Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Review: Cure - A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body

The author of Cure, Jo Marchant, comes with a ton of credentials, essential because of the credibility required to cover the topic.

The first few chapters explore the placebo effect. Impressively, even placebos that are labeled placebos work --- and the more expensive the better. Then she covers more innovative approaches, such as using immersive virtual reality for pain reduction, and various approaches combining cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness.

All of these approaches however, only work on issues where pain perception or the illness (such as chronic fatigue syndrome) is largely psychological. Marchant acknowledges for serious diseases (such as cancer), there's no question that approaches such as homeopathy, etc., will not work purely on a "mind over body" basis, and are in fact, harmful if they prevent the patient from seeking real medicine.

While an interesting and entertaining book, I'm not sure I got a lot out of it. It's very clear that all research in mind over body has quite a ways to go, but the lack of easy studies (it's tough to do double-blind between people who do mindfulness and people who don't, for instance) mean that if you're a skeptic, the evidence is not quite compelling as yet.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Review: The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books

The elevator pitch for this book's awesome: what if, instead of trying (and failing) to read all the "great books" that are part of the western literary canon could be replaced by exciting, fun books that will have you eager to read them instead? What if a professor gave you 12 books to replace boring stuff like Hamlet, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, or Ulyses?

Sucker that I am, I jumped on The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books. The problem is, the typical professor's taste is not necessarily going to be to be yours. I'd actually read 3 of the books Prof. Voth provides in this course: Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men", Le Carre's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", and Moore's "Watchmen." For those 3 books, I can attest that Voth does a good job describing the book and explaining why it's so great. Unfortunately, for the rest of the books in his list, I can't say as much. He recommends 12 books, and of them all, the only 2 books I'm even intrigued by are Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and Death of An Expert Witness. The other books he recommend sound as boring as the classical works they replace.

The upside is that the audio lecture series is short: 6 hours to cover 12 books, so worse comes to worse you're not out a lot of time.

Monday, December 05, 2016

First Impressions: Garmin Vivoactive HR

My brother bought me a Garmin Vivoactive HR as a late birthday present. Continuous use of my Vivoactive has reduced its battery life significantly, so it was a timely gift. Over the past year, Garmin has been the only smart watch maker that has been gaining market share. Since you've probably not ever seen a Garmin ad (I certainly haven't), this market share gain has been entirely via word of mouth and product excellence, which is unusual in this day and age where marketing trumps all.

When putting the watch on the wrist, I was immediately impressed by how it's completely changed the UI from the predecessor. The two buttons no longer do what I thought they did, but in exchange the device is more customizable. I can now remove the Golf app, which I'll never use. The touch screen swipes also no longer do what they used to do. I also bought the Garmin Tempe sensor, and that pairs reliably with the Vivoactive HR, as well as providing temperature information for my rides to the device, which faithfully logs it.

The HR functionality is the major feature upgrade. I didn't realize how constricting my HRM band was until I started riding without it. It felt liberating. In exchange, the data probably isn't anywhere as accurate. My hardest efforts barely registered 160bpm, while with the strap I could regularly exceed that on the reading. One nice note about the HR functionality --- if you have both a Garmin watch and an Edge, you can broadcast the HR from the watch to the Edge by turning on the broadcast feature. While the device warns that this will reduce battery life, in practice, the battery life of the device is so great that I haven't really noticed it.

The other improvement is the battery life. There's two ways to view this. One is that passive battery life has been reduced, because the always-on HRM reduces the previous life from about 14 days to about 5 days if you leave it on. The other way is that active GPS-on battery life has been increased from 10 hours to 13 hours. In practice, 3 hours of riding (with HR broadcast on) reduces the battery life by about 20%, which extrapolates to about 15 hours of riding. That's excellent, and gives me confidence that after a year or so of use, the battery will still be good for about 10 hours of riding, which would enable me not to have to charge it in the middle of a ride. Not only does the increased battery life mean that battery wear will no longer make the device useless, the increased battery life also means that the number of cycles the device endures is reduced, which in turns also reduces battery wear if you're fond of long workouts.

The third feature is the barometer, which is huge for cyclists and hikers, but also opens up ski mode. Reports are that ski mode works really well, detecting when you get on ski lifts, etc., and recording the number of runs, but I'm not an enthusiastic skier, so don't expect to use this mode at all.

The con is that as before, Garmin has locked out open water swimming (there's no reason the device couldn't do it, just that Garmin wants you to upgrade to the $600/$450 during holiday sale Fenix 3 HR). There are also no structured workout or power meter support. But if you need either of those, you're way more serious about training than the average athlete, and can probably justify a dedicated device or the Fenix 3 HR.

The long and short of it is that Garmin has hit the ball out of the park with the Vivoactive HR. If the competition was just Google, Garmin could rest easy, since Google ADD probably means that it will give up on Android wear soon. Unfortunately for Garmin (and fortunately for us consumers), Apple and Fitbit still provide viable competition in this space, and neither of those suffer from ADD and will stick around for the foreseeable future.

