You Are Who You Are is the great courses introduction to personality. It takes the academic approach to personality and explains it (the big 5/6 HEXACO traits: conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, and honest/humility). The lecturer explains why these are considered the most important, while also discussing minor traits.

He then launches into a discussion of the heritable nature of these traits (most of them have been discovered to be 50% heritable), how upbringing and genetics interact so people express these traits differently at different times, and how the studies were made. Then there's a huge discussion of the various mental disorders, some of which I didn't know about, such as schzoid personality disorder, and narcissism.

The lecture series ends up with a big discussion on what personality means, what it means to be "authentic" or "true to yourself", and how to grow resilient kids who are well adjusted (the answer to the latter is easy: read and apply the lessons in John Medina's book, Brain Rules for Baby).

As someone who failed to take a single psychology course in college, I found this a useful introduction and different from the pop stuff that's out there. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Review: Factfulness

Factfulness is Hans Rosling's legacy: he wrote the book and it was published after he passed away. The book is a great accompaniment and follow up to his various Ted Talks, using statistics, graphs and visualization tools about how the world is a much better place than the gloomy news you might get. The reasons are pretty much the same as in Greg Easterbrook's It's Better Than It Looks: much of the world has moved from the poverty line of having only a dollar a day to spend to 2, 4, 8 or even 16 dollars a day.

This is genuine cause for celebration: 90-95% of kids now finish elementary schooling of one form or another. Most kids are vaccinated against the childhood diseases. Even many developing countries, childbirth rates have plummeted because improve infant survival rates and education of girls meant that family planning is now the rule rather than the exception.

Rosling accompanies each chapter not just with a summary, but a contrarian rule to remind yourself to avoid the simple answers but also to read between the lines as to what's not being reported. A shark attack or polar bear attack might draw the news, but that's because they're unusual. The flip side of it is that something that kills a lot of people (such as the 'flu or traffic crashes or domestic violence) gets ignored because it's not interesting enough to the news media.

The one place where Rosling fails is his depiction of the climate carbonization problem. He claims that the environmental activists tend to exaggerate the problem. From what I can tell, the planet is actually warming faster than projections, so I'd venture to say that the problem is more urgent than what the activists are suggesting.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book to read and well worth your time. Recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Long Term Review: Cressi Galileo Goggles

Two years in, I finally broke the strap on my Cressi Galileo swimming goggles.  Fortunately, I had spares that I bought the last time I was in the UK. (For whatever reason, that set of goggles still have not made it to American shores)

It turns out, however, that that the strap on the goggles are compatible with Cressi diving mask straps, which can be had for a mere $6.

Arturo told me 2 years ago to treat goggles as disposable items. This pair of goggles have shown that not to be true: they're still great goggles, and are repairable and I highly recommend them.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: Never Split the Difference

People occasionally pay me to negotiate their pay packages. As such, Never Split the Difference came to my attention and I read it looking for tips and advice that I can use to help my clients.

Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator, (the kind of person who tries to get hostages out of kidnappings) and then ended up starting his own company to help negotiate business deals. There are a number of good tips in the book, as well as great stories:

  • Whenever possible, the FBI and the police negotiate in teams. One person does the talking, but two or three people listen in and look for clues. This explains why despite my book (with its own chapter on negotiation) being easy to read and follow, some people still paid me to do the negotiation: it's hard to listen while you're talking!
  • The goal of listening is to extract information. This can be information about constraints (e.g., its another member of the team/business that's making decision), deal-breakers (e.g., the person has a religion and you need to frame the situation in religious terms to make the sale), and other hurdles necessary to reach your goal.
  • You can't extract information with simple Yes/No questions. You need to first establish rapport with the other person (Voss goes over mirroring as a way to simulate sympathy even when you don't have sympathy for the kidnapper/terrorist), and then ask calibrated and open-ended question. In a recent negotiation for a client, I told the engineer to ask the hiring director the following question: "In the past, I feel that I've missed opportunities because I wasn't attuned to the company culture. What can you do to help me avoid that mistake at your company?" The company ended up assigning a high level executive mentor to the engineer. Open-ended questions recruit the person you're negotiating with into using their contacts/brain power to help your cause, and setting that as your goal will make you a more successful neogiator.
  • Look and try to recognize situations you've not encountered before. Voss calls these a "Black Swan" event. I'm not sure the nomenclature is correct, but basically, when you recognize a situation that changes the deal (e.g., the hiring manager is under a time constraint), then you have leverage you might not have had otherwise.
All through the book, there are plenty of stories that depict situations that I wouldn't want to  be a negotiator for: kidnappings, murders, bank heists, and suicide bombers. As a result of that, the book is fun reading, but a lot of the good tips are hidden under the stories. The book could easily have been much more organized and useful.

