Saturday, July 22, 2017

Bowen's First Bicycle Tour

From July 5th to July 15th, Bowen and I conducted a bicycle tour of the English Midlands from Manchester to London via Hindhead. The ride was 354 miles with 13,610 feet of elevation gain. We had 10 riding days with 1 rest day, 2 flat tires, and 1 train transfer. This is the index page for the daily trip reports.


Daily Trip Report
  • July 4th: Prolog
  • July 5th: Manchester Airport to Market Drayton
  • July 6th: Market Drayton to Bridgnorth
  • July 7th: Bridgnorth to Worcester
  • July 8th: Worcester to Winchcombe
  • July 9th: Winchcombe to Oxford
  • July 10th: Oxford to Reading
  • July 11th: Reading Rest Day
  • July 12th: Reading to Hindhead
  • July 13th: Hindhead to Staines-Upon-Thames
  • July 14th: Staines-Upon-Thames to London
  • July 15th: London to Manchester Picadilly via Train and Manchester Downtown to Manchester Airport

Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Reading Hidden Figures after reading The Rise of the Rocket Girls feels like reading a prequel. While Rise of the Rocket Girls focused on the West Coast and JPL, Hidden Figures focuses on Langley, and starts out during the world war 2 era, where due to the shortage of man (and woman) power, various administrations were forced to hire women (and Blacks) to work as computers during the war effort.

The issues covered are very different from The Rise of the Rocket Girls. For instance, segregation played a big role in the story, and the author covers the entire civil rights era, where the state of Virginia (where Langley was located) at one point shut down its entire public school system rather than permit Blacks and Whites to be at the same school. One of the protagonists later would attend adult school in one of those high school campuses and remark that the place was so dinghy that it was a wonder that this was what they were trying to keep Black people away from.

The story is well written, and also covers the creation of NASA from NACA, which was meant to help with aviation rather than rocketry. The politics behind the formation of NASA was interesting as well. All in all, I recommend reading this book.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Pachinko

Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s novel covering the Japanese occupation of Korea, and depicting the lives and various fates of Korean Japanese during the world war 2 period. As someone who’s always heard about how badly Koreans were treated in Japan for many years, I’ve always been curious about how it’s happened, and this book was a great way to find out about it.

The novel depicts Sunja’s family, starting from her parents’ lives, and including her children during the pre-World War 2 and post-WW2 period in Japan. Having been made pregnant by a Korean businessman living in Japan, Sunja refuses to become his mistress but then a Christian pastor on his way to his church in Japan feels sorry for her, marries her, and then they move to Japan proper.
Basically, Korean people in Japan have limited job opportunities. You can run a restaurant (or sell street food), or be hired into the Pachinko industry, which apparently has some ties to organized crime as well. As the war proceeds, we get views as to how the family survives (and in some case even thrive) and what the effects of the war is.

I enjoyed the book’s depiction of Japan and Korean people living in Japan. The book is a long read but at no point did I think it had filler. Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle is Dianne Jones’ fantasy novel upon which Hayao Miyazaki’s movie of the same name was loosely based. Fans of the book often say that the book's much better than the movie. I haven't seen the movie, but if this is true then I probably won't bother with the movie at all.

The story revolves around Sophie, who as the eldest daughter  of the house is predestined not to find her fortune, and is so reconciled to being a hat maker. Then she runs afoul of the Wicked Witch and is cursed, whereupon for random reasons she ends up in the castle of evil wizard Howl.

Howl ends up not being so evil, and Sophie ends up being able to release herself from her curse. I didn’t realize that the book was the start of a series of (apparently well loved) YA novels, but in any case, the book while well written didn’t feel compelling. None of the characters felt anything more than 2-dimensional, while there aren’t any interesting reveals: magic in the novel doesn’t really follow any systematic approach, and it feels like a random series of events rather than the characters actually driving the plot.

I bought the book when it was on sale on Amazon, but I won’t be pursuing further books in the series.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa is Justine Larbalestier’s hybrid novel  both about a coming of age and of psychopaths in families. It’s an excellent book and you should just run out and borrow (or buy) it. 

Che is a typical teenager, except that he’s been moved between various countries in the last few years  by his do-gooder parents. As a teenager moving to New York City for the first time, he has 3 goals: 

  1. Keep his sister Rosa under control 
  2. Get to the  boxing ring and Spar 
  3. Get a girlfriend 


Except for the last goal, these are actually pretty unusual goals for a teenager. But Che’s sister Rosa isn’t just a baby sister, she’s a psychopath, which Che has actually looked up in the DSM. What’s more, Che seems to be the only person aware of it. Both his parental units seem blissfully unaware, and Rosa when she wants to can charm other people easily, to the point where they do whatever she wants them to. 

Che then goes through the process of settling into New York City, going to a new boxing gym where he does meet a pretty cool girl. Then Rosa decides to start messing with his life and everything quick goes into pieces. 
The novel’s well written, with most characters being fully realized. The twist in the second third of the book was profound, and the set up for that was fair. Unlike most other books which nowadays seem determined to shove a happy ending down your throat no matter what, My Sister Rosa doesn’t end on an undoubtedly happy note, and Che doesn’t achieve all of his goals. 

Pick up a copy of this book and read it. You won’t regret the time you spend in Che’s world. I certainly don’t. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of (what else) Norse Mythology. It’s written in modern language, but with the tell-tale Neil Gaiman style --- easy to read and straight forward, by lyrical as well. If you’re not familiar with Norse Mythology except (for example) through the Thor comic books, Norse Mythology isn’t just a good introduction, it’s a well-written one. Gaiman writes that many of the stories from the folklore have been lost in time, and it would be interesting to know which he picked to put in this book and what was left out because it was incomplete and he didn’t want to add to the mythology with his own fiction.  It would also have been interesting to see what he would have wanted to add to the mythos.

A light, short airplane read. Perfect for a vacation. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Revenger

Revenger is Aliastair Reynold's novel about space pirates in a far future setting. Told from the point of view of a highly educated young woman (Fura Ness) from a family down on its finances, it tells the story of her and her sister's attempt to go on an adventure by signing up on a sailing vessel as "bone readers." Bone readers are the VHF/telegraph operators in this millieu, and since it's a talent that you can age out of, new  bone readers are always in demand and the sisters sign up on a treasure-hunting expedition boat. During the expedition, the boat is attacked by space pirates and the rest of the story revolves around Fura's attempt to get revenge and rescue her sister.

The millieu is particularly interesting, obviously constructed to mirror the golden age of sail's particular constraints so as to make the kind of voyages described interesting. For instance, everything takes place within a single solar system, so solar sails can be used as a means of getting everywhere. The result is travel times described in weeks, rather than years required for interstellar distances without breaking the known laws of physics. Similarly, the worlds described aren't planets, but rather artificial habitat constructs ranging from 25 miles wide to about 100 miles wide, similar to island sizes in the Caribbean. Scattered amongst the worlds are baubles, apparently stasis-protected former habitats that may contain artifacts or quoins (treasure) so treasure hunters have something to do.

It's always interesting to me to see authors work around their weaknesses. Reynolds, for instance, cannot write a romance to save his life, and in this novel he works around it by eliminating any such possibilities: the lead characters are essentially asexual, and married people are introduced with their status as though it's a title. It works, but obviously one of the tropes of pirate fiction is completely eliminated.

As a story, the novel is fun: we watch as Fura Ness goes from naivete to becoming a classical pirate. The book is full of slang and sayings that evoke the golden age of sail while being more or less scientifically correct, and the setting is interesting if improbable.While not his best work, it has a certain appeal to those who like pirate fiction/science fiction mashups and can be recommended as such.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Populist Explosion

The Populist Explosion is a political overview of recent political movements that have swept both the USA and Europe as a result of the great recession. It ties populist movements in the past (such as Huey Long's) with recent movements like Occupy Wall Street as well as the Tea Party.

