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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Review: Spellbreaker

 Spellbreaker is set in preindustrial London, in a mythic world where magic exists and is used by everybody, with prices set by markets. The story revolves around Elsie Camden, an orphan who learns early on that she's a spellbreaker, one who can destroy pre-existing spells. She's recruited into a secret society that sends her missions to accomplish, and is caught on one of those missions, leading to a series of events that destroys her preconceptions of what she's been doing.

The writing is transparent and easy to read, and the plot, while simple and full of holes (e.g., we are led to believe that smart as Elsie is, when she's caught and realizes that the people who caught her weren't evil, doesn't immediately start questioning all the other missions she's being sent on), is entertaining enough. I needed a light read after all the previous heavy reads, and this was the right book at the right time (and if you're an Amazon Prime subscribe, it was a free selection). I'll hunt down more of Charlie Holmberg's other novels. Recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Review: Physics of the Impossible

 I checked out Physics of the Impossible from the library, not noticing that it was incredibly dated. The book was written 12 years ago, but so much of experimental physics has changed that some of the book is now obsolete, such as the mention of the search for the Higgs Boson, and the attempts to confirm or deny string theory.

Nevertheless, the book takes on many topics that are fun from a science fiction fan point of view, such as teleportation (e.g., the Star Trek transporter), which are surprisingly potentially feasible, since quantum teleportation is a thing. There's a section on time travel, and force fields are also surprisingly in the feasible category.

Michio Kaku classifies these impossibilities as type 1 (we know the theory and can see a path to implementation), type 2 (we know the theory but the implementation is beyond us), and type 3 (our understanding of physics would have to change for this to work), and surprisingly only 2 categories (pre-cognition and perpetual motion machines) were classified as type 3.

Of course, that we know how to do something doesn't mean that it'd be easy or uncumbersome. Nevertheless, the book is a great read and gets in some physics for the layman as well. I could see giving this (though hopefully an updated version of the book) to a smart 10 year old who'd totally geek out on it. Recommended.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Review: Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos

 Complexity purports to be a book about the science and math of emergence. In reality, it actually is an account of the history and founding of the Santa Fe Institute, which is not a bad thing. As with many topics in science that cross disciplinary lines, it's unusual for research in that area to be pursued without independent funding.

The book covers not just the mathematical and simulation-oriented approach that led to the understanding of complex adaptive systems, but also the politics behind it, and why the Santa Fe Institute came to be in Santa Fe, as opposed to one of the major universities that everybody knows about. In particular, the proximity to Los Alamos was important and key to attracting physicists.

This turned out to be important, because the first area of research that the Santa Fe took up was complexity in Economics. The description of how physicists reacted to the Economists' presentation was classic and well worth reading:

the physicists were nonetheless disconcerted at how seldom the economists seemed to pay attention to the empirical data that did exist. Again and again, for example, someone would ask a question like “What about noneconomic influences such as political motives in OPEC oil pricing, and mass psychology in the stock market? Have you consulted sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists, or social scientists in general?” And the economists—when they weren’t curling their lips at the thought of these lesser social sciences, which they considered horribly mushy—would come back with answers like Such noneconomic forces really aren’t important”; “They are important, but they are too hard to treat”; “They aren’t always too hard to treat, and in fact, we’re doing so in specific cases”; and “We don’t need to treat them because they’re automatically satisfied through economic effects.” And then there was this business of “rational expectations.” Arthur remembers someone asking him during his talk that first day, Isn’t economics a good deal simpler than physics?” (Kindle Loc 2855)

There's lots of stories, including one about a major researcher in the field who drove and organized workshops but didn't pay attention to getting his PhD, which culminated into a crisis.

The boring parts of the book involve the politics and fund-raising. Not to say that it's not enlightening, but the lobbying over who gets to be president of the institute (and who shouldn't be --- a well known Nobel prize winner wanted the position) isn't really relevant to the science of complexity.

Nevertheless, the boring parts are easy to skip and the interesting parts are well worth reading. Recommended. (This book is available to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime customer) 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Review: Blood and Truth (PSVR)

 I got the PSVR several years ago, but until recently never got around to actually finishing a game on it. Part of it is that the medium doesn't work well for long games, and AstroBots rescue mission was just too long and hard --- we never got past the 3rd boss. When Sony had a sale on Blood and Truth over labor day week, however, I realized that The Heist by London Studios was one of the better demos on the PSVR Worlds disc. After finding out that the play time was only 5 hours I went for it.

The game puts you in the perspective of Ryan Marks, a former special forces soldier, engaged in a one man battle with a rival family that tries to take over his family's business after his father dies. The story and tropes are well worn and one-note: this is a game that relies heavily on cliches and the technology to keep you engaged.

The technology does keep you engaged: the game is immersive in ways that no other normal shooter is: the feeling of presence in cutscenes and in the on-rails shooting sections are nothing short of amazing. The ability to turn your head and point your guns at what you intend is amazing. That's not to say that the technology is perfect: I had to restart the game several times whenever the PSVR control calibration drifted, resulting in your hands pointing the wrong way. One particularly frustrating situation was that the act of sheathing your automatic weapons over your shoulders was so clumsy that I could never sheathe my weapons without firing off a few shots, one time killing myself with a rocket launcher. It is a testament to the immersion of the medium and the effectiveness of the game play that I put up with all the clumsiness in order to play.

The reload mechanism, snapping off a magazine from your bandolier and then slipping a clip into your other hand feels intuitive and perfect, as do the "bullet time" sequences that you get to trigger with a cool down. The sections where you pick locks, cut wires, or do other simple puzzles are also excellent examples of integrating haptic feedback, immersion, and interaction design together to make everything feel natural. Kudos to Sony for pulling off a AAA-style game in VR, crude resolution and all, and making it playable. If they can fix the drifting issue, the PSVR will be an engaging medium for many.


Thursday, October 08, 2020

Review: Garmin Varia UT800 Urban Edition

 My light selection from 2017 is no longer in stock on Amazon, just as the battery (which is soldered to the motherboard on the device) is giving out, and of course during the COVID19 bike boom, ensuring that pricing on bike accessories is sky high.

However, I noticed that the Garmin Varia UT800 is now down to $99 as a standard price, and it claimed compatibility with my Fenix 5X, so I ordered one. As with all lights, the most important piece is the mount, which is a strangely heavy outfront mount intended to fit on your handlebars. It worked just fine on my custom fork mount position, though the 135g light would tend to tilt down to touch the fork at the right place. Not a problem, since my Ti fork doesn't have any paint to scratch anyway.

The documentation mentioned the light had a "smart light" feature that would adjust light intensity based on your speed if you had an Edge cycling computer. Since I was using a Fenix, I tempered my expectation, and operating the light in manual mode would have worked just fine. To my surprise, the Fenix 5X does adjust the light intensity based on your speed. The cutoffs seem to be 15mph (maximum brightness), 10mph (medium brightness), and less, which would use the 200 lumen setting. At 200 lumen, it was pretty much the same as my Blitzu Gator. At 400 lumen, it was fine for flat riding, and at max brightness it was suitable for a fast descent but I wouldn't push my limits at night anyway.