Nevertheless, even someone who negotiates way more than than typical Silicon Valley engineer learned something from this book, so I'd recommend that.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Review: Monstress

John Gates recommended Monstress to me, and the first volume was $3.99, so I picked it up on my Kindle Fire HD. The art, by Sana Takeda is great: a mix of traditional Asian and Western influences, along with the typical Cthulhu-mythos tentacled stuff.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't quite fly. I'm can't quite put my finger on it, but my guess is that the exposition feels like the author dragged it out and split it into pieces deliberately so as to not run out of new ideas, which caused the plot to drag.

I don't think I'll bother reading the other books in the series. Fables is much better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition

Finding Ultra is Rich Roll's book about how his alcoholism nearly ruined his life, his subsequent rehabilitation, and his late blooming to become a world-class ultra-marathoner in his 40s as a Vegan.

A ton of the book is devoted to his descent into becoming a full-on alcoholic and his recovery. I am reminded of John T. Reed's statement that the only way to guarantee that you won't be an alcoholic is to never try a single drop. His constant relapse through much of his adult life is a reminder of how much this addictive and poisonous substance can destroy your life.

Roll's ultra achievements are pretty amazing, though I'm not sure it's super worthy of emulation. I'll note that just as his alcoholism probably had some genetic components to it, so did his subsequent rise to the top of the ultra ranks: even as a teenager he was already winning swimming races. It's also clear from his experience crashing his bike in unchallenging situations that he never bothered actually learning how to ride his bike, a common situation amongst triathletes, whose races rarely involve pack riding or technical descents but are rather a test of mental toughness and endurance.

Much of the book is devoted to his "PlantPower" approach, which apparently involves using a Vitamix blender to blend a lot of raw vegetables together with various seeds, etc into smoothies. He goes out of his way to mention that he's not actually sponsored by many of the supplements he mentions, but I didn't do any fact checking.

It's an OK book. I didn't come away feeling like it was time wasted, but I'm not going to go looking for other books or podcasts by him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

First Impressions: Garmin Fenix 5X

After I returned the Edge Explore to Clever Training, I no longer had a navigation-capable and radar compatible head unit on my bike. My ancient Garmin Edge 800 was still good, but I was of course, lusting after the Garmin Descent Mk I, which would add a dive computer to the mix. I had half a mind to get one when I spotted the refurbished Garmin Fenix 5X on Amazon for $330 (now $350), which was too good a deal to pass up.

Compared to my old Vivoactive HR, the Garmin Fenix 5X has:
  • Sapphire glass for superior scratch prevention (no big deal - I never scratched the HR anyway)
  • Better battery life (20 hours in GPS mode, 60 hours ultra trac mode)
  • Navigation (this is only available in the 5X and the latest 5+ series)
  • Open water swim mode
  • Compatibility with power meters (like I care!)
  • Much bigger display
  • Ability to beep when connected to the Varia Radar (a very handy feature)
  • Sailing App (untested for this review)
  • Warns you when speed/cadence/hrm sensors are running low on battery. This seems to be a function of newer units, since Bowen's Edge 25 also does the same.
  • Better integration with the RTL-510, with the Fenix turning on the light when you go for a ride, and turning it off automatically after you stop the ride.
Compared to the Edge Explore:
  • Smaller screen
  • No touch screen (which means you can't actually enter addresses as navigation destinations)
  • No incident detection
  • Compatibility with power meters
  • Hiking, swimming, and other watch-type modes
  • A real, honest to goodness barometric altimeter which doubles as a weather forecasting sensor. The unit will display gradients while climbing.
Compared to the latest model of Fenix watches (the 5+ series):
  • No music
  • No Garmin pay
  • No pulse oxymeter (only on the 5X+)
The unit arrived in an official "Garmin Refurbished" box, indicating that I had the full Garmin warranty. (The unit was sold by Amazon, so presumably there's a relationship between the two companies) out of the box, the device was about 50% charged, and I fully charged it before pairing it with my phone and wearing it.

