Category Archives: Reviews

2019 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 102 I’ve read so far. Closer to the end of the month, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  1. Star of the North: terrific spy thriller set mostly in North Korea based on a simple premise: what if you found out your twin sister didn’t die, but had instead been kidnapped by the North Korean government? Remarkable characterizations and a realistic portrayal of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. 
  2. Valley of Genius: a compilation of interviews and quotes from Silicon Valley luminaries, some of whom you may never have heard of, tell the story of how Silly Valley came to be what it is today. Features the usual suspects (Jobs, Woz, Stewart Brand), but also mentions many lesser-known people whose contributions, although important, never got the same kind of visibility. 
  3. Freedom’s Forge: do you know who Bill Knudsen was? How about Henry Kaiser? What if I told you that, if not for them, there’s a good chance the US would have lost World War II? True, and fascinating, story. (Along the way, it explains the “Permanente” part of Kaiser Permanente’s name). 
  4. Those Who Wish Me Dead: part mystery, part thriller, part wilderness exploration, the plot and characterization and dialogue here are among the best I’ve ever read. Koryta makes a forest fire into a believable, and fearsome, character as part of this tale of revenge and escape. It would make a terrific movie. 
  5. Chief Engineer: it seems remarkable, maybe even preposterous, to us now that a single man could be chiefly responsible for a huge public works project, but that’s exactly true of Washington Roebling, the titular engineer and the man who gave us (among other contributions) the Brooklyn Bridge. Masterful biography of the man and his wife Emily, whose role in Roebling’s bridge-building career has mostly been skipped over but deserves wider exposure. 
  6. Creative Selection: thoughtful meditation, with lots of amusing stories, about Apple’s design process at the start of the iPhone era by one of their lead iPhone engineers, the man whose epitaph will probably read “Autocorrect Was His Fault.” 
  7. How Bad Do You Want It? Absolutely fascinating survey of what we know about the links between mental resilience and toughness and elite sport performance. Fitzgerald does a masterful job of highlighting different areas of mental development that are applicable to everyday athletes, explaining why they matter, and discussing how to develop them. 
  8. Exploding the Phone: I grew up at the tail end of the “phone phreak” era, and I’d always thought I was pretty familiar with it, but I learned a ton from this well-researched and cleverly told history… including that AT&T used to tape millions of toll calls in a project named “Greenstar” and that John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper didn’t actually invent the technique for making free calls that came to be strongly associated with him. Great stuff if you’re interested in the history of technology at all. 
  9. A Few Seconds of Panic: Most grown men would know better than to try to make it as a walk-on player in the NFL, but not sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. I very quickly started rooting for him as he made his way through Denver Broncos training camp; he had a marvelous adventure and told its story clearly and well.
  10. The Path Between the Seas: speaking of “marvelous adventure,” how abut that Panama Canal? During the nearly 45 years of its construction, countless people died,and the political and commercial maneuvering incident to getting the Canal built left marks that we still see today in the US and Panamanian governments. I knew nothing about the engineering or politics behind this work, so this entire book was a terrific learning experience for me. 

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2018 year in review: the rest of the books

See here for my 2018 top 10 list; this post lists the rest of the books that I read through the 20th. As always, some were worthy of comment and some weren’t. I thought this year I’d organize things a little differently and group books by genre instead of by reading order. As always, the links below point to Amazon; many of these titles are available on Kindle Unlimited, too, for extra reading cheapness.

Thriller, mystery, and crime

  • Crusader One. Implausible but still enjoyable.
  • Code Name: Camelot. Simplistic wish fulfillment. Well written but not very plausible or interesting
  • Point of Impact: after reading G-Man, one of my ten best for the year, I wanted to re-read this and am glad I did. Still one of Hunter’s best books.
  • Forty Thieves: a book about… pink panthers. Absolutely terrific.
  • The Last Man in Tehran. The third of Mark Henshaw’s thrillers, and every bit as good as the first two. I wish he were a little more prolific.
  • Priceless: I really liked Miloszewski’s other books but this one left me flat.
  • Codename Villanelle: interesting premise, and I really liked Eve.
  • Weaponized. Best described as a “wrong-man” thriller, with a ton of (often implausible) plot twists. Get it from the library.
  • Debris Line: 4th in the consistently excellent series from Matthew FitzSimmons, featuring hacker Gibson Vaughn and his compatriots. This one is set against a background of organized crime in… Portugal. Didn’t expect that! Great read.
  • The Blackhouse: murder mystery set on the Isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, with a not-very-likeable main character. Quite engaging nonetheless. I will say I wouldn’t want to live on the Isle of Lewis given the weather and all the shenanigans his characters get up to.
  • Heartwood: the second Billy Bob Holland novel from James Lee Burke. I don’t remember much about it other than that I enjoyed it.
  • Hap and Leonard Ride Again and Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade: two short story collections about a hippie Texas redneck and his best friend, who happens to be a gay black Republican, and their various criminal adventures.
  • House of the Rising Sun: So James Lee Burke wrote a book about the quest for the Holy Grail, and I read it and enjoyed it despite the ridiculous premise. Further affiant sayeth naught.
  • Robicheaux: complex but expertly plotted James Lee Burke novel featuring you-know-who.
  • Bandwidth. I didn’t remember this book at all. Once I looked it up on Amazon, I remember why I enjoyed it: tautly plotted and full of ruminations on the nature of power, who holds it, and who maybe shouldn’t.
  • The Ridge
  • Soho Ghosts: enjoyable mystery featuring anti-hero Kenny Gabriel and set throughout London. Cleverly plotted.
  • The Death and Life of Bobby Z: terrific Don Winslow crime novel. Just go read it.
  • King City: lightweight but quite enjoyable honest-cop-in-a-corrupt-world story, well told.
  • Finnegan’s Week: dated crime novel. I bet it was funnier when it first came out.
  • Salvation of a Saint
  • The Deep Dark Descending: only after reading this did I learn it’s the fourth book with the same protagonist, which probably explains why I felt like I was playing catch-up the whole book. Riveting nonetheless.
  • The King Tides: not too shabby. I’m looking forward to the next book with these characters so I can see whether this was the high or low point of the series.
  • The Lock Artist: superb combo of a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, and a romance novel.
  • The Boardwalk Trust: I have grown away from reading legal thrillers over the last few years, but enjoyed this one enough to finish and recommend it.
  • The Good Samaritan: sadly, not very good.
  • Career of Evil: another JK Rowling crime novel, and probably the best of the lot. The ending was a giant cliffhanger and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.
  • Angels Flight and Trunk Music: There were enough differences between these two books and the past two seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch series that I didn’t feel like I was retreading old ground.
  • White Tigress: ridiculous on every level.

