Friday, October 28, 2016

Review: Cressi Galileo

My go-to goggles for the last 3 years, the Aquasphere Kayenne, have basically had to be replaced every year or so. The failure mode is that the goggles' lenses fade or scratch, or become fogged up. When I looked at them, I realized that I'd seen similar patterns of failure before --- on Mazda Miata models that had a plastic rear window rather than glass.

At first, I thought that if I couldn't make these expensive goggles work, I could go ultra-cheap. Swedish-style goggles from only cost $3.50. But after I bought a pair I couldn't get them to not leak, no matter what. They also felt extremely uncomfortable, feeling as though they might pop my eyeballs out.

I noticed that my own diving/snorkeling masks are made out of tempered glass, and don't suffer from the fogging, so I set about looking for tempered glass goggles. To my surprise, an internet search revealed that there was only one model of tempered glass goggles: the Cressi Galileo. To add insult to injury, those cannot be purchased on, and I had to import them from instead, costing about $30 after shipping fees.

When I received them, I was dismayed --- they were definitely sized big, and they were heavy. I tightened the strap all the way and managed to get a secure fit. Then they fogged up in the swimming pool. That's actually not a problem, since because these are tempered glass, you can apply toothpaste to the lenses and then they'll never fog again. That's what I did, and indeed, it worked. These are the clearest lenses you'll ever get, and again, because they're tempered glass, the UV will never fog them.

They're heavier than standard plastic-lensed swimming goggles. But so what? They're more comfortable (the skirt around them are more like those used for diving masks than goggles), they'll probably slow me down in the water by a couple of seconds each lap, but I'm not winning any prizes for swimming anyway. What's more important, they can serve as a backup to my diving mask for snorkeling. They aren't a real backup for diving, since diving masks need to cover the nose so you can equalize pressure under water.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: LG Tone 750

It was inevitable: I left my Sony SBH-52 in my pocket and it went into the laundry. The darn thing is water resistant, but IPX-68 will not guarantee survival in a washing machine for an hour. This forced me to dig up the LG Tone 750 which I got as a promotion a year or so ago but never even opened the box.

This was my first time using the "around the collar" blue tooth headphone format. Compared to the SBH-52, it has the following advantages:

  • It falls off when you take off your shirt, so you're not going to accidentally leave it in your pockets.
  • It's too big to fit in your pockets, so you can't accidentally leave it in your pockets.
  • The headphone never gets tangled up. In fact, most of the time I leave them dangling from the headset instead of snapping them back into their magnetic mounts, and they don't even get tangled.
  • The buttons are easier to manage. In particular, the "call" button activates Google Now, which is very cool. The play/pause fast-forward buttons are all easier to find and remember because they're placed on separate sides of the headphone.
  • There's no display. This turned out to be a great feature, as it forced LG to provide battery level announcements, etc., whenever you turn on and off the headset.
  • It's smart about the playback. For instance, if I pair this to my Moto G, and then plug in the headphone jack to my car, I can still use the buttons on the headset to control the music even though the playback's being done by the car's loudspeakers.
  • The collar is a much more convenient location than the clip the SBH-52 provides.
Against this, there are several disadvantages:
  • You can't use your own headphones. This would suck if the built in earbuds sucked. But they don't, so I'm OK with it.
  • You can't use the LG Tone while charging.
  • The volume control is practically non existent. Pushing volume up or down doesn't seem to do much. The default volume is fine, but I found myself having to reach over to the phone's volume control whenever I wanted to turn it up or down.
  • It's not a great cycling solution. While cycling, the device bounces up and down on my collarbone. This sucks. I cannot use this while riding any significant distance, but if it's say, riding to the local store to get milk, it's still usable.
All in all, the disadvantages are more than outweighed by the advantages, so I'd recommend this headset. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Every Heart a Doorway

I was disappointed by Seanan McGuire's previous books that were reviewed here on this blog. Her narrators have always seemed too flippant for me. What's great about McGuire, however, is that her concepts are always great. In short, she has (for me, anyway), great elevator pitches for her novels but lousy follow-through on the implementation.

