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Friday, June 28, 2019

Review: The Weather Detective

The Weather Detective is a bit of a bait and switch. I checked it out hoping that it would actually tell me more about weather prediction from a naturalist point of view (rather than just reading weather forecast), but within 40% of the book the topic had shifted entirely into gardening!

But then I read the passage about hailstones and how hail was formed to Bowen and he said: "This is the coolest book ever!" Then I realized that because of my never wanting to spend any time gardening, this book had lots of information that I didn't know about. For instance:
Across Europe, the Earth is no longer in its natural state. Before being settled by humans, the landscape was dense with primeval forests. The closed, dense tree cover was the best possible protection for the fine, loose soil, and all processes took place at a slow and moderate pace under the canopy of beech, oak, or ash. Humans removed this protective layer around their growing settlements by clearing vast tracts of woodland. But this is not all: the early farmers left an indelible mark on the soil when their oxen pulled wooden plows, dragging the topsoil into ridges and furrows. These plows turned over a very shallow layer of soil, no more than 8 inches. The soil below this was smeared by the plow, resulting in a clogged-up layer called the plow sole, blocking the pores in the earth and stopping air and water from seeping through. This effectively suffocated the soil life beneath this layer and meant water could not be fully absorbed after heavy rain. The result was a bathtub effect: after rainfall everything was submerged, whereas in dry periods no moisture could be drawn up from below. Shepherds and goatherds have also wreaked havoc with their livestock over the ages. The surface of the ground has been beaten down by the animals’ hooves, causing further damage to the pores through successive layers all the way to the surface.  (Kindle Loc 1382)
There's a ton of stuff about bird migration, the life of underground tunneling creatures and it dispelled some of my misconceptions about fertilizers and how they work (they don't work by adding nutrients to the soil), and why you shouldn't use too much (and it's not about run-off, it's about the plants growing too tall and then getting squashed by inclement weather).

All in all, I ended up reading the whole thing and not resenting any of the gardening tips. Maybe I'll check out the author's more famous book: the hidden life of trees.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review: Six Easy Pieces

Six Easy Pieces is a selection of lectures from the Feynman Lectures on Physics. The "easy" part is basically a reference to the lack of math in these and that they can be understood without reference to many of the other sections in the lectures. I was very entertained by the preface, where it was mentioned that while it was intended to be an introductory class, undergraduates kept dropping out but the lecture hall remained full because graduate students and other faculty members started attending!

I enjoyed the introduction, which I thought was a good example of scientific deduction: once you know everything is made out of atoms, here's how you build upon that knowledge. The remaining sections deal with the relation of physics to the other sciences, the conservation of energy, gravitation, the history of physics, and Quantum mechanics.

All the examples are lucid, with a unique view of the systems involved that's different from the typical dry textbook examples, and the quantum behavior chapter in particular takes away all the hocus pocus stuff about observers and basically casts quantum behavior as viewed from an experimental point of view.

Looking at the collected lectures, I can see that there are many chapters which start with differential equations and just roll on from there, so I can see why these chapters were picked out of the entire lecture series. But maybe I should go ahead and try working through the actual lectures to see if my "A" levels "D" was a matter of both immaturity and the inability of my high school physics lecturer to get through to me.

In any case, the book comes recommended and is short and well worth your time to read.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Review: BONMIXC Bike Bell

I don't have any bicycle bells on any of my single bikes, but of course, bells are an important accessory for kids, and Boen started asking for them. I searched Amazon for a bunch, and ran across the BONMIXC bell, which looked simple, easy to install and mount, and might actually make more noise than the dainty Crane Suzu bell that came on my wife's bike.

I was correct on all counts. When it arrived, it took all of 5 minutes to install, 2 of which were spent walking to the mail box and unwrapping the package. It even came with a handy allen wrench so I didn't have to fish one out of the tool-kit. After installing I was astonished by how loud the bell was. Once Bowen tried it, he insisted on getting an identical one to replace his dinky bell. I'm going to regret this because the kids are sure to make a racket.

Needless to say, I bought another one to satisfy Bowen. It's rare that something this cheap outperforms the other high quality "Made in Japan" stuff on Amazon. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review: Gulp