What's interesting is that it covers both left and right movements. For instance, while the left explicitly avoided scapegoating by race, the right has no compunction against doing so, and in fact, this probably did win Donald Trump the election. As a result, the author's attempt to conflate the two sides don't really make a lot of sense to me.

What is interesting is that the right wing in Europe does seem particularly focused on immigration, and the movements have been because the generous welfare states mean that the middle class is opposed to large scale immigration of any form. Those societies have historically been so homogeneous that even relatively small amounts of immigration constitutes a sizeable shift in the feel of the population to citizens.

What the author fails to do is to provide context: for instance, when discussing immigration in Denmark, he provides absolute numbers but neglects to provide the total size of the country, so you have no idea whether citizens are complaining as to whether new immigrants consist of 1%, 2%, or 10% of the population. When reading the book you want to have Google handy so you can give yourself context with regards to those numbers. Otherwise you start to see big numbers like millions or hundreds of thousands and have no idea whether it's a big shift that would take a while to get used to.

Regardless, the author points out that the center-left in Europe and in the US has been neglectful of the working class, to the point where they have no felt like they have any stake in the process and therefore might rationally choose to "burn down the house" rather than continue to accept a (to their point of view) worsening situation. This is an important dynamic that has led to the political situation we see today. He doesn't provide any suggestions but does allude to the fact that in the past, such political movements rarely turn into long lasting changes in the system, but instead get co-opted into actions like the New Deal which were driven by the existing political parties.

Here's hoping that something like that does happen. In any case, flawed as the book is, it gave me a lot to think about. Recommended.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Building a custom desktop

In recent years, performance on consumer desktop processors have pretty much stagnated, so I felt comfortable sticking with my 2009 HP m9600t. That machine's had several upgrades: to SSDs, additional RAM, and a new GPU. It's had hard drives added and expanded, and a blu ray drive when those became cheap. Over the past year, the ethernet port went out, so I added a PCI ethernet card to it. The machine's gotten flakey over the years: it no longer slept or hibernate, waking up whenever it put itself to sleep. While this was annoying, I lived with it by hard powering off the machine every time I turned it off. For a while, it wasn't a big deal as I used a laptop for non hard core tasks (any Adobe software).

Then I won a Gigabyte Z170X Gaming 7 motherboard during a web-site lottery. The motherboard was not the latest, but it's over-clocking enabled, and was forwards compatible with the latest intel desktop processor: the Core i7 7700K CPU. Since I had a friend at Intel who could supply me with the processor (and a PCIe m.2 SSD) at employee discount prices, I figured i could build a new machine. Note that in most cases you can usually purchase equivalent machines from Dell or some other white label device at a better price than putting it all together yourself. Those manufacturers, however, typically skimp on parts. For instance, the case of my HP m9600t was so tightly packed that I pinched my fingers every time I installed or replaced a part. Similarly, the PSU is usually not an energy efficient PSU. Back in the old days, you wouldn't keep a PC around long enough for a more efficient PSU to pay for itself, but now that you typically keep a PC around for 10 years or more (because of the failure of Moore's law) there's no reason not to pay for a better unit, especially if it's quieter.

As a first time PC builder, I went with the Fractal Design Define R5 case. I picked it because it was a fairly large case, which meant no more pinched fingers. It comes with 7 3.5/2.5" drive trays and 2 5.25" drive trays, which I figured would be sufficient capacity even for a storage-hungry photographer/video processor. The case was indeed huge but to my surprise was well balanced and easy to handle. It also came with an ample set of screws and nice features such as being able to change the direction in which the front door opens.

The instructions start with screwing in the power supply, which apparently is a fixed size in PCs. Mys elected power supply screwed in just fine, and then I plugged in the power cord and then grounded myself using an anti-static strap. Next came the motherboard. Plugging in the processor was easy, but then the cooler felt like you had to be much more careful. I'd acquired both a water cooler and an air cooler, but at the last minute went with the air cooler for simplicity, so I wouldn't be managing 2 pieces that are attached to the motherboard. The air cooler was interesting because it had multiple orientations, and you're supposed to point it up or out of the case for better airflow, so I played some 3D rotation games before I settled on "up." I then plugged in the memory and the SSD. The SSD is weird because the motherboard had a bizarre table which showed what configuration of SSD installation would preclude the use of which other SATA slots and/or reduce the speed of the PCIe SSD. I found myself thinking: "Really, Intel? Really?!" Apparently this has been fixed in the latest Z270X motherboards, but of course, I wasn't going to buy one when I had one for free. But the next step after selecting the right slot really puzzled me.

All motherboards come with a back plate. You're supposed to insert it into the case, and then insert standoff screws into the motherboard and then insert the motherboard and then screw it down. What I was surprised by after having such an easy time with the processor, cooler, memory and SSD was how much I had to wrestle the motherboard and backplate together into the case and make everything line up. You have to tighten down the screws because otherwise if you insert or remove display cables or USB cables from the computer you'd shift or move the motherboard, which would not be good. I did so without damage (I thought!).

Then I started plugging in cables into the motherboard. The manuals here just don't help much. For instance, some of the case fans have only 3 holes while the corresponding motherboard pins have 4! I had to do some googling around before figuring out which 3 pins should be used. Similarly, for many of the single jumper cables I practically needed magnifying and tweezers to get a 5mm cable plugged into a pin squeezed into a 8mm space. This was definitely a pain. This was also where spending lots of money on the case helped. The Fractal Design case had rubber grommet windows where many of the cables were already pre-wired to run correctly. Unlike my HP, where there were cables everywhere, you could place only the cables you needed and route even those cables under the motherboard, so you had nothing hanging on top. Working on this was a pleasure.

Then came the moment of truth: plugging a display cable in and seeing if the machine would POST. To my horror, when I powered it on, the fans spun up and then spun down. Something was horribly wrong. I googled around and finally figured out that I'd made the rookie mistake: I had forgotten to plug the CPU power cable in. For whatever reason I thought that giant 24pin cable plugged into the motherboard ought to be sufficient. It's not. I plugged in 2 4-pin cables into the motherboard socket, and the device posted!

After that, the rest of the process was easy, though I was disappointed that the "backside of the motherboard" 2.5" SSD trays didn't actually fit 2.5" SSHD drives. But I moved over the blu ray player, intalled 3 HDDs, and still have room and power left over for more.

After installing Windows 10 (which transferred the license over with no issues), the machine sleeps and hibernates with no issues and is also incredibly quiet. I tried over-clocking it a little with no issues, but probably won't do too much. Lightroom and Premiere Elements 12 now fly! A usual, the storage upgrade to a PCIe SSD was probably more responsible than the mere 3X increase in CPU performance.

I haven't installed a GPU yet so am relying on the built in Intel GPU which many enthusiasts love to complain about. I am still of 2 minds as to whether to decommission the old machine or to let my son use it, but if the latter I can take my time to shop for a GPU.

I must say that over-all, the process has been much easier than I expected, and some of it was (dare I say it) even fun! Just like with a bicycle you've built yourself, there's something special about a machine you've built yourself. I expect that this is probably the best approach if you're not in a hurry for a machine and have time to shop. My wife's Dell now sounds loud by comparison, while my old HP sounds like a jet-engine whenever it does anything compute intensive. Given the changes in the PC market over the past years, I fully expect this to be the correct approach going forward.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls

Once upon a time, computers didn't refer to machines running programs, but to people who did the computation work that were eventually relegated to those machines. Rise of the Rocket Girls is the story of the computer department at JPL. It's a great read and well worth your time.

