Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes is the starting novel in the Expanses series, which has spawned a TV series of the same name. The TV series got outstanding reviews from various friends of mine, but let's face it: I'm never going to have the time to watch that much TV! My recent attempts to watch Daredevil in 5-10 minute chunks basically made the series very disjointed in my memory.

Fortunately, it's fairly straightforward to checkout books from the library, and once I got it I dove into the novel n rapid order.

The good news is that the book's very readable, with great characters, transparent prose, and interesting situations. The two alternating viewpoint characters (Detective Miller and Captain Holden) have diametrically opposed life experiences, as well as attitudes towards information. Miller views information as currency, to be used and withheld or bargained with, while Holden sees that information should be shared as much as possible and that humans would do the right thing if they were given all the information. The latter is very much in line with views many techies hold in Silicon Valley, but Miller is clearly by far the more sympathetic character in the novel, and comes off as being far more effective, while Holden's naive approach brings one disaster after another.

The setting is also intriguing, set in the relatively near future, with a humanity on the verge of colonizing the entire solar system and making use of all its resources.

The bad news is that you pretty much have to turn off your brain for many of the plot points because they simply do not make sense. Even the villain of the novel could probably have gotten what he wanted a lot more easily than hatching the nefarious plot he eventually did.

All in all, while an enjoyable read, this is more along the lines of Peter F. Hamilton-style space opera rather than Alastair Reynolds. I'll probably place more holds at the library, but am not running out in a hurry to pay full price for the other novels in the series. Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

First Impressions: EF 40mm/2.8 STM

Canon occasionally has massive sales on their refurbished equipment. I'd been eyeing the 40mm/2.8 for a while, and when the price dropped below $100, I gave in to the temptation and bought it. There are a few reasons to have done so:

  • It's smaller and lighter than my EF 50mm/1.8 II.
  • It's got better focusing, since it's sporting the newer STM motor.
  • I finally broke my Sony RX100, and needed a camera. Rather than replace the RX100, I figured my EOS 5D2 is a much better camera and just needed to become smaller and lighter to make it easy to carry. For $100, I could buy a lens and still have left over to replace the compact camera in the future.
The size and weight together made me more willing to carry my 5D2 around --- with my ancient Galen Rowell Chest Pouch, I can now carry the 5D2 on the triplet and ride it, do a hike, and then ride back without feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I could carry Boen in a backpack or on my shoulders and still carry the 5D2 with the 40mm attached. I did not even attempt to carry a second lens, though I did carry a small fill flash.

I recently brought it along on a hike with my family. My wife brought along her EOS M3 with the 22mm/2 STM, and we shot in similar lighting situations. From the focal length point of view, both lenses are in the same ballpark (22mm * 1.6 = 35.2). 
EOS 5D/40mm 2.8 STM

EOS M3/22mm 2.8 STM

What's interesting is that the color palette on the EOS M3 looks a little more saturated to me (this is using Lightroom to process the RAW files). In both cases, the camera produces sharp images, though as you might guess the 5D2 wins simply on the basis of being faster to react to changing situations.

In practice, having only one focal length can be liberating --- after a while, you get used to the field of view of the lens and you can frame shots quickly. And in the age of Lightroom and easy cropping, there's no real reason to need a longer focal length up to about 3X the focal length of your main lens: modern SLRs have so many mega pixels that you can crop 50% of the picture and it'll still be usable.

The 5D2 with the EF 40mm is still about one and a half times the weight of the EOS M3, so for big trips where I'm space/weight constrained I'm still likely to stick to the EOS M3; I'm unlikely to ever just carry the 5D2 for a Tour of the Alps, for instance.. But for situations where I just want to have a camera? I now have one less excuse not to use my EOS 5D2 where before I'd just bring the compact and live with missing shots while waiting for it to turn on.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: Playstation Camera (PS4)

I hadn't planned on ever buying the PS4 camera. It was unbundled from the PS4 for good reason: the only reason for its existence was the fear that Microsoft's Kinect would take off, and Sony needed a good response in case that became the main way to use a game console. When Kinect became an obvious failure and no games supported it on the XBox, there were no games that required the PS4 camera either.  Of course, if you have plans to get PSVR or you do live-streaming (neither of which appeals to me), the PS4 Camera would be essential.