The first thing I noticed was how heavy the watch was, compared with the Vivoactive HR. It's also huge, about as wide as my (admittedly slender) wrist:
And of course, it had a different charging cable, one that's much smaller than the Vivoactive HR's cable. On the one hand it's lighter, but on the other hand, there's no clip to keep the cable secure, and I found that the cable easily falls off when jostled, so you could easily think you've securely plugged it in for charging only to discover that you didn't or that you'd jostled it off when putting it down.

It's quite obvious that the Fenix is a serious athlete's watch first, and an activity tracker second. By default, the device won't even buzz to let you know it's time to move. (Professional athletes, for instance, are urged to rest whenever they're not actively training) It even comes with FirstBeats integration, and after every workout, will tell me how long I should rest before doing another workout. It even flatters me by telling me that I have the fitness of a 20 year old. I was really skeptical of that and then realized that I could definitely ride the pants off the 20-year-old version of me. For FirstBeats to provide active advice, you have to have worn the watch for at least a week before it starts telling you what to do. As someone who's too cheap to pay for a personal trainer, this is actually a useful feature.

It takes a bit to get used to not having a touch screen again, but in practice I discovered that I preferred it. When swimming, touch screens are worthless, and I've often found myself frustrated trying to get the Vivoactive HR to save after a swim because wet fingers on a wet screen means fingers the size of the screen at contact. With the Fenix, there's no problem. You push the stop button and the "cursor down" button and then the "select" button and it saves 100% of the time. Similarly, there's no more fat-fingered selecting "Hike" when you meant "Bike". After a while muscle memory burns in and you know exactly what to push every time.

The watch is blazingly fast when starting an activity. Basically, it'll take me longer to clip in than to start an activity on the watch. I can no longer play my "confuse the GPS by riding hard" game. For cycling, the device paired to all my ANT+ devices and never gets confused, even when I ride into the garage with one bike and immediately ride out with another. (I do this when I get home on my single and bike out with the tandem to pick up the kids, for instance) For utility cycling, I keep the watch on my wrist. The penalty for that is that you don't have an easy view of the screen (no big deal, you're utility cycling), so fortunately the device chirps loud enough when the radar detects cars coming for you. For longish rides where I do want to actually see the display, I've taken to mounting the device on a Garmin Forerunner Bike Mount. This has the penalty that the unit no longer reads your wrist for HR, so if you want HR, it's back to wearing a HRM strap. The HRM strap is more reliable anyway, so if you're in serious training mode, that's what you want. Roberto says that the "bra" nature of the strap bothers him, and recommends the Scorsche Rhythm+, which I've also heard good things about.

Having the unit mounted on a bike mount also means that you get more accurate temperature measurements (assuming you're not linked to a Tempe sensor). In theory, this means your altitude measurements will also be more accurate.

Navigation: this is the entire reason for getting this (rather than sticking with the Vivoactive HR, or getting the smaller Fenix 5S or regular Fenix 5), since it'll replace the Edge 800 for navigation while touring. While the smaller screen is worse, the idea with this unit is to perform the "last mile" type navigation, rather than Wahoo-style "pre-plan your route the night before." (The prior might work if you're Pamela Blalock, who can actually stick to a plan, but the father of 2 kids on a triplet probably can't) Like previous Garmin units, you can use the POI database, which has cities and even supermarkets and most hotels listed. This is good enough for general navigation. Since the input method doesn't allow for address entry, you have to either pan and zoom, or you have to use the SendPoints app. What I dislike about this is that you still need internet connectivity on your phone to use the website to locate your destination. But once the location is entered onto the Fenix, all navigation is done on-board, including rerouting, which means your internet connectivity only needs to be strong enough to find a location, not download an entire route with routing directions. Since those entries are now in your device database, you wouldn't need connectivity again. I expect this to be much less frustrating than depending on the on-board app to run the navigation and send the entire route to the device, which is what Wahoo does. In practice, the device chirps when it gets to your turn, and does it loudly enough that I can hear it even on a fast descent. When touring, I expect to slow down to check, of course.

What I dislike is that the turn notification takes up the entire screen, rather than including a map and turn like on the navigation units with bigger screens. There's also no microSD card for expanded storage, so you're stuck juggling map sets when you transition between continents.

The on-board navigation isn't as nice as Komoot's in terms of knowing where all the bike paths are, but you can also install the Komoot app, so all my money spent buying navigation on Komoot isn't wasted. I can still use Komoot routing on the days when I don't trust Google.