That the computer department at JPL consisted entirely of women was not an accident but deliberate policy. The supervisor of the team, Marcie Roberts, had a policy that she only hired women. She would say to the women in her team:

"In this job you need to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog." (Kindle Loc. 3061)

As the department switched to electronic computers, the women involved trained and learned to write computer programs. What's document is interesting: the early IBMs were so unreliable that the engineers involved wouldn't trust the results unless it was a human who did the computation. It took several generations of improvements before the computers became good enough to be used. The first of such machines was even given a name by the department and became a valued part of the team. Subsequent generational iterations happened so quickly that the people no longer became attached to them:
The scientists reviewed the computer analysis and tried to make sense of it. Some of the students were surprised by how much of the operation required human interaction. They expected to see supercomputers instead of people doing all the work. Senior scientist Harold Masursky good-naturedly responded to one inquiry: “Computers are just like wearing shoes. You need them when you are walking on gravel, but they don’t get you across the gravel. (Kindle Loc. 2922)
Note that JPL as an eventual government agency focused on research instead of financial results, didn't hand out stock options. That didn't actually matter: the programmers were paid by the hour, which given the usual extreme overtime hours required of programmers actually meant that they were paid much better than if they were salaried:
The women worked late nights and weekends on Mariner, desperately checking their trajectories and programs. The hours were exhausting, especially for new mothers Barbara and Helen, but their paychecks were worth it. As hourly employees they were both earning impressive incomes, outstripping their husbands, thanks to the long hours Mariner required. (Kindle Loc. 2154)
Having an all-woman department at JPL meant that in the early days the lab could run beauty contests:
As odd as it seems by today’s standards, the beauty contest was a result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices. As the bouquets were handed out and an attractive woman crowned the winner, the competition was unintentionally highlighting the presence of educated young women working at JPL. After all, other laboratories would have found it impossible to hold such a contest in the 1950s; they simply didn’t hire enough women. (Kindle Loc. 949)
An interesting difference between  biographies of men and women is that while men's biographies rarely mention their personal lives (like raising kids, etc), in women's biographies that's covered in detail. Nevertheless, the book provides ample coverage of the various missions that JPL ran, including the practice of planning dual missions for redundancy.

It's also well-written and provides a compelling narrative. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Planet Hulk

Amazon was having a comic book sale, and Planet Hulk came up as an Amazon recommendation. I was about to be taken in, but fortunately, I've installed library extension on my web browser, which automatically told me that the library had a copy and the hold queue was 0.

You don't read a Hulk story for the subtlety or characterization. Hopefully the plot is interesting, and there are fun set pieces, but it didn't take 20% of the book to get tired of the "hulk smash, bigger problem shows up, hulk smash" loop. I finished the comic book but don't feel the need to read further.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: How Great Science Fiction Works

How Great Science Fiction Works is a survey course for science fiction, easily my favorite fiction genre. I audited this course hoping to find themes or maybe even discover great books I haven't already read.

Not surprisingly, I've already read a ton of the books referred to in the lecture series. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, when he discusses a book, most likely I know what it's about, and can recall the primary themes of the book. On the other hand, there's only a handful of books he's mentioned that were new to me, and I would want to follow up on.

The worst part of the series is that he doesn't really explain what makes a particular work great. He covers the plot but doesn't explain, for instance, that Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun was interesting because it was one of the early examples of the unreliable narrator in science fiction. Further disappointing me was that the themes he chooses for the lectures are usually surface detail: Robots, Spaceships, etc. rather than the themes I would choose to organize a course on science fiction about: "Science Fiction as the literature of ideas", "Provoking the sense of wonder", etc.

The last lecture of the series redeems the series, as he captures one of the differences between the literary genre of fiction and science fiction. "Literature" usually provokes the "Ah yes!" reaction of recognition, while "Science fiction" tries to provoke the "Oh my!" reaction as the author extrapolates (usually to the extreme logical conclusion) the initial premise of the setting, plot, or idea. There's room for both types of fiction, but the best novels or stories would ideally involve those. As such, the lecturer points out that good science fiction is actually really hard to write as it needs to provoke both reactions in the author, while literary fiction as a genre doesn't have to provoke the sense of wonder in order to win awards in the traditional fields.

As a survey of the genre, I think the course has some merits. But for me, it just wasn't fun enough to recommend to anyone else.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Reread: House of Suns

I don't normally re-read novels, but my recent read of Beyond the Aquila Rift's Thousandth Night made me go back and start reading House of Suns again, and the book absolutely sucked me in. Not only had the 9 years between reads eroded my memory of the book so that it was completely fresh to me again, but I discovered new things upon re-reading the book, which is a true test of how good a book is.

For instance, I realized that the novel postulates answers to the question, "What is Dark Matter and why can't I see it?" And the ending, far from being unsatisfying, was actually quite good from my point of view. I certainly no longer feel like Reynolds wrote himself into a corner.

The secondary story, which tells the story of Abigail Gentian is less compelling as I don't think it gave us a good grip on what motivates the primary characters in the novel. Nevertheless, it references the Winchester Mystery House in an indirect fashion.

What I love about the book is how subtle all the references and postulations are. At no point does Reynolds point out "Hey, this is my great idea. Pay attention!" He respects the readers' intelligence and expects you to do the heavy lifting. Thinking about the lesser novels I read this year like The Three Body Problem or The Wall of Storms, I think that makes even the worse parts of House of Suns better than the best parts of other novels.

Highly Recommended, and well worth the re-read.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Review: Ortlieb Compact Handlebar Bag

My 15 year old REI nylon handlebar bag finally gave up the ghost. My first instinct was to just buy another one, but REI in its infinite wisdom had stopped making it. Try as I might, I couldn't even find a reasonable replica on the internet. Fortunately, fellow cycle-tourist Pamela Blalock came to my rescue: she had previously upgraded her handlebar bag, and was now willing to give me her old Ortlieb bar bag for the price of postage.

The bag arrived, and I immediately mounted it onto the handlebars of the single and the tandem. It comes with a mounting kit that requires a pretty permanent screw on mount on every bike you use. The benefit is that it's an "easy on/easy off" system, not that the velcro on the old REI bag ever gave me trouble.

It's pretty waterproof, and much bigger than my old bag, with the issue that it no longer has a map case. The older REI bar bag's map case was pretty useless anyway, so I didn't miss it. I can stuff a cycling jacket, a pair of leg warmers, a cheap cable lock, alternate blades for my Oakley M-frames, and it would still all fit. I anticipate no problems stuffing other valuables like smart phones (the bag's waterproof, so even if your phone's not this would make the phone reasonably accessible), wallet or passports while touring, provided I moved items like the lock away. The idea is you can lock up your bike, remove the bar bag with your most valuable items, and eat lunch at a restaurant without worrying about the rest of your gear.

In practice, on particularly rough roads or off-road, the mount shifts a bit. Fortunately, it bottoms out against the head tube, so there's only so much it can descend. Even in this position, I can still get at it while riding. The velcro is kinda loose, but so far, I haven't lost anything from the bag yet, even when the flap flew open while the bike was on the rack of my car while going 65mph.

It came with a shoulder strap that Pamela said was useless, and indeed, it was pretty freaking useless. It's not even worth the weight of carrying it!

It's definitely lighter and higher quality than the other bags that I've seen. I'm not sure it's $50 better than the $20 bag I bought from REI 15 years ago, but to be honest those aren't made any more, so I'm not sure you could do better today.

Recommended.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Review: As You Wish - Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

I don't expect actors to be great writers, but Cary Elwes (the man in black in The Princess Bride) collaborated with a ghost writer (Joe Layden) to recount his experience making the movie in As You Wish.

This account is all from Elwes' point of view, but includes many quotes from the other actors as well as the director and William Goldman in various sidebars, granting the reader various perspectives in the story and the role they played in making the movie.

Among the titbits I didn't know:

  • The budget was only $16M
  • The film was mostly shot in the Peak District of England.
  • Goldman had bought back the original film rights from the studio after they failed to make it, and had to be persuaded that Ron Reiner (the director) could actually make it.
  • Andre the Giant was in pain the entire time he filmed the movie.
  • Elwes had broken his toe in an accident just before filming the "rolling down the hillside" scene, and tried to hide it from his director.
I wish the story included more details of what went into film-making, but it was clearly written to provide fun anecdotes in mind rather than the nitty gritty details behind it.

Nevertheless, with a breezy, easy-to-read narrative, the book's sure to provide enjoyment to any fans of the movie.