Every Heart A Doorway, however, has such a great elevator pitch I checked out the book from the library despite my previous history with her novels. I'm glad I did, because just this once, the implementation is decent.

Part of it is that the novel is short (175 pages), so the pace is very fast. The elevator pitch for the novel is: "Girl walks through fantasy portal into another world, has adventures, gets kicked out of fantasy world, and now has to go through rehab for PTSD induced by said fantasy world adventures."

The novel's setting is Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school for kids who've been through adventures in an alternate world and a dumping ground for the parents who can no longer reconcile themselves to their changed children. Eleanor West, the school mistress, was herself one of those kids, and her school markets itself to parents by claiming to provide special therapy.

In reality, of course, the school is a place where the kids themselves can feel at home because they can relate to other children who've had similar adventures. The novel's protagonist is Nancy, a girl who's been to the Land of the Dead and is now returned to the world of the living but discover that her new manner and fashion preferences are not those that her parents want.

Through the protagonist, we learn how such as school is structured, a classification of the fantasy worlds in which the kids have been to, and of course, the messy social structure the kids themselves have as a result of their adventures, forming into cliques that are driven by which type of world they've come to call home.

There's a central plot and overarching storyline in the middle of all this, the pace is fast, and the extrapolation of the elevator pitch admirable. This novel is a lot of fun, and redeems McGuire's previous misses in my eyes. Recommended!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: The Martian Child (Original Novelette)

The Martian Child won both the Hugo and Nebula awards the year it came out, but somehow I didn't notice. It wasn't available at any of my local libraries, so I paid the Kindle price for it and read it in a couple of hours.

It's short, well-written, but is clearly autobiographical. The author, David Gerrold is famous for the Star Trek episode: "The Trouble with Tribbles", but clearly chooses to portray himself as a neurotic artist, rather than a rational computer programmer (which he is apparently able to be). He writes about his decision to adopt, his encounter with his (eventual) adoptee, and the process of adoption itself.

In many ways, I'm disappointed by the novelette. Yes, it's poignant, but there's no deep insight about parenting, no mention of the deep challenges involved. I think I got way more from a 5 minute conversation with one of my college lecturers in passing than from the entire novel.

Not recommended.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: The Hard Thing about Hard Things

I was all prepared to find The Hard Thing About Hard Things disappointing. CEO books are frequently about self-aggrandizement (e.g., Richard Branson's memoir) and rarely give you advice you can use. Horowitz's book, however, turned out to be a rare breath of fresh air.

Sure, there's a certain amount of bragging in the book (taking a company to $1.6B is no mean feat, and Horowitz isn't ashamed to take credit for it), but that's not why you should read books anyway. You read books for practical tips that will let you avoid making mistakes when hiring, firing, or screwing up. One avoided bad hire at the executive will more than pay for the time you spend reading this book, so in that respect the book's more than well worth your time.

The book's intended audience is the CEO of a technology company. It doesn't really