One of the nicest touches of the Fenix 5X for the touring cyclist is the enable to pause the ride and select "resume later." With the Vivoactive HR, your choice is either to keep GPS turned on while you eat lunch (or stop at a playground, etc), or to stop the ride and save it, turning your one day tour into multiple rides. This feature enables you to pause the ride, put the device into a power-saving mode (an automagically turn off your radar and other ant+ connected lights!), and then resume it later, so your Strava activity/GPS track will be one activity, rather than multiple activities on the same day. In the old days when running the Edge 800, I'd just turn off the device and turn it back on, but in recent years, Garmin's firmware (such as that on the Edge 25 or even Arturo's 810) will simply lose the ride if you do that! The Wahoo Bolt will happily resume a ride, but not without spending minutes reloading everything, something I don't have much patience for.

The Vivoactive HR's gym feature was pretty worthless, only good for recording heart rate while you're working out in the gym for lifting weights. The Fenix 5X, however, would actually count reps while you lifted, and automatically switch between rep counting and rest interval at the press of a button. Very nice! Gym rats will definitely love this feature.

What are my complaints about the unit:
  • It charges a lot slower than the Vivoactive HR. Bigger batteries take longer to charge, and there's no getting around that)
  • In practice, I don't expect it to last 20 hours. Various internet reports say to expect 16 hours on a full charge. I observe about 6% an hour battery drain, which sounds about right. (Note that I'm measuring this with 4 ANT+ devices, including the radar that makes it chirp whenever a car is behind me and light up the screen as well)
  • The screen is small enough that I might still be stuck lusting after an Edge 1030 when all is said and done, but maybe not. Unlike the Edge 1030, the Fenix 5X is a device that will stay on my wrist all year, while the Edge 1030 will only see serious use while touring. Since Boen will probably inherit the Edge 800, on tour, I'll still have a backup navigation device in a pinch.
All in all, I'm pretty impressed by the package that Fenix 5X represents. Would I have paid the MSRP $650 for it? Even at the current "Christmas sale" price of $500, I would have to think about it. At full price, the Descent at $300 more would have been my choice. But at $350 with a refurbished unit that looks brand new and comes with a full warranty? This is a no brainer compared with even the Vivoactive 3 Music edition. MyVivoactive HR will go to Bowen, and this has become my full time fitness/navigation device. That means it earns the "recommended" rating.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: The Universe from Nothing

The Universe from Nothing is a cosmology book written by a physicst/scientist/cosmologist. Lawrence Krauss says it started as a lecture that went viral on YouTube. The topic is of course, where did the Universe come from? What do we know about how it formed, and what the future of our visible universe is.

To explain all this in a 5 hour narration is a massive challenge, since the topics involved are difficult, encompassing quantum mechanics, relativity, and speculation about the nature of vacuum energy. What I liked about the exposition is that the concepts are introduced via experiments and empirical results, not just theory. Some of the history of the science concepts are provided (including the exposition on the Cosmic Background Radiation) but much of the history is just mentioned in passing.

The evidence for the Big Bang Theory is provided, as is the evidence (which I was not aware of) that we live in a flat universe. What's interesting is that in addition to being flat, the universe is expanding, and the stuff that's furthest away is expanding at an accelerating rate (from our perspective). The ultimate implication is that eventually those distant galaxies are going to disappear from our light-cone horizon, and we're not going to be able to be able to observe or detect their presence at all! (The timeline for this is about a trillion years, so the sun will be long gone before then, as will the Earth)

Krauss points out that in that far future timeline, astronomers and cosmologies will not be able to detect inflation (if you don't have a reference point because you can't see outside your local group, you can't detect that inflation is happening), which also means that evidence of a Big Bang would also have been erased!

OK, so much for the future of the universe. What about the past? The problem here is that we don't have a theory of quantum gravity, but the idea here is that in a vacuum, virtual particles can be created and destroyed at quantum time. My understanding of Krauss' explanation is that it is possible for space to be created at this level (which is how our Universe is expanding), but also for a whole universe to arise from vacuum as well! He never comes right out and say this, because as stated we don't really have a quantum theory of gravity that can provide a basis for such speculation. In any case, this is still an unsolved problem in physics, but at least we know that the Big Bang happened and that inflation is real.