What's the ideal application for this? I've had several occasions to use it on a Montebello Sunrise climb, where the approach would use the high to medium intensity, and then the climb would switch to low intensity. After the sunrise, I'd manually switch it to flashing mode, and the light would last a good 3-5 hours. It's not useful for say, riding in Houston at night, where your speed would keep it at high intensity the whole time (except for the occasional stops at the stop signs or traffic lights), or commuting, where you might want high beam on all the time to remind motorists that you're there. Ironically, for my (no longer actively run) Moonlight Mt Hamilton ride, the auto feature wouldn't be useful, since the whole point is to turn off the light while climbing so you can appreciate the moonlit landscape, and the retrogrades would demand that you turn on the light manually. Obviously you have to have bought into the Garmin ecosystem for any of this to make sense, though at the new $99 price point, it's very competitive with say, Light & Motion's lineup, but obviously not competitive against any of the Chinese brands, though I certainly wouldn't trust their claims of 800 lumens, while Garmin at the very least is reasonably competent (or at least not crooked) about labeling their light intensity.

I bought it without a return policy, that's how much I tend to trust Garmin. And I even paid full price since I needed the light for the pre-dawn rides that I'm doing. It's a rare thing for me to pay full retail, so you can take that as an endorsement from me.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Review: Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove

 For many years, I've been using the cheapest stove I could find on Amazon. The $12 specials are nothing special, but they're light and do the job. What I noticed, however, is that they're insanely bad at fuel consumption. Our overnight trip in Hetch-Hetchy(4 mountain house meals, 3 packets of oatmeal, and some apple cider and coffee) took a single canister from 210g to 130g. For a 2 night trip like I was anticipating, I'd have to carry 2 canisters. That got me to look into a more efficient system.

The JetBoil has a good reputation, despite it's expense, but the integrated mug/cozy promised a much reduced fuel consumption rate. Arturo told me that it would be 5g of fuel per boil, instead of what I was getting. It would also most likely not leak very much when attaching or detaching from the fuel canister, which would provide more weight savings.

At sea level, the Jetboil does indeed do a boil at 100s or less. What most reviewers won't tell you is that the max fill line is actually 2 cups (473ml), which is just right for a single packet of mountain house freeze dried food, so for a family of 4, you're actually going to activate the stove once per person. At 10000', it would actually take almost 3 minutes per boil, and the boil indicator (the sides of the cozy change colors and rise as it approaches boiling) is also excellent for saving fuel: when you're using filtered water, you don't need a full boil for apple cider, hot chocolate, or coffee. We also saved more fuel by realizing that our Costco packets were smaller than the Mountain Houses I used to buy, so we didn't fill to the 2 cup limit after our first couple of meals turned out soggy.

The fuel canister stabilizer/stand is a mess. I used it a couple of times and after that decided not to bother with it any more. It was a bear to get the canister to fit in it. Everything (canister, burner) fits into the cozy, while there's a cap to protect the heat exchanger at the bottom) The piezo lighter was much more reliable than my $12 special, but the cap for the heat exchanger also has room for a box of matches as a backup (which I would always have anyway!).

Because our trip was aborted, we didn't do as much cooking as I thought we would need to, so over conserved. Over our 2 days, we did 7 mountain house meals (lunch - 2, dinner - 4, breakfast - 1), 3 packets of oatmeal + coffee (2 cups), 2 rounds of apple cider (2 cups each). When I returned home and weighed the canister it came up to 164g (and started at 215g). That's an impressively efficient fuel consumption by any standards, and way better than my cheapo stove. The weight of the entire setup is 388g (rather than the claimed 371), but if I were you I'd ditch the lousy stabilizer/stand and save 24g. That's significantly lighter than my cheap amazon stove (112g) and Snowpeak Ti pot (279g) special, not counting the fuel savings.


Thursday, October 01, 2020

20 Lakes Basin/Hummingbird Lake Trip

 The labor day forecast was for 100 degree+ weather in the Bay Area and bad air quality. Arturo had suggested Leavitt Meadows, but a look at the forecast indicated that it would still be over 90F at 8000'. The 20 Lakes Basin was at 10000' and would have a reasonable temperature of 78 degrees, and even better, had no wilderness permit quota, so I made a reservation, called the ranger, passed the quiz, printed out the permits, and on Friday afternoon drove the whole family out to Mono lake where we stayed at a motel with trepidation.

On Saturday, we drove up 120 (having failed to get the Yosemite entrance permit we had to approach from the East), drove off the Saddlebag Lake turn off, and onto the dirt road. Once there, we parked at the edge of the pavement, packed up our backpacks and walked in.

A key feature making this trip possible was that Saddlebag Lake had a water taxi that could take your family (and packs --- yes they charge per pack as well) round trip for about $60. That saves 2 miles of hiking at 10000', a huge savings because everyone else complained about it being hard to breathe, despite having already spent the night before at 6000'.

With 2 days of food, we made it up to Hummingbird Lake, and were elated when 2 hikers coming the other way told us that they'd camped out there the night before and there was no one there. We used their established site and had lunch. It was warm, so warm that both kids put on their wet suits and played in the water and I braved a swim. Unfortunately, while setting up the Stephenson Warmlite, I heard a "crack" sound, and discovered that one of the poles had slit into the other and mushroomed. I managed to get the tent up anyway, but it was clear that I wouldn't be taking down the tent and setting it up again on this trip elsewhere. Once it was down it would be impossible to put it up again without doing serious damage to the tent --- it wasn't even clear that I could take it down without doing further damage.

The altitude made them lethargic, and it was all I can do at 2:00pm to persuade them to walk over to the next lake over, Z Lake. There was a huge amount of whining and stopping to rest the entire way, which was not even a mile long for a hike.

Not 5 minutes after we arrived at the lake, a plume of smoke (that we now know to be from the Shaver Lake fire) came in and we started to smell bad stuff in the air. The plume of smoke was obvious and it had to be a new fire.
The hike back from Z lake to Hummingbird Lake was easy, being downhill the whole way, so I heard zero complaints. We had an early dinner and turned in, as the temperature dropped with the sun's obscuration.

My plan to do the 20 Lakes Basin loop was shattered the next morning when everyone from Xiaoqin to the normally intrepid Bowen asked to go home. We'd woken up to ashes on the tent, though it was clear from the views of the moon and the stars that the smoke was actually mostly gone. I thought it would be been fine to stay but I was over-ruled.

Reluctantly, I packed up all the equipment, took a few final pictures, including one of a Coyote that met us just as we were departing Hummingbird lake. After we hiked back to the water taxi dock.I took one final hike to see Greenstone Lake while the others sat down and waited.

The water taxi arrived and picked us up and 2 other backpackers who were abandoning their trip for the same reason. Our trip was over. What a bust!

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Democracy in Chains

 It is rare that a book takes me a full 3 weeks to read when checked out from the library. Democracy In Chains took me this long not because it was difficult material, but because it's so incredibly depressing. The book traces the rise of the right-winged anti-democratic forces in recent history. The intellectual history winds through from F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and of course, Charles Koch, who funds the radical revolution. If I thought Kochland was an indictment of Koch's activies, this book makes it quite clear that Koch's anti-climate change agenda is just the tip of the iceberg. His goal was (and continues to be --- even beyond the grave) the destruction of Democracy in America, returning it to the state it was in the 1900s, after which it took 3 entire decades before a FDR was elected to fix it. And this time, by stacking the judiciary (the end-game of which played out recently), even another FDR might not be able to fix it.