Science fiction

  • Earthcore. Scott Sigler has done better than this novel of homicidal underground space aliens and the cardboard humans they interact with.
  • The Hunters of Vermin, Deadly Nightshade. Two novellas set in the space-opera universe of Max Robichaux, coonass and fighter pilot. Thoroughly enjoyable if you liked the others.
  • Points of Impact. Marko Kloos = automatic purchase. This has a nice savor of Haldeman’s Forever War about it.
  • The Scorpion Game. Violent and reminiscent of Richard K Morgan’s “Altered Carbon.” Interesting world building with a biotech plot twist.
  • Punishment. Imagine that there’s a machine that can pull memories from the mind of one person and add them to another person. Now imagine this machine used for recreation, for punishment of criminals, and for investigation of serious crimes. The protagonist of this novel is a homicide detective who’s touched by all three uses. Imaginative, well-plotted, with crisp and real dialogue and a hell of a twist to the ending. Very recommended.
  • Empire Games and Dark State. Fascinating extension to Stross’ “Merchant Princes” series. More readable and better-plotted than most of his “Laundry” novels.
  • All Systems Red: how can you not love a book where the protagonist is a killer robot that calls itself Murderbot?
  • Revenger. I really wanted to like this more than I did, as I’m a big Alastair Reynolds fan. Still pretty good: space pirates are a great topic.
  • Forge of God: Greg Bear’s classic, which I was reading for the second time.
  • The Punch Escrow: Meh. I can’t see why this was so praised.
  • Superhuman: various people get superpowers. Some of them are former Marines, some are bikers and other criminals. Like a DC Universe movie, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment.
  • Calculating Stars: what if, in the 50s, because reasons, there were female astronauts? I just couldn’t make myself love the main characters because the author kept hitting me over the face that they were female! and black! and laboring under the strain of the heteronormative patriarchy, which oppressed them at every turn! I should’ve just read a biography of Mae Jemison instead (and I would love to but there don’t seem to be any).
  • 14: if you liked Lost (which I didn’t watch), word is you’ll like this. I liked it anyway.
  • The Delirium Brief. The best, so far, of Stross’ “Laundry” novels. As a character, Bob Howard continues to grow in depth and complexity with each book, becoming correspondingly more relatable and interesting, and Stross’ dialogue is always top-notch.
  • Planetside: if you like Marko Kloos (or other military sci-fi), you’ll like this. Excellent debut, and I look forward to seeing more from the author.
  • Way Station: thoughtful book from the “golden age” of SF about aliens, immortality, and what it means to be human.
  • Six Wakes: clumsy characterization. I just couldn’t love it, and I don’t see what all the award excitement was about.
  • Infinity Born. Implausible but still interesting; tackles some big questions around brain uploading.
  • Twelve Days I couldn’t decide if this was more of a thriller or more science-fiction. Highly readable mix of the two.
  • Head On: quick, enjoyable, ultimately forgettable. In its favor, this is one of the only Scalzi books that doesn’t make me want to slap the protagonist for being smarmy.
  • Walkaway: I sometimes have a hard time seeing past Cory Doctorow’s politics, but I’m glad I read this thought-provoking novel about “revolution, love, post-scarcity, and the end of death.”
  • Sea of Rust: I can’t improve on this description from Amazon: “A scavenger robot wanders in the wasteland created by a war that has destroyed humanity in this evocative post-apocalyptic ‘robot western'”
  • An Excess Male: in a dystopian future China, plural marriage is the norm thanks to the One-Child Policy and its resulting shortage of women. Combine that premise with a neatly extrapolated nearly-dystopian future China and you have the makings of a solid book.
  • Exo (Fonda Lee)
  • The Collapsing Empire (audio): gets off to a slow start, and all the characters essentially sound the same. The second book in this story arc is supposed to be better.
  • The Million: boring and juvenile. Would someone please bring Heinlein back from the dead and give him this same story idea?
  • Stiletto: every bit as good as The Rook.
  • New Kings of Tomorrow: don’t believe the reviews on Amazon. Cardboard characters and a bizarrely overengineered plot mean that I won’t be reading the sequel.

Fiction and alternate history

  • Book of the Unnamed Midwife and Book of Etta. Provocative post-apocalyptic series with a lot to say about how terrible men are.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter. Fascinating medieval murder mystery featuring a character based on one of the author’s ancestors, who was a literal village executioner back in the day. There are at least six more books in this series that I haven’t read.
  • Lion’s Blood. Thoroughly interesting, and very well written, alternate history where Africa, not Europe, becomes the world center of gravity. There’s still slavery, but it’s African and Muslim slavers who capture slaves from places like Ireland and resettle them in a very different America. Great characterization.
  • The Country of Ice Cream Star: starts strong and then sort of peters out. The patois used by all the characters can be difficult to understand or laceratingly clear in turn.
  • Julian Comstock: boring
  • Centennial: absolutely marvelous narrative of the American West. I wish I’d read it 20 years ago.
  • Scrapper: powerfully written and atmospheric, but confusing. I’m still not sure I caught everything that happened.
  • Arc Light
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. confusing, perhaps a little chaotic, and yet powerful.
  • I Will Never Leave You: Worst book I read this year. I only started it because it was free, then couldn’t stop because I wanted to see how bad it would get.
  • Wicked Wonders: I was surprisingly engaged in this collection of magical-realism and fantasy stories. Better than I expected.

Aviation and space

Biography

  • Speed Girl: short account of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to finish the Indy 500. Fascinating, and the Kindle version has photos, animation, and other multimedia that really add to the experience.
  • Running Away: A Memoir. Obnoxious narrator who makes a wreck of his life and yet salvages something precious by training for the Boston Marathon. I was rooting against Powell for the first half of the book and cheering for him in the second.
  • Johnny Carson (Bushkin): dishy tell-all from Carson’s attorney. Lots of name-dropping and snark.
  • Masters of Doom: alternately fawning and critical look at John Carmack and John Romero, co-developers of the seminal video games Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.
  • Next Stop Execution: a memoir by Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky. Fascinating personality study featuring an unlikable narrator who nonetheless tells an interesting story.
  • The Perfect Mile: fascinating account of the race (!) to break the 4-minute mile barrier. I learned a lot about the history of distance running from this and enjoyed the back-and-forth battles between the contestants.

Assorted non-fiction

  • The Idea Factory: superb history of Bell Labs, putting in context their inventions (the transistor, the laser, the cell phone, the communications satellite…) with lots of interesting detail I hadn’t seen previously.
  • Chrysler’s Turbine Car: absolutely captivating look at a little-known project from Chrysler: a turbine-powered everyday car. Great read for car lovers. The work done on this car is continuing to resonate today, as one of the key engineers founded the company that makes engines for cruise missiles and many small business jets.
  • Fool’s Mate: you can tell that the primary author was the lead FBI agent in this espionage case, because the book reads like an FBI narrative. Interesting but a little clunky, and ultimately the case it describes was minor compared to (say) Tolkachev’s story in Billion Dollar Spy.
  • Level Zero Heroes
  • Into the Raging Sea: sad and harrowing recap of the sinking of the merchant ship El Faro. I won’t spoil the plot, but it was almost all the captain’s fault.