The difference between the Garmin device and the Apple watch is the battery life: if your ride/run ever exceeds 4 hours or so, the Garmin device will be your choice. The difference between a Fitbit and a Garmin is the software/data ecosystem. If your primary social network for fitness activities is Strava (as it is with most cyclists), then go with the Garmin. If you're mostly a "step-counter" person whose social network is filled with Fitbit users, then Garmin wouldn't work for you at all. As a self-driven person who's workout patterns aren't driven by social networks, the Garmin device has much better reliability and integrates with the cycling ecosystem better.

Obviously, a long term review is a necessity, but my first impressions of the Vivoactive HR is nothing short of stellar. With the holiday pricing of $199 and potentially coupons at Best Buy, REI, and other vendors, this is a great time to get one.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Review: Harmony Hub & Echo Dot

I started writing this review of an Echo Dot, but realized that I couldn't really review it without the true reason for its presence in the home, which is the Logitech Harmony Smart Control.

A year ago, I bought the Amazon Echo and returned it. It was a great device, but didn't really justify its place in the living room. It was too big, and it didn't do very much, and it did a terrible job of voice recognition for my wife and Bowen. (The non-English speakers in the household obviously couldn't use it at all!) A year later, the Echo Dot is $50 ($40 during the holiday season), and it's basically the Echo stripped of the speakers, requiring you to plug it into the entertainment center's speaker system. That's perfect, since you likely have much better speakers in the entertainment center than any puny portable speaker will do. Much has been made about how the Google Home device is cheaper than the Echo, but the reality is that most people should really buy the Dot instead.

Out of the box, the device could control my Sensi thermostat. Realistically speaking, however, you're not going to adjust your home temperature that way. If your programming is up to par at all, you're going to tweak the thermostat at most once a month, and remember the voice command to do that is more onerous than pulling out the smartphone and running the app.

But once I got the Logitech Harmony Smart Control Hub ($70 right now on Amazon, which is a great holiday season deal), the Dot proved to be extremely useful. I'll summarize what the Harmony Hub does. It plugs into the wall, and you can program it with your computer or smart phone app to act as a universal report. What's great about it is that it accepts commands from your smart phone, a "simple remote", or another universal report via RF. That means it can sit inside a cabinet and still receive signals. It incorporates an IR blaster, which can then activate all the other devices in the same cabinet. For devices that are outside the cabinet (e.g., the TV), the device comes with an auxiliary IR blaster that can be plugged in and then run outside the cabinet.

Put it together with the Amazon Echo, and wow! With the old universal remote, it could power on the IR-driven devices, but couldn't turn on the PS3. Now, I'd walk into the living room and say, "Alexa, turn on Playstation." It would then immediately power up the PS3, TV, and Speakers, switching the speakers over to the PS3's output. "Alexa, turn off AV" would turn everything off. No more hunting for the remote, no pulling out the phone to switch to the app. As someone who's never cared about home automation (seriously, do you need voice control to turn on the lights?), this is truly a "Star Trek" living in the future experience. And no, Google Home can't do it because it doesn't support "external skills" yet.

The penalties: I still can't access my Google Music library, and I'd have to pay $24/year to upload all my music to Amazon's music library. That sucks. I'm sure at some point I'll break down and pay if music becomes important enough.

In any case, I highly recommend this combination. Given the sales during the holiday season, it's well worth the time to set it up.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Review: Snap Circuits Arcade

I grew up with legos here and there, but never got obsessed with them the way some people did. The dedicated kits that are now popular also fail to ignite my interest, and the times someone gives Bowen one of those kits it invariably results in me assembling it for him.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays there was a sale on the Snap Circuits Arcade Electronics Kit for a reasonably good price. The cover says it's for kids 8 and up, but various reviews said that a 5 year old would still get good value out of it if an adult helped, so I jumped on it, despite not having ever played with electronics as a kid.

The box is huge, but most of it is air. There's a bread board, and 35 discrete pieces: a battery holder, a fan (with LED persistence of vision output!), a microcontroller (already preprogrammed and not programmable!), a speaker and alarm unit, various resistors, switches, and wires of different lenghts as well as a bunch of jumper cables. Most of the units are quite well built and capable of withstanding a 5-year-old's abuse. The disco lights, however, is a flimsy 2 piece dome and stick set that's very prone to getting lost, unfortunately!

I got out the set and looked at the instructions and resigned myself to having to assemble the circuits for Bowen as he picked projects in the book. To my surprise, that turned out not to be true! He was the one who figured out that I had laid out the bread board upside down (i.e., it's an inside out breadboard, with pegs instead of holes), and then with only a little bit of help, he could assemble the simple circuits and place the jumper cables correctly in the right places!