Recommended.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Weight loss is the easy part

In the spring of 2014, I met with my doctor for a regular physical. My doctor's always been really supportive, but sometimes I think he's only impressed by me because his other patients are pretty old. He'd say things like: "Your chloresterol levels are really good. I have patients on statins whose chloresterol levels aren't this good." My first thought was: "well, if their chloresterol levels were good, you wouldn't have had them on statins anyway!"

This time, however, the news wasn't good. My fasting blood sugar levels were elevated. Rather than do a re-test, he said, I should get an a1c test. He thought the a1c level is a much more reliable indicator of diabetes risk. My a1c level came in at 5.9%, which was pre-diabetic. "What does this mean, doc?" "It means if you don't do anything about it, you'll get diabetes within 10 years." "I definitely don't want that!" "Let me refer you to a nutritionist. You're one of the few people to whom I can't say 'exercise more' to, but in many cases if you lose a bit of weight that should be enough to prevent diabetes."

I made an appointment with a nutritionist, and she had me do a food diary for a week prior to the appointment. For a week, I weighed everything I ate. My doctor's comments had scared me into eliminating sweets and desserts from my diet. It was ironic that just as I'd finally had the time, know-how, and equipment to make a really good creme brulee (and I'd gotten pretty good), I could no longer eat one. I e-mailed the spreadsheet to the nutritionist prior to the appointment, so by the time I showed up she had everything calculated: I was eating too much.

My weight was 155 pounds, and at 5' 10", that gave me a normal BMI of 22.2. But with a family history of diabetes (both my parents had it, though my mom could control hers mostly through diet and exercise), clearly my heritage meant a greater susceptibility to metabolic syndrome than the average American. As they say, "Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death." I graduated college at 113 pounds, and in 2003 weighed around 130 pounds, so I thought I had a good chance of getting down to at least 145 pounds.

Weight loss is fairly straightforward: eat less than you burn. The nutritionist had me cut down portions on calorie dense foods. "A fistful of rice or pasta is one serving." Similarly, a handful of nuts was all that you wanted. We went through my entire day's diet and basically cut down serving sizes everywhere. She emphasized eating more vegetables. I determined to switch to having salad prior to eating other entrees. (The alternative was soup, but unless I'm at Hotel Rosenlaui, I don't usually like soup)

The nutritionist also explained what the a1c test is: it measures how much of your blood hemoglobin has been glycated (i.e., been coated with sugar). The higher the a1c level, the more of your hemoglobin's been coated with sugar, indicating that you've had more frequent bouts of increased blood sugar. The reason it's considered a better test for diabetes by my doctor is that red blood cells on average live for 3 months, so it's less prone to day to day fluctuations from dehydration, exercise, etc. As a bonus, you also don't need to fast prior to getting the a1c test.

Actually putting the diet into practice was eye-opening. What it did was to re-calibrate me on what was the proper amount. Prior to it, I was eating until I was full. I learned that you can't do that once you're in your 40s. You need to eat until you're about 75% full (unless you're bicycle touring, at which point your problem is eating enough to stay fueled). Once I'd recalibrated my stomach and sense of fullness, the weigh loss came easily. I quickly went down to 145 pounds by the time of the 2014 Tour of the Alps.

I'd once thought that my optimum weight was 145 pounds, because weight loss below that during the Tour Across France caused me no small amount of performance loss. But what happens in your 30s doesn't always happens in your 40s. During the tour, I reduced my weight to 140 pounds. After the tour, I made sure to reduce my food intake back to normal, and my weight loss continued. My nutritionist was worried that I was losing too much weight, but I assured her that I wasn't waking up in the middle of the night hungry.

Very disappointingly, getting my weight down to 135 pounds didn't have a dramatic effect on my a1c levels. It went down to 5.8. "That's a good trendline," my doctor said, but I was used to having much more impact through lifestyle changes, especially considering that my body weight loss was much more than the 7 pounds the doctor originally said would be sufficient.

One thing I never realized until I started doing it is how much Chinese culture would rather that you be fat. This probably isn't just restricted to the Chinese, since even in English, the opposite of "Fat and Happy" is "Lean and Mean." But person after person would comment on my weight loss, usually with negative connotations. My mom started asking me if I was healthy because I'd lost so much weight. I even have a memory of watching (with my wife) the Chinese version of "The Bachelor" TV show where one woman explicitly laid out her need for a guy with a paunch as one of her key requirements! Fortunately, as a cyclist, I'm used to society's negative associations with my favorite sport, so I pretty much ignored all the peer pressure and went ahead with my weight loss.

I wish I could tell you that there was a break through, or a magic pill. To be honest, I wasn't interested in doing science experiments: I just wanted to get that a1c level down. So I tried a bunch of stuff including increasing my coffee intake to 3-5 cups of coffee per day (to prevent the jitters, about half that intake was decaf). I didn't put salad dressing on my salad, preferring to add seeds and nuts to it (much of the nutrition from salad is fat-soluble, so to get the most out of it you do need some fat in the salad). I had my sleep apnea under my control, but I could also change my exercise regiment, to add more intervals to it, and to cross-train with swimming so that I could up the intensity when I did get on the bike. I added a fitness tracker to my wrist. My 2016 Tour of the Alps was one of the toughest challenges ever, and I felt better than ever by the end of the tour. My weight went down to 130 pounds and then down to about 125 pounds. I now look back at pictures of myself from 2012-2013 and exclaim, "Holy crap I was fat!" My wife said she hadn't noticed because when she met me I was already fat. This goes to show that you gain weight slowly, so you'll never actually know that you're fat unless you actively weigh yourself.

All through the past 3 years, I'd get my a1c levels checked every 6 months or so. My doctor (who was astounded at how quickly I could take off weight) was always encouraging, even when the levels ticked up. "Keep doing what you've been doing." Finally, this year's test came out of the pre-diabetic range. I'm now no longer pre-diabetic! Of course, there's always a margin of error on tests, so I can't ease up on the lifestyle changes. But the nice thing about lifestyle changes are that if you do them right, they're sustainable for the long term --- I no longer get the urge to eat dessert. This has been by far the toughest health project I've done so far, but it's a relief to know that I'm actually finally getting some results. The long feedback cycle (it makes no sense to test a1c more than once every 6 months) and the long delay in the changes taking effect explain why fighting diabetes is so challenging. By comparison, weight loss was the easy part.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review: The Wall of Storms

I somewhat enjoyed Ken Liu's debut novel, The Grace of Kings, but not enough to even keep track when the second novel in the series (The Wall of Storms) showed up. When it did, there wasn't even a line for the ebook from the library, so I checked it out and started reading.

All the flaws from The Grace of Kings are present in The Wall of Storms, as well as the strengths. The strengths are that Ken Liu does a great job of providing an alternate history of inventions and scientific discovery, albeit in accelerated form. All the technological innovations presented in the book are feasible, and the world clearly behaves within certain rules that are somewhat fun to decipher.

The flaws are that the characters are wooden and single-dimensional, never actually growing or learning despite their experiences. In fact, one of the lead characters repeatedly does evil things despite repeatedly suffering the consequences of her actions. Her role in the story is to be the advocate for the idea of process and systems over trust and personal relationships, and as a result her suffering is meant to be a moral or parable for the reader to draw from, rather than being a real character.

I did finish the book, because it was interesting enough to keep going, but it never got so interesting that I felt like I couldn't wait for the next book.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Review: Beyond the Aquila Rift

I'm a huge fan of Alastair Reynolds, having read most of his short story collections and his novels. Beyond the Aquila Rift is a collection of short stories from over his careers. Many of the stories in the collection are pretty long, and the book itself is physically huge, making the Kindle edition the preferred means of reading this.

I'd read many of the early stories in this collection before, especially those set in the Revelation Space universe. As you can imagine, the stories are great, with a breadth of imagination that's hard to beat (including several robot stories that hold true, even in the light of recent developments in AI). I then got to Thousandth Night, which is a novella set in the same universe as House of Suns, featuring two of the same characters, and that was such a great story that it made me go back and start reading House of Suns again.