Gulp is Mary Roach's book about your eating and digestive system. It's informative,  humorous, and more than a little gross. It taught me lots that I didn't know, though some of it is just what you might expect:
 The students, most of whom have several years’ experience in the industry, are asked to rank six wines, their labels hidden by—a nice touch here—brown paper bags. All are wines Wagner himself enjoys. At least one is under $10 and two are over $50. “Over the past eighteen years, every time,” he told me, “the least expensive wine averages the highest ranking, and the most expensive two finish at the bottom.” In 2011, a Gallo cabernet scored the highest average rating, and a Chateau Gruaud Larose (which retails from between $60 and $70) took the bottom slot. Unscrupulous vendors turn the situation to their advantage. In China, nouveau-riche status-seekers are spending small fortunes on counterfeit Bordeaux. A related scenario exists here vis-à-vis olive oil. “The United States is a dumping ground for bad olive oil,” Langstaff told me. It’s no secret among European manufacturers that Americans have no palate for olive oils. (Pg 20)
The section on organ meat is great:
 The top slot on the CSPI scorecard, with 172 points, is beef liver. Chicken liver and liver sausage took second and third place. A serving of liver provides half the RDA for vitamin C, three times the RDA for riboflavin, nine times the vitamin A in the average carrot, plus good amounts of vitamins B12, B6, and D, folic acid, and potassium. What’s the main ingredient in AFB’s dog-food palatants? “Liver,” says Moeller. “Mixed with some other viscera. The first part that a wild animal usually eats in its kill is the liver and stomach, the GI tract.” (pg 44)
 Organs are so vitamin-rich, and edible plants so scarce, that the former are classified, for purposes of Arctic health education, both as “meat” and as “fruits and vegetables.” One serving from the Fruits and Vegetables Group in Nirlungayuk’s materials is “1/2 cup berries or greens, or 60 to 90 grams of organ meats.” Nartok shows me an example of Arctic “greens”: cutout number 13, Caribou Stomach Contents. (pg 51)
 There's even stuff about saliva that's interesting:
“If you dribble something on your shirt while you’re eating,” I asked Grime, “does it make sense to dab it with saliva? As a kind of natural laundry presoak?” “That’s an interesting thought.” Dr. Grime carries a Tide stain pen. He does not use his own spit. Art conservators do. “We make cotton swabs on bamboo sticks and moisten the swab in our mouths,” says Andrea Chevalier, senior paintings conservator with the Intermuseum Conservation Association. Saliva is especially helpful for fragile surfaces that solvents or water would dissolve. In 1990, a team of Portuguese conservators pitted saliva against four commonly used nonanatomical cleaning solutions. Based on its ability to clean but not damage water-gilded gold leaf and low-fired painted clay surfaces, saliva “was judged the ‘best’ cleaner.” Denatured saliva, stripped of its enzymatic powers, was also tested and proved inferior to straight spit. (pg 100)
The section on competitive eating is fascinating. But what really caught me is the composition of flatulence. Roberto used to claim that I fart helium. Well, Roach does one better. Apparently we all fart hydrogen!
Like a Manure Pit Display, the human colon is a scaled-down version of a biowaste storage tank. It is an anaerobic environment, meaning it provides the oxygen-free living that methane-producing bacteria need to thrive. It is packed with fermentable creature waste. As they do in manure pits, bacteria break down the waste in order to live off it, creating gaseous by-products in the process. Most voluminously, bacteria make hydrogen. Their gas becomes your gas. Up to 80 percent of flatus is hydrogen. About a third of us also harbor bacteria that produce methane—a key component in the “natural gas” supplied by utility companies. (At least two-thirds of us harbor a belief that methane producers’ farts burn blue, like the pilot light on a gas stove. Sadly, a YouTube search unearthed no evidence.)
The last part of the book is a little gross. It discusses smugglers who use their body cavities to smuggle goods, and includes descriptions of people who died of overdose by swallowing insufficiently protected packages of cocaine. There's a section on animals (e.g. rabbits) eating their own output to extract maximum nutrition from their meals (one pass through those digestive systems isn't enough).

The book is great reading and comes recommended!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review: Polar OH1+ Optical HRM

This year's Spanish tour highlighted that I really liked using the Garmin Fenix 5X as a head unit, but when it gets mounted on the bars, the unit makes up HR data. I supposed I could just ignore it, but the engineer in me hates collecting bad data. During the tour, I used the Garmin chest strap, but it had a few major problems, chiefest of which was that I simply didn't like wearing it. I browsed various reviews of optical HRM straps that can be worn on the upper arm, and the Polar OH1+ seemed the most useful for my situation, coming with a swim goggle adapter for swimming.

Out of the box for cycling, the device seems much more accurate than the chest strap or the built in Fenix 5X optical HR sensor, lending credence to DCRainmaker's claim that the most important factor in optical HRM accuracy is where you wear it. The better accuracy can be attributed to 2 things: (1) is that the strap is worn under a sleeve, which not only hides it in photos, but also shields it from sunlight, which helps accuracy. It also doesn't bounce like the Fenix would, which given its weight unsurprisingly gives inaccurate results. (Not that the much lighter Vivoactive HR was any better --- Arturo and I liked to call its HRM science fiction data generator)

The better performance over the chest strap is because at the start of a ride, I don't always remember to put liquid on the monitor for better electrical contact, so the HRM would spaz out at the start of a ride.

The sensor itself is a small disc that weighs 5g. The band is 14g, and the charger (which is also tiny and easy to lose) is 8g. This compares very favorably with the Garmin chest strap's 73g. The charger doubles as a usb sync device if you record your HR during a swim session.

