Auto Ads by Adsense

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.