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Monday, May 16, 2022

Review: Q-Squared

 I picked up Q-Squared because I had good memories of Peter David's writing, even though I'm not actually a fan of Star Trek the next generation. The story probably would have made for a fun Star Trek movie or TV episode, involving multiple-timelines, mirror universes, and Q, a sort of omnipotent energy being. It relies heavily on your understanding of the characters from the TV show, though not so much that I couldn't pick up who Beverly Crusher was, as well as the different versions of Riker, Worf, et al.

It does highlight how non-Science Fiction the Star Trek universe actually is, with regular violations of physics, and more importantly, extremely humanoid aliens who can be portrayed by actors with make-up. I'd say this book would have been great for a die-hard Star Trek fan, but probably isn't suitable for those who got annoyed with regular Star Trek's lack of adherence to physics.


Thursday, May 12, 2022

Review: Specialized Recon 1.0 MTB Shoes

 After just 5 years of use my Pearl Izumi cycling shoes died from the straps falling apart. There was a mild sale on the Specialized Recon 1.0 MTB Shoes, so I bought a pair. My favorite feature of these shoes is that their toebox is wide, which came as a relief after multiple years of using SIDI shoes which are pointy. They come with 3 velcro straps, which are much stickier than anybody else's straps. I tried them when mountain biking and found the walking features very good as well. I like these enough that I find myself wearing them a lot more than I expected, as opposed to say, switching out to my stiffer SIDIs for harder rides. In fact, I found myself even eschewing my stiffer SIDI shoes on a long ride where I might have to walk.

I shopped around and looked at the Recon 2.0 and 3.0, but the BOA straps looked like they would cut into my forefoot. As a result, I think the 1.0 are actually the most comfortable shoes for touring and mixed gravel riding.

Just for the wide toe box alone, these shoes are well worth considering. Recommended.


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review: Hydroflask 32oz Lightweight Wide Mouth Trail Series

 Aurora gave me an insulated water bottle that was impressively handy during the Antigua trip. It was perfect, except that it didn't quite have sufficient capacity for a family of four. So when I saw a sale on the Hydroflask 32oz Lightweight Wide Mouth stainless steel bottle ($32 after shipping and taxes), I jumped on it. Amazon (linked above) has it for about $40, which is still not  bad deal.

I weighed it, and it comes in at 356g empty, which is 20g more than the advertised weight of 11.8oz. It stores just under 1 liter of water, and the handle is comfortable, though I usually make a point out of putting it in a backpack or in an outer pocket. I used it during the Spain trip, and on many day hikes, and it doesn't spills and is easy enough for the kids to use. It keeps cold water cold, which I like a lot, and the wide mouth means that during the summer months I can put ice in it easily.

I like it enough to recommend it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Spain 2022: Girona to San Francisco

 We got up early, ate breakfast, packed everything into the car, and drove out past the garage and bollard before returning the keys back into the apartment. This time, everything went smoothly. The drive was easy, and even gassing up the car right next to the airport was straightforward and easy.

Once we returned the car, we discovered that we were early, standing in line waiting for Iberia/Level to open. Once they were done, we cleared security and had our last tapas lunch before clearing passport controls. At the duty free shop we bought chocolate that would be hard/expensive to buy in the US: kinder surprise (banned because of a choking hazard), ritter sport (hard to buy), and then bought sandwiches and other meals for the flight.

Returning to the US after the flight, we cleared customs and passport controls easily only to find ourselves stuck waiting for the car seats. Once out, ride share was easy to get at, and we easily got home. Not surprisingly, after the kids started school, we started getting COVID exposure notifications from their classmates, no doubt acquired by visiting destinations in much less vaccinated places than Spain. In retrospect we should have stayed for a week longer until the rest of the families had gotten their COVID bouts over and done with.

But the trip was excellent and I still think Spain would be a great retirement location. My wife asked why I didn't think of it earlier, and the only answer I can give was that my first few nights in Spain during the 2008 tour were so awful that it took persuasion from Brad Silverberg before I would change my mind. Spain is not a great location for the kind of bike touring I do, but would be a perfect home base, which explained why my 2008 visit was so different from my 2019 visit.