What drove me was Just Dance. I first bought versions of Just Dance for the PS3, which were about $5 each. It turned out that my wife liked the game, and played it a lot, but complained about having to hold the move controller in one hand for scoring purposes. Versions of Just Dance for the Kinect wouldn't need the controller, but I wasn't about to switch platforms just for one game. I did some research, and discovered the Just Dance for the PS4 with a Playstation Camera wouldn't need you to hold a controller!

There was a sale over the holiday season so I managed to pick up a camera for $30. Just Dance 2015 could be had around $20, and we'd be in business. In practice, Just Dance's action pick up doesn't seem very sensitive (which is probably a good thing). Basically,  if you flail around in the general direction you'd score correctly. My wife was very unimpressed when I could score as high as she did, since she's obviously a much better dancer. (I couldn't deny it simply because after each song the game shows you a video record of you flailing around trying to score) But she did appreciate not having to have anything in her hand.

The game does do a good job of making you move. My step-counter would run up about 500 steps per song, which is about right. My HR would go up as well, indicating that the Vivoactive HR is only accurate for people who aren't cycling.

What surprised me was that the PS Camera got used by Bowen for the free app that came with every playstation: Playroom. Bowen never seems to get sick of the AR Robot, and the companion app that lets you draw an object and then send it into the augmented reality view of the room was just as addictive to him as having paper and crayons.

For the standard price of $60, the PS4 Camera is pretty poor value (though you can get it as part of the bundle for PSVR), but at discounted prices it's reasonable.

Mildly recommended.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Friday, December 16, 2016

Review: Garmin Tempe Sensor

The Garmin Vivoactive HR has every sensor the Edge 800 or Fenix 3 HR has except for the temperature sensor. I'm sure some of it is cost cutting (though it's probably measured in the cents) but some of it is also practical: a device on your wrist is going to end up measuring your wrist's temperature, which hopefully is somewhere around 98.6F. That's not very useful, however!

The solution is the Garmin Tempe sensor. The device was actually created for the Fenix series of Garmin outdoor watches, since a temperature sensor really should be away from your body. It works and pairs with the Vivoactive with no problem, and if you plan to only record temperatures for your bike rides, you can just leave it on your bike (I stuff it into my handlebar bag) and then it's a "pair and forget" device. On my bike rides, it never takes longer than about a minute before the Vivoactive picks it up and it records the temperatures on nice graphs. It takes about 3 minutes for it to come down to ambient temperature from my indoor bike parking area, which is not an issue --- you can actually see in most cases that the indoor bike parking is colder than the ambient temperature, since on a cold day I tend to want to ride in sunny places.

If you want to take the device on a hike, the clip it comes in works on belt loops. Note that it doesn't actually work on belts. It's not big enough or long enough to go around a broad/tall belt, but it's just the right size to go on a belt loop and stay on all day even when switching from cycling to hiking and vice-versa. The tough part is to remember to take it off your pants before sticking the pants into the laundry!

The $25 question is whether the Garmin unit uses it to correct elevation/altitude data. I don't know, and have no easy way to figure it out short of taking it to the Alps and climbing a few marked passes with accurate elevation signs back to back. While I'm happy to do that, it'll take awhile for me to get to it. I know that on stable weather days, the Edge 800 (with the built in temperature sensor and barometer) is easily accurate within 5 meters. I'd love to see if the Vivoactive HR can also achieve that.

In a nice touch, the device uses the same battery (CR2032) as all other Garmin sensor units. That means you can expect long life and you only need to stock one type of backup batteries and it'll work with all your sensors.

