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Monday, October 31, 2022

Review: Shimano PD-ES600

 My Shimano M520s have been the mainstay of my cycling pedals for years and years. They have wrench flats, last pretty much forever (suviving multiple titanium frames in the case of my single road bike), and are double-sided, letting me just stomp and go. When contemplating building a steel bike as a backup road bike, however, I found the Shimano PD-ES600 on sale for about $60 shipped. They come with SH51 cleats, but for reference just a pair of SH56 cleats cost about $19! One of the reviews I read said that the shoe's wider platform meshed nicely with the lugs on a MTB shoe to give a firmer connection with the pedal, which was enough (along with the 100g weight savings and the improved pedal clearance --- something to consider when your favorite frame geometry has an 80mm BB drop) to tip me over to purchase a pair.

When they arrived, I had to get out my allen wrenches in order to install them, as the pedals do not have wrench flats. I didn't need to change the tension on the pedals as the default felt right for me. The pedals are single-sided, which means you can't just stomp and go, but the firm connection definitely feels nice! After a week of riding with them on and off pavement, I went out and ordered a second pair. I tried those on the triplet for one long ride and a couple of commutes taking the kids to school an bought a 3rd pair for the roadini.  Interestingly enough, the difference is much less with my stiff-soled SIDI dominator than with my Recon 1.0s, indicating that it makes the biggest difference when your soles aren't as stiff. The single-sidedness can be a problem for some, but what I discovered was that my feet naturally find the correct side about 75% of the time --- this is because the spindle is just stiff enough that if you step down on the other pedal the alternate side will be in the correct side to receive a cleat --- the people who don't step down in order to start a bike (which is the correct method) would probably have much more trouble. The other 25%, I can tell by feel that the pedal is flipped over, and it's not a problem to flip it over without looking at the pedal. Even on gravel/off-road riding it was not a big deal. The lack of wrench flats probably bothers me more than anything else. The improved pedal clearance might also make a difference though to be honest since West Alpine road is closed I haven't had a chance to test it in extreme conditions --- note that pedal strikes never actually bothered me much anyway.

I wouldn't have paid list price for these ($100), but at $60 included taxes and shipping, these are a good deal. I'll stick with M520s for the mountain bike, and if I were riding the tandem triplet with a new cyclist I'd probably still go for the M520s but my sons and I are so coordinated by now that we can feel when I need to stop pedaling to flip over the pedals as needed (which hasn't been often), and on the triplet the extra firm connection feels even more needed! I ended up getting these for all 3 of my road bikes. My brother tried them once on my single and decided he wanted a pair as well! Here's another indication of how effective it is --- once I had them on all my bikes, I stopped switching to the super-stiff SIDI shoes whenever I went on a road ride, preferring my touring shoes instead!

Recommended. If you've been riding M520s, these are the first pedals that felt like a real upgrade.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Review: An Immense World

 An Immense World is Ed Yong's book about various senses in the animal kingdom. It's a surprisingly long book, covering how various animals see, smell, and feel very differently than we do. I read a short passage in it aloud to Boen about how a particular wasp could sting a cockroach in two places, one in its body, and one in its brain, in order to turn the cockroach into a zombie. Boen responded hugely positively to this and went around telling his friends about it.

The book is at its best when it covers senses that humans can't possibly have, such as echolocation (the book does describe a blind person who developed echolocation as a child), remote touch via electric field, sonar, and magnetic field detection senses. The book thoroughly describes how scientists involve prove the existence of those senses by manipulating them, and also explains why magnetic field detection is so hard to work with --- the earth's magnetic field is so weak that even hypothesizing how an animal could detect it is hard!

I enjoyed the book and thought it was worth reading, not just for the part about senses, but also some of the ancillary details about how marine mammals evolved and came to be so big. Recommended.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Review: Sci-Phi Science Fiction as Philosophy

 I saw Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy as one of the great courses offering on Kanopy, and tried one lecture and was blown away. The lecturer, David Kyle Johnson, took apart Inception, analyzed it, demonstrated in detail the pieces that were self-contradictory, and demonstrated his thesis in the movie, while using the movie to ask the question about how it's possible to have knowledge in the face of multiple competing theories. And he did it all in 30 minutes, some of which was spent explaining the plot of the movie!

The rest of the 24 lecture course covers everything from Pacifism, Women's Rights, Free-Will, and other topics, using many movies/TV shows you may have heard of or watched. To my surprise I'd actually seen a lot of those movies, and the ones I didn't Johnson explains enough of what you didn't watch that you can follow along his points. Johnson is a great lecturer, clear, perfectly paced, and great to listen to. His logic is easy to follow, and his conclusions (or in some cases, lack of conclusions) made a lot of sense to me. I enjoyed how much of different philosophers' ideas, books, or statements made it into even the most kitschy science fiction.

Definitely worth your time. Look at the list of movies he analyzes and if those movies appealed to you, this lecture series will as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

 Ezra Klein kept mentioning Amusing Ourselves to Death, so I had to check it out from the library. The book is a criticism of the television-oriented culture we find ourselves in, and compares it unfavorably with the age of print/age of rationality. In some ways, it's got a rosy eyed view of the age of rationality/age of print, since that coincided with much of the population enslaved and unable to read.