I tried it twice while swimming. The first time, I saw blips in the HRM output that puzzled me.
I saw the dropouts and were puzzled. I thought it might have been user error (which happened the first time because I didn't realize how to verify that I had truly started a recording on the device --- look to see that the led blinks twice every 2s). The second time, I tried it again and with better monitoring, figured out what happened:
Every time I did a flip turn, I ran the chance of flipping the unit so that it faced away from my temple instead of monitoring it. At one point, the unit even fell off the goggles onto the floor of the pool, and luckily I saw it! What this means is that for swimming, the unit is strictly useful only for pool use where you have a chance to spot the missing unit and retrieve it. Don't try to snorkel or open water swim with it.

I tried a third time and shifted the unit forward on the goggle strap, and lo and behold, I finally got a clean run of data.

While the unit does pair with the Fenix 5X for swimming and will show you your heartbeat during rest periods between intervals, the Fenix does not maintain a connection with the unit during the workout proper and will not record HR. You have to use the polar app for that! This is disappointing but the swimming is a bit of a bonus anyway, as compared to using the unit for cycling, where it is lighter than its competitors and also a little cheaper.

All in all, I'm keeping the unit. It's useful enough when touring, and despite the glitches it is somewhat interesting to see how hard I'm working during my swim workouts, and is much more accurate than either of the devices it replicates the functionality of. Recommended.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Review: Liquid Rules

Liquid Rules is that rare book: written by a material scientist, it uses a transatlantic flight to motivate the discussion of various liquids and their interesting properties. It starts off with a discussion of the kerosene used to power the jet engine, meanders into the properties of soap (as well as a fascinating history of how marketing and a bacteria scare causes us to abandon bar soap for liquid soaps and body washes --- including a discussion of what makes detergent different from soap!), and discusses how ink in a ballpoint pen differs from the ink in a fountain pen.

It is filled with observations such as this awesome tidbit about the pre-flight safety briefing:
If you think about it, the safety briefing is the one global ritual that we all share, whatever our ethnicity, nationality, sex, or religion; we all take part in it before the kerosene is ignited and the plane takes off. The dangers that the briefing warns us of, such as landing on water, are so rare that even if you flew every day for a whole lifetime, you would be unlikely to ever experience them. So that’s not really the point of it. As in all rituals, coded language, a series of actions, and special props play their part. In religious rituals these props are often candles, incense burners, and chalices; in the preflight safety ritual they are oxygen masks, life jackets, and seat belts. The message of the preflight ritual is this: you are about to do something that is extremely dangerous, but engineers have made it almost completely safe. The “almost” is emphasized by all the elaborate actions involving the previously mentioned props. The ritual draws a line between your normal life, where you are in charge of your own safety, and your current one, in which you are ceding control to a set of people and their engineering systems as they harness one of the most awesomely powerful liquids on the planet to shoot you through the atmosphere to a destination of your choosing. In other words, you need to trust them absolutely; your life is in their hands. And so this ritual, performed before every flight, is really a trust ceremony. (Kindle Loc 355)
 I highly recommend this book. You'll learn something on every page, and it's written well!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review: Demon

Demon is the last book in Varley's Gaea trilogy. It's a grand finale, with lots of action, set pieces, and a long intro that shows off how bad-ass Cirroco is. The problem with the series is that it was never more than science fantasy. We never do get insight as to how the Titans were created and evolved, and the takeover of the consciousness of Gaea was never explored in any form.

As a series it's very much worth reading, since the characters are interesting (as are the aliens such as the Titans), and the plot as a whole is satisfying. And unlike more modern series, the entire story just ends here, no 10-book epic.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review: Columbia Montrail Outdry Running Shoes

Last year, Arturo got us a big discount visit to the Columbia Outlet store. I found a pair of Montrail Outdry shoes for a substantial discount and bought them. I should have bought more than a pair, that's how good they are.

I'll contrast them with the Salomon XA Pro 3D Waterproofs. Those are currently on sale at REI but they are crap. They claim to be waterproof, but even a little bit of water will soak right through the uppers and into your socks and then you'll have a squishy hike for the rest of your day.

By contrast, the Columbia Outdry actually works. I've walked into ankle-deep puddles, been caught in thunderstorms, and at no point did these shoes ever fail. If the inside got wet, it was always because my socks were wicking water down into the shoes. (Even the waterproof socks do that, since those are effectively two non-waterproof layers with a waterproof layer in between).

I should have bought more than just one pair of these shoes. As it is now, I wear the Salomons for unchallenging conditions, and save the Columbia for the toughest rainiest outings. How often do you ever see me regret not spending money? That means these shoes are highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Review: TaoTronics True Wireless Ear Buds

My beloved LG Tone headset died recently after 3 years of hard use. It appears that the follow on units aren't of similar high quality, so I went looking for new headsets. The TaoTronics won the race because of a feature that I couldn't find anywhere else: the charging case for these ear buds also double as a battery bank for your other electronics!