In any case, it's cheap, light, easy to carry (and automatically pairs). It's unobtrusive in use. It's certainly not essential, but it's fun to go back and say, "Oh that's why it felt so cold!" Recommended.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: A Twist of the Wrist II

A Twist of the Wrist II was recommended to me by Pengtoh as being one of the best books about bike handling. While I've never actually ridden a motorcycle, my understanding is that as 2 wheeled vehicles that move at high speed, some of the skills and thinking involved might be transferable to the lighter, more environmentally friendly vehicles.

To my disappointment, the first third of the book is all about throttle control. Motorcycles (and bicycles) are designed to handle best with a 40/60 weight ratio (40% of the weight on the front, 60% on the rear). When you corner a motorcycle you tend to have a 50/50 weight balance. How do you get the ideal 40/60 weight balance? You apply a constant 0.1g thrust at the throttle. That means that all through the corner you need to be accelerating (he calls this roll-on) throughout the entire process. This sounds scary but I guess if you're going to be racing a motorcycle the answer seems to be: "More gas! What was the question?" This has zero applicability to bicycles: not only is pedaling through corners difficult (you risk pedal strike if you have a low BB), but you just don't have the power to apply a constant 0.1g acceleration through any corners!

The second third of the book is more applicable to cycling. It's about relaxing. Basically, the barrier to high performance on 2-wheeled vehicles is what Keith Code calls SR (Survival Reflex). If your SR is triggered you will slow down. Worse, if your SR is counter to what the bike needs to be doing, you'll crash. The key to not triggering your SR is to relax. Most of the advice here is very relevant: keep a bend in your elbows, unweigh the seat, and don't keep a death grip on the handlebars! In particular, when you encounter road chatter, a frequent reaction is to tighten up on the handlebars. Don't do that! Keith Code notes that by tightening your grip on the bars, any oscillation will now get transmitted throughout the entire system through your body, which is a bad bad thing to have happen. Good stuff. He provides practical tips on how to get better --- including slowing down before you approach a corner, and then slowly speeding up your corner entries as you get more comfortable. A few things aren't applicable: for instance, a motorcyclist can lean all the way over to the point where his knee touches the ground. Bicyclists can't do that --- the tires will lose traction long before that. Furthermore, a motorcycle is so big and heavy that counter-steering is the only way to quickly change the lean, while bicycles (with the exception of tandems) can generally be steered without counter-steering, though Code points out that if you do counter-steer you can start the steering action later, which lets you get through the corner by leaning less at greater speed! Good stuff, and worth a refresher read even if you're a decent bike handler.

The last third of the book is about avoiding the tunnel vision that tends to happen when you start exceeding your comfort zone. He talks about picking a point far enough ahead that you still have sufficient situation awareness to know what's going on. Similarly, for cornering he recommends first look at the place where you've picked to turn the bike, and then just before you get there to look through the turn so you steer the bike there. He also recommends that every corner should have only one steering action, and if you second guess yourself in the middle you'll slow down. Again, useful advice, and worth a read.

Obviously, you can't learn to ride a bicycle at high speed by reading a book. But assuming you've had a few mountain descents under your belt, some of the counter-intuitive things Keith Code mentions are worth practicing. Some of the advice (like tuning suspension) isn't applicable to most road bikes, but hey, anything with two wheels simply doesn't behave like a car, so in general it's worth seeking out people who've spent a lot of time thinking (and practicing) bike handling.

The oddest thing in the book is the glossaries at the end of each chapter. They cover elementary terms (such as the phrase "vice-versa") that makes me wonder about the vocabulary limitations of motorcycle racers.

The book doesn't cover any low speed bike handling problems (which motorcycle road racers never encounter but mountain bikers do), so don't expect any special insight there.

Otherwise, the book's worth a read. It doesn't make me want to ride a motorcycle, but does give me some sympathy as to the problems a motorcycle road racer would encounter.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Lots of websites and book review sites recommended Hillbilly Elegy during election season. All of them promised insight into the Trump voter, the anguish of working class whites, and the difficulties surrounding the culture of the poor whites in Appalachia. Reviews promising insight and enlightenment usually means that the book would be a boring slog, but the most surprising thing about this memoir of growing up in Kentucky and Ohio is how compellingly readable it is, despite the horrors inflicted upon J.D. Vance during his childhood.