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2018 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 97 I’ve read so far. Closer to the 31st, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  • The Night Trade. I’ve always been a big fan of Barry Eisler’s thrillers, and am happy to say I discovered him just after the publication of his first book. To me, this is probably Eisler’s best novel, with an emotional depth that he has slowly been perfecting over the last few books. Characteristically excellent action scenes and plotting, as I’d expect, but a significantly darker subject (child sex trafficking) than his regular spycraft.
  • Billion Dollar Spy: Absolutely captivating true-life story of Soviet engineer Adolf Tolkachev, who spied for the US in the heart of the Soviet military establishment. Hoffman provides a meaty, well-supported mix of tradecraft, personality profiling, and you-are-there vignettes that make this a compelling read.
  • The Rook: imagine Charlie Stross’ “Laundry” series with a female protagonist and a great deal more polished wit, with fewer geek jokes. I wish there were more books in this series, as the second volume is equally good.
  • Ali: A Life: I have many fond memories of sitting with my dad and watching Ali box. Despite that, I didn’t know much about him as a man. Thanks to this perceptive yet entertaining biography, now I feel like I have a better understanding– and Ali was remarkable, in and out of the ring, in many ways. He was an archetype of the self-promoting pro athlete but at the same time a generous and complex human.
  • The Overstory. It’s about trees. Go read it anyway. You’re welcome.
  • Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Meticulous and deep history of JSOC, an enormously influential and yet largely unknown part of the US military.
  • The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. I had no idea how much the Ford Motor Company contributed to World War II, nor the depth of racism and anti-Semitism that Henry Ford perpetrated, nor that his son Edsel was ever more than the namesake of an automotive punchline. Remarkable story of how the Ford family– mostly Edsel– conquered a huge number of technical, political, and logistical problems to build the world’s largest air force from literally nothing.
  • Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. Fascinating memoir from an eminent British brain surgeon. Equal parts thrilling, educational, horrifying, and heartwarming.
  • Norse Mythology. Back in the day, I had Bulfinch’s Mythology to read. Neil Gaiman, whose work I’ve always enjoyed, weighs in with this very approachable take on Norse mythology– funny, engaging, and quite educational.
  • G Man: probably my favorite of all Stephen Hunter’s books. Like Barry Eisler or James Lee Burke, Hunter is able to get a lot of juice out of the same basic plot lines and characters. In this story, Bob Lee Swagger is hunting for the truth about his grandfather, a famous Prohibition-era lawman, so we get both his search but also the grandfather’s adventures. Cleverly plotted with great dialogue.

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Quick impressions of the Harman Kardon Invoke Cortana speaker

I’m an early adopter. This is both a blessing and a curse.

Thanks to John Peltonen, I installed some X-10 home automation gear back in the early 90s and have long wanted a more automated home, so when Amazon started shipping the Echo I bought one and threw together an ad hoc home automation system. My “robot girlfriend” Alexa can control various devices, including the kitchen and master bedroom, floor and desk lamps, my security system, and my thermostats (a Nest downstairs and an el cheapo Honeywell upstairs). I have a mix of LIFX bulbs (wouldn’t buy them again), WeMo switches, TP-Link smart plugs, and Lutron Caseta dimmers/switches, plus a GoControl garage door controller. It all works pretty well.

The Alexa devices have pretty quickly blended into my normal home workflow. I use the one in my bedroom like a clock radio, and to control the temperature when I’m in bed; the one in my office gets frequent use for adding items to my grocery list when I remember them, and the kitchen unit is an all-around music player, news source, multi-function timer, grocery-list keeper, and audiobook reader. Overall I’m well pleased with the Alexa devices and ecosystem.

But.

Alexa as an assistant is far behind both Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri. (For another time: my thoughts on what each smart-assistant platform is good and bad at, e.g. Siri is dumb and has poor voice recognition, for example, but has a few idiot-savant skills that are useful and both benefits, and is limited by, Apple’s strong emphasis on on-device processing). It’s safe to say that Alexa is mostly a portal to Amazon’s services, which is fine; as a heavy consumer of Amazon services I’m OK with that.

However, I got spoiled by the quality of Cortana’s assistant functionality on Windows Phone and have continued using it on Windows 10, so when I saw that Microsoft and Harmon Kardon were partnering to make the Invoke, a Cortana-powered competitor to the Amazon Echo, I was intrigued. For Black Friday, Microsoft was selling the Invoke for $99, and I had a $50 Microsoft Store credit, so I figured for $50 it was worth taking a flyer. The Invoke got here yesterday and I spent a few hours setting it up and playing with it. Here are my initial short-term impressions.

  1. The device build quality and packaging are excellent. I prefer the physical design and finish of the Invoke to the Echo. They are similar in size.
  2. The Invoke has a power brick instead of a wall wart. That is inappropriate for kitchen use.
  3. The out-of-box-experience and initial setup for the Invoke are very smooth, better than the initial experience for an Alexa device. All I had to do was power on the device and tap “set up my speaker” in the Cortana app. Whereas the Echo/Dot require you to manually switch wifi networks, the Invoke just magically figures out how to set itself up. (The Invoke immediately had to download an over-the-air update but this was painless and fairly fast.)
  4. The sound quality of the Invoke is much better than that of the original Echo. The new Echo 2 supposedly sounds better. The Invoke produces rich, clear highs, solid midrange, and decent bass for such a small unit and it seems louder than the Echo at max volume.
  5. The Dot and Echo have an LED ring around the top that lights up to indicate when the device is listening. The Invoke has a small touch-sensitive screen on the top. The ring is easier to see from a distance (and can be used to indicate when there are notifications, etc) but the touch-sensitive screen is an easy way to interact with the device. I’ll call this one a draw.
  6. Cortana functionality seems to be on par with the iOS Cortana app, and somewhat behind the Win10 app’s functionality.
  7. Cortana has very few skills compared to Alexa’s skills library. On both platforms, many of the skills are either stupid (I don’t need a skill to play the Notre Dame fight song, thanks) or not useful to me (I’m not a Capital One customer so their skill doesn’t do me any good).
    1. Cortana doesn’t have skills to control TP-Link smart plus, LIFX light bulbs, or WeMo switches– all of which I use heavily.
    2. It is completely non-obvious how to add or manage skills. Some skills are built into the device, like Spotify and Skype. Some require you to install an app or to authorize an external service. The process is much more consistent for Alexa devices.
    3. Obviously the Invoke doesn’t have any Amazon skills. I use those heavily too. Being able to reorder cat food, or check on the whereabouts of a package, or listen to an Audible audiobook is very handy.
    4. You enable smart home skills through the Cortana notebook. This isn’t obvious. None of the skills I have seem to recognize individual devices, e.g. the Wink skill just ties Cortana to the Wink hub, and there’s no way I can find to tell Cortana to find new devices through the hub.
  8. Within the first 30 minutes, I ran into a bug– the device would say it couldn’t understand me, no matter what I said. I’ve seen other people mention this online so it’s a legit bug.
  9. I couldn’t get the Wink skill to control my garage door. This might just be because I didn’t know what to say to it; the same skill works fine with my Caseta dimmers and switches though.
  10. You can only set one kitchen timer at a time. Multiple concurrent timers is a key Alexa feature for me because I lack the skill to coordinate cooking multiple dishes without timers.

One feature I really like and can see myself using a lot is the integrated Skype calling. A simple “Hey Cortana, call person” is all it takes. I’m not 100% sure where Cortana is getting contact data from. If I say “call Delta Airlines,” it calls the local Delta Cargo office instead of the number in my contacts. If I say “call Walmart,” the device looks up the nearest Walmart and calls it, which makes sense because I don’t have Walmart in my contacts list. If I name a person in my contacts list, it calls them. Alexa has a very similar feature, along with the ability to send voice or text messages directly to other Alexa devices, but I never got in the habit of using them. (It doesn’t look like Invoke calls show up in my Skype history; I’m not sure if that’s a feature or a bug).

(Fun side note: if you call either device by the other name, it tells you about the upcoming Microsoft-Amazon partnership.)

For now, the Invoke is definitely a second-class citizen here at the fortress of solitude– with limited smart home integration, I can’t do a 1:1 replacement of any of my Alexa devices yet. But it sounds great, and Microsoft has a long history of rapidly improving their 1.0 releases, so I am optimistic that it will get better rapidly. I’ll keep it.