Here in this book, you'll find out why the radical right (for instance Peter Thiel) frequently thought that giving non-whites and women the right to vote was bad for democracy. Well, he used the word Democracy, but he meant bad for the overlords of capitalism, of whom he is one.

A prime example was Buchanan's protege's work on Chile:

 it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan’s ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate.5 Whereas the U.S. Constitution famously enshrined “checks and balances” to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with “locks and bolts.”.. Under the new labor code Piñera promulgated in 1979, for example, industry-wide labor unions were banned. Instead, plant-level unions could compete, making one another weaker while their attention was thus diverted from the federal government (“depoliticizing” economic matters, in Buchanan terms). Individual wage earners were granted “freedom of choice” to make their own deals with employers. It would be more accurate to say that they were forced to act solely as individuals. “One simply cannot finish the job,” Piñera later explained to would-be emulators, if workers maintain the capacity to exercise real collective power ...Piñera designed another core prop of the new order: privatization of the social security system. This freed companies of the obligation to make any contributions to their employees’ retirement and also greatly limited the government’s role in safeguarding citizens’ well-being. Ending the principle of social insurance, much as Barry Goldwater had advocated in 1964, the market-based system instead steered workers toward individual accounts with private investment firms. As one scholar notes, it “was essentially self-insurance.” Fortunately for the plan, the regime had full control of television. At a time when three of every four households had televisions, Piñera made weekly appearances over six months to sell the new system, playing to fear of old-age insecurity owing to “this sinkhole of a bureaucracy,” the nation’s social security system. “Wouldn’t you rather,” he queried viewers, holding up “a handsome, simulated leather passbook,” see your individual savings recorded every month in such a book “that you can open at night and say, ‘As of today I have invested $50,000 toward my golden years?’”...In short order, two private corporations—BHC Group and Cruzat-Larrain, both with strong ties to the regime—acquired two-thirds of the invested retirement funds, the equivalent, within ten years, of one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. (José Piñera, for his part, went on to work for Cruzat and then promoted U.S. Social Security privatization for Charles Koch’s Cato Institute.)9 Other “modernizations” included the privatization of health care, the opening of agriculture to world market forces, the transformation of the judiciary, new limits on the regulatory ability of the central government, and the signature of both the Chicago and Virginia schools of thought: K–12 school vouchers. (kindle loc 3299, 3311, 3316, 3325)

 If you've been paying attention over the last 30 years, this of course, has been the Republican/Libertarian goal for the US all along --- to turn us into Chile, which despite ousting Pinochet still has a constitution that's anti-democratic in nature. This book, more than any other I've read, explains why the USA has had a uniquely weak social security net:

two of the country’s most distinguished comparative political scientists, Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz, recently approached the puzzle of U.S. singularity in another way: they compared the number of stumbling blocks that advanced industrial democracies put in the way of their citizens’ ability to achieve their collective will through the legislative process. Calling these inbuilt “majority constraining” obstacles “veto players,” the two scholars found a striking correlation: the nations with the fewest veto players have the least inequality, and those with the most veto players have the greatest inequality. Only the United States has four such veto players. All four were specified in the slavery-defending founders’ Constitution: absolute veto power for the Senate, for the House, and for the president (if not outvoted by a two-thirds majority), and a Constitution that cannot be altered without the agreement of three-quarters of the states. Other features of the U.S. system further obstruct majority rule, including a winner-take-all Electoral College that encourages a two-party system; the Tenth Amendment, which steers power toward the states; and a system of representation in the unusually potent Senate that violates the principle of “one person, one vote” to a degree not seen anywhere else. Owing to such mechanisms, Stepan and Linz note, even in the late 1960s, “the heyday of income equality in the United States, no other country in the set [of long-standing democracies] was as unequal as America, and most were substantially more equal.” As arresting, even the most equal U.S. state is less equal than any comparable country. What makes the U.S. system “exceptional,” sadly, is the number of built-in vetoes to constrain the majority. (Kindle loc 4606)

 MacLean points out that even the white supremacists who think they're "owning the libs" will turn out to have been played for suckers (which is accurate, but still might not change the election):

The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. (Kindle loc 4760)

This is probably the most important book I've read all year. It's depressing, but if it galvanizes you into action this November, it's essential reading. Highly recommended. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: The Night Tiger

 Someone on Facebook recommended The Night Tiger as a novel over Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series. I picked it up and read it over 3 days, as it is compellingly readable despite the flaws.

Set in Ipoh, Malaysia during the 1930s, the story is oriented around a series of killings, either by the fabled were-tiger, or a serial killer. Told from the perspective of Ren (a 10 year old servant boy) or Ji Lin (a young woman denied her educational rights by the patriarch of the family, as is common to women of that time or even later --- my mom was also denied the right to go to university by her father), the story provides much context for the action, including the culture of Malaysia, the food, the delectable tropical fruits (though the Durian King of Fruits is left out!), the weather, and the living conditions of both the locals and the expatriates.

The book illustrates how important having a readable style is: despite the many flaws of the book, I was still compelled to finish. The book fails on several levels. First of all, it's an unfair mystery story: there's no way for the reader to have figured out who the killers are, as plot on top of plot is layered with a key clue deliberately held back or missing before the reveal. Secondly, it also fails as the author clearly moved certain characters based on the needs of the plot like playing pieces, having them act completely out of character to who they are. For instance, one particular character having been exposited to be truly faithful to his orders and place, somehow uses a potion that he was directed to give to someone else on another person, poisoning the wrong target. Sorry, I can't buy that. Similarly, a character who's continuously volunteering at a hospital, etc. is revealed to be a villain. Again, even if she's playing the long game, the motivation seemed empty. And finally, one of the characters despite repeatedly surviving near-death experiences, throws away an opportunity to consummate the love she feels for another. Having character after character violate their nature for the sake of plot and theme did violence to my suspension of disbelief.

I can see why someone would recommend this novel over Crazy Rich Asians. But I can also see why Crazy Rich Asians has popular appeal over something like this novel (which has also sold well, despite its flaws). Mildly recommended.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars

 The Calculating Stars won the 2018 Nebula Award for best novel.  It postulates a world in which a meteorite strikes the Atlantic Ocean in the 1950s, wiping out the entire Eastern Seaboard and creating a water vapor environment that would, after the initial cold, create a runaway greenhouse effect, forcing the planet's inhabitants to put in a crash program to colonize space.

The protagonist is Elma York, a computer with the world's equivalent of NASA (renamed NACA in the book for no apparent reason). She's brilliant, and also was a pilot during World War 2, which of course in a just world would qualify her to be a pilot. The story mostly focuses on her journey to overcoming the institutions between her and being an astronaut, while depicting the job of a computer who manages to become a TV celebrity at the same time.