Part of it is that we know that the book has a happy ending for Vance (he ends up graduating from Yale Law School after surviving a stint in the marines), if not for the Appalachian whites (and unfortunately, the country as a whole). But most of it is that the style is eminently readable, transparent, and neither sentimental nor full of self-pity. The childhood was astonishingly violent. He speaks of his grandparents as his social support when he was growing up, but the family history explains why their daughter (his mom) grew up to be a drug addict:
Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns. (Kindle loc 674)
Vance's mother rotated through a series of relationships, having children with different fathers, and then later (after she stopped) a series of boyfriends, none that she could keep for the long term. But the marital strife left their marks on Vance:
 Mom and Bob’s problems were my first introduction to marital conflict resolution. Here were the takeaways: Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you—if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective. (Kinde Loc. 1043)
At one point, Vance's mom threatens to commit double-suicide by crashing the car she was driving. When Vance jumps to the backseat for his own safety, his mom stops the car to drag him out of the back seat to beat him. Escaping the car, he races to a house and begs the house owner to save him by not letting his mom in, but his mom breaks down the door of the house and is about to kill Vance when the police show up to arrest her. Reading accounts of incident like this over and over again would be horrifying, but Vance manages to intersperse these episodes with reminders of how his grandparents always stepped in to rescue him and his sister.  The bitter fighting when they were raising his mom had gone away and made them decent grandparents.

Vance's insights are compelling:
The New York Times recently reported that the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for low-income students. Take, for example, a student whose parents earn thirty thousand per year—not a lot of money but not poverty level, either. That student would pay ten thousand for one of the less selective branch campuses of the University of Wisconsin but would pay six thousand at the school’s flagship Madison campus. At Harvard, the student would pay only about thirteen hundred despite tuition of over forty thousand. Of course, kids like me don’t know this. My buddy Nate, a lifelong friend and one of the smartest people I know, wanted to go to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, but he didn’t apply because he knew he couldn’t afford it. It likely would have cost him considerably less than Ohio State, just as Yale cost considerably less for me than any other school. (Kindle Loc 2675)
I had similar epiphanies when I showed up at graduate school to discover that many of my cohorts had already had NSF fellowships, something that I didn't apply for because I'd never heard about it, despite having had close relationships with professors as an undergraduate. This type of knowledge is taken for granted by folks who grow up with educated parents (my children would likely never suffer from this type of disadvantage), but when many members of the privileged, when told of my experience would just disparage me as being "stupid" instead of understanding (as Vance writes) that there's a huge difference between lack of knowledge and social capital and lack of talent:
social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap. This is a serious problem for kids like me. (Kindle Loc. 2965)
What rescues him is his mentoring relationship with Amy Chua (yes, the Tiger Mom), who in this book advises him not to take an aggressive clerkship with a judge known to destroy relationships and for him to prioritize his future wife instead. Clearly, she's a more interesting character in person than the one-note person in her memoir.

It's fashionable among Silicon Valley's "middle class" to note that environment matters less than genetics or raw talent. But that's only for relatively optimal environments: increase financial pressure and many relationships will break down. Throw in drugs, alcohol, and other social problems into the mix, and you end up with un-salvageable childhoods:
Even excessive shouting can damage a kid’s sense of security and contribute to mental health and behavioral issues down the road.... American working-class families experience a level of instability unseen elsewhere in the world. Consider, for instance, Mom’s revolving door of father figures. No other country experiences anything like this. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 percent—about one in two hundred. The second highest share is 2.6 percent, in Sweden, or about one in forty. In the United States, the figure is a shocking 8.2 percent—about one in twelve—and the figure is even higher in the working class. The most depressing part is that relationship instability, like home chaos, is a vicious cycle. (Kindle loc 3045-3060)
In my early working life in Silicon Valley, I was once taken to a bar by a co-worker I barely knew. There, I met his friends, one of which introduced his girlfriend as being "a scientist." In later conversation, I asked her if she was a post-doc, a graduate student, a staff researcher, or professor. Her response was: "Wait a minute, you know what a post-doc is? Nobody in this crowd knows or even cares that I'm a post-doc at SRI!" Clearly, even in Silicon Valley, the social segregation keeps the different circles separate and unaware of each other.