 

 

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Training Tuesday: “The Hybrid Athlete” (Viada) review

Fitness is a huge industry in part because it offers the promise of self-improvement. Look better! Be thinner! Run faster! There are low barriers to entry; anyone can hold themselves out as a fitness expert, and (much like weathermen or stock analysts) no one ever checks back to see if the promised results were actually delivered. One result of this combination is that there are a lot of people who uncritically accept some principles that turn out to be completely false. One example: “cardio kills your gains.” Another: “if I lift weights I’ll be too blocky and slow to run or cycle fast.”

Alex Viada has addressed this lack of knowledge rather neatly in The Hybrid Athlete. The book’s landing page defines a hybrid athlete as “a unique breed who can excel simultaneously in both strength and endurance activities.” Examples might include firefighters, members of military special operations forces, or even people like me who want to be unusually strong and have unusually good endurance. I bought the book sight unseen, although I had the benefit of being coached by Alex and the team at Complete Human Performance, and seeing his unique approach in action, for a few months before it came out. Sadly, I didn’t get around to finishing it until last night, but I’m glad I buckled down— I learned a ton. A few of the things I learned:

  • what causes rigor mortis (page 34)
  • the stomach isn’t an absorptive organ (page 170)
  • swimming burns 10x as many calories per mile per pound compared to running (2.9 cal/mi/lb vs 0.29 cal/mi/lb, page 173)
  • The average hard-training, non-steroid-taking man can gain between 1 and 1.5 lbs of lean body mass every 2 months— far below what I would have expected (p176)
  • That thing you’re doing that you think is Tabata? It probably isn’t (page 66)
  • Trappist ales are perhaps the finest recovery beer yet known to man. (page 232)

The book’s divided into 13 chapters. The first four are primary introductory material, covering hybrid training philosophy and the physiology of muscles and metabolic pathways. There are specific chapters for the critical components of strength and endurance training and chapters covering sport-specific training (along with an appendix listing sample hybrid programs for various combinations of sports, such as a powerlifter who wants to run marathons). To me, three of the chapters were particularly valuable, so I want to dig into those a little more.

First is chapter 7: “Cutting Out the Noise: Eliminating the Waste.” This might seem like an odd chapter title, but when you consider that consolidation of stressors is a fundamental part of hybrid training, it makes perfect sense. The question poses a simple question:  

“Will performing this particular part of my workout routine improve my final performance more than any other potential component?”. If the answer is yes, include it then move on to the next. The answer will go from a firm “yes” to a more general “yeeeeeees” to, eventually, the dreaded “I think so”, or “the internet said so”. Any primary component of training should be both necessary and sufficient to improve sport performance in one particular component of a given sport. For a powerlifter, the squat, bench, and deadlift are all primary. For the triathlete, the tempo run or time trial. For the ultra runner, the long slow trail run. For the Weightlifter, the Snatch and C&J.

This is a really powerful concept once you understand and embrace it. Doing more miles on the bike, more time on the treadmill or road, or more laps in the pool will not necessarily lead to better sport performance. It sounds heretical, but Alex provides a really concrete example in the training template for powerlifting plus triathlon— the swim and bike distances are short relative to traditional triathlon training programs because swimming 5000-8000 meters are “very counterproductive to upper body power production.” Plus, they take a great deal of energy and focus, and it’s questionable whether swimming 8000m to prepare for a race distance of 3800m (in the Ironman-distance swim) is better preparation than spending the same amount of training time on other activities. Alex refers disparagingly sometimes to “junk miles,” referring to distance for distance’s sake, but intensity is a critical element too— for me, perhaps the most valuable single sentence in the book was found on page 66:

…many endurance athletes go entirely too hard on their “aerobic” or “low intensity” days, and end up gaining neither the discrete training benefits of higher intensity work nor recovery benefits of the lower intensity work.

He might as well have started that sentence like this: “HAY, PAUL, PAY ATTENTION BECAUSE THIS IS YOU:…” 

Chapter 11, “Strength for the Endurance Athlete,” pulls no punches in calling out how awful most strength training routines in the fitness press are for triathletes. He points out, rightly, that no matter how much time you plank (to cite one example) it’s not going to help you stay aero on the bike as much as actual resistance training for your core muscles. This chapter (and its companion, “Conditioning for the Strength Athlete”) clearly lays out the specific adaptive benefits of strength training— improved ligament and tendon strength, better bone density, and improved sport-specific fitness.

Finally, Chapter 13, “Nutritional Support for Hybrid Training,” exploded a lot of false knowledge I (thought I) had about the process of feeding my body for the best possible performance. I haven’t worked all the way through the (simple) data gathering and associated math, but essentially I am eating roughly the right amount of calories but in the wrong proportion of macronutrients. This is easy to adjust and should give me better endurance and perhaps a little bit of weight loss.

Overall, this is a superb book. Alex’s writing style is clear and direct, with occasional flashes of his extremely dry wit. The degree of research he’s done, and knowledge he holds, is evident (and bolstered by the bibliography and recommended reading in appendix C). I strongly recommend this book for any triathlete or distance runner; I’d recommend it for powerlifters and Strongman competitors too, but all the ones I know are fellow CHP athletes and they know this stuff already. At $47, it’s cheaper than a jar of good protein powder or a new pair of bike shoes, and it will have much longer-lasting impact on your fitness, health, and performance.

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Flying Friday: first flights with the CGR30p

Good news: we finally got the long-awaited CGR-30P instrument installed in our plane! Back in February, I said we’d put the plane in the shop for the actual install and, rather optimistically, said that I thought we’d probably get it out within a week or two. I could write a long, sad story about the various difficulties we had, including the unexpected departure of the shop manager, his failure to tell us we needed to do a pre-install maintenance check flight, and so on, but the details are both boring and depressing. Enough to say that the install is done, there have been no major problems with it so far, and we’ll probably find another shop to use in the future.

Anyyyyyway, here’s what the finished product looks like. We had it installed in the panel in the spot formerly occupied by a defunct Stormscope, in the upper left corner of the panel. The plastic cover that Piper uses on its panels obscures the tachometer redline, which is annoying but not insurmountable.

WP_20150328_001The rest of the installation is unremarkable; the CGR unit uses a small box known as the EDC (for “engine data computer”) that’s installed in the baggage compartment. All of the temperature probes and transducers feed data to the EDC, and a simple single cable runs from the EDC to the panel. In the engine compartment, there are six probes each for cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures, a fuel pressure transducer, a fuel flow transducer, oil pressure and temperature transducers, plus an outside air temperature (OAT) probe mounted on the pilot’s side of the fuselage. The picture above shows manifold pressure and propeller RPM at the top, an EGT/CHT bar graph in the lower left side, and fuel flow, fuel pressure, and oil pressure on the lower right.

The CGR30P is connected to the master bus, not the avionics bus, so when you power on the master switch it comes on. Although it’s possible to use it as a fuel tank gauge, that would require a bunch of additional wiring, so we kept the analog fuel tank gauges and use the CGR to monitor fuel flow. When it boots, you can specify how much fuel you’ve added and then it will track both the flow (by using the flow transducer) and your fuel remaining (by subtraction).

The control scheme is simple; the “S” pushbutton sequences between different screens on the lower half of the instrument. The rotary knob (which can be pushed to select) moves a small carat cursor around between fields. The “E” button exits what you’re currently doing. This takes a little practice, but it’s easy to learn. For example, if I want to lean the engine, I press S until I see the CHT display, then use the rotary knob to select the CHT display type, press the knob in, and dial it until it reads “CGT ROP” or “CGT LOP.” Easier said than done.