The case with earbuds comes to 97g. The Anker 3350 mAh battery (same capacity as the earbuds charging case) comes in at 80g. So for 17g more you get a pair of wireless earbuds as well, which is a bargain any way you look at it, especially if you use the coupon code I found (which seems to have expired) to get them for $30 instead of the regular $46. Wireless earbuds are easy to lose, and also easy to damage (e.g., by getting them wet or dropping them), and these are IPX 67 certified, meaning that they're waterproof enough for rain.

The earbuds come with 8 different sized tips for customization, and are just a bit uncomfortable (not as nice as the Moto Hint+ I used to own). The charging case has two seats for the earbuds which are magnetized, so you can't screw up the positioning of the left and right, and even if you did, the charging indicators wouldn't flash, which would tell you that something is messed up. I was concerned that these would be a massive pain to take out and use while cycling, but in practice they weren't bad at all. Certainly the case means much less fumbling than say, the single-ear hook pieces seen in Premium Rush.

The sound quality is just good enough for gym use. The music is listenable, and audio books are just about this side of comprehensible while cycling with only one earbud in your ear. (Don't ride with both ears blocked!) For phone calls, the  response time between pulling it out and answering the call is so long that I've missed a few phone calls because of this, so now I just answer the phone with the handset and then if it's going to be a long call I pull the ear pieces out and plug them into my ears (the transition is fairly easy). For phone calls, it definitely is not as good as the Moto Hint was.

When touring, the most common use case for these is that you're riding around in circles trying to find where your AirBnB is and need to call the owner. These are good enough for that so you can listen to spoken directions over the phone while your host is directing you to their house. The second most common use case is as an emergency charger for your flashing front light, your radar tail light, or your phone. At 3350 mAh these won't charge anything quickly, but is great for topping up your battery lights during a playground stop, or keeping your phone from going dead while you frantically search for a hotel for the night.

There might be other true wireless ear buds with better sound quality, better microphones, etc., but the combination of price and features on this set means I won't bother with others. How long the batteries in the earpieces last is a different story --- I was forced to retire my Moto Hint+ not because the charging case went dead, but because the earpiece batteries could no longer survive a phone call longer than 15 minutes.

In any case, if you're a touring cyclist, get these. Recommended.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Review: Spark

Spark is John Ratey's book about exercise and how it impacts the brain. It's a pretty old book, but is still worth reading because there aren't actually that many books about how physical exertion affects how your brain works. John Medina's Brain Rules, for instance, mentions it as important, but not the physiological reasons your brain works better after exercise, and how much exercise is actually enough.

One of the repeated themes in this book is that the medical establishment used to think that exercise was bad for you. Even now, it's an uphill battle for physicians to prescribe exercise for patients. The book covers (in compelling form) a high school in Illinois which managed to reduce obesity to 3% of the student population while increasing student school performance in standardized tests by 14% through the introduction of a daily PE lesson. What distinguishes this book is that the PE lessons aren't the traditional PE classes, but highly focused on aerobic and cardio exercises that gets the kids moving all the time while in class. The classes even hand out HRMs to the students and issues grades by how hard the kid is pushing themselves! The author points out that traditional PE lessons focused on team sports (basketball, soccer, etc) are actually terrible for encouraging exercise: the kids who got picked last, for instance, get an immediate discouragement, and worse, many of these sports have a bunch of kids who are just sitting on the sidelines instead of actually getting physical exercise. So if you hated PE in school, it's because your teacher was just doing it wrong!

Then Ratey goes into the various mental disorders like depression, anxiety, addiction, and even PMS and aging, and talks about how exercise helps those disorders. (Note that he leaves out stuff that's truly degenerate, like Parkinson's, Schizophrenia, etc, though he does mention that exercise seems to retard the progress of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's) He further discusses how much exercise is needed (and once again reminds the reader that the National Guidelines are set deliberately low because the medical establishment is afraid that the real recommendations will scare most Americans away from even  starting to exercise, so 20 minutes a day isn't even close to the optimum dosage!), and how high intensity work differs from low intensity exercise. (Basically, the pituitary gland emits HGH, which reshapes the body --- the author describes how his final ounces of belly fat only disappeared after he added high intensity exercise to this regime)

This is an astonishingly good book, full of details about the various pathways through which exercise shapes your brain. You might get the impression that exercise solves all health problems, and you might not be far wrong. Maybe my frequent mantra (often said in jest) that "cycling solves all problems" isn't that far from the truth!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: Wizard

Wizard is the second book in the Gaea trilogy (mis-spelled on Amazon for whatever reason). I'd forgotten how good these books were, and these are certainly page turners. Not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy epic, there are quests assigned by a goddess, and then a motley group of people put together, all of whom have mixed motives.