In any case, this is a compellingly readable book with great insight and important reading for everyone. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: Snapcircuits Rover

Bowen liked the Snapcircuits Arcade kit so much that there are days when he wakes up at 6:00am and asks to do projects. So when the Snapcircuits Rover went on sale during Black Friday my wife and I picked it up.

The concept is fairly similar: you get a breadboard that's mounted onto a chassis. The chassis contains the batteries, wheels, motors, but none of the electronics that you then wire together to put together a remote control vehicle. The remote is a simple flimsy remote that's fixed function, by contrast.

The problem with the rover, however, is that it's of very limited variation. The wireless module and the control modules are two very big blocks that are connected by a bunch of resistors. In fact, as long as you want to receive signals from the controller and move the rover, you don't have any choice but to wire up these two big blocks a certain way. The problem then is that you don't have much space left on the breadboard for much else. Thus, the kit comes with 3 rover variations, and all the other projects basically treats the rover as a fixed unit supplying the power. Worse, the manual states that your other Snapcircuit kits (save a few exceptions) cannot be used on this circuit board because the voltage and power draws are different.

If I were the designer of the system, I would have fused the wireless and control modules together into one block, eliminating the need to take up so much space on the board. Furthermore, I'd also include a voltage stepper so that the rover would be compatible with other Snapcircuit kits.

As it is, the Rover sounds great, but is so limited that Bowen basically never played with it again after one night. I returned the toy to Amazon and he didn't even notice!

Not recommended.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: The Old Man and the Sea

I'll admit to never having read The Old Man and the Sea, or actually, any of Hemingway's work before this. Since it was a short book and easily available at my library as an eBook, I checked it out and read it.

I think this is one of those classics that don't necessarily age well. Compared to his contemporaries, Hemingway had a refreshingly direct prose style that was transparent. However, most modern prose writers have also adopted this style (which is a good indicator of how influential he was). As a result, while the style is easy to read and direct, that doesn't make the book stand out.

The plot is very predictable, and again, doesn't stand out in this day and age either. While I did finish the book, it was out of a sense of obligation, not because I wanted to know more (I felt like I already knew what would happen by the end of the novel, and I turned out to be right). Sure, there's a ton of symbolism, statements about man's hubris and ambition, and the trials of age. But I'm not sure there's anything there that isn't in a Richard K. Morgan novel, with at least a less predictable plot.

Now, compared to the boring crap assigned to me as literature in high school English classes (is there a more boring Shakespeare play than The Merchant of Venice?), I would have way preferred this book. But compared to what I usually read for fun? This just doesn't compare.

This won't keep me from reading more Hemingway, but doesn't leave me dying for more prose from him, either.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Review: Enemy Unknown Plus (PS Vita)

Through a combination of sales, coupons, and credits, I picked up Enemy Unknown Plus on my PS Vita for about $2 during my summer trip. For the next several months, my Vita was turned into the "Enemy Unknown Plus" machine.

I'd been given free licenses of Enemy Unknown (the base version) for both PC and the PS3 over the years. The PC version, however, crashed during the tutorial, so I was never actually able to play. The PS3 just didn't feel like a good venue for a strategy game that required lots of thought, as it would take up the family entertainment center.

The PS Vita turned out to be an ideal platform: you never have to turn it off, as power consumption is minimal. Suspending the game didn't impact any other activity on your smartphone or computer, so you could stay in context for weeks and months. The game itself is a port from the iOS/Android versions of the game. However, one visit to the Android App store and you'll see that games like this have a really spotty record for even people who have high end phones! That's because the game was written using the C-based Unreal Engine, and I'm sure the amount of hacking required to get it to work on Android at all must have been huge.