Monday, May 09, 2022

Review: Kindle Paperwhite Kids

 My 4 year old Kindle's battery was dying, meaning that I had to recharge the kindle every time I finished the book. I could probably get it to limp a long for longer, but you the latest Kindle Paperwhite Kids came down in price to $120.  The paperwhite kids comes with a cover (3 designs, one of which is just plain black so highly suitable for adults), no ads (a $20 value), and a 2 year damage warranty. Together with the 6.8" screen, night-adaptive lighting (yellow light rather than blue), and USB-C charging, that was enough to tip me over into getting one. After all, there's no reason an adult couldn't use the paperwhite kids as well.

The new screen is as sharp as I could ask for, and the extra screen size is great. The 8GB of storage is also a nice upgrade (though to be honest I was only starting to hit the 4GB limit on the old version). The device supports audible, but I couldn't be bothered to try it, and with 8GB there's not much point. The new device is also waterproof.

I read 3-4 books with my usual rate of book downloaded into the kindle before the device flashed a low battery (10%) warning. The claim is the new device has faster page turns and indeed it appears as though page turns happen faster, but that in itself wouldn't be worth the upgrade. Having USB-C and 6.8" screen is the major upgrade and if you can find the device on sale I think it's well worth the price. Recommended.


Friday, May 06, 2022

Spain 2022: April 16th - Olot Hiking

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We were starting to wake up on a Spanish schedule. 8am instead of 6am, but today we had to take our proctor'd COVID19 tests. Arturo recommended that we took our tests the day before, so if we tested negative we had time to make alternative arrangements. That sounded smart. The tests were fairly straightforward, and I was quite happy I brought along my Logitech Brio camera, which had an adjustable stand which made it easily possible to point the camera at the test boxes. One of our tests were defective, missing the important liquid ingredient needed to make the test --- eMed's personnel immediately put a note in so that they could send us a replacement, and I was very grateful that I had opted to bring all 6 tests, rather than just the 4.
 Once we were all done with our COVID19 tests, we left the apartment, though not without mishap. This time, I stalled out at the garage exit, and it took several tries before I successfully exited the garage. Fortunately, there was no pressure, and we made it to Olot in no time, but all the parking lots were full. Fortunately, there were restaurants nearby with huge parking lots that they were happy to let us use in the hopes that we'd have lunch there.

Boen started being annoyed at having to walk so much again. To be honest I should have more sympathy. Every night, my Garmin was registering at least 20,000 steps! He was obviously at his limit. After the purchase of a coke and some calming down, Boen decided to hike with us, and we got a chance to explore one of the volcano calderas. When we were done nobody was hungry, so we decided to drive to Banyoles, where we bought takeout food and ate at the same bench Mike Sojka and I had eaten at 3 years ago.

The Pyrenees which were still snow covered were clearly visible from the lake, and I was reminded again how close we were to the French border. Girona was truly in an ideal location, with 2 hours driving to ski resorts, and of course the Pyrenees offered world class cycling, though perhaps not as good as the alps.

We returned to Girona, stopping at a big supermarket for many bags of the toasted Hazelnuts that Xiaoqin had discovered and enjoyed. They were cheap and very tasty, and having a car made it easy for us to load up! The problem was, they wouldn't last 2 weeks when we got home!

Back at the apartment, I was determined not to waste my last afternoon, and walked onto Girona to buy Xuxos for the kids. The town was very happening, complete with street vendors and people singing Arias on the streets, so when I came back I told everyone to get ready so we could go out walking. We walked past the Girona Cathedral and noticed that there were no lines, so we walked in.
You cannot be a D&D player and not be impressed by the Cathedral's artifacts. (Marc says the Cathedral is the second biggest in square area in Europe, the biggest being in Rome) They have a thousand year old book, 900 year old tapestries, all sorts of artifacts, and a beautiful courtyard, and of course lots and lots of stained glass windows and sarcophagus.
After the visit, we walked around town and got ice cream near the bridge nearest our apartment. With a calm river in the background it looked nothing short of beautiful.
Dinner was excellent and fast --- we were done by 9:00pm for a change, which was a good thing, since we had to drive all the way back to the Barcelona airport and return the rental car.







Thursday, May 05, 2022

Review: A World Without Email

 I wasn't very impressed by Deep Work, so I skipped a few Cal Newport books but checked out A World Without Email when I heard his interview with Ezra Klein. I will note that even though I didn't recommend Deep Work, I do have a lot of sympathy for his idea that Slack and other contrivances of the modern world are the tool of the devil, and in many cases we'd all be better off without them.