At first, it took me a minute to remember that the old analog fuel flow gauge had been disconnected while I was priming the engine. Luckily I caught on, and that gauge is now placarded as inoperative so I won’t keep looking at it. Apart from the novelty of looking at a color screen instead of a 1950s-era analog instrument, engine start, taxi, runup, and takeoff are completely unchanged. Leaning the engine for cruise will take some getting used to; because EGT6 is wrong (see below), the lean-of-peak and rich-of-peak methods are just guesswork, so I stuck with setting approximately the same fuel flow I used back when the analog gauges were connected. I was very pleased to see that setting the throttle so that the CGR read 16″ of manifold pressure gave the same steady 500fpm descent rate that 16″ of MP would on the analog gauge. In fact, the only discrepancy I noticed was that the electronic tach reads 80-100rpm faster than the mechanical tach, probably due to flex or looseness in the mechanical tach cable.

The refresh rate, quality, clarity, and lighting of the CGR30P screen are all superb; it was easy to read it in all lighting conditions, including direct sunlight (though I haven’t flown with it at night yet).

Sharp-eyed readers may notice that the cylinder head temperature bars (the green ones) don’t seem to show much of a temperature on cylinder 6. During my first test flight, I found that the EGT for that cylinder was suspiciously low, although the engine functions just fine. We think there’s a loose connection, which we’ll troubleshoot once we get the airplane back from annual. For a while, I was sure that CHTon cylinder 2 was wrong, but no, it was just that I’d chosen to display the differentials for CHT, so that the coolest cylinder reads as zero and the other cylinders show how many degrees above the coolest they’re running.

I had to fix a few other things; the CGR30P didn’t know what the analog tach’s total hour reading was, and it didn’t know that it was connected to our KLN94B GPS. The GPS feeds the distance to the current waypoint and the total flight plan to the CGR, which can use it to show how much fuel you’ll have when you get there. The CGR is also supposed to feed fuel data back to the GPS, but ours is old and doesn’t know how to use that data. Newer GPS units can display a range ring that shows graphically exactly how far you can fly– and as you change fuel burn by changing the throttle or mixture settings, the ring dynamically changes to show how far you can go. The GPS integration still isn’t working quite right, though; I need to tweak it a bit more.

By about 30 minutes into my flight to New Orleans, incorporating the CGR into my scan was second nature, and I feel comfortable operating it. I’m looking forward to downloading engine performance data and having it analyzed to see what we can learn about the health of the engine and how to operate it for the greatest efficiency and longevity– the real reason behind getting the monitor. So far, it’s a solid device and I’m happy with it.

 

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Flying Friday: “When Penguins Flew and Water Burned” (review)

I don’t bother to review very many books, in part because I read a lot and in part because writing reviews takes time away from reading. However, I recently received the Kindle version of When Penguins Flew and Water Burned and wanted to quickly recommend it. The book is a recap of the career of Jim Clonts, a B-52 navigator (and, later, radar navigator) during the tail end of the Cold War. Clonts writes in an engaging style, and his tales of life on a bomber crew are absolutely fascinating if you’re at all interested in military aviation. Although his crew position is navigator, he’s also a pilot and so there’s a fair bit of inside-baseball talk. The book is moderately heavy on jargon, as you might expect, but it’s still pretty approachable even if you don’t know anything about bombers or the USAF in general. Well worth a read if you’re flight-minded.

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Training Tuesday: first week with the Garmin Fenix 3

Not long after I got my Garmin 920xt, Garmin announced the Fenix 3, which combines the same Connect IQ software platform with a round face and (to me) a much more attractive industrial design. I ordered one in January, figuring that I could probably sell the 920xt without too much trouble, then I settled in to wait for its arrival. I’ve had it about a week now, just long enough to get a sense of how it compares to the 920xt.

WP 20150317 002

First,I love the physical appearance and build quality of the watch. It reminds me of the Suunto Ambit 2s, though it’s a bit heavier. Whereas the 920xt felt plastic-y (makes sense, given that it was plastic), the Fenix 3 feels like a real watch. Screen brightness and clarity are excellent; the screen is a different shape but has the same resolution as the one in the 920xt. One significant difference is that the 920xt has six hardware buttons, while the Fenix 3 only has five. They’re also arranged very differently; for example, the “up” button on the 920xt and the “start/stop” button on the Fenix 3 are in the same location, on the upper right side of the watch. The difference in button location has been the hardest thing for me to get used to. Starting and stopping activities is easy, but there’s no longer a single-button shortcut for “connect to wifi” and there’s no dedicated button to bring up settings— instead, you hold down the “up” button. I’m still trying to master the button combo to enter drill mode when swimming and have occasionally fumbled with the other buttons in the midst of an activity, but I’m getting used to it now.

In terms of functionality, the Fenix 3 does everything the 920xt does for tracking runs, swims, and so on. However, it has four additional sensors: an altimeter, a barometer, a compass, and a temperature sensor. The Fenix 3 software thus has several features missing from the 920xt, including the ability to display data from all those sensors, “trail run” and “hike” activity modes that track your altitude using the altimeter instead of GPS altitude, and a slightly different UI paradigm for interacting with the sensors: each sensor type has its own dedicated widget, which you page through using the “up” and “down” buttons. Here’s a quick video I shot showing what the widget displays look like. The widget labeled “VIRB” is there for controlling Garmin VIRB action cameras. I much prefer having a separate widget for this than the 920xt approach of having the VIRB controller be a data page that appears within an activity. Here’s a quick video I shot showing a little of what the user interface looks like.

 

There’s about a $50 cost difference between the 920xt and the Fenix 3, assuming you buy just the watch and not the bundle with the heart-rate strap (and that you buy the basic Fenix 3, not the fancier and heavier one with sapphire glass). For me, the cost was well worth having a nicer-looking watch. One downside to the form factor of the Fenix 3 is that there currently isn’t a quick-release kit, as there is for the 920xt, so if I want to use it while riding the bike I’ll need to improvise a mount. That’s a small disadvantage, though, for the way I use the watch.

Of course, the back-end Garmin Connect service doesn’t care which watch you use to gather your data as long as it has the Garmin logo on the front, so switching the 920xt for the Fenix 3 was a non-issue there.

If you’d like to know more about the Fenix 3, I highly recommend this lengthy review at dcrainmaker. It goes into much more detail about the watch, how it works, and how it compares to its peers.

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1Fit Fitness (Madison)

Over the summer, I was looking for a gym. Since I hadn’t been a member of a gym in probably 20 years, I wasn’t really sure what criteria I should use to pick one, but I liked Brian’s review strategy of testing gyms before signing up, so  I started with the gym that was closest to my house: 1Fit Fitness on County Line Road in Madison. I met with Chuck, the owner, and got a quick tour. First, a word about Chuck, who is a retired Army officer and super nice guy. He and his staff keep the gym clean and neat, which was apparent when I waked in the door. The gym is divided into two large areas: on the left, there are dumbbells (12.5-100 lbs), a Smith machine, a squat rack, and a couple of benches. On the right, there’s an incline bench, a big combo cable machine, a rack for doing pull-ups and dips, a variety of selectorized machines, and half-a-dozen assorted pieces of cardio gear. Each side has at least one TV, and the left side has a counter area with a small fridge with drinks for sale. The decor is extremely basic, although there are plenty of mirrors, which always bugs me a little bit. However, there are none of the typical meathead trappings: no diamond plate or posters of gigantic ripped dudes.

