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Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: Light & Motion Vis 500

 There was a Prime Day sale on the highly rated Light & Motion Vis 500, low enough for me to replace the much used (and now worn out) Blitzu Gator on the triplet. Most of my complaints about lights usually revolve around the mount, so I was very impressed when the mount came with an easy on/off rubber strap, and a fantastic retention pin that was easy to use. Once mounted the mount was tight, and worked great.

The actual light operation was awful. A lot of it can be attributed to the worthless "lock" mode. To turn on the light, you have to press and hold the button so it turns on. Hold on to that button too long, however, and it activates "lock" mode. That means the light won't turn on no matter what. So you find yourself flipping the light from lock to unlock and never being able to turn the light on consistently. One day, I found myself unable to turn on the light whatsoever. Maybe it was not charged, but the little LED would flip from one side to the other, indicating that I was doing something. Charging the light did nothing.

I called the customer support line, and Light & Motion's voice messaging system (in the middle of the day) said because of the pandemic they weren't taking phone calls (apparently COVID19 spreads through cell networks and telephone wires --- who knew?). They gave me an e-mail address which bounced instead.

What a shitty customer experience, and what a horribly designed light. I went back to the Blitzu Gator, which is now $10. The mount was so promising, but the horrible UI and complete lack of customer service was a deal breaker.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Review: SQR Saddlebag Quick Release System

 I've always used saddlebags by tying them to the saddlebag loops on my bike. I recently decided to try visiting the office, now that I'm fully vaccinated, and stuck my Macbook Pro 16 into my Carradice Camper Longflap, and then rode it. The Camper swallows everything I can throw at it, and the Macbook was no exception, but then what I discovered that the saddlebag then hits my thigh as I ride. (I'd previously never had the problem on tour, because I'd never stuck such a large flat, rigid object in the saddlebag before) And before you say it, yes, saddlepack systems like the Revelate Terrapin are all the rage for cycle touring, but none of those will ever fit a laptop of any size, let alone the giant-ass inconveniently designed Macbook Pro 16.

OK, let's try the SQR system. It retails for about $50 after shipping from England, and boasts the additional advantage of doubling as a quick release with a handle. It was worth a try. The device is a little tricky --- you have to remove the saddle and slide it on along with the spring and then position it facing directly backwards. But I installed it without a problem, and discovered that I had enough seatpost both before and after the offset part of my Thomson offset seatpost, so those of you with offset seatposts don't have to worry --- even if it doesn't fit below the kink, it will fit above the kink!

In the lowest position, the bag clears the rear wheel, and doesn't touch the thigh. But it turns out that you can lift it higher, to the offset section of the Thomson seat post with no problems. The problem is that unless you stuff the bag full of stuff (like on tour), it sags, so I had to do the cross-strap trick. But that made the radar unusable.

So I stole my wife's beautiful Sackville Bag, and lo and behold, no sag, no problem. It truly is a much better designed bag than the Carradice (as it ought to be, for $100 more!). It even clears the fender!

But as you can see, the Macbook sticks out like a tongue. And to be honest, the Sackville was so small that it didn't need the SQR block, which weighs 149g for the block, 248g for the frame, and 7g for the strap handle, adding nearly a pound to the bike. So I guess I'll steal the Sackville bag for summer riding, and go back to my Timbuk2 for rainy rides where I need to carry the Macbook, which are rare now that I'm in a drought. Or maybe I'll find a way to downgrade to a smaller laptop that doesn't stick out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Review: Camelbak Hot Cap Vacuum Mug

 REI had a sale for the Hot Cap Vacuum Mug for $5.73. The normal price on Amazon was around $15, so this was too good to pass up. 

The most important feature of this mug is that it fits in a standard size waterbottle cage. I tested it by riding up Montebello road and doing the dirt traverse over to Page Mill road, and the bottle was never in danger of falling out. The lid mechanism is kinda clunky --- no pulling over the valve with your teeth on this one. And if you do extended dirt riding, the lid will definitely get dirt thrown on it by the wheels. However, I discovered that when I started the ride with the mug half full, I'd finish the rest of the coffee by the time I got above the cloud and switched to water instead of coffee anyway.

The claim is that the mug will keep hot coffee hot for 6 hours. I don't know how Camelbak did their testing, but it must have not been on a bicycle bottle cage. At speeds between 6-20mph, after just an hour the coffee had cooled to nearly room temperature, and after 2 hours (admittedly with a  high speed descent through fog) any residual coffee was cold.

The bottle body has a wide mouth, making it easy to clean. The mouth is not quite wide enough, however, to use an aeropress on with its funnel. For car camping I think it'll be good (no 20mph descents will probably keep the coffee much warmer). It's a bit too heavy for anything but the shortest day ride.