The book does a good job of depicting the lives and prejudices in the 1950s, and of course, providing good characters and great antagonists (York's major antagonist stays very human, and is not a cardboard villain). The book is weakest at the science: it never explains why the water vapor wouldn't just precipitate out of the atmosphere during the cold period, which would just stop the green house effect completely.

I enjoyed the book and the obvious detail it presents, even if the scientific premise is kinda broken. The characters are reasonably rendered and not annoying to read about.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: Mother Knows Best?

 Mother Knows Best is a kindle freebie. It's a book about all the old wives tales (and occasional sailor's stories) that may or may not have some truth in fact. Each myth is labeled true or false and you get to read about why it's true or false. It's light reading and may teach you something (it taught me a few sailor's ditties I didn't know before, beyond "Red Sky at night..."). It's not nearly as good as How To, though, so keep your expectations tempered.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review: Hacking Darwin

 I checked out Hacking Darwin because the Amazon reviews were good. I'm lucky I didn't spend money on it and just checked it out from the library. The book is shallow technically, and reads like an Engadget article about the glories of genetic engineering of embryos and future ability to select for traits. There's no caveats, just an assurance that this is coming and we should have an ethical debate about what should be allowed and what's not.

I think that's unlikely --- in general, humans are no good at predicting the future, and even when the future is predictable (e.g., the climate crisis), humans tend to avoid making decisions and put it off for as long as possible. And seriously? Given how competitive parents are about kids, there's no question that we will push the boundaries as far and as quickly as we can.

Interestingly enough, the best discussion of the ethical issues and parental competitive isn't in non-fiction books like these, but rather in science fiction. Read Nancy Kress's Beggars In Spain instead. That book was published 11 years ago, and explores these issues in a deeper fashion than Hacking Darwin's author could.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Review: The Invention of Surgery

I picked up The Invention of Surgery expecting a tightly focused book about surgery, but instead, what I got was a comprehensive history of medicine as it relates to surgery. This makes sense, as you can't really do surgery without anesthesia and antibiotics, and the invention of both of those pre-requisites are just as important as the developments since then.

I bought the book as an audio book (it was on-sale), but it would have been way better as a Kindle book. I loved the chapter on William Halsted, who was a pioneering surgeon who was addicted to cocaine. Since he was on a stimulant effectively all the time, the modern medical residency program was effectively designed around the awake/crash cycle of a drug addict! But the man also invented surgical gloves and several procedures, many of which were first performed on family members.

I do have some nits about the book: he continually acknowledges the deficiencies of the American medical systems: its expense, its inequities and in many cases, the lack of even a national registry for implants, which meant that doctors who wanted to know the efficacy of an implant had to find a way to access foreign databases. But he keeps touting the American medical system as being the best in the world. The book was written pre-COVID19, and I think during this pandemic at least, that illusion has long worn through.

Nevertheless, the book was a great listen, and well worth your time. Highly recommended.

Review: HexClad Non-stick Cookware

 If you've ever visited Costco, you might have seen the Hexclad demo. There's a guy with the non-stick pots and pans and woks, and he shows how you can cook with these even with metal spatulas and it won't scratch the non-stick. If you've bought into all the hype about how bad Teflon is for you, you'll be tempted to pick up a set of these, despite their incredibly expensive prices.

Well, I'm too cheap to buy these, but my wife isn't, and when they arrived, I tried them. I have to say that these are the worst "non-stick" pans I've ever used. They require seasoning, but the seasoning doesn't last. Eggs stick and no matter how much oil you use, they will stick to the bottom. Forget butter. Even bacon sticks to the bottom.

Compared to the TFAL non-stick pans at 1/10th the price, I'd recommend that you buy those, and replace them once a year for 10 years, than to buy these. If I was the one buying these, they'd be back at Costco already. But I'm guessing that someone in the family has Stockholm syndrome from having invested so much money in them, so I'm stuck with them for a while (though I'm going to wait for a sale and buy more TFAL for my personal use eventually --- that's how frustrating the Hexclads are).

Recommended for those susceptible to marketing. (There's one born every minute!)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Review: Tomboyland

Tomboyland is Melissa Faliveno's collection of essays. I picked it up because of Amazon's Kindle First Reads program. These essays cover a gamut of topics, from gender identity to growing up in Wisconsin, and her various relationships. The writing is excellent and perhaps uniquely American, with the wide open spaces of identity and mobility at the author's feet, moving from farm country to Wisconsin to New York and back again, the constant questioning of who she is, justifying her decision not to have children with great defensiveness.

There are a few nits. For instance, it is apparently that many of her close friends were met when she played roller derby. I would have hoped for an essay/story describing the sport, as it's not quite a mainstream sport and if she'd made so many close friends that way it was clearly a big part of her identity. But nope, we get oblique references but nothing about the joys of the sport and how it is played.

The final essay in the book is Driftless, which won a notable selection in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. It's lyrical and beautifully written, and ended the book on a great note. If the rest of the book was at that level it would have been uplifted into another category.

In any case, as a view of alternative lifestyles and gender explorations and identity, the book's short enough and worth your time.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Review: Temtop M10 Air Quality Monitor

 With the fires raging near us, I broke out all the air purifiers I bought last year during Amazon Prime Day, purchased specifically for such an occasion. But even with 3 air purifiers, you can't cover an entire house, so it's important to figure out where to put them. I researched air quality monitors and eventually settled on the Temtop M10: I didn't need fancy wireless readouts. I just wanted it to display what the current air quality is.

The first sample I received was garbage. It just was stuck at 4, no matter if I could smell smoke, indoors or out. So I returned it to Amazon and got a second sample. This second sample is good, accurately rating HCHO/PM2.5, TVOC, and AQI depending on where it was in the house, whether it was cooking, and matching Purple Air and/or AirNow's readouts.

At $80, it's pretty cheap and of course is now completely sold out on Amazon. The battery lasts for 6 hours, which is enough for you to stick in your pannier/trunk bag/handlebag and go out for a ride and let you know when the air has gone bad enough for you to need to go home. Recommended.

Monday, August 31, 2020

My Covid 19 Excursion List

With COVID19's shelter in place in effect, our vacation plans were needless to say, all cancelled. Rather than sit home and mope, I decided to try to make the most out of it and explore trails and places that I'd neglected and ignored prior to the crisis. When you've got semi-frequent trips out of town (or better, out of country), you can get into a rut at home because the breaks don't make you feel stale. It goes against my instinct to publish these on my blog, since I don't really want these places to become over-crowded, but with only 300 regular readers on this blog if you're reading it you probably already know about these places.

Rocky Point: This is part of Mt Tam state park. The most famous hike, of course, is the Matt Davis/Dipsea/Steep Ravine loop. But at the Steep Ravine/Dipsea intersection, if you ignore the trail that goes to Stintson beach and keep going on the Dipsea, there's a nice trail segment that's nothing short of gorgeous. Rocky Point's campgrounds are closed, which means that the place is isolated and has gorgeous views:

Mindego Hill:  I somehow lived in the Bay Area for many years but never came here. It's a very exposed hike, and you can make it easier by using bikes to get most of the way there. Don't attempt this in the summer, but in Spring it's stunning, with lots of wildflowers and gate traversals that the kids had fun with. The views from the top are unique and clearly different from anywhere else in the Bay Area.