A World Without Email has an incorrect title. Since most of the evils that used to plague email has now moved on to Slack and other instant messaging platforms.  The biggest contribution Newport made in this book is his coining of the phrase "Hyperactive Hive-Mind" to describe the default behavior of interrupt-driven slack-addicted employees and managers.

 The start of the book  is promising, since it points out that even managers/leaders in the hyperactive hive-mind suffer:

As the number of these messages increases, the manager becomes more likely to fall back on “tactical” behaviors to maintain a feeling of short-term productivity—tackling small tasks and responding to queries—while avoiding the bigger picture, George Marshall–style “leadership” behaviors that help an organization make progress toward its goals. As the paper concludes: “Our research suggests the pitfalls of e-mail demands may have been underestimated—in addition to its impact on leaders’ own behavior, the reductions in effective leader behaviors likely trickle down to adversely affect unwitting followers.” (kindle loc 528)

It even points out a particularly nice policy, which I thought was great:

 when Arianna Huffington’s company Thrive Global explored how to free its employees from this anxiety while on vacation (when the knowledge of piling messages becomes particularly acute), it ended up deploying an extreme solution known as Thrive Away: if you send an email to a colleague who’s on vacation, you receive a note informing you that your message has been automatically deleted—you can resend it when they return. (kindle loc 830)

 The disappointing part of the book is when Cal Newport suggests alternative to the hyperactive hive mind. The solution turns out to be... Kanban Boards! Agile/Scrum/Kanban workflows are well known in Software Engineering for years. In a small team of 3-4 people, I've successfully used Kanban boards and daily standups to organize and continually make progress. They are great. Similarly, his description of XP are also familiar, and in previous jobs I've frequently had to exhort team-mates to stop the infinite thread of doom on github/gitlab reviews and dive into pair programming sessions together. Async might be the epitome of remote work, but I've frequently found that synchronous meetings/pair programming/shared screen debugging sessions to be far more useful. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that even in a remote work environment, having everyone on the same time zone so that synchronous meetings/development/discussion can happen is too frequently under-rated as an important factor in team success.

I did, however, enjoy the discussions about various non-electronic mechanisms for implementing kanban and other agile workflows. At the end of the book, I realized that Cal Newport has answered the IT productivity paradox. There's nothing that modern electronic tooling that could not have been implemented with paper and pencil (and a little bit of walking around), which explains why all that investment in computer technology has not paid off whatsoever (and even gone negative --- my Ubuntu laptop crashes far more often than my Windows box, for instance).

This is a good book, however, for trying to get people to understand why we should change the default "Hyperactive Hive-Mind" workflow. All managers and tech leads should read this book.


Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Spain 2022: April 15th, Petradella, Cala Pedrosa

 

We woke up late, leaving the old town only around 9:30am, but it was an easy drive to Peratallada, a classic old town with a watch tower, intact moat, and other old buildings that had empty parking lots when we arrived but full parking lots when we left, along with a fair number of cyclists visiting. I noted that they had rural B&B/accomodations which might make for a nice rustic stay.
We left Peratallada around 11am, driving on towards the coast. Near the Sant Sebastian lighthouse, we saw parking spots and people getting off to walk. Well, of course we were going to do so. Boen once again complained about having to do more hiking, this time, having to be carried by Xiaoqin.
The view from just below the lighthouse was nothing short of astonishing, and reminded me how beautiful the Costa Brava area was, and how different it was from California. California's coastal towns sprawl and eat up huge amounts of real estate. Spainish ones are compact, and while built up, look beautiful and pristine, leaving much of the coastal environment relatively untouched.
At the tourist information booth, I picked up a brochure that noted that there was a hiking trail behind the lighthouse, and the walk to Cala Pedrosa was only half an hour. Walking around the lighthouse revealed a hotel/restaurant, a watch tower which charged admissions, and an archaeological site that depicted life here from pre-historic times! Once we got started on the hike proper, however, Boen balked and refused to walk. Xiaoqin opted to stay with him while Bowen and I headed on down.

We weren't at the beach for more than 15 minutes before Boen showed up with Xiaoqin, having been persuaded that it was more fun to hike down than to wait at the lighthouse for everyone. The kids loved playing on the beach, and there was even a restaurant serving meals. I hadn't intended to eat there, but I'd neglected to bring food, and I noted that there was a fixed price menu, so when Bowen asked to eat we sat down and ordered the fixed price menu (with a minimum order of 2 servings).