There's a 20oz version, but I think for 20oz, it's better to get the mag chute version. That's because 20oz of anything is going last long enough for you to get to the dirt traverse, and the mag chute cap will keep the mouth piece clean. The trade off is that I'm not sure I could get the mag chute cap on and off while riding.

In any case, I wouldn't pay full price for the mug, but at $5.73 it's a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Review: The Gardener and the Carpenter

 The Gardener and the Carpenter begins with an audacious declaration:

parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations. (pg. 24)

Her argument in the book is that the parenting approach assumes that parents can shape the outcome of a kid's childhood like a carpenter shapes a cabinet --- that what comes out on the other side is a virtuous, competent exemplar of humanity. Her contrasting approach is that parenting is like gardening --- you can provide all the resources needed for the plants in the garden, but they will do what they do. A plant might refuse to grow in one spot but a flower might spread out of its plot.

The preponderance of parenting books, like the preponderance of diet books, should, just by itself, be a sign of their futility; if any of them actually worked, that success ought to put the rest of them out of business. And the gap between private goals and public policy, vivid enough in the case of food, is a yawning chasm in the case of caring for children. A society that is obsessed with dieting has the highest obesity rate—a society obsessed with parenting has the highest child poverty rate. (pg. 25)

Gopnik has an even lower opinion of school than she has about parenting. She notes that schools do even more damage than parents in reducing curiosity, inquisitiveness, and depth:

in one study researchers gave parents and children a bowl of water and a bunch of objects and asked them to figure out why some things sink and others float. The middle-class highly schooled parents and children treated this like a school activity—they spent more time talking about how the lesson would proceed than they did about sinking and floating. The less advantaged parents, with much less schooling, actually talked more about the actual problem, and their children asked deeper, more conceptual questions. (pg. 132)

One of Gopnik's big emphasis is on the important of play. One of the themes in this book is that play is purposeless and looks like it accomplishes nothing in the short term, but in the long term, play improves all aspects of a mammal's overall ability to learn, both socially and intellectually. This is as big deal for success in a highly social environment:

As adults, the play-deprived rats have difficulty dealing with other rats, and their difficulties are instructive. They can do the same kinds of things as the rats who played. They know how to attack and defend, how to make overtures to others, and how to retreat. But they don’t know when to do what. Whether they are fighting or courting, they can’t react to the other rats in the swift, flexible, and fluid fashion of the roughhousing rats. They may sting like a bee, but they sure don’t dance like a butterfly. That ability to dance, to take in a complex social context at a glance and know how to respond to it intuitively, is what makes a rat, or a human being, so smart and sociable...the rats who had played when they were young still maintained the ability to change even once they had grown up—their brains were more plastic. Play didn’t help the rats to do any one thing, in particular. Instead, it helped them to learn to do many things in a more flexible, varied way. (pg. 153-154)

 Translating that to schooling, she observes that children behave differently when observing an experimenter who behaves like a teacher vs that one who behaves like a scientist:

When the experimenter activated the toy accidentally, the children were fascinated and they played. Just by randomly trying different actions they discovered all the things that the toy could do. But when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children would squeak the beeper, and then squeak it again and again, ad nauseam, instead of trying something new...The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the “hidden” features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them. So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught, just as we saw in previous chapters. But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer. The children were more eager to imitate the teacher than to discover things themselves. (pg, 174)

She heavily criticizes  the American approach to play as sucking the joy out of everything:

contemporary middle-class parents may allow themselves license to play only if they are convinced that it is part of the work of parenting. There is a famously puritan streak in America. We have a knack for taking what are simple pleasures in other cultures, from food to walks to sex, and turning them into strenuous work projects. We follow a Mediterranean diet instead of just eating spaghetti and tomatoes, take aerobic hikes instead of after-dinner promenades, and practice The Joy of Sex instead of, well, the joy of sex. (pg. 177)

Turning her attention to society, Gopnik claims that schools should turn away from the "teaching" approach to the apprentice approach. She explains the attraction of sports and music as a result of the fact that those are taught in practice format, with constant, adult-provided feedback rather than with problem sets and textbooks:

