Category Archives: Reviews

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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