What's great about the kit is that some of the more complex circuits force you to learn how to debug. If the speaker doesn't work, you know to trace the speaker area to see which part of the circuit hadn't been assembled directly. After watching me do that a few times, Bowen learned to do it himself!

The projects are relatively simple: a dice simulator, a black jack game, a trip-wire alarm, a moisture detector, and some projects that just make noise and light up. Many of the projects are just the same circuit with different programs to run on the micro-controller, so of the 200 projects listed, there are really only about 30-40 circuits that you have to build.

What's not so great:

  • The project manual is strictly that, a project manual. It lists projects, circuit boards, and instructions. While there are rudimentary descriptions of the various pieces, there's no guide as to how the inputs are supposed to work. For instance, there's no comprehensive listing of every program available in the microcontroller, nor are the specifications for how the controller sends signals to the speakers for them to play music.
  • As mentioned above, some small pieces are easy to lose and a bear to keep track of. Fortunately, there's a web-site that let's you order missing parts.
  • The micro-controller should be more programmable than it is. Why isn't there an EPROM in there where I can plug in a micro USB cable and reprogram it?!!
Nevertheless, for the price, it's reasonably fun and teaches the kind of debugging skills that's useful in real life. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: Internet and Fax 56K USB Modem (Sewell)

I know: you're thinking that Piaw has finally taken this "retro-grouch" thing too far. Sure, my phone's from 2015, and my computers from 2009, and many parts on my bicycle are even older than that, but a modem? In this day and age?

So what happened is that in dealing with my parent's long term care insurance, I frequently have to fax documents to them. You can use FaxZero, which is free for faxes under 3 pages (with a maximum of 5 free faxes a day), but more than that and you're paying $2 per fax (which is insane). Other online fax services start from $17/month and go up from there, with $10 setup fees and what not. I bet they're really hard to cancel too! Then I remembered that I actually had a landline that came as part of my internet plan. I actually try to get rid of it every so often, but it apparently qualifies as some sort of "double play" promotion which means that my internet price would be higher without it!

I tried buying a dumb old fax machine, but they start at $40. That in itself is not a problem but they're huge! So I went with a USB Fax Modem. I went for the cheapest $14 modem, which is still cheaper than even a month of fax service. Windows 10 came with a Fax and Scan software (though in practice I use Acrobat 9 to scan and then convert the PDF to TIFF). It's clunky and not the best UI but I don't have to install anything, and it works.

I don't use it often (maybe once a week or so), but if you need to fax something and have a computer with a scanner, this is way to go. It's tiny, doesn't chew power or require an extra power socket, and you can just plug it into a computer with a USB-A port. If that means I'm stuck buying PCs instead of Chromebooks, so be it. Tag me with a retro-grouch label. See if I care!


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine

I picked up Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine thinking that it'll be a boring litany of cases of what you need to go to the emergency room is for. I was wrong. This course (I'm tempted to say "show") is an exciting, fun, and informative series of case studies that are fast paced, interesting, and way more fun than real medical school would be, since you wouldn't have to suffer sleep deprivation to go through it.

The first couple of episodes cover some basic things: triage (or why you have to wait so darn long to be seen when you visit the ER --- and why you do not want to be the person who skips over everyone else to be seen first!), how emergency responders work. Then the course goes into how to do diagnosis, from the initial ABCs (Airway, Breathing, and Circulation, then Disability and Exposure) and the OLD CARTS rule (Onset, Location, Duration, Character, Aggrevating factors, Relieving factors, Timing and Severity).

Every episode contains a bunch of case studies, each of which is a patient, some of which are modeled on famous outbreaks. You're then challenged to provide a diagnosis (and yes, all the clues are fair, so when you do get one there's a very strong sense of satisfaction!) and then the lecturer provides the outcome. It's all told in second person, choose-your-own-adventure style and I guarantee it provides intellectual challenge and interest. In some cases, he even interrupts your thinking with another patient that's come in and triaged ahead of the current case, which is very realistic, and then you'll have to return to the previous patient later, providing added mental challenge.

Not all of the problems are completely medical in nature. In a number of cases, sociological factors come into play. This truly is a comprehensive array of interesting cases. If I'd audited this series when growing up I might have decided that being an ER doctor would be a lot of fun (or maybe not, Dr. Benaroch doesn't shy away from the massive amount of blood and trauma he has had to deal with, and the occasional patient who doesn't survive the ER visit, despite doing everything right). In any case, I think it presents a fair, undramatic portrayal of how an ER doctor's day goes --- many of the diagnosis are only arrived upon after calm thinking, listening and reflection, and the tests are only there to confirm the diagnosis.

The series closes with an exploration of some practical issues: what cases are worth going to the ER for, and what cases aren't. When should you treat a fever, and when is a fever actually helpful? What should you do before traveling to a foreign country? This advise is good and also illustrated by case studies that amplify the point.

Needless to say, this audio book comes highly recommended, and is well worth your time. Highly recommended, especially if you have accident prone kids who have to visit the ER often.