Many of the most effective teachers, even in modern schools, use elements of apprenticeship. Ironically, though, these teachers are more likely to be found in the “extracurricular” classes than in the required ones. The stern but beloved baseball coach or the demanding but passionate music teacher let children learn this way. Poor, inner-city children have a tendency to focus on sports and music, even though these skills are far less likely than math or science to help them to actually make a living. Perhaps this reflects unrealistic cultural expectations. But I think it also reflects the fact that sports and music are much more likely to be taught through apprenticeship than math or science or literature...There is no particularly good reason why ballet or basketball should be taught through apprenticeship while science and math are not. As any scientist will tell you, our profession is as much a matter of hard-won skill as piano or tennis. In graduate school, where we really teach science, we use the same methods as a chef or a tailor. My students begin by writing up the easy part of a paper, or designing a substudy of a big grant, and slowly graduate to doing a completely original experiment themselves. And though I don’t exactly wield a wooden sword—or even a wastebasket—I’m told that my “track changes” comments on a student manuscript can be pretty ferocious...Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science. Until they were twelve, children would read about baseball technique and history, and occasionally hear inspirational stories of the great baseball players. They would fill out quizzes about baseball rules. College undergraduates might be allowed, under strict supervision, to reproduce famous historic baseball plays. But only in the second or third year of graduate school, would they, at last, actually get to play a game. If we taught baseball this way, we might expect about the same degree of success in the Little League World Series that we currently see in our children’s science scores...Schools aren’t institutions that promote discovery, and they aren’t centers of apprenticeship, either. Instead, what schools do best is teach children how to go to school. School-age children are fascinated by adult skills and inclined toward apprenticeship. It’s natural for them to imitate and practice the activities that are most important to the adults around them. In school, intentionally or not, that means paying attention, taking tests, and getting grades...By the time they arrive in our classes, many Berkeley undergraduates are absolute Matajuros of test-taking. It’s no wonder we’re gravely disappointed—and they’re resentfully surprised—when we ask them to actually be apprentice scientists or scholars instead. Skilled adults continue to face difficult challenges, of course, but passing exams isn’t one of them. Being the best test-taker in the world isn’t much help for discovering either new truths about that world or new ways of thriving in it. (pg. 186-190)

The problem with the apprenticeship model, of course, is that it's labor intensive. I've had the fortunate opportunity to mentor many bright kids as part of various internship programs. In no case could I have had the bandwidth to mentor more than a couple of interns at a time, and do a good job on it. You can't really scale that to the 1:40 or 1:20 teacher/student ratio that we see in most schools. But maybe the approach is to do away with schools completely and ship kids to work along with their parents for appropriate mentoring and teaching. Ok, that's not going to work and it's going to lead to even more inequity/inequality in society.

My takeaway from this book is as follows:

  • Play with your kids. As in really play. Don't turn it into an educational experience. If your kids go to a conventional school, they're going to get plenty of schooling (Gopnik will say, Too much schooling!). But play is the one thing parents can provide that schools won't.
  • Try to give them apprentice-ship opportunities. Give them small jobs, and scale it up from there as they gain competence. This is going to be hard --- they're going to screw up in the kitchen, while camping, or fixing a bicycle. I'm going to try to do this more going forward.
  • Maybe kids should get more "bring your child to work" days.
Anyway, the book gave me lots to think about. Recommended.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Review: Nemo Tensor Sleeping Pad

 I sleep warm, so much so that I use a 30 year old North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag and think it's perfectly fine, despite it having lots a lot of warmth. But my wife sleeps cold, and never was comfortable on our camping trips, so when REI had a sale on the Nemo Tensor I bought one in the hopes that the R3.5 insulation (as opposed to the R1.3 on the Kylmit Static V2). When my wife couldn't go because of food poisoning, I stole the pad and used it.

The device comes with a pump sack. You attach it to the valve, and then blow into it gently and then roll it to inflate the pad. It took about 5-6 times to do so, and when you exceed the pressure the pump sack blows off the valve, preventing you from over-inflating the bag. It's nice and soft --- maybe too soft --- I got a back ache the next morning. But it's definitely warmer than the Klymit V2. There's a secondary valve that gets the pad deflated completely and to my surprise I got everything into the stuff sack without too much trouble. It's nice and light, and packs nicely, so no complaints otherwise.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Review: Camelbak Mag Chute Waterbottles

 There's an REI sale right now on the Camelbak Chute Mag Water Bottle. At the price they're being offered, it was worth getting the 12oz ones for the kids and a 32oz once for myself. These claim to keep water cold for about 24 hours, and after one use, I can't say that I can contradict the claims.

The innovative thing about these bottles is the double-cap. The lid is a wide cap, very similar in size to those found on the Nalgene bottles. These make the vessel itself easy to clean, and there's a second cap that unscrews and is captured by a clip (the "mag chute") for drinking. This second cap I discovered to my surprise, is not self-sealing. You have to screw it on tightly for it to not leak, something I discovered to my chagrin on a recent hike.