The last few stories in the book were a reminder that in recent years, Reynolds has focused on novels (novels make money, short stories don't), and the last few stories feel more like filler, without the verve of the earlier work. Nevertheless, if all you have is a few minutes a night of reading time, this is a great collection with which to start your introduction to one of the great science fiction authors in modern times.

Recommended.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Review: Secrets of Sleep Science

Secrets of Sleep Science has a misleading title. None of the "secrets" in the lecture series are secrets. They've pretty much all been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. What they are are little known facts.

For instance, one little known piece of research about sleep deprivation is that even after a 3 day recovery period, all it takes is a night of short sleep and you're back to your previous state of sleep deprivation. We know so little about sleep and how it affects us that we don't even know how recovery from sleep deprivation works, and what it takes to restore our optimal operating conditions.

The lecture series covers a great deal, with a big emphasis on animal studies, since that's what the lecturer's expertise is in. There's coverage of typical sleep problems like insomnia, sleep apnea, and even nightmares as a result of PTSD. (An interesting piece of research mentioned is the linkage between dreaming and learning, with the possibility that PTSD nightmares are a case of learning gone wrong --- the mind reinforces the traumatic event and the emotional responses to it instead of recovering)

One of the most fascinating titbits coming out of the lecture on sleep apnea was that central sleep apnea (where the brain basically forgets to breath) is a prime suspect in the cause of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The circumstantial evidence (which is still under research) is that babies who have particularly regular breathing and heart rate have a higher incidence of SIDS. The current hypothesis is that this indicates that the control mechanisms in those infants are less sensitive to the environment.

What I like about the lecture series is that Professor Craig Heller does not mince words about the importance of sleep --- he cites over and over stories about how sleep shortage, untreated sleep apnea, or insomnia can lead to death (usually in combination with operating heavy machinery or driving). This grabs your attention and makes the entire series well worth an audit.

Recommended.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Review: The Flash Season 1

Modern TV series have state: in other words, you're expected to watch them from beginning to end in sequence (and that's a good thing!), and watching episodes out of sequence wouldn't work as well. As a result, my habit is to wait for a sale on the TV series and then buy them and watch them, rather than wait a week between episodes.

The Flash is, of course, the TV show about the fastest man alive. With a big budget and high production values, it's a crowd pleaser. The initial set up is fun, and all of the characters are given little twists that are a lot of fun. For instance, Barry Allen is given a highly motivating back-story (i.e., his Dad's unjustly put in jail for his mom's murder). He's also given a support group consisting of a personal doctor, a tech guy who makes his gadgets and costumes, and a coach in the form of a professor Harrison Wells. He's given a long-standing love interest, a father-figure, and a romantic rival.

All of this is weaved into a story where the appearance of super-humans is given a rationale: the origin of The Flash also turns out to have created a bunch of super-powered humans, most of whom turned out to be villains, but some of whom get spun-off into their own superheroes, including some pretty obscure ones like Firestorm, which I got a kick out of.

What I liked about the series is that the exploration of Barry Allen's powers are gradual and staged. You're never overwhelmed with the large number of things that the Flash can do, and he never has so much power that he isn't vulnerable. Most of the characters are also very sympathetic and believable. I also liked the way the end of the first season's plot wrapped up, though it also introduced all sorts of time paradoxes that's left to the next season to follow up on. I also love the color palette of the world of The Flash. It's been fashionable to do "dark, grim and gritty" super heroes in recent years, and I like how bright and optimistic Barry Allen's world is.

What I disliked about the series is the early denouement of the villain. I felt like that robbed the reveal of any dramatic impact whatsoever, and by the time Barry Allen figures out who his enemy is, I'd long reconciled myself to it and his feeling of betrayal never quite got through to me. The last episode was by far the weakest, with multiple plot holes you can pour a speedster into. Also, comic-book gobbledy-gook seems a lot more acceptable when it's on paper than when it's spoken by actors.

Nonetheless, the show's quite fun and I found myself wanting to keep watching. It's not quite Buffy, but then again, even Josh Whedon has yet to top himself on that one.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: The Art of Critical Decision Making

I approached the art of critical decision making with skepticism, not expecting it to provide great insights. It turned out to be excellent.

For instance, I tended to view decision making from a leadership point of view as "figuring out the best thing to do." The lecturer, Michael Roberto comes to it from a completely different angle: the role of the leader is to:

  1. Set up a process for decision making, including a process for identifying the problem(s) that need to be solved.
  2. Foster conflict and encourage debate. The idea here is to draw out as many different perspectives and opinions as possible.
  3. Explore multiple options.
  4. Converge to a decision. This is where the leader, having heard all the other points of view, makes the decision. If the decision is complex, you might actually break down the decision into multiple smaller decisions and do the conflict/converge process iteratively.
If this were all, it wouldn't be worth the time to listen to the lecture series. Roberto covers common dysfunctions, including common situations you probably have already encountered, such as the scenario where everyone seems to agree, but then works actively behind the scenes afterwards to try to undermine the decision. Then there's the inability to converge, or various political issues that come up over and over again. There's also the newly formed team, where nobody has the confidence to say what they really mean, resulting in "groupthink."

A lot of  case studies are provided, including the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, both Challenger and Columbus shuttle explosions, and some other business related ones. All of them serve to illustrate various points, including the fact that NASA's culture didn't change between the two explosions, which is studied in depth at several levels.

Overall, I enjoyed the series and thought it packed a lot of information and insights into a small amount of time.

Recommended.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: Moto Hint+ Bluetooth Headset

I've been pretty happy with my LG Tone headset for the past year or so, but there's one use case where they really don't cut it: cycling. The headset would bounce against my collarbone whenever I stand up (which is at every stop light or stop sign, or up every freeway overpass), and it's just too annoying to wear while cycling. They also emit a blue light which can be very annoying. In the gym, they also have a tendency to fall out of position whenever you need to lie down (say, at the bench press). This led me to look for an alternate solution.

I settled on an eBay refurbished Moto Hint+ for the following reasons:
  • It was cheap ($30)
  • I didn't need both ears.
When it arrived, I paired it with my phone and away I went. The device definitely stays in my ears even when cycling, and it has no problem providing music, audio books, or phone calls. The battery life is only 3 hours, but that's OK with the use case for the device --- I hardly ever wear a headset for more than an hour at a time.

My major criticism of the device is:
  • Not waterproof. (This is rapidly becoming my pet peeve of modern electronics)
  • No way to pause music. Tapping the headset activates Google voice assistant, which you can try to tell to pause the music, but that only works half the time.
  • No volume control (use the phone's --- it's actually not that big a deal, but can be a problem if your songs aren't equalized)
  • It's 10g heavier than the LG Tone. (Very surprising!) It is, however, more compact to carry.
Sound quality is decent, though not as good as my LG Tone. The reason is that the LG tone seals both ears, so when watching a movie or purely listening to music I prefer the LG Tone. But for regular phone calls or cycling, or any situation where keeping one ear open (e.g., when one of my children is active and needs me to be able to hear him) is necessary, these are the better solution.

Alternatives are the Samsung IconX ($150 new, $72.60 used) which provides stereo and disconnected music, and Bragi Dash ($208 new) which also provides stereo, disconnected music and waterproofing, but has very mixed reviews. Overall, I like this style of headset enough that I would try the IconX if my Moto Hint+ dies. In the mean time, the Moto Hint+ is more than good enough. Recommended.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Radical Candor

Radical Candor is an ex-Googler's book about management. Kim Scott was the manager for Adsense's sales team, and grew the team for several years before joining Apple and then working with Twitter and Dropbox. That gives her resume great credibility.

She's not afraid to illustrate the number one rule to getting ahead in big corporations: know the senior boss personally (in this case Sheryl Sandberg), and have her support you no matter how you screw up. After she joined Google (immediately as a manager, by the way --- she didn't have to work there as a leaf node), she managed to piss off enough of her team to lose several team members to transfers and departures. She writes:
The great thing about working at Google was that the company gave me a chance to fix my mistake. My boss explained exactly what I’d done wrong—and then let me hire people to replace those I’d lost. I was able to bring several people who’d worked for me at Juice to Google. (Kindle Loc. 1558)
Sounds kinda like she got rewarded for pissing off  and demoralizing her existing team, doesn't it? In my experience, that was par for the course at large corporations, so don't hold it against her.