I learned quite a bit from listening to the audio book. It's suitable even for non-technical audiences (or someone who flunked Physics like me), so I'd recommend listening to it if you're interested in the latest developments in cosmology.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Review: Garmin Edge Explore

When eBay had a 15% site-wide coupon, I gave in and bought the Garmin Edge Explore, the latest of the Garmin Navigation/Touring units. I'd been very unsatisfied with my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt's navigation and dependence on the smartphone for routing, and thought that I wouldn't miss the barometric altimeter on the more expensive units that have all sorts of training and Strava live segments features that I would never use anyway.

First of all, the big 3" screen is awesome. I love it, especially when the brightness is turned up. Everything is sparkly clear, and the radar output looks gorgeous on it. It paired happily with my speed and cadence sensors as well as my RTL-510, but wouldn't activate the RTL-510 as a light to automatically turn it on. This might have been because the RTL-510 was already paired with my son's Edge 25.

On short rides the unit is nothing short of superb. One of the improvements Garmin made since my venerable Garmin Edge 800, for instance, is that on the road, sharp curves will provoke a warning as you approach them. This happens even without navigation turned on!

Garmin sent me a coupon upon registering the unit, and I tried using it to buy the EU maps. When Garmin Express tried to download the map, however, it complained about the lack of storage, even though the unit reported 8GB free! A call to Garmin confirmed that I needed 10GB, which meant that the lack of SDCard storage meant I couldn't have both EU and US maps on the unit at the same time! Garmin refunded my money.

On the Levi Gran Fondo, however, the unit failed in several ways that made me request a return. First of all, it disconnected from the Varia Radar in the middle of the ride, about 3 hours in. I can understand my Vivoactive HR doing that, since I'd get off the bike and go to the bathroom and get food at rest stops. But the Edge stayed on the bike the whole time, and had no excuse. Bowen's Edge 25 had no problem staying connected. The only solution would have been to stop the ride and save and then restart the unit. It also disconnected from the cadence sensor at the same time. I called Garmin support and they blamed it on (1) the length of the tandem causing disconnects and (2) being surrounded by lots of other cyclists with ANT+ units.

I didn't think that it would bother me not to have a barometric altimeter, since my Vivoactive HR would record the proper elevation gain (or loss) anyway. But it turned out that because of the missing barometric altimeter, the unit also doesn't have a temperature sensor either. And it wouldn't pair with my Garmin Tempe sensor! So I was now missing 3 pieces of data that I would have liked to have displayed on that nice big screen: temperature, gradient, and elevation.

That in itself might not really have bothered me, but the last straw was that about 6 hours into the ride the unit complained about low battery and then died on the way back to the parking lot after the ride. Looking at Garmin's specs, the unit is rated for 12 hours of battery life, and to get only half that was disappointing. The Edge 25, for instance, had no issue staying on for the entire ride, and neither did my Vivoactive HR. Various net searches indicate that lowering the brightness from 90% to 60% and then staying off the map screen would yield better battery life, but the screen at 60% loses much of its appeal to me, and that, in combination with all the other disadvantages made me conclude sadly that the unit should go back to Garmin.

So here's who might find this unit useful:

  • Flat-landers who don't need elevation/gradient/temperature data
  • Navigationally challenged riders who don't exceed the battery life of the unit (about 6-7 hours)
  • Those who don't tend to tour in other continents, or who don't mind swapping maps in and out of the unit
Unfortunately, I don't fall into the above categories.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Review: If Stones Could Speak

While doing research at the library for Bowen's history class, we ran across If Stones Could Speak. I asked Bowen if he remembered visiting Stonehenge, and of course he did, so we checked the book out of the library and it became his bedtime reading for a few days, while he did his own history supplementary reading by himself.

I don't usually expect to learn much from kids non-fiction. But this one is amazing. Not only is it an exposition of Stonehenge, Wood-henge, and the archaeology of the area, it's also an introduction to the scientific process and the importance of getting diverse insights from non-traditional sources! It turns out that Stonehenge is not an ancient Druidic temple the way much of popular media has traditionally depicted it, but was a cemetery. This insight was only arrived at in recent years after someone thought to ask a historian from Madagascar what he thought the significance of the site was. The response was that "It's a house for the dead. Stone for the dead, wood for the living."

The book then goes deeply (but in simple language!) into the search for evidence that would prove (or disprove) the conjecture and how the process goes, set-backs and all. The final results are not stated as a "just so" story, but is instead discussed as a theory that's still undergoing refinement and discussion and how it led to a change in how archaeology is performed at Stonehenge. This is an amazing introduction to the scientific process and how it works.