When we encounter the continuing characters from the previous books, they're transformed beyond recognition,  but still recognizable. When the action starts you're drawn in and then after that it's world-building interspersed with plot unfolding.

Unfortunately, it suffers from the middle book syndrome: enough plot gets unfolded to get you going, but not enough gets resolved for you to feel satisfied. Nevertheless, it's exciting reading and well worth the effort. Recommended.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review: Titan

I remember recommending Titan (and the follow-on books) to Arturo. It's been so may years since I read it that when I saw that it was $3 for the Kindle version I just grabbed it and started reading. Of course, the book just sucked me in.

It's basically an Alien Worlds/exploration story, but as I reached the end I was blown away by how Varley makes even more recently written science fiction look as though it was written by an uncreative scientific illiterate. There's plausible explanations for how come the alien creatures encountered bear even a passing resemblance to humans, and the characters are actually much better than the usual cookie-cutter stuff.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of the book, and can recommend it to anyone. It does have sexual themes that make it not suitable bed-time reading for those with little kids however.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review: The Orchid and the Dandelion

The Orchid and the Dandelion is a great counterpoint to The Highly Sensitive Child. On Amazon, the reviews of this book are not as good as the reviews to The Highly Sensitive Child. I can see why. The book is couched in academic, rhetorical language, and doesn't praise the Orchid-type children uniformly. This is important, because the author makes several important point that Dr. Aron (the author of The Highly Sensitive Child) never makes:
orchids and dandelions aren’t a binary division cutting humanity into two categories. The two flowers are powerful metaphors, or a vivid shorthand, for what is actually a spectrum. (Loc 3740)
Furthermore, there's intriguing information in this book, indicating that it might be possible to physically figure out whether your child is an Orchid or Dandelion by measuring temperature differences between left and right earlobe. This sort of identification work is very useful.

The book identifies a lot of importance about teachers:
while some teachers were exploiting the children’s social hierarchies as a means of controlling child and group behavior, others were explicitly attempting to minimize the visibility and potency of the hierarchy by employing more child-centered, egalitarian teaching approaches. Some teachers, for example, might quell a disagreement by taking a dominant child’s side or might avoid a conflict or disappointment by allowing certain kids to be marginalized or excluded. Others, by comparison, seemed to consciously employ techniques and strategies for undermining or challenging their students’ hierarchical order. This could occur if the teacher publicly noted a subordinate child’s special artistic or intellectual or athletic gift, or banned exclusionary social behavior, establishing a classroom policy in which “you can’t say, ‘you can’t play.’ ” (Loc 2611)
What's even better is that Boyce debunks Quality time as something of a myth:
I would like to debunk what has become enshrined as an almost holy artifact in the mythology of contemporary life. Quality time is simply a cultural myth. There is no such thing and never has been. So we should not count on it happening and should not try to create it. The reality is that the very best of moments with our children come at unplanned, unexpected times—during the car ride to a Saturday morning soccer game, in the middle of an otherwise uneventful bathing of a toddler, or while scrambling to get breakfast and the kids off to school. Try as we might to orchestrate such times, the closest, most cherished moments with our children come during intervals when they are least expected. Such moments cannot be arranged or planned. They simply surface out of the normal, monotonous flow of daily life, when sufficient ordinary time has been passed between parent and child. It is during such ordinary time that these moments of extraordinary communication and intimacy can occur. (Loc 2801)
So forget the Orchid/Dandelion distinction. You just need to spend more time with your children. You probably already knew that, but the book is full of stuff that reminds you to be a good parent. For that, it's well worth reading, despite the archaic and rhetorical language. I recommend this book over The Highly Sensitive Child, and I recommend this book for anyone who needs another parenting reminder.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review: Magicians Season 3

Continuing on from Magicians Season 2, Season 3 focuses on the restoration of magic. In the mean time, we get various subplots involving fairies, subquests, how rulers are determined in Filory, and timeline jumping, all of which could have served to make the season unwatchable and confusing but the writers somehow managed to avoid all the traps.

Some of the plots of the episode are quite annoying, including one that might as well have been a “It was all a dream” story.  For the most part, however, the execution of each story is well done, including an episode that ended with “Under Pressure” performed by the cast.

Everything comes to a head at the end of the season, with multiple members of the story (all of whom have been working as a team for the most part) all running their own plots. Ultimately, the season ends with a cliffhanger that leaves as many questions as it answers but is still more exciting than the books the series is based on. I’ll look forward to picking up the next season to see if the level of writing and plot execution continues to be superb.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Post Tour Review: ResMed Air Mini

This was the first bike tour using the ResMed AirMini. As noted previously, I bought this mostly for the weight, and while I was doing point to point touring this year carrying my own luggage, I still had to fit the luggage within the weight limits of a cheap flight.

My biggest concern about the device was the noise, and I have to say that it was great. The device was as quiet as the big machine from the perspective of Mike, who had to share the room with me. Furthermore, the auto-on/auto-off feature meant that if the mask bothered me (which wasn't frequent), if I took it off I didn't have to go hunting for the button to turn off the machine.