In any case, the book is actually a good one.  Her thesis is that everything in management starts from relationships. Fundamentally, you have to have great relations with your team, to the point where when you provide negative feedback, they see it as being helpful, rather than becoming defensive or quitting. The tools she provides in the book to do so are labeled "Radical Candor." Her example is that if you see someone with their fly down, you should call it out instead of ignoring it and not giving them a chance to correct it. The same applies to verbal tics, annoyances, and of course, poor performance on the job. The book covers many such examples.

One of the best points of the book is that you need both "Rock Stars" and "Super Stars." The idea is that "Rock Stars" are high performers who are satisfied with their role, while "Super Stars" are constantly looking for the next challenge who will leave if you don't move them up quickly enough. This initially sounded to me like she was encouraging you to pigeon hole your employees but fortunately she mentions that the whole point of relationship building with your team is that you understand what phase of life she's in, and what she expects out of her work. She points out that because it is human nature to over-worship "Super Stars", you shouldn't actually make a big deal out of promotions:
Announcing promotions breeds unhealthy competition for the wrong things: documentation of status rather than development of skill. (Kindle Loc. 3656)
Note: Google isn't a great example: promotions were always a big deal, at least in engineering. Similarly, I'll note that Twitter had a singularly poor engineering culture, so her constant use of Dick Costolo as being a great manager kinda lost points with me rather than being the great examples she intended. Of course, Costolo himself might or might not have been responsible for Twitter's poor engineering culture, but bear in mind that her book's probably not intended to apply to engineering management.

With all that in mind, I enjoyed the book. Everything she writes about 1:1s, skip reporting, and management by walking around rings true. The emphasis on asking for feedback in order to model desired behavior (you want every employee to be constantly asking for feedback in order to improve) is first rate. The book's readable and full of specific examples and case studies.

My biggest criticism of the book is that Scott's ego-centricism means that she barely references prior work and doesn't even mention classics of management literature (I suspect that this means that she never read them!). But that in itself is not enough for me to avoid recommending this book for every manager, engineer or not.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Becoming a Great Essayist

I started listening to this expecting a lecture series on how to write a great essay. It turns out to be a survey course on great essayists, the taxonomy of essays, and recommendations on further reading.

While the content and change of pace was nice (I'm tired of people telling me how to string together a sentence, and yes, writing is revision), I wasn't particularly inspired by the material. Part of it is that the lecturer still pretends to want to teach you how to write (by providing essay assignments), and part of it is that her definition wasn't very clear.

So along the way, we get various discussions of polemics, the food essay (!!), the comedic essay, the personal reminiscence, and so on and so forth.

In and of itself, the lecture series wasn't bad, but I expected much more from a Great Courses sequence. Not recommended.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

First Impressions: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

I've been very happy, and continue to be very happy with my Garmin Edge 800. For a complete set of features it's unparalleled, and if I were touring the Alps this year I wouldn't even consider buying a new bike computer. However, the plan this year is to tour England with my 5 year old son. What Arturo and I discovered last year in our final leg of the tour through Germany was that in flatter areas with dense road networks, the penalty of stopping at every intersection to check maps is very high. While you can pre-plan routes with ridewithgps and load them to the Garmin Edge ahead of time, you can't easily do that "on the fly."

The best thing about cycle touring is the ability to change plans "on a dime", according to weather and wind, as well as how you feel from day to day. Because of this, the ability to navigate a preferred course while touring can make a break a tour, especially one where a 5 year old in the back seat of the tandem will frequently ask: "How long until we get there?"

Pamela Blalock navigated through Ireland last year on a solo tour using the previous version of the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt, the Wahoo Elemnt. By all accounts, the difference between the two units is basically $70 and the smaller screen on the Bolt, with a 15 hour battery vs a 18 hour battery life. There's no way Bowen's going to stay on a bike for even 10 hours a day, so 15 hours was more than good enough.

Now if you search the web for Wahoo vs Garmin, you'll see a lot of rave reviews about the Wahoo and how it's a Garmin killer. After several rides of experience, I'll say that while the Wahoo is competitive, it's by no means a Garmin killer. There are many places where the Wahoo unit is inferior in many ways, so let me get all those out of the way.

Mounting: Garmin's industrial strength rubber bands are the best bar none as far as mounting solutions are concerned. Wahoo copies them, but made several decisions that make them inferior. First of all, instead of using rubber bands they chose to use zip ties. I've had many more zip tie failures than Garmin rubber band failures. They're less reliable, and of course, every time you need to move the mount from bike to bike you pretty much have to cut the zip tie. The Bolt comes with 2 mounts (like the Garmin did), and one of the mounts is an off-the-front mount. This mount interferes big time with my handlebar bag. I'd buy more mounts but Wahoo wants $15 per mount, which is ridiculous. By contrast, Garmin will sell you 2 for $10. Winner - Garmin.

Boot Speed: Since I have both the Garmin 800 and the Bolt on the tandem (the 800 on Bowen's position), I get to compare their start up time. The 800 wins handily, and that's a 6 year old unit! This goes doubly when you do a "warm start." The typical scenario for touring is that you ride up to a supermarket (or playground or museum or side trip area) and turn off your bike computer while you eat lunch (no sense wasting battery). After you're done, you startup the units again. To its credit, the Bolt "resumes" the ride correctly (the Garmin 820 and 810, both inferior units to the 800 don't always do so). But it takes a very long time to boot. I'd already be riding for half a minute before it wakes up. Winner - Garmin.

Settings: The Bolt can only be setup by a smartphone app. That's OK. But what's frustrating is that the Bolt does not appear to "listen" to the smartphone app. Try as I might, I can't turn off Live Tracking on the Bolt. I also can't get the Bolt to display e-mail notifications. It's would be very frustrating if not for the fact that I have a Vivoactive HR which handles it just fine. Now, the 800 obviously can't do any of that, but whatever settings I want to change, I can change it directly on the computer. Winner - Tie.

Battery Life: Because the Bolt turns on Live Tracking (which I can't seem to turn off, no matter what!), the battery life is reduced. About 6 hours of riding depletes the battery by about 50%, so the actual battery life appears to be 12 hours instead of 15. The Garmin 800 when new had about 15 hours of battery, and now appears to have about the same battery life as the Bolt. Winner - Tie.

Bike Profiles: Like the later Garmins, the Bolt does not do per bike statistics collection. By contrast, my Garmin 800 has a separate odometer per bike, and I can tell it which bike I'm riding. It even knows how much each bike weighs so its calorie estimates are correct. By contrast, the Bolt thinks I'm riding a lightweight carbon fiber wonder, so its calorie estimates are ridiculously low. I turned off calorie expended from my screens on the Bolt because it was so far off as to be useless. Winner - Garmin.

Mapping and Navigation: The Bolt cannot do off-line navigation and rerouting. At all. All it can do is to follow a track you gave it from the Smartphone App. That it can do so wirelessly is a great feature! I tried it multiple times during dry runs, and it's amazing to tap out a route on ridewithgps and have it download immediately to the Bolt and then be riding the route with navigation entries. But if you're stuck without a cell signal or your smartphone battery is dead, you're so screwed if all you have is the Bolt. The Garmin 800 can do smart navigation even when off-line without a smartphone. The penalty is that you have to pay Garmin for maps or go through the 3-5 day procedure to load maps to your Garmin, while OSM base maps for the entire world is included in the Bolt. It's a wash in the Alps when road networks are not dense, but when you're touring a country with dense road networks the Garmin will frequently get confused or take a long time to recompute a route if you miss a turn. This is a toughie. Winner: Bolt (by a bit). Garmin really should give up on trying to make money off map sets.