The waiter seemed exceedingly surprised that I could read the Spainish menu, but it was quite obvious what the food was (seafood soup or salad), and then either noodles or rice, and then desert. I told the waiter what I wanted and the food got delivered and we ate them in windy conditions.
The trail would go on, but the next stop was a 3 hour hike, so we opted to walk back to the car, and drive straight to Marc's place, where he took us on a hike to the local viewpoint, showing us where the cork trees were harvested.

We returned to Girona. There was a lot of police control because of the Easter parade, and the police questioned the presence of my car in old town until I showed them my remote and said I had underground parking at the place I was staying. After that they smiled and waved me through. Dinner was at Restaurant Normal, run by the same famous 3 brothers that Marc told us about the day before. I found the food a little disappointing, with the duck breast not as nice as expected, though the Beef Wellington was very good. On the way home, we ran into the Easter Parade, which featured people dressed up in costumes very similar to the ones made infamous by the KKK, but surprisingly have a completely different origin and religious purpose, with no known connections between them. Right at the end were the roman soldiers, with their armor polished to a shine.

We went to bed at a reasonable hour, and I reminded myself that the next day was our last full day, which meant that we should take our COVID19 proctor'd rapid tests in order to return home.





Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Spain 2022: April 14th - Girona Food Tour and City Wall Walk

 Boen had been coughing since we got to Barcelona, when I realized that I'd forgotten to pack his asthma inhalers. So when the morning rolled around I decided that since we had time before the food tour started, we should visit a pharmacy and get an inhaler. In the US, even with good insurance (ours doesn't have a deductible!!), our albuterol/ventolin inhalers would cost around $80 a pop. But we were in a country with the 7th best healthcare system in the world (the US sits somewhere around 22nd), and a walk down to the pharmacy when it opened got us a full Ventolin inhaler (no prescription required!) for 10 EUR and another 3 EUR for cough syrup, no insurance to deal with, and no deductibles to worry about. I reflected to myself that most Americans don't travel enough. If they did, there'd be widespread intense anger about an incredibly inequitable health system that not only drives people into bankruptcy, but creates unnecessary paperwork and stress even for those who are privileged.

The Girona Food Tour company is run by Marc, a Dutchman raised in Spain. We were the only persons on our tour, so effectively we had a private tour. Marc was a true foodie, giving us not just a food tour, complete with an explanations of the breakfast foods, and a visit to the market Mike Sojka and I had walked past multiple times but never went in, but also pointing to various structures and details in Girona that I'd walked past.
There was a visit to the chocolate shop, the ice cream shop, and high end places (including detailed stories of how a certain set of 3 brothers became the culinary talk of the town. Marc did a great job talking to the kids, and explaining everything in terms he could understand.
We ended up at a Paella place for lunch, with great seafood. We made a reservation for Saturday night.  Marc took us back to the office where we settled up the bill, and he gave us ideas for doing a visit to the coast the next day and possibly visiting his house.

After that, we went back to the AirBnB for a rest, and then did the classic Girona city wall walk. Boen, despite his cough being better with the Ventolin, protested about doing yet more walking, so I ended up carrying him up to the wall, but once on the wall proper he had a lot of fun and started walking by himself.



Xiaoqin had reserved a place at Divinum, a 1 star Michelin restaurant in Girona that Bowen was very excited about. This time, he was determined to eat everything backwards from the directions. He did that and claimed that the effect was just as good as following instructions.


The problem with Spanish dining hours was that by the time we were done it was midnight! We walked home, got the kids into bed, and then fell into a deep sleep.


Monday, May 02, 2022

Review: Packing for Mars

 I was inspired to read Packing for Mars while auditing How Science Shapes Science Fiction. Written in 2011, it's still reasonably up to date (the physics hasn't changed), and mostly explores what NASA has done in terms of preparing to go to Mars.

The other thing the book  is good at is that it presents a non-rose-colored view of what it meant to be an astronaut. As you can imagine, being an astronaut isn't actually that cool. First, you're in intimate quarters with your colleagues all the time with no privacy, and in  many cases stuck in a tiny room with no possibility of getting out, but you also have relatively little control over your life, with mission control constantly telling you what to do. Even worse, during key parts of the flight like take-off or landing, everything is automated anyway as the stresses of launch or re-entry mean that you can't possibly be in control of the craft.