Berry Creek Falls: You can do this as a long hike from Big Basin HQ, but with 2 kids it's far better to drive out to the coast and ride in about 10 miles to the bike rack where you can lock your bike. During the week, it's very isolated, and very pretty. It's also mostly shaded so good for hot days.

Esteros Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore: This trail is 4 years old, relatively new, and traverses a part of Point Reyes National Seashore that look so much like Scotland, except that it doesn't rain on you. The trail ios very easy, but the last segment to sunset beach is not worth the trouble, though of course once you're there you might as well go. An easy relaxing bike ride.

Maple Creek Falls in the Forest of Nisene Marks: I made this hike much harder than it had to be. You can actually drive into the park most of the way and then it's only a 3 mile hike, but the website for the park hadn't been updated to reflect that the parking was now open, so we hiked into through the Vienna Woods entrance instead. The last half a mile to the falls is strenuous, with lots of river crossings. Of course, that just makes it more fun for the kids.

Rodeo Beach to Tennessee Beach: The Marin Headlands is overly visited, but I saw a much smaller beach with easy access from Rodeo Beach. Well, laying out the Garmin route misled me into doing it the much harder way, with a descent that required hiking sticks (which we had), and even then the kids fell a few times. Tennessee Beach is surprisingly busy. I think I should have reversed this hike.

Garrapata State Park/Sobranes Point: Unlike Point Los State Preserve or Big Sur, this park has suffiicient parking for the visitors it attracts. You can explore both the ocean side and the redwood side, but do not ignore the tide pools, which are a great source of wildlife viewing.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Review: Uncanny Valley

I came across Uncanny Valley from various reviews --- as a book about Silicon Valley, you can't avoid the reviews. Anna Wiener is a decent writer --- the prose is readable, though her affectations are annoying: for instance, she never refers to any company by name, calling Microsoft "The litiguous conglomerate in Seattle", and Google "the search engine company." If you did this for a short article it's cute. In a novel, it's annoying and an affectation, as though this was a person who knows she came to Silicon Valley for money, but wants to pretend that she's still above it all.

The book describes the author as she got tired of "paying her dues" at a East Coast publishing company working with letters, and takes a flying leap into an ebook startup, gets laid of and then goes on to an analytics company in San Francisco before joining Github. Getting paid $30,000 a year in New York and then moving up to $100,000 a year (remember, she does not have a STEM background) ought to be a life changing experience that someone is grateful for, but not for Weiner, who turns up her nose at Silicon Valley every chance she gets.

As I read the book, I realized that I was getting an education in "White Privilege." She spent about 4 years in San Francisco, makes sweeping statements about the startup ecosystem (and tech in general), generalizes about all the men and technologists as being all cookie-cutter icons of privilege and self-aggrandization, gets a boyfriend whose startup gets bought by Google, and at no point did she ever mention meeting, sitting down, or talking to the immigrants who came to Silicon Valley to make a life for themselves and their family. That's one heck of a bubble to put yourself into, despite living in one of the most diverse places on the planet.

That utter blindness and unawareness (or perhaps meeting people who actually appreciate the opportunities that Silicon Valley gives them would ruin both her self-image and the thesis of her book) runs so much through the book. I've met many immigrants in the valley, including my wife, and they all have great stories and interesting lives and perspectives, but it would take someone with more curiosity and less privilege to sit down and listen to such people. Heck, if she'd taken some time to listen to the people behind the counter in the corporate cafeterias she'd frequented she would have heard even more stories that would have enlivened her book as well.

But that's what makes this book so educational for me. It'd never occur to me that someone could triple their income in 4 years (not including the stock options), and then claim that they were above it all. But there you go. The book is an exercise in white privilege, and as an immigrant it helped me understand it more. The Santa Clara County Library has 17 copies available in ebook format, so you'll have no problem reading it without having to pay for the privilege behind it.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review: Takeya Cold Brew Ice Coffee Maker

I tried StarBucks cold brew once and wasn't impressed. It felt like an excuse to serve you watered down coffee by dumping lots of ice in coffee. But with the summer heat, I decided that it was a good idea to try making it myself just in case it actually was good.

The Takeya pitcher looked good, and reviewed as easy to clean, and didn't break the bank. The filter is huge, and takes up a huge amount of coffee. You then fill the carafe with water and then shove it in your refrigerator for 24 hours, remove the filter, dump the grounds, and then you have concentrated coffee to dilute with ice and/or milk for the next few days.

The instructions said to swirl the pitcher occasionally while it is steeping. The nice thing about this design is that because it fits in the door of the refrigerator, you don't even have to do that. Over a 24 hour period, people will open and close the refrigerator door often enough to do the swirling for you.

The filter is a pain to clean, mostly because the bottom of it is solid plastic, rather than filter, so you cannot backflush it to clear the filter. The taste is great: even Xiaoqin, who usually dislikes coffee, enjoyed drinking it. The hard part is metering yourself so that you're not consuming too much coffee, because it's so drinkable.

And then I tried cold brew with Vanilla ice cream. It has to be tasted to be believed. The cold brew gives the Vanilla a caramel flavor that's quite unbelievable. I introduced the decaf'd version to my kids and they wanted nothing else for an entire week.

Recommended. And be prepared for your coffee consumption to go up dramatically after a purchase.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Review: Achtung Baby

Ever since Pam Druckerman wrote Bringing up Bebe, there's been an increasing number of books discussing how parenting happens in other cultures, and how everyone other than the Americans are doing it right. Achtung Baby is about Sara Zaske's 6 year stay in Germany and how it influenced her approach to child rearing.

I've lived in Munich for 9 months, but that didn't make an expert in German parenting. Though seeing how well organized and regimented the society is (wow, they practice lane discipline on escalators... the pedestrians actually stay out of the bike path!), you could imagine a very strict upbringing, similar to Japan's. (See Queen's Classroom for a stinging critique of the Japanese education system)

Zaske does a good job disabusing me of it, at least, for early childhood education, where her kid attended a Montessori, child-direct, play-oriented elementary school, with lots of recess, relatively good food, and a lot of outdoor-driven activities and play.

Now obviously there are a lot of things Germany does better than the US (6 weeks of vacation a year, a non-broken healthcare system, free childcare for all, free college, etc), and it's not hard to feel as though Zaske was over-reacting when she gushes about it. Um.. we've known about this for years. What's amazing is that American voters have consistently voted against those benefits, to the detriment of their society.