This is a great book, and the perfect book for a computer scientist to read to his kid. You should do so as well. I certainly wish I'd read it before I visited Stonehenge! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Review: Spider-Man The Art of the Game

Both Boen and Bowen have thoroughly gotten into Spider-man, as a result of playing the PS4 Game. Beon even knows how to hold his fingers in the web-shooter gesture, which is amusing as heck. I saw some pictures in a web-article from The Art of the Game, and decided to pick it up.

The darn thing is a huge coffee table book. Paper doesn't have HDR, but in the case of this book, the materials clearly came from actual painted and physically drawn work. I expected to see scenes from the game, but the book also provided many examples of concept sketches that never made it into the game, including alternate versions of the characters that were intriguing and well drawn. It's impressive seeing how many sketches artists did just to get to the final product, but what's even more impressive was how many fully-worked-up paintings, etc. there were in the book! I've seen how quickly a Pixar artist can make a few pen strokes come to life, but a fully realized painting is significant work, no matter how talented you are.

Computer games are a truly multidisciplinary art, especially the modern AAA games which have all the production values of movies and require pretty much just as many people and as much time. The art book was a lot of fun to look at, and to my surprise holds up even for adults. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Review: Marvel's Spider-man (PS4 Pro)

So we now had a 4K HDR TV, but scarce content to drive it with. Well, since the TV was bought within the same time frame as the Limited Edition Spider-man PS4 Pro Bundle, I decided to place a pre-order for it. For $400, you got a bright-red PS4, a retail copy of the game with codes for the future downloadable content, which is about a $80 value. I figured if the game had horrible reviews,  I could still sell it unopened for a profit on eBay.

Nowadays, you can tell whether a game's going to be good by the press embargo. A game that the manufacturer expects to be good will lift the embargo days before the game is released, so that the press hype helps to sell the game. That was indeed what happened to Spider-man, so I ended up installing it (downloading the multi-gigabyte day-1 patch in the background) and playing it.

AAA-games, especially those backed by Sony as an exclusive game for the Playstation do several things very well:
  1. Tell a cinematic, movie-like experience, complete with all the special effects you would expect from a blockbuster-movie experience.
  2. Be relatively accessible (i.e., with a little experience you can play and be expected to "finish" the game)
  3. Make full use of the platform's capabilities, showing off all the capabilities the device is capable of. In this case a 4K video output with plenty of HDR effects would be expected.
Spider-man delivers on all these fronts. The story is great, with an expectation that you already know who Peter Parker is, and conversations introducing and driving the characters supporting Spider-man. I especially liked the Mary Jane Watson as depicted in this game, who's a spunkier and braver character than in the movie Spider-man 2. And yes, Stan Lee makes a cameo, just like in the movies! Bowen didn't even play through the first act of the story and but became inspired to actually finish watching Spider-man 2, still the best Spider-man movie ever made. I didn't particularly like the character model that was used for Peter Parker, but I got over it eventually. You don't spend a ton of time being Peter Parker anyway.

The game does everything right: the swinging in New York City is a delight: Bowen would pick up the controller and swing around the city for fun, not trying to advance the story or even stop any street crimes. The combat liberally borrows from the Batman Arkham series, but with its own feel: Spider-man is a much more agile character and moves around the scene quickly and easily, and Spider-man loves bringing enemies up into the air and swinging down at them. I became comfortable with the combat in ways that I never did with any of the Batman series.

There are a few frustrations: there are times when you have to play Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales. You can tell that the game has a certain direction/solution that it wants you to use, but the direction is sometime too subtle and you end up getting misled. But fortunately, those sections are short and don't overstay their welcome.

Insomniac studios shares the same office building as Naughty Dog, so you can see some cross pollination of ideas here and there, with a few scenes where you can take a breather and just explore an area without combat being thrown at you.

The game has no loot-boxes, no multiplayer, and no "insanely difficult get this timing correct or die" challenges. I successfully completed the game on "Amazing" (medium) difficulty. To be honest, Bowen tried it on "friendly", and I can't really tell the difference.

I don't get to play many video games these days, but Spider-man is definitely one that you shouldn't miss. It tells a great story, and I'm looking forward to playing the DLC as it comes out. It's the first game that I've actually gone to the trouble of getting a Platinum trophy for.