 I once joked that nobody would write about adventurers going to the toilet, as there would be more interesting things in the plot. Well, it turns out I was completely wrong:

The fecal bag is a clear plastic sack, similar to a vomit bag in its size, holding capacity, and ability to inspire dread and revulsion.* A molded adhesive ring at the top of the bag was designed for the average curvature of an astronaut’s cheeks. It rarely fit. The adhesive pulled hairs. Worse, without gravity or air flow or anything else to foster separation, the astronaut was obliged to employ his finger. Each bag had a small inset pocket near the top, called a “finger cot.” The fun didn’t stop there. Before he could roll up and seal the bag to trap the offending monster, the crew member was further burdened with tearing open a small packet of germicide, squeezing the contents into the bag, and manually kneading the germicide through the feces. Failure to do so would allow fecal bacteria to do their bacterial thing, digesting the waste and expelling the gas that, inside your gut, would become your own gas. Since a sealed plastic fecal bag cannot fart, it could, without the germicide, eventually burst. (pg. 271)

 Turns out that rather than putting chefs or people who try to make food palatable in charge of supplying food to the astronauts, NASA chose to put a veterinarian in charge instead. The kind of food produced was therefore tasteless and apparently NASA spent a lot of fuel putting up food packages that came back down with the astronauts as nobody could eat it.

IRONICALLY, IF YOU wanted to minimize an astronaut’s “residue,” you could have fed him exactly what he wanted: a steak. Animal protein and fat have the highest digestibility of any foods on Earth. The better the cut, the more thoroughly the meat is digested and absorbed—to the point where there’s almost nothing to egest (opposite of ingest). “For high-quality beef, pork, chicken, or fish, digestibility is about ninety percent,” says George Fahey, professor of animal and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fats are around 94 percent digestible. A 10-ounce sirloin steak generates but a single ounce of, as they say in George Fahey’s lab, egesta.* Best of all: the egg. “Few foods,” writes Franz J. Ingelfinger, a panelist at the 1964 Conference on Nutrition in Space and Related Waste Problems, “are digested and assimilated as completely as a hard-boiled egg.” That’s one reason NASA’s traditional launch day breakfast is steak and eggs. (Pg. 300)

In contrast, the Russians just give their astronauts an enema the day of the launch instead. 

I also really enjoyed the section on the socialization of astronauts:

All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follows rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child. Japan cranks them out. This is a culture where almost no one jaywalks or litters. People don’t tend to confront authority. My seatmate on the flight to Tokyo told me that her mother had forbidden her to get her ears pierced. It wasn’t until she was thirty-seven that she summoned the courage to do it anyway. “I’m just now learning to stand up to her,” she confided. She was forty-seven, and her mother was eighty-six. (pg. 36)

There's also a ton of gruesome stuff about what happens to  bodies in the context of a spacecraft accident or failure, which nobody seems to talk about:

 Cruising speed for a transcontinental passenger jet is between 500 and 600 miles per hour. Do not bail out. “Fatality,” to quote Dan Fulgham, “is pretty much indicated.” A windblast of 250 miles per hour will blow an oxygen mask off your face. At 400 miles per hour, windblast will remove a helmet—as it did to Bill Weaver’s SR-71 copilot. His visor was blown open and acted like a sail, snapping his head back against the neck ring of his suit and breaking his neck. At 500 miles per hour, “ram air” blasts down your windpipe with enough force to rupture various elements of your pulmonary system. An unnamed test pilot mentioned in a paper by John Paul Stapp ejected at more than 600 miles per hour. The windblast pried open his epiglottis and inflated his stomach like a pool toy. (This worked to his advantage, as he had ejected over water. “The estimated three liters of air in the stomach substituted as flotation gear, which he was in no condition to inflate,” wrote Stapp.) (pg. 261)

All in all, if your child tells you that she wants to be an astronaut, this is a great book for her to read. The writing is humorous, covers all the topics you wouldn't have thought of when it comes to a year-long trip to Mars, though on one of the topics (Sex), even Mary Roach couldn't find actual researchers who would admit to any results. The thoroughly enjoyed the book and can recommend it to anyone.