The carry handle is nice, though I wonder how practical it would be on a long hike. But I do notice people going on hikes just carrying these by the handles. For me, the handle is just a good way to clip it to my Matador Beast. I filled one with about 6 cubes of nice, poured 2 cans of soda in it, and the kids liked it so much that my bottle was empty by the middle of the hike. Because of the wide mouth, I could easily clean it after the hike. Note that the labels on these are contradictory: one of them said only the lid was dishwasher compatible, while the other said both vessel and lid are compatible. I just hand wash everything because it's so easy.

I would hesitate to use these on bicycles. By all accounts the 20oz bottles would fit on a bike, but unlike other cycling bottles, you probably couldn't use it while riding. There are many people who would stop to drink from a bottle, but I don't. (I don't even stop to eat most of the time)

At full price, there's no way I would pay for these. But at the current REI sale price ($5.73 for 12oz, $8.73 for 20oz), these are great. Recommended.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Review: Garmin InReach Mini

 I will admit that in all the times I've been backcountry camping, I've never actually needed an SOS device. That's a good thing --- there's actually a limited amount of help an SOS device can have --- for instance, a bear attack is going to happen too quickly for any amount of rescue to get to you. If you fall off a cliff or drown in a river, all a search and rescue service can do for you is to fish your dead body out of the water. And besides, Arturo carries one anyway, so I can mooch off him if I ever decide I need one. And for bicycle touring in Europe, your cell phone always works, so you don't care.

It turns out that the Garmin Inreach Mini will let you text message someone as long as you have a view of the sky. It also integrates with your phone and Garmin Fenix 5X, so if you're a Garmin user you're not even going to look at anything else, even though there are cheaper units out there. This past year, we've been doing quite a bit of mountain biking, and even some backpacking, and reading Garmin's 6000th inReach rescue made me realize that even people driving sometimes use it. With the memorial day sale at $300 each, the inReach Mini (which is the only one I really wanted because of its light weight), I decided the extra 3.5oz of weight on a backpacking trip is worth it.

The device arrived completely discharged, but after about 10 minutes of charging it responded, and powered on. Arturo helped me sync it with my phone, and then the computer to get the latest firmware and sign up for the plan, which was much more complicated than I expected it to be, but tolerable. I never figured out how to set presets, but a few test text messages worked.

This past camping trip, my wife got food poisoning at the last minute, so she had to stay an extra night at the hotel while I took both kids backpacking. The device worked in Yosemite backcountry, allowing me to text her at night when camping, and for her to ask questions (which I did not answer, since any overage would cost $0.50 per text). The one place it failed was when we got to the parking lot, I texted her that we were coming, and then put the backpack in the car. After we were all packed and driving out of the park, only then did the device complain that it couldn't send the text, because even inside an open car trunk wasn't sufficient for it to get signal. This is truly an outdoor only device.

The plan is expensive, but like all insurance, you carry it hoping never to need it. And if you're going to be in a national park with friends but not necessarily hiking together, it's useful for coordinating dinners or places to meet up, so this summer we might even pay up for the more expensive plan. Recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Review: Beginners

 Beginners's subtitle makes zero reference to the most important part of the book, which is that it's actually a book about parenting. The book explores Tom Vanderbilt's urge to engage in the same activities as his daughter. So when his daughter decides to learn to play chess, he enrolls both of them in classes. When his daughter learns to swim, he embarks on vacations with her (and mommy) and engages in wild swimming.

This is such a radical move from the sights you see at all kids activities --- mommies and daddies staring into their phones or laptops doing work, while the kids participates in the learning activity, that I found it remarkable. I can think of countless examples of parents pushing their kids to learn piano and violin, etc., only to discover that the parent himself/herself has never had any urge to learn how to play music or (in the case of this book) learn how to sing!

Singing, like all music education, typically becomes an “elective” after sixth grade. All music participation drops, but particularly singing. Maybe because, unlike violin or piano, parents don’t equate it with academic achievement (for the record, a study at Canada’s Royal Conservatory found that voice students had a higher average IQ than piano students). (kindle loc 1258)

The book does go into stuff Vanderbilt does that has no bearing on parenting. In one example, he learns to draw (which on reflection is something that kids do, but he doesn't compare his results with his daughter's), and in another, he learns to make a wedding ring to replace the one he lost while surfing.