The big one is that all German kids are essentially free-range kids. Now I expected to hear stories about how the author had to get over her American-inculcated fear of trusting their kids to walk themselves to school, but what was cool about the book was when she interviewed a German mother who confessed that she hated her kids taking the subway 4 stops to visit their grandparents, but that she did it anyway, because it was important for the kids to learn independence and help themselves. This is what cultural support grants you --- the ability to look ahead and realize that you're hurting your kids by over-protecting them!
once Sophia entered first grade I was expected to teach her how to walk or bike there all by herself, even without me trailing a block behind. Before the first day, we received a pamphlet in the mail with a host of information about starting school. It also included a request that parents not drive their children to school. They should start learning the way on foot so that eventually they could go by themselves. (Kindle Loc 1909)
 Berlin primary schools have a specific curriculum for “traffic and mobility education.” Near the end of her first year, Sophia spent time learning traffic signs and rules of the road. Her teacher also took the entire class out for a walking tour of the neighborhood, showing them firsthand how the traffic moved, what the signs meant, and how to use crosswalks, or zebrastreifen (“zebra stripes”), as they’re called in Germany. The parents back this up by walking and biking the route to school with their children for several months to an entire year before letting their kids try it on their own. (Kindle Loc 1965)
 Are German parents more ready to let kids be free range because the country was safer? Zaske points out that total crime in Europe is actually higher than in the US:
Total crime in Europe, and in Germany, is actually still higher than it is in the United States—in all categories except murder. That’s one scary category. Buonanno and his colleagues say one likely explanation is the prevalence of guns in American society and “the fact that many types of crime in the United States tend to be committed with the use of guns and that’s very different from many European countries. (Kindle Loc 1982)
 It’s not like Germany has no guns. In fact, it has the fourth-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, but prospective gun owners have to pass many steps before they can purchase a weapon, including a criminal background check and a test of their knowledge of the weapon. If they are younger than twenty-five, they have to take a psychological exam. These measures seem to make a big difference. In the United States, there were 10.14 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, according to In Germany, the rate was 1.01. If we truly want to make our country safer for children, we don’t need to lock kids indoors; we should enact gun-safety measures similar to those in Germany. (Kindle Loc. 1986)
Of course, the US has been a total failure in terms of firearms safety.  Zaske confirms my opinion that European playgrounds are generally far better than American ones. I'd guessed that it was because of lawsuits, but the exact story is provided by Zaske:
Overprotection has definitely sucked the life out of most American playgrounds. In recent decades, the equipment has become extremely tame in the name of safety—and a fear of lawsuits, which journalist Hanna Rosin detailed well in a 2014 article for The Atlantic called “The Overprotected Kid.” Rosin describes the lawsuit mania that started in the late 1970s with a prime example: In 1978, a toddler named Frank Nelson fell through a gap between a tornado slide and the railing, and landed on his head on the hard asphalt below—because that was what covered the ground of most playgrounds in those days. Tragically, the fall caused permanent brain damage. His parents sued the Chicago Park District and two companies involved in manufacturing and installing the slide—and won. This and similar suits caused a sweeping change in playgrounds across the country. (Kindle Loc 2280)
 Even with all these safety measures, the number of playground accidents in the United States is still high. In 1980, the rate of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, both public ones and home equipment, was one visit per 1,452 Americans, according to what Rosin calculates using statistics from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. In 2012, even after all that plastic and soft padding, the injury rate stood at one per 1,156 Americans. (Kindle Loc 2291)
the rate of injury in the European Union is a bit lower, even though many countries tend to have riskier playground equipment and parents don’t monitor their children as closely. An estimated 119,000 children per year in the entire EU required emergency medical treatment due to injuries related to playground equipment, according to a study by EuroSafe. That’s about one for every 4,235 EU residents (based on the EU population in 2012, the last year of the EuroSafe study). (Kindle Loc 2294)
Yup. Despite deliberately making our playgrounds more idiot-proof, the "dangerous" European playgrounds are actually safer!

 I found myself highlighting section after section of the book. Does the American school system do anything better? I was surprised to discover late in the book, after she moved back to California, that Zaske's 4th grader had to catch up on Math compared to her classmates. (Zaske was sanguine about it --- she reported that after a hellish year of doing nothing but homework and school, her daughter was completely caught up) It turned out that her daughter in the German public Montessori school had self-directed herself out of most of her own math education! I've met many excellent German engineers and I can assure you that their math education is not deficient, so I assume that Zaske's kid's experience was unusual, but it does indicate that it's not as much of a fire and forget system as say, most Asian school systems. (Though most Asian school systems also assume that the parents engage in a massive program of after-school tutoring!)

Another downside she mentioned is that the German school system streams kids into vocational vs academic tracks as early as 5th grade. That's much too early in my opinion, but again, the American system of catering to the lowest common denominator (which Zaske defends strongly!) doesn't seem like the optimal choice either.

The book closes with a plea for parents to push harder to change American society:
If we want to make things better for our children, we need to start making things better for ourselves, for parents. We need to push for better policies: universal preschool, subsidized child care, school policies that allow more play in school and don’t allow school work to creep into family time. Even more than that, we need to push our politicians and employers for benefits that Germans, and frankly the rest of the developed world, take as rights: paid parental leave, work hours that don’t extend into evenings and weekends, and a guaranteed amount of sick and vacation days. We simply need more time to be families. (Kndle Loc 3381)
In the backdrop of an election year in which I'm just hoping the American voter can look up long enough to realize that there's a world of difference between presidential candidates, that make this books hugely optimistic.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this book. Recommended.


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Review: Sex and Vanity

By now, you know what to expect from a Kevin Kwan novel: lots of footnotes, attention to the details of the lives of the ultra-wealthy, and a breezy writing style with a shallow, predictable plot.

Sex and Vanity tries to be a regency romance for the modern day. It follows a predictable plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy win girls. The characters are cookie-cutter and 2-dimensional. Its sole redeeming feature (and one that has Amazon reviewers slamming the book) is its subversiveness. Kwan has made the male lead a Chinese guy from Hong Kong who'd gone to school at Berkeley. In the normal world, that'll make him a member of the privileged class, but of course he might as well have come straight from the poor house in a Kevin Kwan novel. The female lead is a half-Asian woman --- the type who wouldn't give a non-white guy the time of day. To even posit that such a male lead would win the female lead is of course, the ultimate subversion of the norm in the USA.

The world of the hoity-toity wealthy New Yorkers isn't as exotic as those from Singapore, but of course, the same snootiness and privilege applies. It's also quite clear the novel was written well before COVID19, or Kwan would have gotten way more mileage out of private jets than he did in the novel. This book is unlikely to be made into a movie (see paragraph above), but as light reading it's worth your time, and it's fun to indulge in a bit of subversive fantasy once in a while, even if the author is someone as mainstream popular as Kevin Kwan.

Mildly recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Review: Topeak Smart Guage D2

I've been making do with the gauge on various pumps in the house for ages, and relying on feel to decide how high to pump up the tires. Mountain biking with kids, however, requires much more tuning of tire pressure than for adults: kids can ride tires with as little as 15psi, and I always wondered if the gauges on the pump were accurate. So I bought a Topeak SmartGauge D2.

It's not a particularly cheap one, but it is fairly well regarded, and has a nice switch that flips between presta or schraeder modes. It also uses a CR2032 battery, which ties in nicely with all the other CR2032 driven Garmin sensors in use on various bikes.

The device seems much better for schraeder than presta valves. The valve will leak more than a little if you're not spot on when using it on a presta vale. The ergonomics otherwise is great: the unit will beep when it's done, and there's a bleed valve so you can bleed down the pressure.