Screen: The Bolt has a black and white screen which is very high contrast. This is nice, but the UI display is not done intelligently. When you have an upcoming turn on the Garmin, it doesn't matter what screen you're on as you approach the turn: the Edge will flip to the map screen and zoom into the intersection and show you how to navigate the turn. The Bolt won't do that! Instead, it'll flash a "left turn" or "right turn" arrow and the name of the street. So if you're following a route you must keep the display on the mapping/navigation screen. Even so, you might find yourself frantically pushing the zoom in or out button when approaching a complex intersection or traffic circle. This is an idiotic way of doing things and it's clear that Garmin's background in car based navigation units has transferred over to their bike units. Wahoo's PMs clearly have not thought through how people use navigation systems. By the way, the LEDs on the Wahoo are pretty much unusable in bright sunlight. I turn them off as a waste of battery. Winner: Garmin.

Looking at the above, I can see how you might love the Bolt if you owned a later model Garmin (810 and later). Those later models are not fully debugged and are missing features that the older Edge has. But if you have the Edge 800, the Bolt's a much less obvious upgrade. Now when it comes to current model Garmins vs the Bolt, it's still a tough call. Obviously, if you're a tourist on unfamiliar roads in places with dense road networks you want the Bolt. My experience, however, is that most cyclists don't do what I do. They do organized rides with arrow markings on the ground or follow the leader in group rides or rides in places that they know. In those cases, the Garmin units are probably way better.

I'm keeping my Bolt, but my guess is that in the long run when I'm not touring it will play second fiddle to the Garmin Edge 800. My solution for my upcoming tour is to bring both units. If I get into trouble with the Bolt, I'll grab the Garmin off my son's handlebars for navigating.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tire with Smart Guard

I don't usually review tires unless I've ridden them down to the tire carcass. But in the case of the Marathon Plus tire, I'll make an exception.

The history: when I had the triplet built, I opted to use my own wheels, and I supplied the bike shop with some of tires from my stock. For whatever reason, one of those tires blew off the rim when the shop installed it, and in a state of panic the shop opted to "comp" me the Marathon Plus.

The tires weigh 750g each. Yes, that's 1.6 pounds per tire, or 3.2 pounds for a set. They weigh and ride like iron. Usually when I swap out one tire for another, it's a barely noticeable difference. Swapping saddles usually make a bigger difference than tires. In this case, when I finally (after 2000 miles) swapped out the tires for Michelin Pro 4s, not only did I notice a difference, my son commented, "This is now the fastest bike ever!"

The tires claim to be flat-proof (and the reviews on the internet all claim that as well). Not true. I managed to get a flat once while riding through Cupertino. That was when I realized how heavy the tires were. Not only were they heavy on the bike, it was a massive pain to get them off the rim to remove the tube and install a new one. I bent a Minoura Tire Lever getting them off! I'd never had such a frustrating time fixing a flat!

I'm always amazed at how Europeans seem to like riding tires that are way over-built and heavy. The ride quality of the bike on these tires are horrible, and if not for the fact that they were on the triplet I probably would have gotten rid of them well before the 2,000 mile mark. I think these tires are only appropriate if you make a habit out of riding on Munich bike paths, where drunk people smash beer bottles on the bike path and these tires might have a chance of getting through them without a flat. Even then, woe upon ye if you did get a flat as these tires will then be nigh impossible to fix. They're not as bad as the famous Torelli master rim where I broke steel tire levers getting tires on and off the rim, but they're pretty close.

Needless to say, I'm done with these tires. If you want them, let me know and I'll "comp" them to you. NOT RECOMMENDED.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Shimano PD-T400 Click'r Pedal

Ever since I got Bowen his SPD shoes and mounted cleats on it, we've been riding with him fully cleated. He loves it because his feet never come off the pedals, which is a hazard on the tandem because the pedals won't stop spinning just because your feet came off!

The big challenge, however, has been getting him in and out of the pedals. Our solution was to use the kickstand, and then have him on the bike and I'll click him in by hand. There are two problems with this: first of all, it gets pretty old fast. It makes even stopping for a restroom break a chore. Secondly, when we tour, we'll have a load on the panniers, and between the load on the panniers and a 35 pound kid, this might very well overload the kickstand hardware! I reduced the spring tension on our SPDs all the way down to the bottom, but he just couldn't clip himself in or out, even when he got the position right.

What I didn't realize was that Shimano makes an entire line of pedals that a light release action called Click'r. The marketing literature claims that they have 60% less activation force when clipping in, and 50% less activation force when clipping out. Since I didn't have to use much force with my hand when clipping in Bowen by hand, I figured that might be sufficient for him to clip in and out. For $23.25 per pair, it was a cheap experiment (also, I bought it from Amazon for easy returns).

The pedals showed up and installing them was as easy as my M520s: unlike high end pedals, these came with wrench flats, which are great. We tried them as is, an no-go. His feet just wouldn't clip in. So we got out allen keys, and pushed the tension down as low as it could go. We also switched the cleats on his shoes to the ones that came with the pedal, just in case that made a difference.

Sure enough, that did the trick. Bowen can now clip in and out of his pedals by himself, and he liked it so much he practiced doing it 10-15 times so he could get it right. We took the bike for a short test ride, and after that I asked him to spin the pedals backwards as quick as he could to see if he would unclip by accident. Nope.

Bowen asked about getting these for his single bike but I pointed out that his feet never came off the pedals on that bike, and even if they did, the pedals wouldn't keeping spinning so it wasn't a dangerous situation. In fact, if you couldn't clip out fast enough you might fall over. He thought for a bit and then agreed.

These are great pedals, and I can foresee that I might be buying at least another pair in the future for his brother. If you have kids on a tandem, or if you're new to clipless pedals, get these. Recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: Spigen Rugged Armor Moto G5 Plus Case

The Moto G5 Plus proved to be too slippery for me. Furthermore, the rear camera protrudes from the bottom, and sooner or later I'm going to leave the phone on the ground somewhere and end up scratching the lens, so I decided to buy a rubber case for it. The Spigen Rugged Armor case came with good reviews. In particular, it's just thick enough that the camera lens is flush with it, so I can put it down without the phone being wobbly. In practice, Motorola should have just made the back of the phone thicker by sufficient amounts and given me even better battery life, but then I guess no one would have a reason to buy the Moto Z Play.

The case is easy to put on, easy to take off, grippier but not too sticky when putting it into and out of pockets. It's easy to reach into my jersey pocket to pick up the phone and shoot pictures while cycling, which is mostly what I ask of it. I hope never to test how well it protects the camera if I should drop it, and while the raised lip of the case on the front should protect the phone from scratching if it falls face down onto a smooth surface, it won't protect the screen from keys in your pocket, etc, so I would still put a screen protector onto the phone.

The case weighs 32g, which is much lighter than an Otterbox, and not very objectionable at all.

Recommended.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: ThinkTank Mirrorless Mover 10

If you use your camera enough, sooner or later you end up with a closet full of camera bags. The key is you want to be able to travel with just the right amount of equipment for the job, and different bags have different jobs.

We bought a Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 25 back when we started with the EOS M3. It's a great bag, and we've filled it up with the EOS M3, the 22mm prime, the 11-22 wide angle zoom, the EF-S 55-250 zoom (with adapter), a small flash, spare batteries and lens cleaning accessories. But there are days when I'm carrying 2 kids up (or down) a mountain and it's just a bit much. On those days, I'd just hang the 11-22 zoom on my shoulder, but of course, it would dig into my chest or get hammered by the kids.

BestBuy had a sale on the Mirrorless Mover 10, and I ordered it to see how it would work. The good news is that it fit nicely on the Deuter Kid Comfort III's waist belt, even with it cinched tight. It has sufficient capacity for either just the EOS M3 with the 11-22 zoom + the small flash, or the EOS M3 with the 22mm prime and the 40mm (with adapter), a spare battery, and lens cleaning kit. On the side there's enough room for a mini tripod. Together the entire kit would weigh 1kg (2.2 pounds)

The bag comes with a shoulder strap, but in practice I'll probably never use it, and would detach it before traveling. The idea is that on a car based touring/hiking trip, you would have the full kit in the car. If you drive to a trailhead and then have to carry 2 kids up a steep hill, you'd move what you need into the Mirrorless Mover 10 and then you'll have a lighter weight kit that would leave you hands free (for kid carrying) when you're going up and down a mountain. Or you could carry a spare body and lens while your wife carried the main camera.