If I had one nit about the book, it's that it reads like a series of magazine articles (which it probably was) than a coherent book, but I enjoyed the variety of new stuff that he gets into, and how he embraces the idea that in many cases, you aren't learning to become an expert (i.e., none of this 10,000 hour stuff), but just to get to a point of competence so you can enjoy doing it, and not to mastery. That's something I think more people could embrace, though in competitive Silicon Valley culture that seems unlikely to happen.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Review: Ghost of Tsushima (PS5)

 I'm learning the professional game reviewers play games very differently from those of us with day jobs that don't involve games, so stuff that they find mediocre can turn out to be excellent. Ghost of Tsushima is one major example. The game play might not be considered anything out of the ordinary for a genre like "Assassin's Creed", but the game has many features that made it particularly playable:

  • No individual mission lasts more than about 15 minutes, making it easy to play for short amounts of time. Conversely, you also have "just one more mission"syndrome in a big way
  • There are no level gates for missions. This completely eliminated the grind. You don't have to the stuff you don't like, and you can pick and choose what you like to do.
  • Leveling up is fast and easy, and resources plentiful. You can finish the game with the majority of the map undone and still hit the level limit
  • Difficulty levels are tunable in the middle of a game or in the middle of an encounter. You never have to bang your head against the wall just because some game designer thought to punish you.
  • Not all skills are important. You can pick your favorite one to spam/reuse, upgrade everything related to it, and have fun.
  • The stories are reasonably well done, and not to repetitive.
  • The production values are high, and nothing is an eyesore. Playing on a PS5, the responsiveness and speed of loading is so great.
Somewhere at Sony, there's a PM who decides what level of features and difficulty should be in a game. Whoever that person is, they're incredibly respectful of a busy dad's time, and this consistently makes Sony's platforms and first party games great to play.  I played this to the end and am still playing to clear the map. Recommended.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Review: The Sum of Us

 The Sum of Us has a pretty non-controversial thesis - that the world we live in is not a zero-sum world, that when we introduce benefits like Universal Healthcare, Paid Vacation for everyone, Sick Leave, not only do the poor people have better lives, even the wealthy people have better lives as well!

What's challenging, of course, is that since the 1970s, that's not been the dominant narrative, and so for the past 50 years, we've been reversing course on that. Today, the USA is nowhere close to better health and equity metrics compared to any of the other developed Western Nations.

The book does a good job of tracing what happened, in a slightly less depressing recap of events told in Democracy in Chains. Many communities had public swimming pools that were denied to black people, and of course when the courts ruled that non-whites had a legal right to the pools, rather than open them up to everyone, those same communities decided to fill in the pools or sell them to a private organization that could turn it into a private swimming club. (There was one in Sunnyvale, and I never even thought about why it was a private swimming club) As a result of that, not only are there fewer public American swimming pools, the pools that are left over are a far cry from what you see in other western Democracies, in spaciousness, facilities, and of course, water-slides.

The same obviously went for public schools, which of course, always struck me as insane that were funded by local property taxes, but McGhee points out that the white communities that run the school districts kept drawing and redrawing the school districts to keep the population of the school district white and wealthy. The irony, of course, is that (again, correlation is not causation) white students who do attend a more diverse school actually do better. (Again, it could be that parents who're willing to not segregate themselves are usually highly educated and so their kids would do well in school --- but this just illustrates that desegregation wouldn't have hurt those wealthy public school districts!)

The list goes on and on, and it's pretty depressing, but the last chapter of the book discusses how there's been recent community building in Maine, helping get rid of anti-immigrant, anti-non-white attitudes, and successfully passing medicaid expansion by ballot initiative, showing that the process can be reversed.

It's a great book, though tough going because of the many depressing sections. But well worth reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Review: Camping Solar Shower Bag 5gallons

 I'm old enough to remember the Sunshower, which I never learned to setup properly. But with my wife balking at a 2 night camping trip, I saw the Camping Solar Shower for $9, and bought one. It's surprisingly light and comes with an economic low flow shower mode, and folds up nicely and packs into my backpack just fine.

What I discovered was that the handle hole is large enough to fit over some branches, so I didn't bother much with the flimsy string. Filling it takes more skill than you might expect: you have to keep dipping it in and out with a pumping action to fill the water bag. Bowen did that. On day 2, I got lazy and just used a running stream and only got it about half full.

As advertised, it takes about 3 hours of direct sunlight to get the water from freezing-lake cold to somewhat usable. The thermometer is misleading: it reads the temperature of the bag rather than the temperature of the water, so when it says 40C, the water is still only lukewarm inside.

To my surprise, both Bowen and Boen were much more enthusiastic about the camp shower than Xiaoqin was. They both ended up using all the warm water both nights of our backcountry trip. The shower runs for a surprisingly long time. It's well worth the weight if you're base camping, but for a point to point camping it was a bit much. I asked Bowen if he'd like to carry it next time and he said NO. But for car camping it's probably perfect. For the price, it comes recommended!