I signed up for their family plan, which is about $40/month for me plus two kids. For that price, I get unlimited, 24/7 use of the gym. It is rarely busy; I’ve never seen more than 4 other people there, and most of the time when I go I’m by myself. If you want a social gym, this probably isn’t the best choice. The place is staffed in the afternoons, Monday through Saturday— while “afternoon” sounds vague, I chose it because the actual hours seem to start anywhere between noon and 4pm and end at 6pm. I’ve seen the owner in a few times outside that time, but that’s unpredictable. However, since your key fob gets you 24/7 access, unless you need company, staffing hours are pretty much irrelevant.

There are a variety of classes offered, and several personal trainers who work out of the gym, but I don’t have anything to say about them because I haven’t used them.

Cons? Sure, a few. The gym doesn’t have some equipment that I wish it did: there’s no leg press machine, no trap bars, and only one curl bar (which is broken). This isn’t a huge deal, but it does point out the drawback of using a small locally-owned gym; at least in this case, Chuck can’t afford to invest the same kind of money as the big-box gyms. However, the ease of access makes up for that in my opinion; I love having a nearby gym that I can go to whenever I want, and I prefer supporting the locals. It might be easier to sign up for a chain such as Anytime Fitness so that I have better gym access when I travel, but for now I’ve had good luck finding gyms in each city where I travel.

In the meantime, I’m toying with the idea of adding a second membership at Workout Anytime or Planet Fitness just up the road; $10/month or so would get me some equipment I don’t currently have access to, plus better gym access when I travel. However, when I start triathlon training in the spring, I’ll want access to a pool, which means I’ll probably be stuck with switching to a bigger gym (or the local Y), so I’ll probably wait.

Bottom line: 1Fit is a solid gym and I’m happy with the value I get for the cost. I recommend it.

140608 update: 1Fit closed in March 2014 and has been replaced by an IronTribe location.

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Surface Pro first impressions

Saturday morning I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to try to grab a Surface Pro and try it out. This follows a well-established pattern; I wasn’t going to buy an Xbox 360 when it first came out, or an iPhone, and yet somehow on launch day I ended up with both of those. Anyway…

After some fruitless searching, Tom and I found a local Staples that had a 64GB Surface Pro. This was no mean trick because Huntsville doesn’t have a Microsoft Store (I know, right?) and the local Best Buys got zero stock. In fact, as far as I could tell there were none shipped to stores in Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, or Atlanta. I’m betting that at least the Atlanta region got a handful but those sold out. Anyway, my local Staples stores apparently got 1 64GB unit apiece, so I went out and grabbed one. Total cost with the Type Cover and sales tax was $1111.

This isn’t a review; it’s more a collection of observations, since I don’t have time at the moment to string together a coherent narrative instead of just giving you factoids and observations. Thus this post is worth what you’ve paid for it 🙂

The hardware build quality is superb. It’s true that the device is thicker and heavier than an iPad, but it’s much lighter and smaller than my 15″ MacBook Pro. I was able to comfortably use it on my lap while on the sofa. One thing I didn’t expect: the Type Cover flexes more than I thought it would. I guess I hit the keys hard or something. This was a little disconcerting at first. The kickstand works very well, and I’ve gotten used to the odd feel of having the Type Cover folded around the back of the unit.

Setup was simple: I signed in with my Microsoft account and it synced all of my profile information. SkyDrive works beautifully, as do all the other Microsoft services (notably Xbox LIVE). I’m glad to have multiple accounts on the device, because the kids cannot get enough of playing with it. They’re used to the iPad and don’t think of it as remarkable, but all of them are fascinated by the Surface. David’s used it for two homework assignments– in preference to his Win7 laptop; Tom is fascinated by the pen interface; and Matt likes that he can play all the Flash-based games that don’t work on the iPad.

The Surface Pro is fast. It boots fast, apps run fast, and the UI performance is “fast and fluid,” to coin a phrase. It does have a fan, and in a silent room you can hear it when it kicks in, but it’s not obtrusive– it’s quieter than the fans in my MBP, for example. 

Battery life? Haven’t tested it, don’t much care. If I want to just browse and watch, I’ll use the iPad, with its excellent battery life. The Surface Pro is an adjunct to, and replacement for, my “real” laptop, which means a 4-5 hour battery life will suit me just fine. I do want to see whether I can charge it with my external 10Ah battery (the excellent RAVPower Dynamo), though I’ll need an adapter.

Setting up VPN access to my office network was trivial. Lync MX won’t work until I get some more server-side plumbing set up. I tried to sign in to the desktop version of Lync 2013 and couldn’t because I didn’t have the necessary server certificate– but going to the Windows Server CA page with IE 10 resulted in a message from the server telling me that my browser couldn’t be used to request a certificate, even though all I wanted to do was download the CA chain. I’ll have to look into this.

And speaking of desktop access: I was easily able to turn on RDP access and hit the tablet from my Mac, but there’s a bug in CoRD that makes the cursor sometimes disappear. I haven’t tried Microsoft’s (lame and poorly maintained) RDP client, nor have I tried RDP from a Windows machine. Just to see what would happen, I plugged the cable from my desktop monitor into the Surface Pro’s mini-Display Port and immediately got a beautiful, mirrored 1920 x 1080 desktop, as expected. 

As many other reviewers have noted it’s a little disorienting at first to have two separate environments: desktop and Metro. However, since I can alt-Tab to switch between apps, in practice that has been absolutely no problem for me. The lack of a Start menu is a bit aggravating, but again, there’s an easy solution: tap the Windows key and start typing. Problem solved.

One night, I sat on the sofa using Word 2013 on the Surface Pro to revise a book chapter. This worked very well; I much prefer the UI of Word 2013 to Word 2011 on the Mac. I didn’t try using any pen input as part of my editing workflow, although that’s on my to-do list.

The smaller physical size of the Surface Pro compared to the MBP is a great asset; I’m looking forward to using it on commercial flights. The Ars Technica review shows the Surface as having a larger footprint than the MBP, but that ignores the fact that you have to open the MBP to use it, and when you do, the screen won’t be at 90° to the bottom– it’ll be tilted further back, which is where the footprint problem comes from. In that configuration the MBP screen impinges on the seatback space, which is how laptops get broken by reclining seats.

I tried running Outlook 2013, flipping out the kickstand, and using the Surface as a calendar display sitting next to my main screen. It’s a fantastic size to use as an adjunct display like that; I could have multiple browser windows (American, Delta, and kayak.com) plastered all over my man 2560 x 1440 desktop and still have glance-able calendar access.

Bottom line: I’m well pleased with the Surface Pro so far and will be swapping out my 64GB unit for a 128GB unit as soon as I can find one in stock.

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My first Instacart experience

One of the best things about living in the Bay Area is that we get lots of things first. I saw Zero Dark Thirty several days before its general release, for instance. We also get lots of experimental or startup services and businesses. Some of these services stick around, like Über. Some,  like Cherry, the we-come-to-you car wash service that recently folded, do not.

Recently I got a promotional e-mail advertising Instacart, a new grocery delivery business. Their business plan is simple: you go to their site, pick out groceries from Safeway or Trader Joe’s, and they deliver your order to you. You can pay $15 for delivery within an hour, or $4 for delivery within a one-hour window that you specify. LivingSocial was offering $30 worth of groceries for $15 (disclaimer: referral link), so I jumped on the deal and headed to their site to place an order… or two. 