The humidifier wasn't quite enough for Mallorca, but was too much for a camping trip in California during a humid period in Spring, resulting in a wet nasal pillow in the morning. I'm guessing that you would need the HumidX plus for Mallorca and California when it's dry, but otherwise the rest of the time you should be ok with just the regular Humid X.

The app was great, eliminating the need for a display on the unit, and also the need to download data to the computer. I did wish it output something to SleepyHead, but I'm guessing that's not going to happen any time soon.

Once in a while I think I should buy a backup for my 7 year old ResMed S9 (which I still like better than the S10), but this experience has taught me that the AirMini is more than an adequate backup device. I'd be happy to use it long term if I had to, and stop hunting around for distilled water. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Review: Mpow Foam Ear plugs

I usually bring ear plugs when I travel. There was a time when I'd carry them to hand to people I'd be sharing a cabin or tent with, since as a Sleep Apnea sufferer, I snore'd like crazy. Now my CPAP machine solves my snoring, but I carry them anyway in case the hotel room is noisy.

To my surprise, the quietest hotel room we had this time was the Hotel SM Sant Antoni in Barcelona. By far the nosiest was Hotel Ultonia, right next to a major throughfare. We used the Mpow Foam Ear Plugs to sleep every night and it worked great. For $10, you get 60 ear plugs and a hard metal carrying case. The ear plugs are just right, fit nicely in ear, and for my ears I had to replace them once every week or so. Mike needed to replace his every 5 days or so.


Thursday, June 06, 2019

Review: Utopia for Realists

Utopia For Realists is a book about how to make a better world for people who are not in the top 1%. It is a radical book of policy proposals that are backed by research and data, which ought to be convincing. Bregman is apparently well known as the Universal Basic Income man, and not surprisingly, the book is at its very best when discussing the topic:
Liberia, an experiment was conducted to see what would happen if you give $200 to the shiftiest of the poor. Alcoholics, addicts, and petty criminals were rounded up from the slums. Three years later, what had they spent the money on? Food, clothing, medicine, and small businesses. “If these men didn’t throw away free money,” one of the researchers wondered, “who would?” Yet the “lazy poor people” argument is trotted out time and again. The very persistence of this view has compelled scientists to investigate whether it’s true. Just a few years ago, the prestigious medical journal the Lancet summed up their findings: When the poor receive no-strings cash they actually tend to work harder. (Kindle Loc 360)
And argument that it's too expensive to do this:
 Eradicating poverty in the U.S. would cost only $175 billion, less than 1% of GDP.48 That’s roughly a quarter of U.S. military spending. Winning the war on poverty would be a bargain compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which a Harvard study estimated have cost us a staggering $4–$6 trillion. As a matter of fact, all the world’s developed countries had it within their means to wipe out poverty years ago. (Kindle Loc. 485)
When reading this book I've had to re-examine how I thought about society problems. In the past, I've always thought that drug addiction, etc., is a result of unalterable circumstances with no good policy solutions. The thought that the policy prescription that's most effective, efficient, and direct is so easy (those in poverty don't have money, just give them money) and even better, socially beneficial is radical, and worth pursuing:
 A British study discovered that the costs of poverty among children in England top £29 billion ($44 billion) a year.12 According to the researchers, a policy to eliminate poverty “could largely pay for itself.”13 In the U.S., where more than one in five children grow up poor, countless studies have already shown that anti-poverty measures actually work as a cost-cutting instrument.14 Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California, calculated that lifting an American family out of poverty takes an average of about $4,500 annually–less than the Cherokee casino payouts. In the end, the return on this investment, per child, would be: 12.5% more hours worked $3,000 annual savings on welfare $50,000–$100,000 additional lifetime earnings $10,000–$20,000 additional state tax revenues Professor Duncan concluded that combating poverty “pays for itself by the time the poor children have reached middle age.” (Loc 636)
When I think about what how little with done to combat poverty over the last few years, I think by far the most pernicious problem with the conservative ideology are exemplified by attitudes like the ones expressed in this Quora answer:
Obinna Onwuchekwa
Obinna Onwuchekwa, Libertarianish conservative

People should only have kids they can afford.
You have to be extremely hard-hearted, not to mention without a sense of social justice to have constructed an answer like this. Even if you believed that the parents of children born into poverty do not have a right to escape poverty because they made dumb decisions, that children who themselves were born into that poverty did not choose to be born, and the permanently penalize them or turn them into an under-class by denying them the necessary conditions for an optimal upbringing (which includes having parents that are not economically stressed all the time and hence can provide quality care!) is in the long run not a very smart thing to do. Some of those kids might have the potential to contribute greatly to society, and our current polices simply do not allow them to live up to their potential, and in some cases (as discussed in the previous quote) might turn them into negative elements in society.