One of the interesting statements the books make is that the telegraph was in many ways just as bad as twitter is today:

the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. But this was not all: Telegraphy also made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention, to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase. The principal strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect it, explain it or analyze it. In this respect, telegraphy was the exact opposite of typography. (kindle loc 1299)

He laments the introduction of photography, since once that became widespread and it was possible to distribute newspapers with photographs that are printed, the photograph naturally became much more popular than the printed word. Television, of course, combines the worst of both worlds, with the instant imagery transmitted across the globe.

In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, matter how grave any fragment of news may appear (for example, on the day I write a Marine Corps general has declared that nuclear war between the United States and Russia is inevitable), it will shortly be followed by a series of commercials that will, in an instant, defuse the import of the news, in fact render it largely banal. This is a key element in the structure of a news program and all by itself refutes any claim that television news is designed as a serious form of public discourse....You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters. You would advertise the show, both in the press and on television itself. You would do “news briefs,” to serve as an inducement to viewers. You would have a weatherman as comic relief, and a sportscaster whose language is a touch uncouth (as a way of his relating to the beer-drinking common man). You would, in short, package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business. The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world...television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. (kindle loc 1623, 1789-1839)

You'll find ;yourself nodding away at the statements above, since American society does seem incredibly superficial and obviously obsessed only with the beautiful people. I'm the kind of person who'd much rather read a book than watch a documentary or video, so of course I would agree with Neil Postman. I think his analogy that Huxley's "Brave New World" is much more relevant us than George Orwell's "1984" is correct:

 What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. (kindle loc 2566)

 Postman, however, doesen't have any answers or solutions for us. His luke-warm proposal is that we education children to be able to distinguish between truth and lies. But of course we're not very good at teaching children in schools! Furthermore, it's not clear to me that even education can have much impact. For instance, you can know that something is an optical illusion, but your eyes still see that illusion and think it's real. You can watch a movie knowing that it's entirely fictional, but that won't reduce the emotional impact of the movie. In that sense, you can come away from the book quite pessimistic.

Regardless, the book makes many great points and is well worth reading. It was written before twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media, and yet managed to predict that these technologies are ultimately detrimental to civil society and our politics. Any book that can predict the future that far in advance should be on your must-read shelf.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Review: Language Families of the World

 I've enjoyed most of John McWhorter's work, so when I saw that Niniane's Goodreads mentioned The Great Courses' Language Families of the World, I searched for it and discovered that my library gave me access through Kanopy.

Kanopy has no download option, and the entire thing was on video, so I watched/listened to it on my FireHD tablet. The audio course definitely walks you through every language family in the world, and corrects any misconceptions you might have about (for instance) the relationship between writing systems and spoken languages. For myself, I used to say that Chinese had no grammar, since there's none of the conjugation, agreement, and prefix/suffix clauses found in Indo-European languages, but McWhorter points out that the numerical classifiers are indeed a form of grammar!

The course focuses mostly on spoken language, and I enjoyed the world tour of various languages, but wished that he spent more time on the details on how linguists discovered the family relationships between languages, and disentangled the difference between languages exchanging words versus being evolved. I learned that there's a language that doesn't have words for numbers!

All this is presented with McWhorter's usual sense of humor and personal history. I enjoyed every minute, even if my retention isn't as good as I wanted it to be. Recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Review: Shokz OpenMove

 Shokz OpenMove is a set of open ear bone conducting headphones. These leave your ears open so you can still hear traffic, etc., so you can use them while cycling or running on the roads and still retain aural situational awareness. I'd been intrigued by them, so when Prime day sported a sale for these at under $60 I gave them a try.

The sound quality is reasonable, but not nearly as good as a single-ear Jabra 65t.  I used them for a video call and enjoyed the experience. They're not very comfortable under a helmet --- the bone conduction parts press against your temple. Ultimately, that's what caused me to end up returning these. If these had been waterproof to the point where I could use them swimming I might not have, but the swimming versions of these are $150 and weren't on sale during prime day.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Review: 84 Charing Cross Road

 84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and the staff of Marks and Company, from right after the second world war until approximately 1970. Hanff is looking for cheap second hand books, and starts off by asking for some clean copies. The response from the book sellers and the exchange spread out like ripples in a pond, drawing in not just the staff members but also their families.

The exchanges are at times funny, flirtatious, poignant and literate, sometimes all 3 in the same letter. You see the rise in the standard of living in the UK in the mid 50s, where suddenly they tell her not to send them food any more, as they can now buy whatever they need. You see the lack of healthcare in the USA, where Hanff can no longer visit England as she has to pay her dentist.

The book ends somewhat abruptly, and upon reflection, it's also about the need to seize the day and travel and visit your friends while they're still alive, instead of living with your books and your work. Hanff, for instance, was a writer, and could have worked from anywhere in the world, yet never prioritized visiting the people who kept sending her books she asked for.