Here are a few insights from my reading of the book:
  • When hiring an executive, focus on whether his strengths fits your needs, rather than avoiding weaknesses. For that to work, you have to have a strong idea of what you need in that executive. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to get that insight, other than by running the organization that you need him to run for a while --- but that's OK. Better to get it the hard way than by randomly hiring people! (Note that there's a lack of emphasis on avoiding people with no integrity --- Horowitz assumes you know that and doesn't spend any time on it)
  • When hiring anyone (executive or not), don't ask questions like: "He's great for the job right now, but will he scale as the company scale?" Those questions lead you to make prejudicial judgements about your executive. There's no way to know whether anyone can "scale" in a particular way, so the best thing to do is to be honest and say, "I'm looking for the best fit for the  current job. Next year, if the company changes, we'll still be looking for the best fit for that job. This applies to everyone in the company, even me!"
Deciding (with woefully incomplete data) that someone who works their butt off, does a terrific job, and loyally contributes to your mission won’t be with you three years from now takes you to a dark place. It’s a place of information hiding, dishonesty, and stilted communication. It’s a place where prejudice substitutes for judgment. It’s a place where judgment replaces teaching. It’s a place where teamwork becomes internal warfare. Don’t go there. (Kindle Loc. 2887)
  • Training is a competitive advantage for startups. Don't outsource your training. In particular, you need to get your best people involved in training new people. In order to do that, however, you have to make training seem valued. The best way to do so is for the CEO to spend time training others, to lead by example. Training is also where you set expectations for your team. In particular, Horowitz include a training document he wrote for Opsware called "Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager". In it, he defines what a product manager does, what best practices are, and how product managers will be evaluated. It's a great document that defines what a product manager does.
  • Managing politics is counter-intuitive for the CEO. You have to actively manage it by setting up processes, whether it's for performance evaluation, pay raises, or promotion opportunities. If you do not do so, expect everyone on the executive team to become a squeaky wheel and playing politics. That means that the more actively non political you try to be by avoiding the usual big company BS, the more you encourage politics as people try to achieve the same goals out of band.
  • Similarly, the CEO has to actively give feedback all the time. Again, this is counter-intuitive, since typically people managers are generally told to provide feedback in a "shit-sandwich" fashion --- sandwich the negative feedback between the positive feedback. The problem with the latter approach is that experienced executives see through this right away, so the only way to be consistent is to provide both positive and negative feedback as soon as you see work that deserves it.
  • Organizations and Processes should be designed for the sake of the employee at the leaf node level, not for the sake of the managers. In other words, when designing or reorganizing a company, you should consider what it's like being a customer support rep or an engineer, rather than what it's like being one of the managers having to work in the environment. This may seem obvious, but keep in mind that most CEOs hang out mostly with executives and rarely reach down to the leaf nodes where people actually do the work, so it makes sense for Horowitz to emphasize this point. Furthermore, Horowitz makes the great point that organization designs all suck --- you're basically optimizing certain paths of communications between organizations while making certain other communication paths harder or even not happen at all. What this means is that along with the organization design you'll have to put into effect a plan to monitor the issues arising from the consciously designed sub-optimal paths so that if things get too bad you can redesign or hack around it.
There are other things that Horowitz say that I felt aren't necessary expressed well or are too general to be practical:
  • He makes the distinction between a wartime CEO and a peacetime CEO. While that distinction has some merit, I'm not sure it makes a ton of sense. For instance, Steve Jobs was an effective asshole (and effectively an asshole) even when Apple was no longer fighting for survival. I wonder how many CEOs are going to use this chapter as a justification for being a jerk to everyone around them.
  • There's an assumption that the CEO is technical, so the book doesn't discuss engineering management or the challenges peculiar to engineering management. I'm OK with that, since I did actually write a book about engineering management.
  • The book actively encourages the kind of non-poaching agreement that Apple/Google/Intuit/Intel were involved in that's illegal, though of course, none of the companies involved were ever punished in any significant fashion. But you'll love Horowitz's excuse for encouraging this kind of illegal behavior: CEOs are already very lonely people and can only commiserate with fellow CEOs, so pissing off other CEOs is a bad idea since you need all the friends you can get when you're a CEO. I have no idea if Horowitz is as actively un-self-aware in real life as he seems to be when he wrote this section of the book, but there you go. Apparently, having been a successful CEO is a license to encourage others to do illegal stuff.
Finally, at the end of the book Horowitz reveals that the entire book was a marketing brochure for his VC firm, Andressen Horowitz. That's probably OK --- you didn't expect anything else, did you?

Regardless, the book's well worth a read. Like I mentioned, if it helps you avoid one of the errors I noted above, it's worth the time. Recommended.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review: Writing Creative Nonfiction

I checked out Writing Creative Nonfiction from the library, because why not? Non-fiction is what I write most of the time (at least, intentionally), and I have a fondness for non-fiction. It's also a Great Courses program, which has established a great deal of credibility with me over the past year or so.