Once you leave the subject of universal basic income, the book is still full of great titbits and I found myself highlighting passage after passage.
Whereas couples worked a combined total of five to six days a week in the 1950s, nowadays it’s closer to seven or eight. At the same time, parenting has become a much more time-intensive job. Research suggests that across national boundaries, parents are dedicating substantially more time to their children.21 In the U.S., working mothers actually spend more time with their kids today than stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s.22 Even citizens of the Netherlands–the nation with the shortest workweek in the world–have felt the steadily increasing weight of work, overtime, care tasks, and education since the 1980s. In 1985 these activities were taking up 43.6 hours a week; by 2005, 48.6 hours.23 Three-quarters of the Dutch workforce is feeling overburdened by time pressures, a quarter habitually works overtime, and one in eight is suffering the symptoms of burnout.2 (Loc 1368)
 Ironically, medieval people were probably closer to achieving the contented idleness of the Land of Plenty than we are today. Around 1300, the calendar was still packed with holidays and feasts. Harvard historian and economist Juliet Schor has estimated that holidays accounted for no less than one-third of the year. In Spain, the share was an astounding five months, and in France, nearly six. Most peasants didn’t work any harder than necessary for their living. “The tempo of life was slow,” Schor writes. “Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”29 (Loc 1394)
 A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, twenty years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance. (Loc 1704)
 There's a great section on "RCTs" (randomized controlled trials) to determine which interventions in the developing world are most likely to add economic value. It's great stuff and worth reading:
Thanks to RCTs, however, we know that $100 worth of free meals translates into an additional 2.8 years of educational attainment–three times as much as free uniforms. Speaking of proven impact, deworming children with intestinal complaints has been shown to yield 2.9 years of additional schooling for the absurdly small investment of $10 worth of treatment. No armchair philosopher could have predicted that, but since this finding was revealed, tens of millions of children have been dewormed. (Loc 2107)
There's a very salient observation in the book where Bregman says that the best paying jobs in the world are the parasitic ones: investment bankers, financial advisors, mergers and acquisition folks, analysts, ad-tech engineers, etc. We're spending the smarts of those people by having them prey on the foibles of human nature and human society. The worst paying jobs are the really important ones where you make a positive difference to real people day after day (teachers, etc). It's as though we're managing society by saying: "You get to have a real job where you make a difference to people's lives positively. You expect to get paid well too? No way!" That observation touched me deeply.

 I'd say the weakest part of the book is the prescription about immigration. (Bregman claims that open borders would work) There's simply not as much detail there supporting his argument (certainly, no RCT here!) and I'm not sure he's worked through the political challenges there and how one would go about the approach he wants to take here (for instance, he says obviously you can't just open all doors everywhere right away, but doesn't say how you would stage it). But even here, he won so much credibility with me that I found myself wondering if there's some argument he's made in that very short chapter that I'm missing.

The book ends with both a call to action and an indictment of the Clinton model of neo-liberalism, and a plea to both leaders, voters, and people of action to drop the incrementalism and "working within the system" and go back to the radicalism that's won so many victories in the past, such as the demand for voting rights for women, the elimination of slavery, and of course, the 5 day work week:
Historically, Politics was the preserve of the left. Be realistic, demand the impossible! rang the rallying cry of the Paris demonstrators in 1968. The end of slavery, the emancipation of women, the rise of the welfare state–all were progressive ideas that started out as crazy and “irrational” but were ultimately accepted as basic common sense. These days, however, the left seems to have forgotten the art of Politics. Worse, many left-wing thinkers and politicians attempt to quell radical sentiments among their own rank and file in their terror of losing votes. This attitude is one I’ve begun to think of in recent years as the phenomenon of “underdog socialism.” (Loc 2532)
 If you've been a progressive voter for the past 20 years or so, it's hard not to get depressed about how little progress has actually been made towards policy goals that get people excited. This book brings hope that perhaps there are policy options that are radical, yet realistic and effective that the progressive movement has yet to adopt. The book has certainly changed my mind about the effectiveness of cash handouts for poverty reduction, and just that alone makes it worth the read.

Highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Review: Pilot-24 Lite CPAP Battery Bundle

I've spent way too many years carrying around a big heavy lithium ion batteries. For my recent ResMed AirMini, I decided that I'd upgrade to a later model and see whether it makes a big difference compared to what my older HMD Z1 could do.

The Pilot-24 weighs 567g. With the Airmini adapter cable (24g), that's a total of 591g. The HDM off-grid power pack (shell + battery) comes in about 100g lighter at 490g. But the HDM Z1 battery could only get me 4 hours per night for 2 nights, while the Pilot-24 happily gave me 7 hours of therapy a night for 2 nights, so the additional 100g is justified. (In addition, the Resmed AirMini is a much quieter machine than that HDM Z1!)