When BestBuy shipped me the camera bag, it didn't have a strap. I called ThinkTank, and they didn't even ask for a receipt: they just immediately shipped me a camera strap. Whatever else you may think of the company, they have fantastic customer service.

Recommended.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First Impressions: Moto G5 Plus (Amazon Edition) 64GB

After I decided that the S7 was unacceptable, I had a dilemma. I could not go back to my 2015 Moto G, because I had given it to my mom so she could have an unlocked phone in Singapore. It seemed as though I had to give up on my desire for waterproofing as a core feature. The chipset that has the best battery life at the moment is the Snapdragon 625. Unlike the chipsets in the 800 series (or even the siblings in the 600 series), the 625 was actually designed for power efficiency. It was featured in the Moto Z Play phone last year, and while most phones don't get mentioned 6 months after they launch, the Moto Z Play is still getting rave reviews for stellar battery life.

I somehow missed all the deals for the Moto Z Play, but the Moto G5 Plus launched recently, and uses the same chipset. Even better, if you have an Amazon Prime membership, you get $60 off for the 4GB RAM/64GB Storage version. My experience with the Blu R1 HD is that the Amazon add-ons to the phone aren't obtrusive, especially if you have lots of storage and so can forgive the non-deletable pre-installed apps. Having learned my lesson about storage, I decided to go for the larger storage version. 4GB of RAM can't hurt, since I did notice that the Moto G 2015 did frequently run with very little free space.

Compared with the Moto Z Play, the Moto G5 Plus has:
  • Smaller screen (5.2" vs 5.5")
  • No NFC (the European versions have NFC but no compass!) NFC is nice, but as far as I can tell, none of the phone payment methods have really taken off, so it's a non issue. The compass is very useful when using any navigation apps, so I really appreciate that the US version has the compass.
  • LCD screen vs AMOLED screen (no question, AMOLED screens are superior!)
  • Smaller battery (3000mAH vs 3510 mAH)
  • No Moto Mods (no big deal --- as of date there are no Moto Mods worth the price or weight or bulk)
  • Lighter (156g vs 165g)
  • Different camera (can't tell whether it's any better or worse, just different)
  • 4GB RAM (vs 3GB)
  • 64GB storage (vs 32GB storage)
  • micro-USB vs USB C (this is a feature as far as I'm concerned --- no need to buy new cables!)
  • No full-time "OK Google". (would have been nice to have, but I didn't have it on the 2015 Moto G or the S7 either!)
Except for the smaller screen (and it seriously would have been nice to have an AMOLED screen), it didn't seem like it would have much of a compromise. In fact, in other ways (storage and RAM), the G5 Plus seems like the better phone.

I bought the phone and got the free same day shipping. It arrived and I immediately tried the "transfer data from a nearby phone" feature of Android 7.0. Oh wow, Google Play Services crashed! And crashed! And crashed! I finally rebooted the phone and went back to setting up my phone the traditional way.

After the setup, the phone was fast! Browsing, e-mail, and even taking pictures is reasonably fast with next to no lag. I was also very impressed by one of the new Moto gestures, which is to use the fingerprint reader as a substitute for the on-screen navigation buttons, recovering several pixels worth of space from the bottom of the screen. In fact, on-screen navigation buttons take up about 0.3inches of screen space, which effectively means that the 5.2inch screen on the Moto G Plus is now equivalent to the 5.5inch screen on the Moto Z Play! This is a great move and I wonder why other manufacturers don't do it.

Sound quality and bluetooth seemed to work better than my 2015 Moto G, which would get audio stutter whenever a music player was being asked to multi-task with any other app. I guesss I was CPU limited but didn't even know it.

And wow, storage! I didn't realize how constricted I'd been until I started installing apps and after more than 100 apps on the system the device still proclaimed that I had used only 6.84GB out of 53.71 on the internal storage. My 64GB micro SD card was definitely getting worked more., since it's the default storage location for photos, videos, etc.

Note that both Moto Z Play and the Moto G5 Plus have headphone jacks, which is very nice since one of our cars and many of our high quality audio headphones still use the traditional system. In fact, none of the other Moto Z phones were ever under consideration because of this missing feature. I hope the Android ecosystem continues to thumb its collective noses at Apple's "courage" with regards to this user hostile move.

The physical device feels slippery (I have no idea why anyone thinks that metal is superior to plastic for devices that you need to handle). At 156g, the device is pretty much the same as my old Moto G. Interestingly enough, the charger's much lighter than the one that came with the Moto X Pure. The Moto X Pure's charger is 110g (integrated cable), while the Moto G's charger is 52g with a 21g cable. The Samsung's charger was 42g by comparison.

Surprisingly, I found myself using the fingerprint scanner. That's because it was fast and consistent. I wouldn't put up with it otherwise. Similarly, I found myself using the gestures to turn the screen off (hold the finger print sensor for 1s), or bring up Google assistant (hold the fingerprint sensor past the haptic feedback buzz).  I thought the fingerprint scanner would be a gimmick, but it's turned out to be quite reasonable. (The Samsung also used it for Samsung Pay, but with no NFC obviously I'm not going to be able to use Google Pay anyway!)

And yes, ridewithgps works using Firefox on the Moto G5 Plus. One pleasant surprise is that WiFi calling works on T-mobile using the Moto G5 Plus, without any special configuration. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, that's the only feature I got from Nougat that was noteworthy.

Battery life has been nothing short of incredible, coming from both the S7 and the Moto G 2015. I regularly end the day plugging the phone in and seeing that the battery level is at 40%. This gives me hope that running Live Tracking while riding all day won't kill the battery on the phone.

All in all, I'll be keeping the phone for a while. The lack of waterproofing bothers me, but I guess I'll pack away my phone when it rains into a waterproof bag.

Recommended.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Otterbox Defender for the Samsung Galaxy S7

I picked up the Otterbox Defender for the S7 because the phone by itself felt too slippery. The Otterbox promised to toughen up the phone so it could survive drops as well.

The case comes in 3 pieces, an internal shell that goes directly around the S7, a rubber bumper that goes around that shell, and then a holster. The shell and bumper weigh 81g, and I didn't bother weighing the holster because it was so bulky as to be unusable.

The resultant phone inside the bumper felt very grippy. So much so that when I slid the phone into a pocket, it would grab the sides of the pocket and not go all the way into the pocket! Extracting the phone from a pocket had the same feeling.

The rubber bumper has flaps for USB charging and the headphones, and these are the most solid flaps I've ever seen. They definitely will protect the phone!

The biggest flaw with the case is that the top and bottom lips interfere with the functions of the phone. The top lip prevents you from using the "pull down" gesture to drag down notifications. The bottom lip prevents the finger print reader from registering all the time. I don't know how this could have been prevented --- one possibility is that there's so little bezel space that any lip would have intruded, but without trying a slew of cases there's no way to find out.

Ultimately, I returned the S7, but I'm pretty sure I would have to return it for the gesture interference problems anyway.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: Storm in a Teacup

Storm in a Teacup is a great book, and a lot of fun. The idea is that Helen Czerski's going to show you how physics concepts apply to your day to day life, from teacups to weather. The topics include a discussion of state changes (solid, liquid, gas), electromagnetism, wave theory, gravity (sans relativity), and the sense of scale.

The writing is great, there is no math, and her selection of day to day circumstances (including the construction of a trebuchet) is selected to be enjoyable and relatable.  There's very much of the sense of wonder that comes across when you contemplate the universal laws of physics through day to day forces like that of a platypus hunting for shrimp. I was sad when the book was over and I wanted more.

Recommended.