Highly recommended. This is a game worth buying a PS4 for!

Monday, November 05, 2018

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

All the Birds in the Sky was a free download. I was trying to read Small Fry, and got too depressed from reading the book and started reading All the Birds in the Sky instead and got thoroughly sucked in. I only found out after I'd finished that the book won the 2017 Nebula Award.

The book tells the story of 2 kids, Patricia and Laurence. Patricia learned to be a witch, and Laurence was destined to be a mad scientist, but as middle-schoolers both were outcasts and thrown together. Their coming of age happened jointly through a series of tests of loyalties, and then the plot dissipates and reunites them years later, when both have become adults.

The novel is strangely uneven, with lots of pieces that feel very unnecessary and stuck in there for no good reason. The novel could have used a really good editor to make the author whittle down the novel so that its major themes resonated better. On the other hand, Charlie Jane Anders managed to make me care about the characters and their relationship with each other enough that I didn't switch back to other books while reading this one.

The novel's only 300-odd pages, but read like it went on for longer. This is not a good thing. The author had maybe sufficient material for an excellent 200-page novel, but went for a decent 300 page novel instead. The ending, in particular, is literally a Deus Ex Machina. The novel doesn't provoke any deep thoughts though it tries to invoke the idea that there was some deep thinking behind the novel by positing a conflict between science and magic.

I recommend reading this on an airplane, or as a distraction from deeper, more depressing books.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Exped MegaMat Duo 10 Insulated Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad

With both kids in tow for a camping trip, it's insufficient to have just one parent around, especially when both are boys. So Xiaoqin had to go camping too. Since she didn't like our old air mattress, I had to look for something better. Something "glamping style". When it comes to luxury, I defer to Roberto, who knows far more about this sort of thing than I do. (All my camping gear is directed towards being carried on my bike or in my backpack --- everything has to be light and compact. Comfort is a secondary consideration: as Roberto will tell you, my solution to not being able to sleep enough is to add distance and elevation gain until you're tired enough to sleep --- or carry enough gear for your 6 year old so that when he sleeps you sleep too)

Roberto recommended the Exped MegaMat Duo. We went to a store and tried it. Xiaoqin thought it was OK. So I bought it.

The marketing literature claims the pad to be self-inflating. It's not. After a good 20 minutes of waiting it still looked half-inflated, so I attached the pump and pumped it. The pump sucks. You have to put your palm over the hole or air will leak out and your pumping effort is wasted. The inflation valve is such that you have to use the pump, so you can't attach say, the Coleman Quick Pump.

Once you've pumped it up, it's as comfortable as any mattress you can buy from Ikea. Of course, those don't roll up and deflate when done.

Well, this one doesn't quite deflate easily either. You have to undo the deflation valve, roll it up once, undo the roll, then fold it and roll it up again. And since I don't weigh as much as Roberto, I'd have to do that again! And even then the stuff sack won't quite fit it when done. Oh well. It's for car camping trips anyway.

The true test is whether my wife will voluntarily go camping again. But I guess even if she doesn't, it's still an upgrade over our old air mattress, so I guess it's recommended. But don't bother getting it out if you think you need to pack up in a hurry!

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Review: ENO DoubleNest Hammock

There was a sale on the ENO DoubleNest Hammock for $30. After taxes, that turned out to be $32 or so, but I also had to buy Hammock Straps for $8, making the entire setup about $40.

When I got the packages I was impressed by how small the entire thing packed up and how light everything was. This was definitely something I could carry while backpacking, even if I wasn't planning to use it as a shelter. The resulting hammock was big enough for me and both kids, and even my entire family would fit in under the weight limit of 400 pounds.

When I set it up during a 2 night camping trip with the kids, neither Bowen nor Boen ever got tired of the darn thing. They would sit in it, ask me to swing it, and swing it around, or have one kid pushing on it while the other rode in it. Twist it inside out and upside down. The hammock wasn't torn or destroyed despite the abuse, though I was very glad I set up the hammock over soft dirt and set it up low, so that when the kids deliberately fell out, they didn't get hurt.

My wife was annoyed that the kids didn't want to leave the hammock. Then she got in it with Boen, and decided that yes, it was that comfortable. "No wonder they didn't want to leave it!"

I'm sure the next time they see it they won't be as enamored of it, but I'd say I've already gotten my $40 worth. Recommended.