The biggest issue with the Pilot is that the charger requires a heavy duty charger to charge fast. The official pilot-24 charger (24V@3.75A) weighs 376g. You could just carry the charging cable for the Airmini, but at 20W, it's going to take 5 hours to charge the battery, which isn't acceptable on a sailing trip.

For backcountry camping, the entire package (ResMed AirMini + nasal pillow + pilot 24 + adapter) comes in at 1242g, or 10g lighter than the HDM Z1 equivalent, while giving more hours of therapy. I'd venture to say that the combination is a significant upgrade over the HDMZ1 and well worth considering.


Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Post Tour Review: Garmin Varia RTL510

When I first bought my Garmin Varia Radar, it was meant to be a safety feature. Being able to get notified on a lonely mountain descent when the wind is generating too much noise for me to hear an over-taking car could save me a ton of stress, I figured.

The Mallorca and Girona bike tour with Mike showed me that the Varia RTL510 was also a touring tool par excellence. We would frequently ride on lonely roads where when traffic showed up, it would be fast since those same roads would enable fast drivers to drive even faster. Those same gorgeous country roads would tempt me into shooting pictures of Mike with the accompanying scenery. (While you can stop and pose and reshoot pictures, that so disrupts the flow of touring by bike that I never do it!)

Well, when is it safe to do so? I relied on my Garmin radar to warn me. If it was clear, I could ride out in the middle of the lane and shoot.
 I normally don't bother with selfies, because the positioning of the camera and concentration needed while riding was even worse than shooting a picture of somebody else. With the RTL-510 warning me of any approaching traffic I shot more selfies.

One interesting thing I've noticed about the RTL-510 is that it doesn't actually know that the object coming up behind you is a car. All it cares about is speed differential. Which is what you want: another cyclist or motorcycle coming up at you at speed is just as dangerous as a car. But it does mean that when you're climbing sometimes that beep is your companion catching up to you, not a car or something dangerous. None of the false positives have been an issue.

If you tour and shoot while riding, the RTL-510 is an essential touring tool. Those of you using other ecosystems should switch just for RTL-510 compatibility. For me at least, Garmin has won it all. Between the new Garmin Connect app's ability to create routes on the smartphone and the excellent head units (watches) and radar, I see no reason to consider any other ecosystem. They've shown how a big company can acquire and maintain an insurmountable lead over less well-funded startups and up-starts (even those with lots of experience in this field like Sunnto, Polar, etc).

Highly recommended. Don't talk to me about your spanking new head unit if it doesn't support the Garmin radar!

Monday, June 03, 2019

Garmin Fenix 5X Post Tour Review

This was my first bike tour with the Garmin Fenix 5X and it came through with flying colors, despite my failing to properly load Spanish maps into the device prior to the trip! At least part of the credit belongs to an app upgrade that occurred in the middle of the trip!

During the trip, Garmin upgraded Garmin Connect so you could now create a route on the smartphone and sync it directly to the watch, with no wires required. The route creation isn't the smoothest thing in the world (no undo button!), and it's a bit clunky (you're not tapping on roads, but sliding the map under a dot to indicate the next waypoint), but it's way better than trying to use say, RideWithGPS on a phone (and yes, I asked for the feature for the app a year ago, but RideWithGPS keeps thinking that people want the app to record a ride --- not me!), and even better, it uses Garmin's "Popularity Routing" feature, which should improve over time. (You have to be careful --- people like me would prefer climbing and scenery over flat route, and judging from how Garmin likes to route, most people don't have that preference!) I guess RideWithGPS has now lost me as a potential paying customer because this is more than good enough.

Sendpoints is an essential app when touring. I highly recommend that you install it on your Fenix. It lets you send an address to the phone without typing or creating a course, and use the onboard routing engine to get you there. (That one doesn't do popularity routing)  The big penalty is that unless you had the forethought to preload the locations you want, you'd have to stop your activity to run sendpoints in order to load the new location. So this might force you to break your ride in two. I don't expect this to be a problem (I don't particularly care about splitting tracks in Strava) My habit is tour book at the last minute when I know where we want to stay, so this would force me to stop the day's track after booking the hotel in order to use the device to navigate there.

The biggest issue is HRM. With the Vivoactive I never cared enough about the data to put the device on the bars. But for navigation, I wanted the Fenix 5X to be on the handlebars, and when you do that you obviously lose the HRM. Even worse, the HRM will just make up values by default instead of reporting no HRM. You'd have to manually turn off the HRM, which is too  much of a pain to do, since you'd just forget to turn it back on again when the ride's over. For touring, it's no big deal, and a minor glitch on what is otherwise an excellent product.

Amazon sells Refurbished units that come with a full warranty, and they're every bit as good as new units. I'd watch the price and when it drops below $400 I'd jump on the 5X. I thought when I first bought this unit I might end up with a bigger display for touring. Nope. This is as good as I need it, and I'd recommend this to any bicycle tourist with good enough vision. You won't regret it.