It's also a reminder of the times when real people would be the ones who'd pick books off the shelf and ship them to you. I remember once calling a bookstore and having the bookseller pick up the phone and upon hearing my name say, "Oh, you're the one buying those books with such taste and verve!" Of course, shortly after that they were overtaken by and interactions like that would never happen today.

The book is short, and the audio performance is amazing, with different actors representing each letter writer. Well worth your time.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Review: The Rider

 I'll admit that I can only watch bicycle racing in tiny youtube clips. The long form videos bore me to tears, but I'll happily read about bike racing any time. The Rider is Tim Krabbe's novel about a fictional bike race, but the protagonist of the novel is also named Tim Krabbe!

The book describes all the grandeur and pettiness of a bike race. Whether to work together to defeat a rival, whether it's more important that a rival lose than that you win. It also beautifully brings together the thoughts of someone putting together hard physical exertion:

On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts. (kindle loc 404)

Lots of cycling history too, involving famous racers from the past, as well as relevant incidents that tie into the events of the single day race the novel describes.

The book's short but compelling. I found myself reading it in one shot one evening, and it would be a perfect airplane novel. Recommended. Strangely enough, I went in search of other novels by the same author and they're all out of print now in English!

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Touring Review: Pixel 6

Throughout this year's tour, we used the Pixel 6 as a backup for photographs (especially when it was raining, since the Pixel 6 was waterproof and the Ricoh GR3 wasn't), payments, navigation in a pinch, booking hotels, phone calls, and general use. As a backup camera the Pixel 6 was superlative, and while I wish it was higher resolution and had a bigger sensor, I don't think any of the other smartphones would have done a better job.

For navigation, we discovered that Google Maps had many limitations, much of which was that it would suggest routes that might be doable on a mountain bike but not for a road bike, and definitely not for a triplet. Even worse, the battery drain would mean that Xiaoqin's phone would drain by the middle of the afternoon on a long day. We tried turning off WeChat, and turning off the 90MHz display, but those changes made marginal differences to the battery life. Once in a while we would have to top up the battery using a battery extender.

For payments my phone worked but Xiaoqin's didn't, probably having to do with the setup for credit cards on it. For booking, we discovered an interesting limitation --- our T-mobile connection would let us browse's app and select places to stay, but to finalize a booking required a WiFi connection. I found myself searching for WiFi in various places to complete a booking.

One big disadvantage of the Pixel 6 was completely unexpected: when I cracked my screen protector (but not the screen), the phone was so exotic in Italy that I never found a place that sold replacement screen protectors. I had a spare protector at home, but it just shows that the Pixel 6 doesn't have sufficient distribution to the point where you could expect to easily get support for the device in Europe. On the other hand, the phone calls always worked, and various times the $0.25 per minute T-mobile roaming phone call charge would save us 20 EUR in hotel stays, making the ROI on those calls well worth the price.

When in Feldkirch, we used the instant translation feature to have conversations with doctors, nurses and pharmacists. This is an amazing feature and well worth the price. I also never ran out of storage.

To my dismay, the phone does not support FAT32 or exFAT, and it could not read the SD card from either the Ricoh GR3 or the GoPro, which made it very difficult to use the phone as a photo processor. I would later read that the Nexus Media Explorer would be able to read it, but too late for this trip. I never had any trouble reading SDcards with Samsung phones, so this is a limitation unique to the Pixel 6. It seems that Google's ideological commitment against paying Microsoft royalties has led it to serve its customers badly, another illustration of how Google PMs must not use their own products. The GR3 had a wireless mode that worked well, but the GoPro didn't.

For myself, the phone battery was more than sufficient since I would depend on the Garmin for navigation most of the time. The few times I needed it I'd pull out the phone for isolated use, and it never failed me. All in all, I think the Pixel 6 is a reasonable phone to travel with, but for the various reasons outlined above, I suspect the Samsung phones are still a cut above for not having flaws and workarounds that you'd have to spend a ton of time researching. 

Monday, October 03, 2022

Review: Magicians - New Class

The Magicians: New Class is a comic book series set after the events of the novels. Despite Lev Grossman's name on the Amazon information page, the comic book series was written by Lilah Sturges, with excellent artist Plus Bak. The plot revolves around Brakebills College admitting 3 hedge magicians as 3rd years for the very first time in the college's history, and those 3 magicians are pulled into a private seminar course with 3 Brakebills college students.

There's a certain conceit about how college works which doesn't work for me --- the rivalry between the hedge magicians and the Brakebills regular doesn't ring true to me, but regardless, the writing is clearly targeted towards a monthly issue magazine --- each issue ends with a cliff-hanger, and we get plot twist after plot twist, as well as some references to characters/events from the novels.

Unfortunately, the comic book plot was written with the expectation of a continuing series, but apparently the series got cancelled after 5 books, so there are a lot of loose ends never tied up. The characters and the foreshadowing also don't work well, and there are no clues that you could possibly use to predict the plot twist. I can see why the series got cancelled after such a short time. The book is only recommended for die-hard fans of the Magicians, but even if you are one you might want to set your expectations low.