I discovered of course, that my floor pump (a $20 Bontrager purchased in 2008 when I was in Munich) over-reads pressure, and when it reads 90 psi, the D2 reads 75. That's good to know --- it means I have extra headroom on tire pressure on the triplet, which will become necessary as the kids grow heavier.

It turned out that I also really didn't need the gauge. When I used it on my kids' bikes, it read 14psi! So my thumb was already well-calibrated to what my kids needed, even if my gauge wasn't. But that's also worth knowing --- if I'd been off, I wanted to know, and given that my thumb is accurate, I also now have the confidence to do without a gauge most of the time as well.


Thursday, August 06, 2020

Review: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is a parenting book about different cultures approach certain areas of parenting. It's an intriguing idea but the author unfortunately has neither the expertise nor the depth of approach that makes her statements credible.

In particular the book opens with a statement about how Argentinians take their babies to social outings even when they're late hours. Since her husband and her were living in Argentina at the time, they did the same. She never correlates that type of socialization with her kid with the fact that her kid doesn't have good sleep habits and doesn't sleep through the night. That ruined her credibility with me.

Later on, she covers all sorts of different areas, such as the approach to food, child, socialization, academics, and chores and work. These are all explored shallowly and only within the context of the culture she explores, so there are no scientific interventionist studies, no random control groups, just interviews with experts and a few titbits with some references to follow up.

Compared with other parenting books that explore different cultures in more depth like Bringing up Bebe or World Class, this book is lackluster, shallow, and way too focused on the author's first-world travails and opinions. Not recommended.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Review: Snow, Glass Apples

Snow, Glass, Apples is a Neil Gaiman's re-interpretation of the snow white fairy tale. Gorgeously illustrated by Colleen Doran, it's a dark retelling of who snow white is, who her mother the queen actually was, and of course, who the prince is.

There's no deep elaboration of the 7 dwarves, and as a retelling it's got several plot holes that can only be explained by the word, "Magic."

This is not a book for pre-teen kids, but a great story for adults. Recommended.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: The Road

I finally tried reading The Road again, this time keeping in mind that it was one of the inspirations for The Last of Us. It's a surprisingly short novel, but once I thought about the purpose of the novel it made sense that it had to be short.

The entire novel is written as a series of vignettes. Every sentence is short, and each vignette is meant to contribute to a specific mood. The setting is the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe that's apparently irredeemable,  and the plot, such as it were, revolves around a father and son traveling south in search of... something.

Much has been written about the relationship between father and son in this novel, but for me, it all rings false. The conversations I've had with my own children have never shied away from difficult truths or attempts to maintain the innocence of the children, and I cannot imagine behaving the way the father in the novel does to his children.

The reaction of society in this post-apocalyptic world is also uniquely American. There's a strong sense of "every man for himself" and the assumption that everyone you meet is evil, which of course turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other cultures novels depict teamwork and strong attempts to rebuild society and civilization. I definitely much prefer David Brin's The Postman over McCarthy's vision. Go read that one instead!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: Lock Laces

I'm not one of those people who believes in shoe laces. I gave up on them several years ago when I switched to shoes that didn't need them, and I've never met a pair of shoe laces that weren't more trouble than they're worth. The problem is, many kids shoes (especially the nice waterproof ones from Columbia) come with shoe laces.

I was about to return a particularly nice pair when I decided to search and see if there were ways to retrofit them. Indeed, Amazon carries Lock Laces: these are elastic laces that you lace onto a shoe, then you run a toggle lock through them, cut off the excess, and then clip off the ends so they don't fray. For a nice fit, you'd fit your kids' feet in the shoe and lace it up nice and snug before cutting off the excess.

It's very rare that I like a product so much that I'll go immediately buy 2 more. But that's what happened with these: I'm going to upgrade Boen's cycling shoes and Bowen's Columbia Waterproofs with these.

Highly recommended!

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: Swearing is Good For You

Swearing is Good For You is Emma Byrne's debut book about the research and science behind swearing. It turns out that Byrne is actually a computer scientist and has no special knowledge of linguistics or etymology. Her approach to this book is therefore that of a "survey study" approach, where she reads a ton of related papers in the field and then regurgitates them at you. The topics are grouped in a few obvious fashions: medical (tourette's), workplace, social, and foreign languages. Each topic is covered in shallow fashion, with references to the actual research and study, but Byrne herself has not really contributed anything substantial in this field.

If you're looking for a survey book as a jumping off point to deeper study, this might be OK. As it is I came away from the book feeling very meh.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review: The Algebra of Happiness

I read The Four and found it enjoyable enough to consider other Scott Galloway books. He's irreverent and fun, so I tried The Algebra of Happiness.

Written in much the same style, and also with no academic rigor, Galloway reflects on life, success, happiness, and kids. Here's the closest thing to real insight you're going to get out of the book:
The mortgage tax deduction is one of the costliest taxbreaks in America. Another? Lower taxation on capital gains, versus ordinary income. These are both positioned as “American”: homeownership and investing. They are simply transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Who owns homes and stocks? Wealthy old people. Who rents and doesn’t have assets that qualify for capital gains treatment? The young and the poor. (Kindle Loc 1175)
The rest of the book (mostly short, one page chapters that look like they were ripped out of a blog post)  is mostly anecdotes, little stories, with maybe at most a pithy moral attached to the story. For instance, I've often noted that I find outdoors people who've overcome challenges in nature more real in some way than people who've conquered the corporate world mostly because you can't fool nature or politic against it. Galloway's equivalent insight turns it into a block-headed truism about propagation of species:
WE HAVE friends, a couple, who lost an extended family member to ALS. Soon after, they took stock of their blessings and asked each other, “What could we do to better seize the moments that are our life?” The husband is an adventurer and proposed that, with their three kids, they circumnavigate the globe in a high-tech catamaran. This would be insane if they weren’t both uber-competent people whom others trust with their lives and livelihoods (she’s a doc, he’s a CEO). Even so, cruising around on the open ocean supported by two giant boogie boards feels a tad crazy. They did a test run, a week at sea, which I followed closely on Instagram. The night watches, rough seas, engine trouble . . . all of it. I didn’t get it. This seemed more like punishment than taking life by the horns. And then, in one image, it became clear. The husband’s joy was evident, even in 2D. To be with his family, applying their skills, strength, and wits to embrace and conquer nature made him glow. No filter. Partners who can take what they’ve built together and throw the full force of that at each other’s happiness are likely the root of our prosperity as a species. The most rewarding things in life aren’t accoutrements or our technological progress (Cartier or Boeing) but things that have been baked into us over millions of years to augment the species. (Kindle loc 997)
I'd take a hard pass on this book, unless you want the equivalent of brainless TV entertainment.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: Hikenture Sleeping Bag Stuff Sack

I'd somehow lost my stuff sack for the North Face Blue Kazoo, so I looked for a stuff sack to replace it. The Hikenture came up on my Amazon search results, and was a fairly reasonable price so I bought the 20L bag. I probably could have done with the 14L bag, as it turned out that I could stuff both the Blue Kazoo and the REI 0 degree down bag into it! With just the blue Kazoo, I can cinch down the straps until there's no more room, and the bag feels suitably compressed. I could probably put more stuff in it as well. Easy to use, well made, and not an absurd price. Recommended.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Review: Knizia's Lord of the Rings Board Game

With shelter in place, I had the kids at home nearly all the time. I started working through some of the board games I'd bought to play with adults, and came upon Reina Knizia's original Lord of the Rings board game. It was a cooperative game, so the 2 kids were unlikely to kill each other over who won.