Using the site was painless. I had to plug in a credit card and delivery address, then I was able to browse and search for the things I wanted to order. I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but I had no trouble finding all the stuff I wanted. I ordered a basket of groceries from each of the two stores: chicken pot pies, honey-wheat bread, sliced peppered turkey breast, sliced pepper jack cheese, and bananas from Trader Joe’s and milk, Jimmy Dean sausage, red beans, yogurt, pears, and orange juice from Safeway. I scheduled both orders for delivery between 7 and 8 pm, got an order confirmation text, and went on about my business. Here’s what happened:

  • 7:44: sure enough, my phone dinged to tell me that TJ’s was out of pot pies and bread, but that my order would arrive at around 8:10. That was followed almost instantly by another text message telling me that Safeway was out of yogurt.
  • 8:19: I got an e-mail from Jen saying that they were running a bit behind and that I should expect delivery between 8:30 and 8:45.
  • 8:23 I got another text advising me of an 8:45 delivery time. Since none of these e-mails or text messages told me which order, I couldn’t tell which they were for, but I guess most of their customers don’t place multiple concurrent orders.
  • 8:31: An e-mail arrived with a nicely designed receipt for my TJ’s order. It clearly showed what I ordered, what was out of stock, and what the total amount charged to my credit card would be.
  • 8:35: the delivery driver called to tell me he had both my orders. I picked them up, tipped him $5, and that was that.

When I unpacked the groceries, I noted that they’d gotten everything right with a minor exception: I got a can of diced tomatoes and a container of spices that I didn’t order. I wasn’t charged for them, but I imagine some other customer will be wondering where their spaghetti-sauce ingredients got off to.

What did all this cost? Well, the groceries cost their regular in-store prices, meaning I lost out on any Safeway loyalty-card discounts, as well as any in-store specials or sales. Your first order delivery charge is waived; the second order cost $3.99. I consider that money exceptionally well spent given the amount of time it saved me: no looking for a parking space, no shopping-cart jousting in the store, and no waiting in line. Instacart definitely rewards advance planning; I’ll probably wait until I have a larger single order, and I’ll use the notes field on the order form to specify substitutions (e.g. it would have been fine if they’d brought me a different flavor of yogurt instead of none at all).

Overall this was a good first experience, and I’ll definitely be using Instacart again.

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First two weeks with the Lumia 920

A few quick notes jotted down from my two-week exploration with the Lumia 920 as my primary phone:

  • LTE is awesome, and the WP8 tethering app works flawlessly, with none of the flakiness of the corresponding iOS app.
  • There’s no TaxiMagic app for WP8, so I grabbed my iPhone 4 this morning to book a taxi. It felt tiny compared to the 920.. but it also felt terribly slow. Granted, the iPhone 4 is two hardware generations (at least) behind the 920, but I’d always previously been satisfied with its speed.
  • The Bluetooth crackling I complained about seems to be a bug in the Nokia Music app; it doesn’t happen when using Xbox Music or the built-in music app.
  • The Mac sync tool is buggy. Really, really buggy. This is my biggest current frustration with the phone, although since it automatically uploads pictures to SkyDrive at least I can grab photos without too much hassle. It occurred to me that I might want to use the Windows sync tool in BootCamp instead of relying on the Mac client, but then I’d have to give up iPhoto and iTunes integration.
  • Only today did I discover the very cool Groups feature, which allows you to see all status updates for a subset of your contacts from a single tile.
  • The WP Evernote app seems to have a bug where, when you edit a note, you get a blank white screen with no note contents. I’m not sure what causes this or whether it’s known, as I haven’t really had time to dig into it yet.
  • Nokia’s Panorama app is superb: it is super easy to take panoramic pictures with great alignment, through the expedient of showing a hollow circle that you align with a solid concentric circle. This works really well– here’s an example of a panorama I shot at the I-20 rest area in Vicksburg.

Although I briefly considered swapping the 920 for an HTC 8X, I decided not to for three primary reasons. First, the 920’s screen looks better to me– blacks and colors both look better on the 920. Second, Nokia’s bundled (and supported) apps are better– Panorama, SmartShot, Nokia Music, and Nokia Drive are great examples of how they’re adding value for their users. Third, the 920’s wireless charging feature would greatly simplify my phone usage– or at least it has that potential, once Nokia ships the plates.

Oh, and as long as I’m fantasizing about future developments: it would be great to get a full-fledged Starbucks app one day… sigh.

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Lumia 920 day 11: brick city

Happy Thanksgiving! Today I am thankful for AT&T’s return service (and irked at myself for leaving my MacBook Pro charger in Huntsville– thus the brevity of this entry. Low battery concentrates the mind…)

On Windows Phone devices, Windows Live IDs (WLID), now better known as Microsoft accounts. are the master accounts used to control access to Microsoft services. You have to link a WLID to the phone to buy or update apps. Once you put a WLID on the phone, the only way to change the associated WLID is to wipe the phone to factory settings and start over. Because (long boring historical discussion elided), I had to change the e-mail address on my WLID. The Xbox, Skype, and Windows Phone Marketplace aspects of this change went smoothly (although the change itself was damn near impossible to effect; I ended up having to get a friend who works at MS to open an internal support case.) Tim did the same thing recently and found that even his Surface took the change without issue.

My phone, however, did not, so I had to reset it and put in the new WLID. I did this last night… only to find that the 920 apparently has a bug that bricks it when you do a hard reset. Ooooops.

I understand the existence of software bugs; Lord knows I’ve suffered through my share of them on iOS. I put the phone aside, took it to the AT&T store in Alexandria, Louisiana, and was immediately given a replacement with no fuss– the staff were super helpful and friendly.

Now, a brief digression: at the AT&T store I saw the HTC 8X for the first time. Wow! What a great-looking phone: it’s the same width and height as the 920 but much thinner and lighter. I may give the 920 the boot and get an 8X instead, despite its inferior camera and smaller onboard storage.

Anyway: I took the replacement phone home and started trying to restore its settings. All of my old text messages and photos seem to have synced back from the cloud, but app settings, and the apps themselves, have not. This Paul Thurrott article says that the “App List + Settings” backup “includes Internet Explorer Favorites, the list of installed apps, and ‘most’ device settings.” I haven’t seen any evidence of it restoring those things but maybe I’m just being impatient; I’ll wait a bit longer. SMS messages synced automatically and immediately, but maybe apps take longer? One thing that doesn’t seem to be included in sync at all is the arrangement of tiles on the home screen; that’s an unfortunate omission given that I had finally gotten everything put the way I wanted it!

Last night, before the WLID change, I’d tried to use the Windows Phone connector for Mac OS to back up the phone, but it crashed each time I plugged the phone in. This morning, when I plugged the new phone in, sync worked flawlessly. I lived through the flakiness of iTunes sync for many years, and I’m not happy about having to relive it, especially because the WP connector is only supported through Microsoft’s forums.

The 920 camera is superb; I’ll post some photos I’ve taken with it once things settle down here a bit. 

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Lumia 920 days 2-5 review

I’m getting settled in to using the Lumia 920 as my daily phone. In some ways this is a big change, but in other ways it isn’t, as I’d been using the Lumia 800 a fair amount over the last few months as an alternate device.

Let me start by talking about connectivity. I’m not talking about just network connectivity, although that so far has been excellent. Even on AT&T’s crappy Bay Area network, I have yet to have a call drop or data service outage, even in notorious bad spots like right across the street from Pizz’a Chicago. No, I’m talking about physical and sync connectivity, beginning with sync connectivity.