The Vita, on the other hand, not only has a common platform (no fragmentation), but it also has 2 joysticks, a joy pad, and face buttons. That means the UI on the game is awesome --- you're getting an experience almost identical to that of the console. In fact, once I learned the game, out of curiosity, I tried it on the PC and found the mouse interface on the PC inferior --- I ended up attaching an XBox Controller to make headway. Even then, I discovered that the base version of the game was inferior: Enemy Unknown Plus integrates features from Enemy Within, and made the game so much better that even though it was harder, I went back to the Vita version to finish it.

The game itself is a tactical game with strategic elements that are outside the tactical game. The tactical game is a squad based game where you control a squad of 4-6 characters in a grid-based turn based tactical game that's very reminiscent of D&D. Each side gets a turn with its characters, and each character gets 2 moves, 1 move, and an action. Actions, however, always end your turn, so if you take your action right away you don't get to move. The characters' moves can be interspersed with each other, so for instance, you can move one character, switch characters and then move another character, and then switch back for the first character to take its action. The UI is very intuitive and the only touch input is for switching weapons, which isn't done frequently. The game has a fixed number of maps, but the missions played on each map is varied. I played 3-4 games (to varying levels of completion) and only had a few repeats.

Each character has a class (there are 4 classes: snipers, heavies, assault, and support) and can be leveled up, attaining skills that affect loadout and occasionally allow them to break rules. As with any D&D game, you'd want a mix of classes in the field as each class brings an important ability to the game.

The strategic elements aren't confined to characters and leveling up, however! The game also includes resource management at multiple levels (base building), and strategic positioning (where to add satellites to watch for UFOs), and research (what weapons to research first, and how to allocate funds for equipment for the tactical game vs interceptors for the strategic game). This makes for agonizing decisions every month, and nail biting resolutions to various missions as the tactical game impacts whether you have resources to carry on the fight to the next level.

The game does have several design errors. One is that the skill tree for various classes are not evenly balanced. Certain skills (like squad sight) are much more powerful than the alternates, but you don't know that until you get to the middle of the game and suddenly discovered that you just get wiped and can't make progress any more! Similarly, if you fail to prioritize satellites and engineers over scientists, you'll get quickly over-run by the aliens and lose the game.

As for the implementation on the PS Vita, there are several issues: one is that the load time is incredible. Expect load times of up to a minute in between enemy encounters. Save/restore take similar amounts of time. Secondly, there are bugs: I've had more than one or two games crash out during a mission load. The solution is to save early and often. Since the file sizes are relatively small, this will not hurt you.

Despite all that, the game's well done and a lot of fun. It's ideal for short bursts of play, since in about 10 minutes you can finish an UFO encounter. As mentioned, even if you can't, you can always suspend the game and resume later with zero load time on the Vita, so as far as I'm concerned, the ideal platform for this game is the PS Vita. Highly recommended, and a must-own if you have a Vita and haven't played the game on other platforms yet.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Review: Algorithms to Live By

Algorithms to Live By is actually an interesting book, even if you're a computer scientist. For one thing, even if you're a computer scientist, once in a while it's nice to get a layman's refresher of the breadth of the field. This includes analysis of the Secretary Problem, a review of exponential backoff, and of course, the range of NP-complete problems (though since the book is for a non-technical audience, the term NP-complete is never mentioned)

Some of the applications are fun and entertaining, like the application of scheduling theory to personal time management.  Others are a mere discussion of topics: for instance, over-fitting in machine learning has correspondences in human training programs. Most Googlers would have already had exposure to these algorithms, as well as the quick sampling of auction theory the book covers.

For the non-technical, this book is written in a very clear, non-mathematical fashion. As long as you remember what a polynomial and an exponent with, I don't expect any of the concepts in the book to give you trouble. Since the book opens with the secretary problem, a quick browse of the first chapter will quickly help you determine whether this book is for you. Certainly, for a non-technical audience I find it hard to think of a better book to read if you're not familiar with computer science.

Recommended.


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.