The game itself is very abstract, with very light theming. You get a bunch of tiles, you draw them, handle the event, play your 2 cards, and then play moves on. There's a large amount of cooperation and sacrifice, but many events are randomly out of your control. With adults I don't recall playing it more than a few times.

But boy, the kids took to it. Not only did Bowen and Boen got into it, they broke open my unwatched Extended Edition movie trilogy and watched all of them. Then Bowen got out his Kindle and started reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings simultaneously in tandem.

With that kind of response, I can recommend this game, but upon doing a search on Amazon realize that it's now out of print and good condition versions of the game fetch a pretty penny! (Mine are not in good condition, so I'm blase about the kids abusing it, but I will tell them that the board game is out of print and cannot be bought any more!)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Review: The Masked Rider

I started listening to The Masked Rider before the COVID19 shelter in place orders, and after that got so distracted by various items that I forgot to listen to the audio book, so my memory of the book is kinda disjointed.

The book describes a guided tour Neil Peart took long before the events of Ghost Rider, organized by  David Mozer. I'm not a huge fan of guided/organized bike tours, but for a trip in Africa I would make an exception, but with Peart's trip report, I can certainly see why I've avoided those trips. The small group dynamics is painful, with annoying clashes of personality and disparate riding abilities, which would tax the patience of a saint.

Peart's personality in this book is completely different than that of Ghost Rider --- it's at times larconic, sarcastic, and even unsympathetic and racist in certain moments, describing the culture of most Africans as people who aspire to and want the nice material things in life that North Americans have (Peart is Canadian) but unwilling to do the work (e.g., practicing drumming) to achieve them. There are repeated encounters with locals where Peart repeats this statement.

The days of the tours are described well, but it's also clear that an adventure tour in Africa isn't for the faint of heart. The days are warm and hot (they do take the pains to start early) and the sleeping conditions could make life tough on top of the challenges of the bike tours. The encounters with local officials are a massive pain, and even exiting the country via the airport was fraught with bureaucracy and officials asking for their palms to be greased. I didn't get much of a sense that there was a lot of the joy of cycling to be found anywhere in Africa, or at least Cameroon. I remember my bike tour in South Africa being OK but not something I'd be in a hurry to repeat, especially with kids towing along

If I ever consider doing a tour of Africa by bike, I'll probably make myself listen to this book again just to remind myself what a dumb (and expensive) idea that would be. It would save me a lot of money. Recommended!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review: Katadyn BeFree water filter

My last filter was a Katadyn Virustat, but the product is out of stock and replacement filters are also similarly impossible to find. The replacement is the Katadyn BeFree, which does away with the virus elimination stage of the previous device, but in exchange gives you a collapsible bottle and a filter that does not need to be replaced monthly. Just dry it out between trips, and it should be good for 1000 liters.

The bottle is indeed very light at 63g. The instructions must be read carefully, as there are a few counter intuitive ways where you might break it: for instance, you cannot run the filter under a tap horizontally, as it might destroy it! Similarly, when squeezing water through the bottle, take care not to squeeze the plastic filter as well. And of course, it won't kill viruses, but it does impart a somewhat sweet taste to the water.  In typical Swiss fashion, the bottle nozzle comes with a cap so you can't easily contaminate it. You can drink directly from the bottle, but there's no way to carry the bottle easily (except by hand), so the intention is that you use it to filter water into other containers that you then drink from.

Other than the virus thing, everything about this filter is better than the previous models I was using. Water flows freely, the bottle is much lighter and the collapsible feature is very nice. With this weight, you can carry 2 in case you break one, but if you read the instructions carefully there's no reason you would break one unless the water you're filtering is very badly soiled. This thing deserves the rave reviews and the $40 MSRP.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Review: Amazon Commercial Vinyl Tape

When you have a triplet with 2 kids, what tends to happen is that any weakness in the bar tape will get picked apart until the tape unravels. The solution, of course, is to get electrical tape and tape it up again. In the past, I've always bought the big 3M rolls (around $5/pop at the local hardware store), used it a few times, and then lost it again. During COVID19, I couldn't find the tape again, so went to buy some on Amazon.

I've had pretty good luck with Amazon Basics stuff in the past, and this time saw that Amazon has a different "Commercial" brand that makes tape. It even comes in many different colors, none of which is black.

$4.30 buys you a pack of 10, in 5 different colors. You can see from the pictures that the amount of tape in each roll is much less than that of a 3M roll, but thinking about it, this is actually much more useful as a result: each roll is significantly lighter, so you can bring it while touring. (In general, I always travel with some tape in case hotel rooms have blinking lights on TVs that can't be turned off, in addition to the fix-it situations with handlebar tape and the light) The different colors mean that you can use a color coding scheme if you need to tape together wires, etc. And the total amount of tape is probably more than a $5 roll of 3M black tape. And of course, having 10 rolls means that you're more likely to be able to find the tape and not spend $5 every time you have a taping job. Amazon's product managers are the few PMs I have respect for --- they seem to actually make stuff that I need, as opposed to stuff that's fashionable for other people (I don't care that black doesn't match my handlebar tape on one side vs the other)


Friday, July 10, 2020

Review: MSR Freelite 3 person tent

I bought the MSR Freelite 3 person tent from REI during a sale for about half the MSRP. At 3 pounds 7 ounces it was on a per person basis even lighter than my tried and tested Stephenson Warmlite 2R.  The material felt so light that I bought the custom footprint (also on sale), which at 7 ounces is still very light on a per person basis. Boen wasn't quite ready to go backcountry camping until this year, however, so we didn't try it until recently, though I'd set it up once on the lawn just to make sure it came with all the pieces.

Set up in the field was tricky. Putting together the tent pole (singular, just one) was a snap, as all the shock-corded pieces came together crisply and satisfyingly. But the tent is asymetrical and after you lay it down you still have to remember to swing the T piece and put the tent up. The tent is not free-standing, so you cannot pitch it on say, granite: it requires a minimum of 6 stakes to set up properly --- preferably more as the rainfly has guylines that will need to be tensioned when rain or high winds are expected.

Our first trip was in surprisingly cold weather, and we woke up dry but there was condensation on the fly. Our camping companion's tent had the same problem though, so I'd just chalk that up to the conditions. On our second trip, the tent stayed dry all night and all morning. To be honest, if you're camping in California, it's quite possible to not encounter rain for the lifetime of the tent, and UV will probably destroy the rain fly after 10 years.

Taking down the tent is much easier than putting it up, the only problem being that the stakes that come with the tent, being red, are very difficult to see if you make the mistake of leaving them on the ground and just unhooking the loops from the stakes to take down the tent first. Solution? Pull the stakes first before dealing with the rest of the tent.

I wouldn't pay MSRP for this tent, but at 50% off? It's a steal and comes recommended.