I miss wireless sync; at least with Mac OS X, WP8 devices have to physically be plugged in to sync. The Windows Phone connector software has flaked out on me a few times this week. First it refused to sync anything at all, with only a useless error saying that some items couldn’t be synced. This turned out to be because of the OS X sandboxing feature, which prevents the WP connector from accessing music in the iTunes library folder. It’s easy to fix with the “Allow Access to Folder” command, but finding this out required a tedious slog through Microsoft’s support forum. Then yesterday, after updating to Office 2011 14.2.5, the WP connector started crashing each time I plugged the phone in. Back to the forum I went, where I found this article… that turned out not to be the problem. I posted the issue to the forum but haven’t gotten a response yet.

(At this point, lest you think me a hater, I would point out that Apple has exactly the same terrible support process: find an issue, post a plaintive query in their support forums, and hope that someone can help you out– or, alternatively, trek to the store and see if they can help you.)

Now, about the physical connection– the Lumia 920 uses a micro-USB connector. This is perfectly OK with me, as I have other devices that use the same connector, and I have Bluetooth audio streaming in my car. However, the port on the 920 is a little finicky; you have to push the connector firmly into it to ensure that it actually charges, as I found when I awoke one morning and found the phone dead because it hadn’t charged overnight while plugged in.

And speaking of battery life: I’d have to label it adequate. I get about a day’s worth of use, meaning that I leave home in the morning with a full charge and usually need to give the phone a snack sometime between 5 and 8 pm to get a full day’s use. This is essentially what I was getting from the iPhone 4, although the 920 has a bigger screen and LTE. Seems like a fair trade.

Oh, and one more miscellaneous hardware issue: the 920 screen shows fingerprints and smudges much more than the iPhone or Lumia 800. This is a bit annoying, but easily remedied.

The apps I’ve been using have continued to work well. I love the way that the Photos live tile displays my airplane photos; the motion of the live tile looks slick. The Facebook app has a number of annoyances, like insisting on scrolling up to the top of my news feed after I comment on or like any item in the feed.

My limited experience with the newly-released Skype app has been positive: it works well and looks good, though I haven’t tried it for any video calls yet.

The only app-related complaint I have involves Bluetooth music playback in the car: the phone will sometimes freeze for up to a minute. During that time I see the lock screen background, with nothing drawn on it, and the phone’s not responsive to the hardware controls, nor do the stereo controls trigger any action. This has happened three times so far, all at times when I got in the car, started it, and wanted to listen to music. I’m not sure what’s going on with it, but it’s definitely annoying.

Now, on to this installment of “Really?”: things that aren’t present in the hardware or software but really should be. I noticed that WP8 doesn’t seem to have a screen rotation lock, which is a bit of a hassle. I still really miss the hardware mute switch of the iPhone line. In fact, I will continue to miss it for a long time because of the ridiculous way that WP8 implements volume, at least as far as I can tell. If I turn the volume to mute so that the phone vibrates for alerts, that also turns off all sounds for everything on the phone– including Bluetooth audio and even listening to a voicemail message on the internal speaker. Phone calls aren’t affected, though, but this seems like a ridiculous design. I haven’t checked to see if there’s a separate volume level for headphone use, but I bet there isn’t.

Luckily alarms are unaffected, which reminds me of another missing feature: the ability to wake to music by setting a song as an alarm.

Apart from these quirks, the phone is a delight to use. I have the home screen set up the way I want it, and the pervasive use of live tiles really makes it easy for me to quickly see what’s what. The soft keyboard is a vast improvement over the one in iOS, and the autocorrect feature makes it absurdly simple to fix misspellings or to add new words to the dictionary. And I can’t say enough good about the color fidelity or display quality of the screen: it is simply gorgeous.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Huntsville, without my iPhone, so we’ll see how the WP8 experience stacks up for travel use. I’ve got MyTrips (a TripIt client) and the American Airlines app all loaded, so I expect good things.

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Lumia 920 day 1 review

Saying “day 1” is a bit of a misnomer, since I’ve only had the phone since about noon, but I wanted to capture a few of my initial thoughts from using it during a typical weekend day: getting directions, handling e-mail and Facebook, and so on. I’ll keep posting these “day X” reviews every so often when I have more to say about the phone and OS.

I bought a black 920 at the Palo Alto AT&T store; I wanted a red one, but they were sold out of everything except black. In fact, I got the last one. That’s pretty impressive considering that we’re in the heart of Apple territory here. I bought the no-contract version; with a free wireless charging plate (which AT&T didn’t have; they’re shipping it separately) the total was about $438. For that I got… a very large phone. It feels disconcertingly large, in fact, and that’s the first thing I had to get used to.

Windows Phone 8 feels very familiar because I’m familiar with WP7.5. However, please note that there is a lot I don’t know about it, so some of the things I mention below may have fixes or workarounds that I just don’t know about. A few observations:

  • AT&T’s LTE coverage in and around Palo Alto is worlds better than their HSDPA coverage so far. I got a good signal in my parking garage and at a couple of the well-known dead spots along El Camino Real. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I hit the Page Mill & Hanover intersection, which usually kills calls dead. 
  • Hotspot access was easy to set up, but my iPhone 4 won’t connect to it. I had the same problem using WP7.5 on a different Lumia with the same iPhone, so I’m not sure where the culprit is.
  • Nokia Music is nifty– like a cross between Spotify and Pandora. Having said that, there’s no Spotify app (see below). I am not sure that I’m ready to make the leap to Xbox Music just yet.
  • I’m glad that the 920 has 32GB of storage built-in. This strikes me as the minimum that would be useful for me.
  • When my car stereo (the JVC KW-NT500HDT) is paired with the phone and switched to use Bluetooth audio, there’s a faint crackling sound. It’s audible any time there’s not “real” audio playing, e.g. in the gaps between songs. The Lumia 800 didn’t do this so I suspect some aspect of the WP8 BT stack is to blame.
  • The Windows Phone sync app for Mac OS X is flaky. Sometimes it doesn’t notice that the phone is plugged in, so it won’t sync. Other times it displays mysterious errors indicating that songs couldn’t be synced (and telling me which songs), but not why.

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I have several dozen apps on my iPhone, most of which I rarely if ever use. The only apps I wished I had today were Spotify, Skype, and an app I use for checking aviation weather called AeroWeather Pro. There’s a close equivalent, Aviation Weather, that might do the trick; Skype for WP8 is on the way, and I am optimistic about Spotify. Apart from that, the major apps I need (Kindle, Google Reader, USAA, Netflix, Facebook, American Airlines, Fandango, Delta, Instapaper, Evernote) all have WP8 versions. Some of the other apps that would be nice to have, but not mandatory, include the client app for Safeway and Zynga’s Drop7, along with several specific aviation apps (CloudAhoy and the ForeFlight suite chief among them.)

Perhaps the biggest missing item from the phone is something that I don’t think it will ever have: iMessage. Many of my friends and family members have iOS devices– including all 3 of my kids– and switching back over to SMS-only messaging means I lose some functionality.

I can’t comment on battery life; the phone was not fully charged when I got it, I used it heavily all day, and it hasn’t been fully charged yet. I’m interested to see whether it outlasts the iPhone 4’s battery life (which should be easy!)

And two items from the “Seriously?” file: there’s no built-in timer, which is something that ancient generations of Nokia dumb phones have had since time immemorial, and there’s no way to set a custom text tone for an individual contact (although you can set per-person ringtones.)
 
More tomorrow when the phone journeys to work with me for the first time…

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