One of the most interesting things I learned about the genre is that Creative Nonfiction used to be called Literary Journalism, of the sort Ernest Hemingway practiced. It was only called Creative Nonfiction after people started using that technique in other contexts.

In any case, the course is mostly about writing of the generic sort, so the lecturer spends a lot of time covering basic writing. I found that very disappointing, because so much of what makes non-fiction hard, for instance, is that you can't just make up dialogue --- and if you've lived through it, you'll have to tape every conversation so you can reproduce it later. That's not even something she talks about!

Furthermore, some of the techniques seem really fishy to me. For instance, she's very fond of indirect discourse. It turns out that indirect discourse (especially the untagged kind) is ambiguous in English. It's unattributed, so it lets the author inject speech into a character's mouth without having to substantiate it with any kind of reference, since that indirect discourse is also the author speaking. That seems really really iffy to me, but it's apparently such a mainstay of fiction and non-fiction writing that it's widely accepted, and she encourages the use of it as a tool so you can make up dialogue or conversations without having to have recorded the actual words that were spoken in some form or another.

Ultimately, creative non fiction is the use of the novelist's toolbox to non-fiction or personal writing. It's interesting that (according to the lecturer anyhow) it's by far the best-selling genre today, leading to scandals like A Million Little Pieces, where a novel was essentially passed as non-fiction in order to generate awesome sales.

One interesting lecture in the series is "How not to have your friends and family hate you." It's a great lecture, and if you're planning to write a family history or memoir, is definitely worth the price of admission.

My biggest criticism of the lecture series is the lecturer herself. She loves to pepper her sentences with verbal diarrhea. For instance, "You wouldn't want your readers to be bored, would you?" If you added up all those extra two-words she tacks on at the end of every other sentence, I'm sure you could save at least half an hour of run-time on the entire series of lectures.

Is the course useful? I'll let you decide. I wrote many of the daily trip segments of this year's Tour of the Alps report "creative fiction" style, rather than my preferred Jobst-style. If you think that it was an improvement, then the course is recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: The World According to Garp

I tried to buy a copy of The World According to Garp on my Kindle, but apparently there's no Kindle version. As a result, I borrowed the dead-tree copy from the library. Now that I've read the book, maybe it's a deliberate decision by John Irving, as the novel is set in a world pre-1970s. That meant that there were no car-seats, no internet, and certainly no Kindles.

My first exposure to the novel is from "watching" the movie at the student lounge in my dorm at Cal. I put "watch" in quote because I think I was either doing problem sets or grading homework, so I wasn't paying much attention, and only raised my head when someone made a comment about the movie. Nevertheless, it made somewhat of an impression, so 16 years later I decided to go to the source and see what the hype was all about.

The movie was supposed to be funny, as was the book. It's not funny in the Douglas Adams/British-style, but in the Garrison Keillor style: kinda dead-pan, and deliberate in its humor. Certainly, some of the situations are hilarious, and the setups are long in coming and thus funnier when they do come. The themes, events, and reflection of both the times and feminism work well, but only in the context of the time of the novel. (The pivotal event in the novel, for instance, could never have happened once car-seats were mandatory) That's a reflection of how much safer the world has gotten, but also a reminder of how violent the USA was in the 1960s, when people of political significance were getting murdered and assassinated everywhere.

Did I enjoy the book? Somewhat. In many places, it greatly reflects the life of a writer. In other places, it feels as fantastical as any book marketed as "magical realism." Would I recommend you read it? Maybe. You have to like the Garrison Keillor type voice (I don't, not unless your name is Larry Hosken). You have a strong sense of the absurd (which I do, which is why I did find some of the situations funny). You have to enjoy "literary fiction" as a genre (I don't). So for me, the book was mixed, but maybe you'll like it if your response to the previous 3 statements was positive. Otherwise, you might be better off watching the movie instead.